It seems like the years get longer and longer at this moment in time. Remember when we thought 2017 was a long year? And this year? How do we count the hours as they elongate in the world’s strange suffering. What helped me navigate the world most this year (and every year?) was books. While I travel constantly and I’m often on the road or in an airport, it was living with a variety of other voices that helped me to feel grounded, less isolated.
I read a great deal, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. Like most writers, my desk and nightstand are full of books on the to-read pile. Still, I not only read, I also listened to audiobooks. I was drawn to work that spoke to me in that moment, work that was recommended and passed on to me by dear pals. Lists are always impossible and I hate to leave anyone out, but I am going to do my best to be truthful here. These are the books that I adored, that moved me, that I would pass on to anyone. I read widely so my list covers fiction, non-fiction, young adult, and my beloved poetry.
In terms of novels, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend really blew me away for numerous reasons, but I was struck by the sheer power of her sentences, her eviscerating eye, and how she was able to meld both canine and human grief in a way that left me devastated. Tommy Orange’s There There had me deeply disturbed and enthralled, not only for the characters and cultural veracity, but because I think he’s an incredible master of time. I also adored Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire for the intense, witty, and complex characters. I admit that I didn’t read a ton of young adult fiction this year, but I loved Carrie Fountain’s I Am Not Missing.
I read a few surprisingly good memoirs this year and my favorites would have to be Heavy by Kiese Laymon for the way it surrenders to self-incrimination and how the book is truly a love letter to both his mother and himself. Of course Gregory Pardlo’s Air Traffic was exceptionally well written and gave us a deep look into toxic masculinity and the pitfalls of the ego. Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries was brutal and stunning and honest in a way that felt necessary. I’d also like mention Letters from Max by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo. This is a book of letters between two artist friends before Max’s untimely death. It’s sublime.
Now, poetry is my heart’s blood, so this category is tough because I love so many poets that are writing today. I thought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal was a powerful debut that was as ruckus as it was artful, as was Raquel Salas Rivera’s lo terciario/ the tertiary. Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water was breathtaking. Wonderland by Matthew Dickman was such a keen exploration of whiteness and the poems are revelatory. Tiana Clark’s book I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood delivers a lesson on excavating the body and its history. Eye Level by Jenny Xie is a high wire act that deserves attention. I was floored by the relentlessness of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky. Forrest Gander’s Be With left me depleted by grief and lifted by song. Mary Karr’s Tropic of Squalor was hard-bitten and fierce. Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin is a triumph and a mindfuck all at once. If You Have to Go by Katie Ford is a unique and surreal book about heartbreak. Justin Phillip Reed’s debut Indecency made me stand up and applaud. Another favorite of mine this year is the New Poets of Native Nations anthology edited by Heid E. Erdrich. There are so many more that I love, but I will stop there before this turns into a memoir all its own.
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This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Natalie Diaz is a poet who connects her experiences as a Mojave American and Latina woman to cultural and mythological systems of belief and Indigenous love in America. Her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), focuses on her brother’s drug addiction and her childhood on the reservation. Manuel Gonzalez described the collection as “stellar” in his Year in Reading 2016, and Nick Ripatrazone, in his Must-Read Poetry 2018, said this about her poem, included in the New Poets of Native Nations (ed. Heid E. Erdrich): “And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.”
John Keene is a translator and writer of fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism whose work includes Annotations (1995), a semi-autobiographical novel and essay collection about coming of age as a black, queer, middle-class child in 1970s and ’80s-era St. Louis, and Counternarratives (2015), a book of stories and novellas that Katrina Dodson described in her Year in Reading 2015 as a collection of “hypnotic, quasi-historical tales” jumping between various hubs of the New World in their examination of the legacies of slavery and colonialism.
Kelly Link, short story writer, is described by the MacArthur Foundation as “pushing the boundaries of literary fiction in works that draw on genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror while also engaging fully with the concerns and emotional realism of contemporary life.” Her work includes Stranger Things Happen (2001), which Arthur Phillips described as “funny and bookish, charming and ghoulish, original even when she’s referential,” and Get in Trouble (2015), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. (You can read her conversation about it with Keith Lee Morris here.) In our interview with Link, she discussed the weirdness of the Florida landscape and the ways that writers’ particular strengths are the result of the way in which they see the world: “the things they notice, the kinds of rhythms or structures that they are drawn toward.” She runs Small Beer Press with her husband, Gavin Grant.
Dominique Morisseau is a playwright who has examined the complicated realities of urban black communities, most recently in her trilogy, The Detroit Project, inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle. The trilogy is composed of Detroit ’67 (2013), Paradise Blue (2015), and Skeleton Crew (2016), the last of which is set in an automotive stamping plant during the 2008 recession. In an interview with The Millions, Morisseau discussed her intention to “contribute a different Detroit narrative,” one in which its inhabitants appear as “more than sound bites.” Bill Morris described the ways in which “calamity is always hovering in Morisseau’s Detroit,” where the question “is how her Detroiters will retain their dignity and their humanity in the face of forces that yearn to crush them.”
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July.
A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires
A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.”
New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich
In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.”
Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers
This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.”
The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander)
These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.”
Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman
“I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide…How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.”
Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin
“I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.