The Essential W.S. Merwin

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Must-Read Poetry: July 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July. A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.” New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.” [millions_ad] Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.” The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander) These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.” Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman “I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide...How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.” Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin “I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2017

Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.”  “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].”  Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”
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