Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me

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Must-Read Poetry: October 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

The Historians by Eavan Boland 

Poetry “doesn’t make things happen. What poetry does, if anything, is show that something else happened at the same time.” Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, and her devotion to the art of poetry wasn’t without an awareness of the limits of art. She lamented that in Ireland, “we’ve always had this terrible gap between rhetoric and reality.” She wrote that the “position of women poets in this country is one thing. The shooting of a baby or a woman or a man on his own doorstep is quite another.” Boland’s realist sentiment imbues her poetry with a certain presence: her views feel well-earned. The Historians, her final book, is a necessary volume. The titular, sequential first poem ranges from the narrator’s mother, who “spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms” to “old Ireland,” where she sees “candle smoke rising towards / the porcelain / yellow faces of the sanctified.” Later, she writes: “I was born in a place where rain / is second nature,” where “rain was a dialect I could listen to / on a winter night: its sibilance.” There are gently heartbreaking pieces here, such as “Be”: “All I know is / as the light went my / infant daughters / were asleep in it, / brightness arcing towards / a cambered distance.” Forgive me for reading a poet’s final book in the enveloping shadow of her passing, but there is an acute power here, as with poems that end with lines like this: “I should have taken more care.” Boland has left us with gifts: “I remember how I longed / to find the plenitude and accuracy needed / to bring words home, / to winter hills, fogged-away stars, / children’s faces fading into sleep. // Now I wonder / if it was enough.”

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

“Arriving in the night / All my forgotten prayers,” Ali writes in “Recite,” the first poem of the collection. “Not prayers really / Nothing to ask for.” After all, “God’s like a misfit / You don’t fit he don’t fit.” Ali’s masterful turns of phrase and feeling make this book feel both encompassing and particular.  The book is anchored by the long titular poem, generous in scope and sense . Born in London in 1965, Sheila Chandra was part of the Indian pop band Monsoon in the early ’80s before going solo. She stopped singing in 2009 because of a rare condition; it hurt gravely to sing or speak. “Laughing and crying also cause me pain,” she wrote in an interview. For Ali, Chandra is a guide and muse; he is entranced by her past voice, for  “Who can in syllables like / Sheila Chandra moan us.” She sings without words / Because a word is a form of rage at / Death.” Before her disease “she sang / In Uzbek contorted her tongue around / Words she never knew learned.” Ali is saddened by her lost voice, but his poem and book know the world moves in strange ways: “In a world governed by storm and noise why / Then should a singer not fall silent.” He lives among her absent song, reflecting back to the book’s originating poem: “Nor do I always turn to the tenor stricken / I have no fear of god but of being / This archangel unfolding to emerge / From god into form.” Such is life: “there is no beginning to any song only the place / the singer picks up the tune.”

Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez

“Sometimes I search for the exact day / I stopped dreaming in the language / that sings my name.” Gómez mines the tactile spaces between cultures and tongues, tinged with the melancholy concern of how it feels “to watch something slowly drift / away without knowing if it might / ever find its way back.” This concern of distance from origin—this unfolding of who we truly are—never ends: “Eleven years later, when you no longer eat pizza / or speak Spanish, when your father’s profile invades // your clenched jawling, you borrow his brisk gait, / his snort, his face. People say you look white. / Your father never does.” Fatherhood—as both father and son—permeates this collection. In “Revisionist,” the narrator’s precise amnesia results in forgotten names of his children, though “each time, / I am called by the wrong name, // I almost correct him, then wonder / the cost of each small revision and / how it might change that sprawling // unknown in the distance.” The narrator wonders if he “might someday need his tools / to right my own family again.” Fractures arrives with the tensions of such precipices.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)

Seungja’s first published poem appeared in 1979, and eight volumes of her poetry have appeared since—most recently Written on the Water (2011) and Empty Like an Empty Boat (2016). Kim and Hong deftly deliver Seungja’s inventive lines, which command our attention from the first poem’s final stanza: “That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.” Seungja’s imagery and metaphors sting. In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she writes of another’s tender touch during winter, until their departure in spring. “Lilacs bloomed like ghosts / but you didn’t smile, even from that far place.” She is “stung in silence,” and makes a vow: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you. / I want to steal into your warm light / and be stung for the last time / and die forever.” Her narrators are singular and assertive: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend.” In “Sleep Comes Without Its Owner,” she warns: “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child.” She will “go all alone / with my old body soaked in poetry and blood.” Seungja believes in poetry—it is not quite an optimistic belief, but it is an art of necessity: “poetry is charting a way,” and in doing so, “leaving a trace of the way.” She places parentheticals within her poems as more than asides—they are new routes of feeling, and they range from solemn reflections to flits of beauty: “(A child is eating / an apple outside the window. / I watch her / savoring / a world.).” Seungja offers those comforts, despite the overbearing feeling that life weighs so much: “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me.” 

Field Music by Alexandria Hall

An engaging debut, steeped in place: “Nothing ever stays / where it ought: runoff dragged into the river / by summer rains from shit-covered fields— / my thickly perfumed Vermont.” In the book’s first poem, she describes how morning glories “creep up the shafts of the garden / vegetables, their seductive curls choking / out my small plot.” After all, sometimes “we can’t see / the dangers we feed, that we nurture.” In “Geosmin,” the narrator ponders: “Her shoulders were much smaller / than mine. I wasn’t sure // how to touch them. If a man / ever felt this way about my body, // how could he / go on touching me?” Touch pervades this book: “I might hold myself like that, // too tightly. I can feel the weight / of my hand resting on my leg / but not the pulp of my thigh // at my fingertip. There are, I’m told, / two sides to touch.” The contour of her syntax reflects this touch, even in the curve of her description: “Stray dogs dodging cars at the Oxxo. / Water level marked on the bluffs. The peonies / gutted and collapsed on the driveway in June. / I am undone, not by grief, but abundance.” Hall suggests that all we can do is reach for each other: “That night we lay strewn on the grass, / a product of restlessness, like garbage / combed through by skunks who, / though they’ve had their fill, / keep searching through the scraps / of plastic. I held my fingers out / to find yours.” 

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

“When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing.” Adnan’s prose-poetic rumination on death would strike a chord at any time, but it feels especially apt in this moment of protracted grief. Peppered with questions—“There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone?”—Adnan’s lamentations are recursive and soothing. To live is to die, and the poets can ease the passage. “My thoughts drip,” Adnan writes, “not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about.” She ponders how we “try to subvert the gods, buy their powers, corrupt their souls.” She wonders: “Can we keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days?” Her rhythms make all things new, big and small, including the unread books that line her shelves: “They’re so aloof, so silent. I spend hours next to them.” Among this accumulated sadness, there might be only one balm: “Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” 

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