Partial Genius

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Must-Read Poetry: August 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in August.

Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague

“Because without words
what are we // but ourselves—inarticulate as the sky.” Teague’s poems, so often
first anchored in singular moments, evolve into mazes of time and space, as
with “The Giant Artichoke.” The narrator, thinking of herself as a child,
remembers her mother reading highway billboards, her words filling the space
left wide by grief. “I learned love,” the narrator says, “as rituals of hunger,
a nest of thistles / around the heart.” Later, “Matryoshka (as Madness),” a
poem perfectly suited for its columnar form, begins with conjecture: “If you
could start / at the center: nest / a solid self inside / a safer self / like a
house / so no one sees / all the ways you’ve / twisted open, copied /
yourself.” Her narrow lines feel more insular than claustrophobic; walls in
which the narrator must reflect herself. She is “trapped inside wood / inside
air inside wood / like a prayer in a crucifix / you don’t know how to / believe
in, the church / only as solid as / the ripped-roof blue / the congregation /
stares into in Siqueiros, / their prayers like a windbreak: / pale trees in the
sure belief / of storm.” Teague’s poems turn and turn, their lines moving
about, I never feel lost in her work. One of my favorites in this accomplished
collection is “Sketch: Charcoal and Body on Paper.” The narrator thinks about models—college
students like her—“who posed for Beginning Drawing, / insecurity slipped off
their shoulders / and draped over chairs.” She thinks about their “faces / when
I’d pass them later in the hall, out of place, / too intimate to look at.” What
she is really thinking about, though, is herself: “What I feared of my skin— /
its proportion, perspective; the way I was always / and never really posing.
How I wanted that beauty / that knew how not to care: let people / stare. Let
them mismeasure, / smudge pages with charcoal, erase me.”

100 Poems by Seamus Heaney

Heaney once said “my way
of knowing that I’m being myself is to be displaced from home, and I think I’ve
almost created conditions of being at home and not at home, at once. I think
that’s the way most people grow.” His legacy continues to grow. Six years after
his death—and in anticipation of his forthcoming letters and biography—arrives
this welcome collection of work that spans his entire career. There’s a nice
personal touch here: the poems were selected and arranged by his family:
“Perhaps inevitably,” his daughter writes, “the resulting selection is imbued
with personal recollections of our shared lives.” The poem begins with his
iconic “Digging”—a mainstay of classrooms, and yet still a poem that resounds. Another
classic, “Blackberry-Picking,” feels fresh again. 100 Poems captures one of Heaney’s greatest gifts: the power of
single lines. From “The Forge”: “All I know is a door into the dark.” From
“Into Arcadia”: “It was opulence and amen on the mountain road.” The feathery
sounds of “The Lift”: “A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.” And
his words can still coax tears, as in his elegy, “Clearances”: “So while the
parish priest at her bedside / Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the
dying / And some were responding and some crying / I remembered her head bent
towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives — / Never
closer the whole rest of our lives.”

Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith

“What propels us back into the hard grind of art, of birth, is a remembering that, as writers, the becoming and re-becoming of our writing corresponds to the new becomings of ourselves.” Smith, whose prose is also a gift, feels like she captures that sense of new becoming in Be Recorder. Her poems often glance back toward childhood (our life’s first revision and becoming, and for Smith, the genesis of her narrative sense). In “Boy Crazy,” sirens, cicadas, and “the drunk boys who howl / into the trees at 2 a.m. infect / my window while I sleep” bring the narrator back “into a girl I once was, / calling for love into a sky transected / by power lines until sunrise when the town / tightened into itself.” The poem “Self as Deep as Coma” begins “When I was a girl, I thought clouds were God, / and that we dialogued about sin, / which mirrored my desires” and ends wonderfully: “When I was a girl, I collected reams of paper, soothed / by the white over and over, the hope of starting / from blank. I hoped to endure being well enough, / to conjure a new bright vessel because I wanted to live.” Be Recorder is full of such conjuring, including the titular, long poem centered in the book: “though I was born in America / I wasn’t born American / I know it’s hard to understand.” And, again, a return to her past: “I forget,” the narrator reflects, “my real vocation / not executive / not supplicant but / stepping back into daughterhood.” This long poem, at moments symphonic, is often wise: “let’s admit to our own complicity release into / the wound because imagine it’s like a rose / blossom of scarred red tissue not beautiful / but layers and layers of lesions / layered over with more scar then more wound.”

To the Wren: Collected & New by Jane Mead

“I think I am by
temperament inclined toward repetition as a structuring element, one that
tempers the adventure, structures the movement toward the unknown”—Mead’s
repetitive methods (call them anaphoric, incantational, or perhaps simply
natural) are one of her most distinctive and hypnotizing features. Her poems
churn, accumulate, and arrive. Mead complicates and expands the identity of an
environmental poet—her natural subjects so often dressed in sadness. In
“Sparrow, My Sparrow” she writes: “What is a prayer but a song of longing /
turning on the thread of its own history?” The poem ends: “I feel myself loved
by a voice in the wind— / I cover my ears with my palms. / The whole world
rocks and still / the cold green river does not spill.” “Hint” continues her
work on nature and grief: “There are geraniums / on the doorstep, bug-eaten //
at the blossom and at / the leaf: you can pinch off / the dead parts, you can
// water, you can turn away— / but you cannot stop yourself.” I like that
tension in Mead’s work: how we live within a world we must care for, but which
resists our urges. And yet we can’t help but rightly praise its beauty, as in
“The Geese”: “Their call, both strange / and familiar, calls / to the strange
and familiar // heart.” An expansive collection that reveals Mead’s talent.

Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger

Biddinger’s prose poems
are eccentric, meandering, and surprising. The first poem of the collection, “Historical
Achievements,” ends: “One year I wrote ‘mouth’ across my knuckles for Halloween
and exited the pep rally before the microphone was switched on, flocks of
balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.” The
sentence is pure Biddinger: funny, dizzying yet specific, and grounded in a
pleasantly wistful storytelling (her poems don’t often feel melancholy, but
they do contain absences—incomplete stories—which offer pauses of sentiment
within her play). Partial Genius is
unlike any book of poetry that you’ll read this year; a credit to Biddinger’s
voice, and the range of her interests. There’s much to quote here: “Let’s
listen to Black Sabbath and inhale the rage of vinyl car seats”; “At
christening I gripped chain crosses that relatives slathered around my neck. My
mother refused the heirloom ankle bracelet, claiming it looked like bondage,
but I don’t think she meant it that way”; “When I was declared free of
scoliosis, something lifted out of me . . . At the Walgreens, I exhibited
radically poor posture and bought candy cigarettes, which never made it out of
my sock drawer.” A little joy can go a long way in poetry.

The Only Worlds We Know by Michael Lee

Lee’s poems often follow unique routes, as with “Hum,” which begins with a hovering fly “touching me lightly / before lifting off surprised, as I am, / by my warmth.” A little stunned, a little curious, the narrator is frozen: “this buzzing I cannot kill.” He can’t swipe the fly, but he also “cannot touch the ones I love // made small by love.” The poem gently moves to a second-person recipient—“I try to resurrect you here— // where you live now—on the haggard wings / of memory.” It’s an early poem, and a good indication that Lee has a careful, and yet open, approach. “The Study of Knives and Music” is a particularly inventive piece: “The knife / remembers when it was bone, when it lived // inside an elk or man and kept the rind / together until it didn’t, / until the body // was used against itself.” To follow that line with a question—“Do you see how / everything returns to its maker?”—reflects Lee’s method of turning his poems toward us. His flexible second-person returns elsewhere, as in “The Construction of Lies and Memory”: “Even if when you turn / to stare upon it, until your eyes / widen and dry, it feels / almost as if it’s staring back / and shimmers and blinks / like you, certain, but not.” A strong debut.

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