The Book of Nightmares

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Must-Read Poetry: December 2017

Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in December.

Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino
“Who shall change my vile body into a glorious body / when I know there’s glory at the end of my prayer?” The first quarter of Witch Wife is bound by bodies: bodies plagued, bodies unsettled. “For this glob of a girl who feeds like a grub,” Petrosino writes, her consonants bubbling like the incantations suggested by her title. “Poor poorless receptacle for Presidential-fitness-test-sweat, poor pudding poured into too few pans.” The anxiety of the book’s first quarter turns and evolves into something like mist in the second quarter of the book, in poems like “Europe”: “I’ll never be so lonely again, or young enough / to weep in my clothes on the street.” Witch Wife offers that maybe all love stories are stories of bodies. We are within before we are without. Petrosino is a unique voice, churning a mixture of smirk and mirth: “My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas / & adorn themselves in denim.” Anne Sexton haunts the third quarter of this book: “Some ghosts are my mothers / neither angry nor kind / their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.” Witch Wife is a weird wonder, something altogether new in its combinations. From the title poem: “Your gloves are green // & transparent like the skin of Christ / when He returned, filmed over with moss roses— / I’ll conjure as perfect an Easter.” The book’s final quarter shakes like the end of a folk tale, the other world and this world coming together: “It happens at my desk: a gathering in. As if the room were a forehead graying at the lid.” The sky collapsing; “Something happens but it doesn’t keep happening. This is a careful time.” We should believe it.

Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader
“Everything at the end of a bullet’s journey becomes conjecture,” writes Colum McCann in the introduction to this painfully appropriate collection. The bleak reality that McCann describes is all the more reason for a book whose conviction, he writes, “is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope.” “The long night begins,” ends a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca. “Seasons matter little to him,” writes Kyle Dargan of a Virginia farmer who sells a gun to the “tremulous hand” of a boy: “none of the guns he sells are grown from seed.” Ross Gay stirs me awake with lines I can’t forget: “The bullet, in its hunger, craves the womb / of the body. The warm thrum there. Begs always / release from the chilly, dumb chamber.” Bullets into Bells believes in conversation over false conversion, and in that spirit, includes responses to each poem—a unique, and often moving, element of the book. After Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”—in which he laments “this should not be the brick and mortar / of poetry, the moment when a black father drives / his black sons to school”—Tamir’s mother responds: “When I lost Tamir, I lost a piece of myself.” Poetry won’t make us whole again, but we need a form for our shouts and our cries. Follow Natasha Trethewey here: “And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there?

Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell
“Jesus, it is a disappointing shed / Where they hang your picture / And drink juice, and conjure / Your person into inferior bread— / I would speak of injustice, / I would not go again into that place.” Kinnell “sacramentalized experience,” Edward Hirsch says, alluding to how the poet’s youthful Catholicism became both a source of tension and nostalgia. His long poem from 1960, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” captures that synthesis. A beautiful, comprehensive, playful snapshot of the city: people, buildings, objects illuminated fresh: “In the pushcart market, on Sunday, / A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.” Kinnell’s Collected also includes The Book of Nightmares, a book of quotable lamentations: “Let our scars fall in love.” There’s a considered gentleness to Kinnell’s verse, as in “Goodbye,” for when “My mother, poor woman, lies tonight / in her last bed. It’s snowing, for her, in her darkness.” By the time the poem ends, like with so many of Kinnell’s tales, we have been carried, and are placed, gently, somewhere else: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.”

Let’s Not Live on Earth by Sarah Blake
“You will lose your body to // sadness at a point / like a temperature // and then you will wake and wake / and wake and wake and wake to it.” Melancholy, by nature of its blurred edges and ambiguous heartbeats, is so difficult to capture with poetic precision. Blake gets close to that pained place through her recursive lines, her willingness to linger on moments. “I know people are judging me as a mother all the time,” she writes in a single line, like an exhale of the inevitable. Yet there’s a strength here, and it is often delivered with the humor that comes from frustration. In one poem, after the narrator is almost denied coverage for anxiety medication, she walks her son home in a stroller. It has gotten very warm, and once home, covered in sweat, she thinks what a relief it will be to simply sleep that night. To make it through life, and be given that small grace: “You might call it escapism but this is / how life works, trying to pull / us free, creating the break that we might // split ourselves upon.”

Solve for Desire by Caitlin Bailey
Grete and Georg Trakl, sister and brother, pianist and poet, are given new life in Bailey’s debut collection. Plagued by addiction, scarred by war, driven to suicide, both are frozen in history, but Bailey offers Grete her voice. The siblings hold a connection beyond even love, some region possibly only accessible through poetry. “The most brilliant part of you exists to haunt me,” she writes. “Sometimes I can’t believe my heart, // how it continues. How it isn’t black and withered.” Bailey often delivers short poems like flashes; those can be held in your palm, however mysterious: “If a horse is allowed / to graze freely after a winter / in the barn / it becomes sick with pleasure.” Other lines, like “I am hostage to your absence,” bleed across the rest of poems, heavy in their chorus. Although Bailey is creating a fictional vision of two hearts, her words rest in that curious space between abstraction and touch, so this is a book to place upon one’s soul.

Let’s All Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges
In “Ode to My Dishwasher,” the narrator sighs: “It is late, my love, and you are loud / worrying at your work.” “To be a grown woman,” she thinks, “alone / and unclean is a powerful thing.” She thinks of her mother, who “had so many rubber gloves / I was surprised by the sight of her hands // which seemed to me old / even when she was young.” The narrator’s mother is a familiar refrain in Let’s All Die Happy, a book sustained by Adair-Hodges’s often darkly-comic voice. Lament is one of her main modes. She doesn’t quite look back in anger, but there’s a skepticism about the past. Like those years she “thought I loved God and His son,” which might have been because she “liked being good // at Church, A-pluses in verses, hymns.” “I loved Him,” she reflects, “like a savings account, feeling holy // in my asceticism but waiting for the day / I could go to the Bank of Eternal Good Things.” So often in these poems the narrator ends up alone, misunderstood, separated—after she’s opened her heart. In “The Trap,” she knows “There is no greater tragedy than to be young / and think you know what joy will look like / and so clunk and pigeon / through corridors and malls, flapping against the linoleum / of heartbreak.” A sweet book for hearts gone sour, Adair-Hodges skillfully moves between varying songs, and the book’s key lies in a single phrase: “I am graceless but I am not depraved.”

The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons: Volume 1 and Volume 2
From his 1955 self-published debut Ommateum with Doxology to the posthumous 2005 collection Bosh and Flapdoodle, these two volumes offer 966 poems from a poet whose complexities and personal labyrinths we have yet to fully understand. In her introduction, Helen Vendler alludes to a forthcoming biography, but for now, we have the poems. He began writing them while in the Navy. He continued writing while he was a scientific glassware salesman. His words hold an oddity and sublimity that sets him apart from even his experimental peers. In “Easter Morning,” on the tragic death of his younger brother: “I have a life that did not become, / that turned aside and stopped, / astonished: / I hold it in me like a pregnancy.” His brother’s young death paused his growth, and he’s remained chained to that moment where he can only “yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place.” Ammons is like some wild radical lover of language in old clothes; his tightly columnar poems are both playful and traditional. Timeless, probably. Often tongue-tied to truth: “Old men drain and dread and dream and dress / and dribble and drift and drink and drip and // drone and drool and droop and drop and drown / and drowse, dry, and dry up.” I love “Soaker”: “You can appreciate / this kind of rain, / thunderless, / small-gauged / after a dry spell, / the wind quiet, / multitudes of leaves / as if yelling / the smallest thanks.” I have never read a poet who brings me so close to infinity, where we are equally in awe and terribly afraid.

A Year in Reading: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.

In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.

One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.

I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.

While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.

This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.

While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.

I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!

A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.

Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too.  Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.

When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.

Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!

So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:

Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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