To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.
A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”
I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”
Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”
Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”
We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”
A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”
Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”
I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”
She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.
Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.
Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in November.
Rosarium by Hannah Dow
“Mother, Father, I am trying to make my way / to you, but I have found no laws proving / the logic of a body that journeys without wings.” Dow’s graceful, pensive debut brings to mind the work of Allison Seay—both poets search the ambiguity of faith for a route forward. A series of poems with “postcard” in the titles allows Dow to create crisp epistles, as in “Postcard from Gethsemane”: “We want grief to be quiet, / something we can hold / all the way up and down / the mountain without letting / on.” Or “Postcard from York, Maine”: “Home is no protection from even / the smallest storms— / the boarding up of windows, / slight tearing of the sail.” Gardens (biblical, literal) abound in Rosarium—think garden of roses; think the litany of a rosary, the beads a string of bubbles leading us (like poetic lines) to contemplation. Yet perhaps even more powerful a feeling in Dow’s collection is the sting of grief—what a fantastically sharp emotion to see authentically shaped in this age—and the worry that faith is an imperfect machine. “In early depictions, Jesus carries his cross / like it’s made of feathers, without breaking / a sweat” begins “Postcard from the Kunsthistoriches, Vienna.” Only in the Middle Ages, the narrator explains, “did artists think to emphasize / his burden.” That attempt to imbue devotion in her heart is imperfect. She does not feel “in the hostile crowd.” Instead—and this is Dow’s spiritual skill in the book—“I only feel that I’ve swallowed something / small and alive—a bird whose wings / keep gravity from drawing me to my knees.”
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)
This book is steeped in longing, as in “Wake Up”: “Wake up, my soul. / I don’t know where you are, / where you’re hiding, / but wake up, please, / we’re still together, / the road is still before us, / a bright strip of dawn / will be our star.” Ever since Zagajewski’s incomparable “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” I’ve gone to him for something near solace. He has said “poetry as literature, as language, discovers within the world a layer that has existed unobserved in reality, and by doing so changes something in our life, expands somewhat the space of what we are.” His is less a vision of poet as prophet than poet as patient observer. Poets, he writes early in Asymmetry, “understand nothing. / They listen to the whispers of broad, lowland rivers.” They “stroll along dirt roads.” Poets “bid the dead farewell, their lips move.” By placing poets as observers rather than oracles, he somehow enables them to be the latter. “Each poem, even the briefest, / may grow into a full-blown epic,” one narrator explains. The problem? Although “each poem has to speak / of the world’s wholeness; alas, our / minds are elsewhere, our lips are / thin and sift images / like Molière’s miser.” The poems of Asymmetry do both; they somehow speak so well to us, even if written to capture a single, narrow moment.
New Selected Poems by Thom Gunn
In his introduction to this volume, editor Clive Wilmer writes that as he began publishing in the 1950s, Gunn “appeared not to have a distinctive voice. Indeed, he appears to have no wish to find one. What he aspired to achieve in poetry was something he found in Elizabethan song”—a “certain anonymity of tone.” There’s a certain grace in this impersonality; a credibility, even. From “Vox Humana”: “Being without quality / I appear to you at first / as an unkempt smudge, a blur, / an indefinite haze, mere- / ly pricking the eyes, almost / nothing. Yet you perceive me.” Gunn’s lines seduce through metered sound, yet he could also stir us, as in “The Old Woman”: “Something approaches, about / which she has heard a good deal.” She senses it; her feet feel chilled, and she has “watched it / like moonlight on the frayed wood / stealing toward her / floorboard by floorboard.” There’s a sense of poetic patience to Gunn’s lines; they are conversational, but never quite casual. The poems from his last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), are a fitting end; consider “The Artist as an Old Man”: “Vulnerable because / naked because / his own model.”
Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon (translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)
Forty-nine poems; 49 days of a wandering spirit before it evolves into reincarnation. Hyesoon’s book is unnerving, profluent, immediate. She begins the first day: “On the subway your eyes roll up once. That’s eternity.” The spirit is wavering, but the body remains. An old man steals her handbag. Middle-schoolers nudge her, take photos. “Death is something that storms in from the outside”—but soon her spirit leaves behind her body, and the poems move, a dizzying arrangement of meditations on that space between here and there, flesh and forever. There’s a purgatorial sense to Autobiography of Death—the uncomfortable feel is matched by what Hyesoon has called the bane of women’s poetry in Korea, a gendered verse unknowable “until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies … Female poets can finally step into the world of language after crossing this river of the grotesque; the words cannot gush out of their mouths until they cross the river of screams where you witness death like everyday affairs.” Autobiography of Death is a song to this grotesque sense. A spirit wandering, wailing: “Your body is now fog floating above sleep / Your face is a cloud floating above your body.”
Monument: New and Selected Poems by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey is a poet to return to—we know she’s special, and then comes along the aptly titled Monument, and the evidence feels almost overwhelming. Her work is God-haunted, clothed with the small flashes of memory against despair. In “Graveyard Blues”: “It rained the whole time we were laying her down; / Rained from church to grave when we put her down.” The narrator raised her hand in witness as they lowered her mother to the ground. “I wander now among names of the dead: / My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.” Her poetry carries the weight of a region, a world whose scars remain fresh on flesh. You can feel it in her lines, which craft a history—of Mississippi, of the South, of her family. As in “Incident,” her stories return like liturgies (selected volumes of poems allow this to happen!). “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, / a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.” Grace-filled, with the sting of honesty, Trethewey is a true poet of ceremony. Monument contains one of my favorite elegies: the poet on her father’s passing. She thinks of fishing one dark morning with him, “awkward // and heavy in our hip waders.” She catches two trout and then releases them. “I can tell you now // that I tried to take it all in, record it / for an elegy I’d write—one day— // when the time came. Your daughter, / I was that ruthless.” Many of these poems feel in his shadow, the complex song of father and daughter. She ends “Elegy” with a dream of her and him in “the small boat // that carried us out and watch the bank receding— / my back to where I know we are headed.” One of the best collected volumes published this year.
And just like that book award season is back! The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award longlist this week on the New Yorker’s Page Turner section. Each containing ten books, the five longlists are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and, the newly minted, translated literature. The five-title shortlists will be announced on October 10th and the awards will be revealed in New York City (and streamed online) on November 14.
Some fun facts about these nominees:
The Fiction list only contains one previous nominee (Lauren Groff).
All of the Nonfiction nominees are first-time contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
The Poetry list include one previous winner (Terrance Hayes), one previous finalist (Rae Armantrout), and eight first-time nominees—three of which are for debut collections (Diana Khoi Nguyen, Justin Phillip Reed, and Jenny Xie).
2018 is the first year of the Translated Literature category so all nominees are first-time contenders for this award.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories with bonus links where available:
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Our interview with Brinkley; Brinkley’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Gun Love by Jennifer Clement
Florida by Lauren Groff (Our review; The Millions interview with Groff)
The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Featured in our February Book Preview)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Jones’s 2017 Year in Reading)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Our interview with Makkai)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Nunez’s 2010 Year in Reading)
There There by Tommy Orange (Featured in our June Book Preview)
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Featured in our April Book Preview)
One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson
The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Smarsh’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
Wobble by Rae Armantrout
feeld by Jos Charles (ft. in our August Must-Read Poetry preview)
Be With by Forrest Gander
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Our review)
Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez
Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed
lo terciario / the tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera
Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey
Eye Level by Jenny Xie (ft. in our April Must-Read Poetry preview)
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy; translated by Heather Cleary (Featured in our Second-Half 2018 Great Book Preview)
The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail; translated by Max Weiss and Dunya Mikhail
One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Love by Hanne Ørstavik; translated by Martin Aitken
Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug; translated by Kari Dickson
Trick by Domenico Starnone; translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (An essay on learning new languages)
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Tawada’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft (Our review; 2018 Man Booker International Prize)
Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; translated by Anya Migdal
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Our three-part conversation from 2009 with Anderson)
We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge
What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper