My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems

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Must-Read Poetry: November 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Together in a Sudden Strangeness edited by Alice Quinn 

“I don’t want to find meaning in it,” Diane Seuss, writes in “Pandemicon.” She’s not surprised “how America can brand even a pandemic, turn it / into a thing.” After all, we’re in “a reality series with viral bread recipes / and optimism,” and perhaps only absurdity can capture the heart of our moment. Quinn has accomplished something dizzying here: arranged a stellar cast of poets, some with Seuss’s satirical eye, others with a fresh deep down sentiment. It is what all great anthologies must be: comprehensive, contradictory, stirring. A prose poetic sequence by Rick Barot includes gems: “During the pandemic, I knew each neighbor by one thing. The neighbors above, the baby. The neighbors below, the dog…I wondered what one thing the neighbors would know me by. What truth an inadvertence could betray.” Jericho Brown proclaims: “I don’t know whose side you’re on, / But I am here for the people / Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning / And close down for deep cleaning at night.” I pause. I think back to those early months of the pandemic, that dull cyclone of despair. What a world we have just lived through; what a world that so many among us haven’t made it through. Traci Brimhall, always sharp in her song, offers a “Plague Diary”: “Today, I walked the worn / shadows to the pond and congratulated myself / on my attention, my ears turned to the blackbirds, // my eyes catching the hawk. Today, my heart, silly little / star cup, measured the odd inches of the crocus.” We can only hope to live the dream lyric offered by Carl Phillips: “Slowly the fog did what fog does, eventually: it lifted.” It is sad that one of the best books of poetry of the year is about our shared pain, but maybe that is the catharsis we need.

Dearly by Margaret Atwood 

“Were things good then? / Yes. They were good. / Did you know they were good? / At the time? Your time?” I like when I find a poet’s book that feels transcendent, like the poet’s anchor in time, and Dearly reaches that level of permanence. Atwood can spin lines both gentle in piercing, as in “Salt,” how the “mellow lamplight / in that antique tent” was “falling on beauty, fullness / bodies entwined and cherishing, / then flareup, and then gone.” A later poem starts: “One day I will be old, / you said; let’s say / while hanging up the wash— / the sheets, the pillowcases.” The fabric holds “their white smell of June rain.” Atwood always winks before her lines become sentimental (“and your brain sang Yeah yeah yeah / like a backup group, / three girls with long legs / and thigh-high boots.”). But she returns to this sentiment, as in “September Mushrooms.” “I missed them again this year,” the narrator laments: “I was immersed elsewhere / when the weather broke / and enough rain came.” Atwood is interested in memory here, and domestic curios; how a narrator saves passports in the same way she saves “those curls / culled from our kids’ first haircuts.” We hold on to the idea of memory more than the memories themselves: “Why was I wandering from here to there / to there? God only knows.” What these narrators do know is mortality. “Things wear out,” unfortunately. “Also fingers. / Gnarling sets in. / Your hands crouch in their mittens. / Forget chopsticks, and buttons.” Remember: “The body, once your accomplice, / is now your trap.” 

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems by Yi Lei (translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi) 

Lei died in 2018, and these selected poems—each dated at their conclusion—offer a route and a timeline through the work of this important Chinese poet. In “Picnic,” “Daylight tumbles down the grassy hill / Where we feast on spiced fish, / And the whiskers speckling your chin.” The narrator wonders why her companion doesn’t let his “beard go long, shambolic / Like a sage or savage?” She adds: “Just once, I’d like to be a savage,” the lines ending with an ellipsis that wanders into wonder. “Love’s Dance,” a long, early poem in the collection dazzles in Smith and Bi’s translation: “Your animal heat, heart in full gallop. / I gripped you with my heels, fingers / Knotted into your hair.” Later in the poem she writes: “I want to feel / Civilization flourish and fall. // And I want to live to tell.” She proclaims: “Let bodies go to Heaven! / Let souls go to Hell!” Short poems, like the five-line “As Clear and Thus as Virtuous as Glass,” arrive with equal power: “To see through me, you need only glance.” In “Talking to Myself,” she wonders: “Do I really believe / The fiercest flame / Is silent?” She offers more necessary questions in “To the Viewer”: “Whose hands scrub clean the soul? / Whose eyes cleave the future? / Whose mind fathoms God’s intentions? / Whose compassion undoes affliction?  // Whose? / Whose?”

Rosetta by Karina Borowicz 

“The whiskey stink of rot has settled / in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies / rises when I touch the dying tomato plants”—so begins “September Tomatoes,” a poem deep in Rosetta, but which captures Borowicz’s skilled sense (I felt it to be a cross between Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath’s pastoral verse). The poem is a lament for change (“Something in me isn’t ready / to let go of summer so easily.”) and also manages to drape the present with tradition, as when the narrator recalls the songs of her great-grandmother: “Songs so old / and so tied to the season that the very sound / seemed to turn the weather.” That sentiment explains the first poem of the collection, “The Old Country”: “I was nourished / by nostalgia for a place / I couldn’t remember.” Borowicz captures that intangible but rich feeling of inheriting a world and words that are beyond anything we can directly experience. It can infect us, as one narrator wonders: “Does it matter / that everything I’m living / is memory / that nothing happens / anymore / for the first time.” Rosetta is a beautiful book; there are gifts here, as in the way Borowicz offers gentle truths: “The original wind has not yet / stopped. Generations of hawks / have glided on the same gust / that pulls me now down / a busy street.” 

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort 

“We walk into a book the way we walk into a garden,” Mort has said in an interview. “There are several paths we can follow on our walk, we can smell things before we even see them, we can hear things without ever seeing them, colors and textures complement each other.” Music for the Dead and Resurrected feels made for such meandering, from the figurative descriptions that capture the bending of time and the stretching of pain, to other lines that feel hypnotic, recursive, even jarring. “Not books, but / a street opened my mouth like a doctor’s spatula,” she writes in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica.” The texture of her lines almost seem to tickle: “In the State Archives, covers / hardened like scabs / over the ledgers.” In “Genesis,” she admits: “I prefer apples that roll / far from the tree.” She concludes a later poem with a lament: “And instead of evening prayers / I plead / with myself / to just leave you / be, my dear, my // undear Lord.” Mort’s take on “Psalm 18” includes a question: “How could it be that I’m from this Earth, / yet trees are also from this Earth?” A dizzying imagination permeates this book, one that we can trace back to childhood, as in “An Attempt at Genealogy”: “Days of merciless snow in the kitchen window— / snow was deposited like fat under our skin. // How large we grew on those days! / So much time spent at the kitchen table / trying to decide where to put commas / in sentences about made-up lives.” Meanwhile, the real world is strange enough. “Of the empire’s fall / I heard on the radio / while waiting for a weather forecast,” she writes in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue.” “Chlorine, opium of the pupils, / granted us purity, absolution of sins / for our grandfathers / whose heroic deeds / festered under torn book covers.” A rich collection with language so sharp it unnerves. 

A Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan (translated by Pierre Joris) 

“It was a landscape where both people and books lived,” Celan wrote of his homeland. As Joris notes, Celan was “reticent of speaking of private matters,” so the paucity compels us to return to the poems. The pieces in this collection were mostly written and published during the 1950s. “Your hair waves again when I weep,” he writes in “The Years from You to Me”: “With the blue of your eyes / you set the table of our love: a bed between summer and autumn.” “In Praise of Distance” concludes: “In the springs of your eyes / a hanged man strangles the rope.” Celan’s syntax intertwines the mysterious and macabre, revelatory in their juxtapositions. “Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends,” he writes in “Corona,” and I am carried, perhaps gently—in the way that only a master can carry—to the final lines: “It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom, / that unrest’s heart started to beat. / It’s time for it to be time. // It is time.” I’ve drifted to and from Celan over the years, and the return is always heartening, his melancholy a permeating force. “Mouth in the hidden mirror, / Knee before the column of pride, / Hand with the stanchion,” he begins “Into the Foghorn”: “hand yourself the darkness, / say my name, / lead me to him.” “I have never written a line that did not have something to do with my existence,” Celan wrote in 1962. “I am, as you can see, a realist in my own way.” I have always taken Celan at his word, perhaps paradoxically (is there any other way, truly, to read verse?): his spareness, his dreaminess, his anaphoric refrains. “Mute autumn odors. The / aster, unbent, passed / between homeland and abyss through / your memory. // A strange lostness was / palpably present, you could / almost have / lived.” The poetic skill of the soft line break, like an outstretched hand as the poet walks away.   

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