Oceanic

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In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

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
there?”

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.

On Mary Oliver and Resisting Poems of Gladness

Last Thursday, the poet Mary Oliver died; by mid-afternoon, my social media feeds were flooded with friends mourning her passing and expressing gratitude for her work. These friends—many of them poets, but also a minister, a pianist, an 18th-century scholar—wrote eloquently of Oliver’s impact on their lives: how she’d taught them to pay attention, how she’d comforted them in hard times.

Reading the testimonials, I was moved, and sad for the loss of someone who seemed like a fascinating and kind person, but also—what was this unsettling emotion tucked beneath the other ones?—a little bit envious of these friends who’d had their lives enriched by Mary Oliver’s work. I’d never read Oliver, other than a few poems here and there. How had I missed her?

This question buzzed in the back of my mind as I scrolled through post after post, and then I began to realize: I’d never delved into Mary Oliver because I’d never let myself. Although I’d never really reckoned with why that was, I was familiar with the widespread critical dismissals of her work, like David Orr’s dig in The New York Times, in which he disparaged O Magazine’s profile of Oliver by writing “about [her] poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” I knew that in my two decades of studying and writing poetry, no one—not a teacher, not a friend—had ever pressed a Mary Oliver book into my hands, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I knew the air of condescension, or at least apology, that so often accompanied a mention of Oliver’s poems; at conferences, in grad school bars, if the conversation turned a certain way, someone might say, “Well, Mary Oliver has a poem—I know, I know—but—” and everyone would smile understandingly.

But if I’m being honest, I also had my own set of preconceptions. I knew that Mary Oliver’s poems were popular and beloved. I knew she wrote about celebrating nature. I knew she was considered “accessible.” I knew that her books were always well-stocked on the tiny, sad poetry shelf of every bookstore. I’m ashamed to say that these facts combined to make me wary, even though I also write about the natural world and think of my work as relatively “accessible” (though my books are not, alas, well-stocked in every bookstore), even though many of the poets whose work I most admire fall into one or more of these categories, and even though surely “beloved” is one of the best monikers any of us can hope to earn. I’d read some of Oliver’s individual poems, of course, and a decade ago when I was going through a period of intense anxiety and depression I came across her oft-quoted “Wild Geese” and felt an almost tangible sense of relief at its clear-eyed and compassionate opening lines, which tell the reader:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Even now, typing those words, I’m comforted. Still, I’d never purchased one of her books, never checked one out from the library, never even gone poking around online for her greatest hits. As I read tribute after tribute, I prodded my vague guilt, trying to find its source—yes, I’d unfairly cut myself off from a poet I should have read, but surely this wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on important work. So what was it? Slowly, the deeper underlying worry began to pulse through: was it possible that, despite my best efforts to resist proscriptive poetry doctrines, somewhere along the line I’d internalized the unspoken tenet that accessible poems of praise and wonder are less worthy of real attention?

As a beginning poet, I was wary of anything that smacked even slightly of sentimentality. I learned it was safer to eschew the autobiographical, easier to polish up my dark imaginings until they gleamed. In those early years, what I wanted most was to protect myself from accusations of softness. And though my work became increasingly confident as I kept writing, it wasn’t until my most recent book, a poetry collection centering around a tornado that devastates a small town, that I began to understand it takes some bravery to risk being perceived as soft. That book includes a number of autobiographical poems about the raw intensity of motherhood, and several more written in praise of both the natural and domestic worlds; these were topics that I’d long understood to be dangerous ground. How easily a foot might slip from motherhood to mawkishness, from humming dusk to Hallmark card!

But those were the poems I wanted most to write, and I like to think they stayed on the right side of that tipping point between sentiment and sentimentality because, like any poem that hopes to represent an experience accurately, they paid attention. In writing them, I tried to be as honest and precise as I could. Another oft-quoted Mary Oliver sentence is this one: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I love this line. It seems to me as good a directive for writing poems as for living life.

So I’d been feeling good about consciously shaking off reductive precepts about subject matter and approach. And I’d been happy, too, with my work to help my students become skeptical of voices that try to dictate what poetry shouldn’t do. For years I’ve taught that anything can be a ripe subject for poetry, and that poems aren’t limited to one tone or mood. Poems can be funny! I remind my students. Really good sincere love poems exist!

But the morning of the day that Mary Oliver died, one of my poetry students approached me after class and asked if I could recommend any poems that were…she hesitated…less bleak than the ones we’d been reading. She asked me this tentatively, as if she knew it wasn’t something a real writer should want or request, and I was flooded with teacher-guilt: had I, through the poems I emphasized and the ones I left out, inadvertently been teaching my students that poems of comfort and celebration were somehow less-than? I thought about the poems we’d explored so far this semester—all poems I love, all poems of great craft and skill…and all poems that dive into the world’s darkness and swim around. It isn’t that I don’t love and teach hopeful poems, too—but, I realized, by not teaching any in the crucial first few weeks of the semester, I had implied parameters in which I don’t believe. The student took out her phone to jot down notes, and quickly I recommended Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I recommended Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I pointed her to Twitter, where the poet Chen Chen had recently started an excellent thread of “happy poem” recommendations. Then I went home to the news that a poet who had made her career out of observing and celebrating this world had left it.

I didn’t pay attention to Oliver’s work when she was alive, and that was my own failing, stemming from my own fear. Thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve resolved to incorporate more poems of wonder and solace into my teaching, and to work more consciously to show students that these subjects aren’t off-limits for writers; indeed, aren’t they so much of what we look for in the literature we love most? I’ll be sure, too, to emphasize that just because a poem embraces joy doesn’t mean it can’t also acknowledge suffering, and vice versa—an essential duality I’ve seen underscored again and again in the Mary Oliver poems being posted over the weekend. We’ll discuss the particular risks and challenges that might accompany writing poems that dwell in gladness; we’ll discuss, too, the much greater risk of writing as though poetry doesn’t belong in the business of celebration.

A few days ago, I ordered a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions: The Selected Poems from my local bookstore. Though they usually have her books in stock, the owner told me, people have been buying them up since learning of her passing. I’m looking forward to getting the book. I plan to read it slowly, after the kids go to bed, a few poems at a time. I plan to pay attention. When I’m done, I’ll lend it to my student.

A Year in Reading: May-lee Chai

2018 was my year of reading for #resistance. I’m grateful that there were so many amazing books that nourished my soul in more ways than one—I needed artistry to give me beauty, I needed social consciousness to give me fire, and I needed the innovations in craft and storytelling to inspire my own writing.

I started off reading Tayari Jones’s masterpiece, An American Marriage, which explores the effects of racism in the American “justice” system on a young African-American couple’s relationship after the husband is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. The novel isn’t just politically relevant; it’s also beautiful in its telling of the love story of Celestial and Roy. The emotional repercussions of Roy’s incarceration had me crying the last 100 pages.

Another deeply inspiring work was Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, about “urban Indians” gathering for a pow wow in Oakland, California. This novel has it all—great characters, compelling plot, lyrical language, and innovative storytelling that made my heart race. It also shows the way U.S. government policy, symbols, and even popular culture have worked to erase Native Americans. This innovative novel fights that erasure in indelible ways.

There were a number of exciting debuts by Asian-American writers, including first novels by R.O. Kwon and Vanessa Hua. Kwon’s The Incendiaries uses innovative jumps in point of view to tell the story of religious extremists who turn to terrorism—that is, a fundamentalist North Korean-backed Christian cult that bombs an abortion clinic. And Hua’s novel A River of Stars puts human faces to headlines about “birth tourism” and anchor babies. Hua’s deeply empathetic storytelling kept me turning the pages.

I was inspired, too, by poets, including Julian David Randall, whose debut collection, Refuse, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. His poems show empathy and fire from the point of view of a queer Black Latinx man making his way in the world. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s fourth collection Oceanic left me breathless reading her love songs for Earth’s many creatures. I also reread Tanaya Winder’s Words Like Love, which addresses with fire and fury and, yes, even love, the poet’s grappling with cultural loss and attempts at reconstruction of her multi-tribe Indigenous heritage. Poet Norman Antonio Zelaya’s debut short story collection, Orlando and Other Stories, offers resistance in the face of gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco with prose that echoes the voices of the uncles and “old heads” and other Nicaraguan-American protagonists of Zelaya’s world.

Memoirists and essayists gave me hope and words for resistance. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel packed equal measures of historical heft and wit. The beauty of the sentences in Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries took my breath away. Poet Camille T. Dungy’s first essay collection, Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, delves into the fears and joys of an African-American woman adjusting to motherhood with language that sings. And I reread Luis Alberto Urrea’s searing memoir, Nobody’s Son, which offers a welcome look at hybridity in the United States—from families and blood lines to the very language we speak.

Meanwhile, I found much to savor in speculative fiction. For example, Nona Caspers’s novel The Fifth Woman uses the tropes of spec fic to highlight the grieving process of a young queer woman in San Francisco mourning the loss of her partner. In precise and glowing prose, Caspers describes mysteriously animated shadow dogs, bosses who disappear or hide under desks, and a gathering of the dead at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.  Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection, Friday Black, blew me away with its trenchant depictions of racist and capitalist-inspired violence. There are many standout stories, from “Zimmer Land” where a black employee of an amusement park faces patrons who kill virtually to the horrors of the titular story in which a clerk faces zombie-like patrons infected with a virus that makes them ravenous for sales.

Finally, I devoured all three volumes of Liu Cixin’s science fiction epic, Three Body Trilogy (translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen), which imagines the many ways that humanity might be destroyed, destroy ourselves, or pull back from the brink of galactic destruction. The books are filled with examples of human folly and treachery as well as hope and rebirth. The imagery in the last part of the third volume is stunning, but I can’t even mention examples without giving away major spoilers.

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Must-Read Poetry: April 2018

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.

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