This year, I read a lot on my phone. That’s a habit I’ve picked up from working gigs where you stand a bunch (watching kids on a swingset, watching adult children park their cars). Some folks don’t vibe with that, but those folks don’t pay my bills, and it meant I could read in doctor’s offices and train stations and airports and noodle bars and passenger seats. I read Alexia Arthurs’s How to Love a Jamaican, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Nik Sharma’s Season, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us, Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Okura’s That Blue Sky Feeling, Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Anita Lo’s Solo, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and the re-issue of Naoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys.
At a few points this year, I got inexplicably sick. I had strange professional developments. I traveled and I mostly stopped smoking but I drank an aggressive amount of milk tea. I gained weight. I cried, for the first time in years, after hearing Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” cover, and then again, a few months later, over something else. I also succumbed to joy. And there was, I think, this year, a pervading numbness, which isn’t even a little bit unique, so I won’t riff too much on it, and reading definitely didn’t eliminate or even diminish that ennui, but still, books provided their own heft of equal or greater emotion, and that more or less countered the void.
So I read at crosswalks. I read at the auto shop. I read in front of the cashier, waiting (praying) for my card to clear. I read Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and all of the lyrics for Mitski’s “Be The Cowboy.” I mourned The Awl, for months, and read all of the remembrances. I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Luís Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I reread Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, because I do that every year, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, because I think I’ll start doing that every year. I reread Diego Zuñiga’s Camanchaca, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and all of Paul Asta’s poems. I read everything Jia Tolentino wrote, and I reread this essay by Anshuman Iddamsetty, and this one by Vinson Cunningham, and this story by Chris Gonzales, and this story by Sheung-King. I read Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Kate Gavino’s Sanpaku, Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband, Chris Ying’s You and I Eat the Same, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, Sohui Kim’s Korean Home Cooking, Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
But, honestly, the main thing that stuck with me in 2018 is having read prayers. Or hopes. Whatever. I spent a good while this year in Tokyo, sort of visiting friends and sort of researching a long thing and sort of fucking around and sort of clearing my head, and a thing I did often was ride the JR line to the Meiji Shrine. It’s in Shibuya, a short walk from Harajuku Station, by this big-ass Gap and an Adidas. In the afternoons, a guy played the Hang in front of the shrine’s arches. When you walked through the gravel, past the barrels of sake, after you’d stepped under the shrine’s pillars, you could sort of amble your way to the arches, and that’s where plenty of people, from all over, left notes on votive tablets beneath an overflowing tree:
I pray my boyfriend’s parents accept me
Hopefully she comes home this year
I pray that the new job brings in enough money for the operation
This year I hope that she finds peace
I pray that his death brings us together
Stuff like that. Deeply personal things, like you’d find in a diary or a post-it stack. Some had smiley faces and cartoons. Others were written in cursive. I spotted French and English and Hiragana and Hangul and Spanish and Chinese and Arabic, and they all hung together, tied to their altar with string, sort of shaking in the wind, and if you sneezed they’d shift a bit before settling back into place.
Most afternoons, I rode the train from my place to see them. It took about 20 minutes. This year began with the absence of hope, and every week that’s passed seems to have added to that refrain, but folks had still taken—had actually bought, with currency earned by their labor—these little hunks of wood, and then they’d written down their hopes and dreams and wants, despite everything. Despite the world. That’s a little radical, when you think about it. That’s a lot of beautiful, when you think about it.
And, in a lot of ways, I think the books I read in 2018 elicited a similar emotion. No one asks us to write. There’s no assurance that anyone will see what we put down. If your advance is big enough, or the publication is halfway decent at social media, or your publicity team is swift enough, or if you’re young and white and you catch a wave then maybe they will. But they probably won’t. And we hang these words up anyway, because we have to, and we hope that someone will see them, although most of us will never know if they do, so they’ll just carry them around in their heads, the same way we will, and that’s how we’ll build a life together, just tacking up prayers.
But anyway. I’ve thought of those notes often. I hope some of them came true.
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Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in April.
Eye Level by Jenny Xie
An excellent debut. Xie is particularly gifted with precise description; I want to linger on these poems. “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” is masterful and patient, expansive without becoming lost. She moves through this city “of a million young faces,” where there’s “new money lapping at these streets.” “In the backseat of a gold Lexus / a minister’s son lies, his eyes shut / dumb with honeyed sleep.” More: “slack lips of suitcases, lukewarm showers up to three times in a day. / Mosquito bites on the arms and thighs, patterned like pips on dice.” At night: “Alley of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers. / Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets.” Eye Level puts us there, with Xie’s sight. Her poems that span pages are nestled between single-stanza songs; consider the tightness of “Naturalization”: “It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap / silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother / to keep our telephone number close, / my beaded coin purse closer.” Her grandmother “prays for fortune / to keep us around and on a short leash. / The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” She also steps back and settles in, as in “Solitude Study”: “I know we can hold more in us than we do / because the body is without core.” And “Inwardly”: “We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it. // Or else, why write.”
Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku (translated by Ani Gjika)
The narrator’s memories in “Almost Yesterday” begin this book. The midday sight of her father and mother “coming out of the barn / tidying their tangled hair in a hurry, / both flushes, looking around in fear / like two thieves.” Even now, she remembers the barn clearly; after all, “You cannot easily forget what you watch with one closed eye, / the death of the hero in the film, / or your first eclipse of the sun.” Negative Space is flush with wonderfully melancholic stanzas. “When a child is born, we name it after an ancestor, / and so the recycling continues. Not out of nostalgia, / but from our fear of the unknown.” “Where I come from, / there’s only one word for ‘grief’ and for ‘water’ / and both take the form of the containers that hold them: / each to their own fate, each to their own grief.” The title poem holds the scars of the Albanian Cultural Revolution. Churches were sacked. Crosses “were plucked from graves.” Icons and bibles were burned: “Witness stepped further back, / as if looking at love letters / nobody dared to claim.” Lleshanaku has a dizzying talent of capturing our notes of destruction. “And what could replace Sunday mass now?” the narrator wonders. “Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata / that bled in the wrong places— / a new code of sanctification, / of man, by man.”
Strange Children by Dan Brady
Brady’s debut opens with the dizzy, entrancing “Stroke Diary,” stanzas sifted across pages. The narrator’s wife, a few days after having their child, has a stroke. “Our life together, / like a great whale // breaching, or rather / as fast as a fish // picks a single fly / from the river water.” Shaken and wounded, the family emerges, but the stroke’s shadow holds. A trip to the cardiologist comes with a warning: “Given the risk of recurrence, / you shouldn’t get pregnant again.” Strange Children considers what happens when the certainty of our plans is replaced with a strangely comforting doubt. They wait for news about their adoption request, and the results are inspiring, among shaken lives: “I have lived a thousand lives / with these children and the grief / and joy of each one is a blessing to me.”
Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
There are so many reasons to return to Nezhukumatathil’s poems—her affinity for the natural world, her ability to write a love poem that truly works, her humor that surprises and salves—and Oceanic reminds me of yet another: how she can offer readers so many routes within a single poem. “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” begins “Because we think I might have it, / you take the couch.” It’s a real change: “I can count on one hand / the times we have ever slept apart / under the same roof in our five years.” Two sick parents won’t work for a small son. What’s more, the narrator is pregnant: “I carry / a small grapefruit, a second son, inside me.” They are separated by only a room, but, “In bed, I fever for your strong calves, your nightsong breath on my neck.” He comes back to bed: “We decide it is worth it.” And how she ends this poem: “The child still forming / inside me fevers for quiet, the silence of the after, / the silence of cell-bloom within our blood.” Poets are reared to be strong closers, but I’d venture that Nezhukumatathil is the best: throughout Oceanic, we get the sense these poems have been felt through, spoken through, and paced to a precise beat. In “Letter to the Northern Lights,” she ends “I’d rather share sunrise with him and loon call // over the lake with him, the slap of shoreline threaded / through screen windows with him—my heart // slamming in my chest, against my shirt—a kind / of kindling you’d never be able to light on your own.” Added bonus: Nezhukumatathil’s poems will remind you (as did Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop) that wonder is a gift, and great words can get us there.
Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen
“I’m always surprised how efficiently // regret can build a machine, a geared thing // charging through the narrow halls of your memory.” Not Here is a book of past pain bled into the present; of youth scenes that remain. In the powerful “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” the narrator’s father, confronted with his cheating, “slapped my mother, came to my room, threw my sleeping body / over his shoulder, & drove off.” There’s a fine shade of complexity at work in his poetics. “Who wouldn’t / beg for a story like this? A story to point & run toward / when asked to explain every decision you’ve ever made / regarding love. A story to blame when your hands rush / toward the exit.” Other stories in this book route toward the narrator’s mother, how “for the longest time, she knelt in front of a shrine & asked // to be blessed with a daughter & here I am: the wrong / monster; truck stop prom queen in his dirt gown.” In Not Here, bodies are imperfect works, subject to doubt, desire, and decay—in equal parts. “Standing in front of a mirror, my mother tells me she is ugly / says the medication is making her fat.” The son sees the mother “pull at her body & it is mine.” After all, “I truly wanted to be beautiful / for her.” In his dreams, he is thin: “I tell my mother she is still beautiful & she laughs. The room fills / with flies. They gather in the shape of a small boy. They lead her / back to the mirror, but my reflection is still there.”
Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch by David Bottoms
These poems live in the soft hours of late night and early morning. When a narrator takes out his dog “to piss in the yard” and the “bird feeders standing in the smudged shadows / of the maples / look like human skulls impaled on poles.” Or nights when the “trees on the bank are black and soundless, / a fat wall of darkness, / and the silence on the water feels like the voice / of a great absence.” His characters are a bit older. They’re content to listen, and to wait: “Nobody even bothered / to untangle the backlashed reel.” Bottoms’s poems are like dark rooms: we enter and exit through the same door, but we’re a little different on the way out—as with “My Old Man’s Homemade Dagger.” The narrator finds his father’s high school metal shop dagger: “bone handle, / blade cut from a metal file.” His father admonishes him to put it back in a desk, and he does, “but have held it for years in my memory, / just as he must’ve held it / in that desk drawer of rusted sockets and wrenches— // ugly, yes, but one of those things / so well made we could hardly let it go.” I’ve already gone back to the title poem a few times, and its wonder about death: “Maybe we rise again only to the good things—honeysuckle, / robins, mockingbirds, doves, / fireflies toward evening, and along the back fence // the steady harping of tree frogs. / On the prayer porch, among the icons, such fancy notions.”
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Smith, who is set to begin her second term as America’s poet laureate, recently said that she “felt from an early age that poetry was something mysterious, something playful and lilting. As I got older, poems began to offer me new and life-changing ways of looking at the familiar world.” We are in good worlds with Smith leading the poetic charge, as Wade in the Water attests. What range: poems crafted from letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War. Poems about motherhood, like “Annunciation:” a narrator tired of roads, bridges, steel, and lights: “Everything enhanced, rehearsed, / A trick.” She longs to feel, to be “confronted by the real, / By the cold, the pitiless, the bleak.” She ponders her son, “eyes set / At an indeterminate distance, / Ears locked, tuned inward, caught / In some music only he has ever heard.” Poems like “The Angels,” “Two slung themselves across chairs / Once in my motel room. Grizzled, / In leather biker gear. Emissaries / For something I needed to see.” They smell of “rum and gasoline,” and “one’s teeth / Were ground down almost to nubs.” But she feels guilty: “Think of the toil we must cost them, / One scaled perfectly to eternity. / And still, they come, telling us / Through the ages not to fear.” She never sees the angels again, but catches “sightings, flashes, hints” of them. A tree in the sun, wind swaying its branches. The strength of rain. The grace in a tired world.