The uncategorizable, the mongrel, the hybrid, the impure: I don’t consciously say I’m looking for any of those traits when I pick up a book, but I get excited by any piece of art that makes itself up on its own terms, that says no in its quiet (or loud) way to the call of obedience and conformity. I think all of the books on my list say no, as if that no were an affirmation, and I’m sure that’s why I’ll keep going back to them not just in the present, but 10 years from now.
While many contemporary novels restrict themselves to a tight focus, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway gives itself permission to sprawl. Its characters come and go, live and die, lace together in startling, unexpected ways. Its sentences ring with insight and dark charm. Entire paragraphs feel like song, even those spotlighting a minor character—see the page featuring the woman who adopts wild animals and takes them into her bed. The thing is, there are no minor characters in McCracken’s work, and that notion is central to her vision: Everyone has a face, a body, a longing. I can’t think of a book that’s as queer, even if its queerness isn’t out front and center. Who would we be if we allowed ourselves to see that our closest ties aren’t blood ties but chosen? How would history change if we de-centered procreation as the measure of time and interconnectedness? The novel enacts those questions with increasing urgency and takes us to a place where the character we’ve known the longest doesn’t simply stop, but re-invents himself once more.
Speaking of things queer, some of the freshest books of 2019 have come from queer writers. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Sentence by sentence, these books are alert and alive, written with exacting description and a musical ear. Most importantly, they take queerness into their structure. They refuse chronology as the only way to tell an immersive story. Instead, these are stories of moving minds, minds at work, as they try to shuck off the old narratives that want to shoehorn us into sameness and oblivion. For that, and more, I love these books the way I would love a person.
Finally? Poets. We must not ever forget the poets, those beautiful monsters. Source of all things good, at least when it comes to the word. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Toi Derricotte’s I, Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long, Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder.
Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth book, The Octopus Museum. Stacked with dexterous, inventive pieces that range from prose poetry to letters to dialogues, Shaughnessy also nestles heartfelt poems about the narrator’s children. One of these such poems, “Blueberries for Cal,” is gorgeous, controlled, and complex. When the narrator says “Sometimes I can’t bear // all the things Cal doesn’t get to do,” the stanza break does real work; this is both lamentation and confession. One of the finest poems you’ll read on the sacred strain of parenting, on the force of love.
“Blueberries for Cal”
Watching little Henry, six, scoop up blueberriesand shovel them into his mouth, possessed.
I’m so glad I brought blueberries—wish my kidscould/would eat them. Cal can’t; Simone won’t.
Henry’s sisters Lucy & Jane took turns feeding eachother goldfish crackers and sips of juice.
Arms around each other’s neck and back. Tiny things.I wish my daughter had a sister like that
and my son a nervous system that let him walkand munch berries. Sometimes I can’t bear
all the things Cal doesn’t get to do. I want to curseeverything I can’t give him.
Admire/compare/despair—that’s not the most realfeeling I’m feeling, is it? I feel joy in Henry’s joy.
Blueberries for the child who wants them.There’s all this energetic sweetness, enough to go around,
to give and taste and trust. More than enough.For Cal, too. I want to remember this.
My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.
Where there’s music, someone chose to make a songover all other things on this earth.
Excerpted from The Octopus Museum. Copyright © 2019 by Brenda Shaughnessy. All rights reserved. First appeared in The Paris Review, issue 223. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.
Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in March.
Tap Out by Edgar Kunz
A whirlwind debut. Stories of sclerotic lives told in wrought images, Kunz arrives with real poetic talent. In the first poem, “After the Hurricane,” the narrator’s father sleeps in a van by the Connecticut River, where he “can see the Costco // parking lot through the trees.” Estranged from his wife, he’s hit bottom, scraping sustenance from kidney bean cans and tuna tins. “Wrinkled plastic piss bottles line the dash.” Kunz pulls us into his poems and keeps us there through crisp detail. The narrator’s father returns often, as in “Natick”: “Silence we passed back and forth between us, like a joke.” In the car, father holds his hand—“Nail beds packed with grease. / Knuckles more scar // than skin”—to his son’s, tells the boy he has piano hands. The son “was ashamed, and hid them in the pockets of my coat.” That shame evolves into poems like “Close,” when the narrator’s father, fresh off a work shift and a little drunk, teaches his son how to drive. “We meet / at the end of the loaded bed, exhaust / and brakelight pooling around our knees.” (A hint: trust poets who show back to you the images you’ve seen in glimpses and tucked in the back of your mind.) The son loves the father; he hates the father. Tap Out lives in a bittersweet world, and does so well, but there’s also fine touches here: a mother who has had enough, a son who sees beauty in loss, and in “Farmsitting,” a narrator who, in order to fall asleep, “counted / the measures ticked out // in the porcelain tub, slow drip / to keep the pipes from freezing.”
The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy
To call a collection both
ambitious and pleasant is hopefully not an unacceptable paradox—it feels like
the right description for Shaughnessy’s fifth book of poems. Her book is
ambitious in concept and structure—a dystopian world in which the COO
(Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), fresh off cute YouTube videos, “took over
every computer, grid and control center”—and capable of melodic sweetness: “I
am a self-cleaning animal and my children were born glistening under all the
soft tree leaves, breathing.” Woven into the book’s speculative moments are
glimpses of motherhood from this world: a six-year-old girl named Simone who
thinks time is “unknowable,” and a boy, Cal, of whom she thinks incessantly. In
“Nest,” the narrator is “in a cabin up in the New Hampshire / woods, in order
to write.” Cal, “coughing and gagging,” probably from allergies, possibly from
something else, is home with her husband. She wonders: “Why am I up here /
writing in the woods when my family needs me / if all I’m doing is failing to
kill innocent wasps / and writing this, this poem I’ll never really finish.” It
is her full-throated poems about Cal that meander among her wild experiments in
syntax, epistolary, and lists that make The
Octopus Museum a breakthrough book.
The Last Visit by Chad Abushanab
“The Factory,” a terse,
dizzying poem, appears early in this fantastic debut. “Husks in shadows just
outside of town: / a rusted mess, a postindustrial tomb.” Here “men with bloody
lungs keep / coughing up clots like overripe berries. / Their wives beside them
pretend to be asleep, / imagine different endings to their stories.” The Last Visit teems with distressing
images, offered with fury and skill. In one poem that introduces the book’s
major theme, a narrator wonders about his abusive father: “what made your
cruelties grow / unwieldy.” He stares at portraits for hours, seeking an
explanation, and then remembers, in another poem, how his mother would bring
him to a store “to pick / some cheap toys” after each family fight. “She wore /
green bruises below her eyes. / Her split lip kept her dabbing blood / with
Kleenex—a poppy flowered rag.” The narrator and siblings dig “through crates of
army men,” who they’d line up on their bedroom windowsill. They’d chosen maimed
soldiers who “could not raise their voices despite / their mortal wounds, their
missing limbs.” The Last Visit is
peppered with poignant, curtal ghazals, including: “When my father left for
good, we were living in the desert. / I wouldn’t cry for him. My eyes became a
desert.” Horrors real and cinematic blend together, as in poems like “A Haunted
House,” “Halloween,” “Drive-In,” and “Poem Begun in a West Texas Corn Maze”: “I
listen for children shouting through the dried- / up stalks, but all I hear are
whispers and crows, / what few remain.”
Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy
“I’m becoming a prayer / I
never said for myself.” McCarthy’s book of Midwestern threnodies begins in
image and ends in solemnity. In the first poem, the narrator’s pickup truck
spews smoke from the engine. Under the trunk, he finds that a “mangled cat mats
the crankshaft and fan belt, / fur-shredded and soaked.” It’s a morbid scene,
unfolding as rain pounds the street, a shower that seems constant that year. “Switchgrass
quivers in every direction. / It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.”
These poems are filled with a “lost boy” who is meticulous in his observations
of the staid world surrounding him. The August sun burns everyone, including
his “sweating” mother, who “has stuffed pie tins behind our porch lights // to
keep the robins from nesting.” She is stuck in her house as this boy is stuck
in this middle world, an only child left to his imagination. He thinks himself
a scarecrow, who “pretends // that his reflection is his brother or that all
the puddles together / are a group of siblings that understand his strange
body.” McCarthy’s poems are profluent stories—a joy to marvel at this skill,
impressive considering the book’s bleak landscape.
Forest with Castanets by Diane Mehta
A beautiful book. “My
America is half blessed, halfway to exuberance” Mehta ends one poem, her lines replete
with sorrow and mysticism. “Elegy: A Jewish Death” begins “My moon-walking
mother flies sideways in the yard. / Black fences spike and spiral to contain
her.” There’s a levitation to her lines, leading to the first section’s
conclusion: “She shadows me, a rococo menorah, / arms holding prayers up,
pulling light around me.” Mehta traces the gentle and eccentric routes of spirituality,
with an emphasis on spirit: “She
exits my longing, shifts // like the sea at dawn into simpler / things I’d like
to believe will find me later.” She centers the book with fifteen “Unholy
Sonnets,” with lovelorn, savvy lines: “Ravaged, unredeemable, I melt into my
feet / Murderously myself. I long for peace but (admit it) / Laser cut and
polish grief.” Prose is tucked among her verse—I hope more poets follow her
lead, and be generous with genre—making Forest
with Castanets a uniquely arranged collection. In “Sex & Sensibility,”
she considers the anniversary of death and divorce, and the frayed
relationships that follow. She thinks about the struggle for rediscovery: “I
had a married self, a mother self, and a sexual self, but I had no ‘alone’ self
and thus no creative self.” She’s a talented essayist, and the hopeful conclusion
of her second essay leans into more poems, starting with “Churchgoing”: “If
love is divine then what am I / when they are so full of love / excelling? I
believe in showing up. / The sermon starts.” She concludes: “These open-hearted
beaches are so pure they choke me. / I prefer the cold, hard pews and visitor
seating. / I prefer to be deranged and read these pretty prayers / as evil in
my feet taps out a little more universe.”
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Kaminsky, on moving
between and among tongues: “What’s important are those little thefts between
languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, ‘slant’
moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.” Kaminsky’s second
book—which I suspect will be spoken about for years to come—is curved with
beautiful oddities of phrase (even the book’s Dramatis Personae, in describing
the townspeople, includes a phrase about how “on balconies, the wind fondles
laundry lines”). A play in verse, a novel in verse, collective pain in
verse—classifications are unnecessary here, as Kaminsky’s book is at its soul a
story. Although public assemblies are prohibited when occupying forces “march
into town,” the people of Vasenka perform puppet shows. Petya, a deaf boy who is
front and center, sneezes, and draws the military attention. Reprimanded, the
boy spits at a Sergeant, setting the rest of the book in motion. The entire
town becomes silent. Unable to hear, they search for themselves. In one poem: “You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens.” Soon,
an inability to hear becomes an ability to see: “our men, once frightened,
bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts— / deafness passes through
us like a police whistle.” Deaf Republic is
a book of transcendence. See a lullaby: “Little daughter / rainwater // snow
and branches protect you.” See an elegy: “Six
words, / Lord: // please ease / of song // my tongue.” “If there is no
argument inside my work,” Kaminsky has said in an interview, “my work is
worthless. For several reasons, there is only one thing I demand from my own
lines, or from any poetry I love—I want to read it and to have a sense of
having lived. I want to find a texture of life in the lines.” Deaf Republic arrives, textured and