The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor

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Most Anticipated: The Great Spring 2024 Preview

April April 2 Women! In! Peril! by Jessie Ren Marshall [F] For starters, excellent title. This debut short story collection from playwright Marshall spans sex bots and space colonists, wives and divorcées, prodding at the many meanings of womanhood. Short story master Deesha Philyaw, also taken by the book's title, calls this one "incisive! Provocative! And utterly satisfying!" —Sophia M. Stewart The Audacity by Ryan Chapman [F] This sophomore effort, after the darkly sublime absurdity of Riots I have Known, trades in the prison industrial complex for the Silicon Valley scam. Chapman has a sharp eye and a sharper wit, and a book billed as a "bracing satire about the implosion of a Theranos-like company, a collapsing marriage, and a billionaires’ 'philanthropy summit'" promises some good, hard laughs—however bitter they may be—at the expense of the über-rich. —John H. Maher The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, tr. Leonard Mades [F] I first learned about this book from an essay in this publication by Zachary Issenberg, who alternatively calls it Donoso's "masterpiece," "a perfect novel," and "the crowning achievement of the gothic horror genre." He recommends going into the book without knowing too much, but describes it as "a story assembled from the gossip of society’s highs and lows, which revolves and blurs into a series of interlinked nightmares in which people lose their memory, their sex, or even their literal organs." —SMS Globetrotting ed. Duncan Minshull [NF] I'm a big walker, so I won't be able to resist this assemblage of 50 writers—including Edith Wharton, Katharine Mansfield, Helen Garner, and D.H. Lawrence—recounting their various journeys by foot, edited by Minshull, the noted walker-writer-anthologist behind The Vintage Book of Walking (2000) and Where My Feet Fall (2022). —SMS All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld [NF] Hieronymus Bosch, eat your heart out! The debut book from Rothfeld, nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, celebrates our appetite for excess in all its material, erotic, and gluttonous glory. Covering such disparate subjects from decluttering to David Cronenberg, Rothfeld looks at the dire cultural—and personal—consequences that come with adopting a minimalist sensibility and denying ourselves pleasure. —Daniella Fishman A Good Happy Girl by Marissa Higgins [F] Higgins, a regular contributor here at The Millions, debuts with a novel of a young woman who is drawn into an intense and all-consuming emotional and sexual relationship with a married lesbian couple. Halle Butler heaps on the praise for this one: “Sometimes I could not believe how easily this book moved from gross-out sadism into genuine sympathy. Totally surprising, totally compelling. I loved it.” —SMS City Limits by Megan Kimble [NF] As a Los Angeleno who is steadily working my way through The Power Broker, this in-depth investigation into the nation's freeways really calls to me. (Did you know Robert Moses couldn't drive?) Kimble channels Caro by locating the human drama behind freeways and failures of urban planning. —SMS We Loved It All by Lydia Millet [NF] Planet Earth is a pretty awesome place to be a human, with its beaches and mountains, sunsets and birdsong, creatures great and small. Millet, a creative director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, infuses her novels with climate grief and cautions against extinction, and in this nonfiction meditation, she makes a case for a more harmonious coexistence between our species and everybody else in the natural world. If a nostalgic note of “Auld Lang Syne” trembles in Millet’s title, her personal anecdotes and public examples call for meaningful environmental action from local to global levels. —Nathalie op de Beeck Like Love by Maggie Nelson [NF] The new book from Nelson, one of the most towering public intellectuals alive today, collects 20 years of her work—including essays, profiles, and reviews—that cover disparate subjects, from Prince and Kara Walker to motherhood and queerness. For my fellow Bluets heads, this will be essential reading. —SMS Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, tr. Robin Moger [NF] Mersal, one of the preeminent poets of the Arabic-speaking world, recovers the life, work, and legacy of the late Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat in this biographical detective story. Mapping the psyche of al-Zayyat, who died by suicide in 1963, alongside her own, Mersal blends literary mystery and memoir to produce a wholly original portrait of two women writers. —SMS The Letters of Emily Dickinson ed. Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell [NF] The letters of Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest and most beguiling of American poets, are collected here for the first time in nearly 60 years. Her correspondence not only gives access to her inner life and social world, but reveal her to be quite the prose stylist. "In these letters," says Jericho Brown, "we see the life of a genius unfold." Essential reading for any Dickinson fan. —SMS April 9 Short War by Lily Meyer [F] The debut novel from Meyer, a critic and translator, reckons with the United States' political intervention in South America through the stories of two generations: a young couple who meet in 1970s Santiago, and their American-born child spending a semester Buenos Aires. Meyer is a sharp writer and thinker, and a great translator from the Spanish; I'm looking forward to her fiction debut. —SMS There's Going to Be Trouble by Jen Silverman [F] Silverman's third novel spins a tale of an American woman named Minnow who is drawn into a love affair with a radical French activist—a romance that, unbeknown to her, mirrors a relationship her own draft-dodging father had against the backdrop of the student movements of the 1960s. Teasing out the intersections of passion and politics, There's Going to Be Trouble is "juicy and spirited" and "crackling with excitement," per Jami Attenberg. —SMS Table for One by Yun Ko-eun, tr. Lizzie Buehler [F] I thoroughly enjoyed Yun Ko-eun's 2020 eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist, also translated by Buehler, so I'm excited for her new story collection, which promises her characteristic blend of mundanity and surrealism, all in the name of probing—and poking fun—at the isolation and inanity of modern urban life. —SMS Playboy by Constance Debré, tr. Holly James [NF] The prequel to the much-lauded Love Me Tender, and the first volume in Debré's autobiographical trilogy, Playboy's incisive vignettes explore the author's decision to abandon her marriage and career and pursue the precarious life of a writer, which she once told Chris Kraus was "a bit like Saint Augustine and his conversion." Virginie Despentes is a fan, so I'll be checking this out. —SMS Native Nations by Kathleen DuVal [NF] DuVal's sweeping history of Indigenous North America spans a millennium, beginning with the ancient cities that once covered the continent and ending with Native Americans' continued fight for sovereignty. A study of power, violence, and self-governance, Native Nations is an exciting contribution to a new canon of North American history from an Indigenous perspective, perfect for fans of Ned Blackhawk's The Rediscovery of America. —SMS Personal Score by Ellen van Neerven [NF] I’ve always been interested in books that drill down on a specific topic in such a way that we also learn something unexpected about the world around us. Australian writer Van Neerven's sports memoir is so much more than that, as they explore the relationship between sports and race, gender, and sexuality—as well as the paradox of playing a colonialist sport on Indigenous lands. Two Dollar Radio, which is renowned for its edgy list, is publishing this book, so I know it’s going to blow my mind. —Claire Kirch April 16 The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins by Sonny Rollins [NF] The musings, recollections, and drawings of jazz legend Sonny Rollins are collected in this compilation of his precious notebooks, which he began keeping in 1959, the start of what would become known as his “Bridge Years,” during which he would practice at all hours on the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins chronicles everything from his daily routine to reflections on music theory and the philosophical underpinnings of his artistry. An indispensable look into the mind and interior life of one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time. —DF Henry Henry by Allen Bratton [F] Bratton’s ambitious debut reboots Shakespeare’s Henriad, landing Hal Lancaster, who’s in line to be the 17th Duke of Lancaster, in the alcohol-fueled queer party scene of 2014 London. Hal’s identity as a gay man complicates his aristocratic lineage, and his dalliances with over-the-hill actor Jack Falstaff and promising romance with one Harry Percy, who shares a name with history’s Hotspur, will have English majors keeping score. Don’t expect a rom-com, though. Hal’s fraught relationship with his sexually abusive father, and the fates of two previous gay men from the House of Lancaster, lend gravity to this Bard-inspired take. —NodB Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek [F] Graywolf always publishes books that make me gasp in awe and this debut novel, by the author of the entrancing 2020 story collection Imaginary Museums, sounds like it’s going to keep me awake at night as well. It’s a tale about a young woman who’s lost her way and writes a letter to a long-dead ballet dancer—who then visits her, and sets off a string of strange occurrences. —CK Norma by Sarah Mintz [F] Mintz's debut novel follows the titular widow as she enjoys her newfound freedom by diving headfirst into her surrounds, both IRL and online. Justin Taylor says, "Three days ago I didn’t know Sarah Mintz existed; now I want to know where the hell she’s been all my reading life. (Canada, apparently.)" —SMS What Kingdom by Fine Gråbøl, tr. Martin Aitken [F] A woman in a psychiatric ward dreams of "furniture flickering to life," a "chair that greets you," a "bookshelf that can be thrown on like an apron." This sounds like the moving answer to the otherwise puzzling question, "What if the Kantian concept of ding an sich were a novel?" —JHM Weird Black Girls by Elwin Cotman [F] Cotman, the author of three prior collections of speculative short stories, mines the anxieties of Black life across these seven tales, each of them packed with pop culture references and supernatural conceits. Kelly Link calls Cotman's writing "a tonic to ward off drabness and despair." —SMS Presence by Tracy Cochran [NF] Last year marked my first earnest attempt at learning to live more mindfully in my day-to-day, so I was thrilled when this book serendipitously found its way into my hands. Cochran, a New York-based meditation teacher and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of 50 years, delivers 20 psycho-biographical chapters on recognizing the importance of the present, no matter how mundane, frustrating, or fortuitous—because ultimately, she says, the present is all we have. —DF Committed by Suzanne Scanlon [NF] Scanlon's memoir uses her own experience of mental illness to explore the enduring trope of the "madwoman," mining the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and others for insights into the long literary tradition of women in psychological distress. The blurbers for this one immediately caught my eye, among them Natasha Trethewey, Amina Cain, and Clancy Martin, who compares Scanlon's work here to that of Marguerite Duras. —SMS Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman [NF] This science memoir explores Zimmerman's journey to botany, a now endangered field. Interwoven with Zimmerman's experiences as a student and a mother is an impassioned argument for botany's continued relevance and importance against the backdrop of climate change—a perfect read for gardeners, plant lovers, or anyone with an affinity for the natural world. —SMS April 23 Reboot by Justin Taylor [F] Extremely online novels, as a rule, have become tiresome. But Taylor has long had a keen eye for subcultural quirks, so it's no surprise that PW's Alan Scherstuhl says that "reading it actually feels like tapping into the internet’s best celeb gossip, fiercest fandom outrages, and wildest conspiratorial rabbit holes." If that's not a recommendation for the Book Twitter–brained reader in you, what is? —JHM Divided Island by Daniela Tarazona, tr. Lizzie Davis and Kevin Gerry Dunn [F] A story of multiple personalities and grief in fragments would be an easy sell even without this nod from Álvaro Enrigue: "I don't think that there is now, in Mexico, a literary mind more original than Daniela Tarazona's." More original than Mario Bellatin, or Cristina Rivera Garza? This we've gotta see. —JHM Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other by Danielle Dutton [NF] Coffee House Press has for years relished its reputation for publishing “experimental” literature, and this collection of short stories and essays about literature and art and the strangeness of our world is right up there with the rest of Coffee House’s edgiest releases. Don’t be fooled by the simple cover art—Dutton’s work is always formally inventive, refreshingly ambitious, and totally brilliant. —CK I Just Keep Talking by Nell Irvin Painter [NF] I first encountered Nell Irvin Painter in graduate school, as I hung out with some Americanists who were her students. Painter was always a dazzling, larger-than-life figure, who just exuded power and brilliance. I am so excited to read this collection of her essays on history, literature, and politics, and how they all intersect. The fact that this collection contains Painter’s artwork is a big bonus. —CK April 30 Real Americans by Rachel Khong [F] The latest novel from Khong, the author of Goodbye, Vitamin, explores class dynamics and the illusory American Dream across generations. It starts out with a love affair between an impoverished Chinese American woman from an immigrant family and an East Coast elite from a wealthy family, before moving us along 21 years: 15-year-old Nick knows that his single mother is hiding something that has to do with his biological father and thus, his identity. C Pam Zhang deems this "a book of rare charm," and Andrew Sean Greer calls it "gorgeous, heartfelt, soaring, philosophical and deft." —CK The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby [NF] Huge thanks to Bebe Neuwirth for putting this book on my radar (she calls it "fantastic") with additional gratitude to Margo Jefferson for sealing the deal (she calls it "riveting"). Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world. —SMS Appreciation Post by Tara Ward [NF] Art historian Ward writes toward an art history of Instagram in Appreciation Post, which posits that the app has profoundly shifted our long-established ways of interacting with images. Packed with cultural critique and close reading, the book synthesizes art history, gender studies, and media studies to illuminate the outsize role that images play in all of our lives. —SMS May May 7 Bad Seed by Gabriel Carle, tr. Heather Houde [F] Carle’s English-language debut contains echoes of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son and Mariana Enriquez’s gritty short fiction. This story collection haunting but cheeky, grim but hopeful: a student with HIV tries to avoid temptation while working at a bathhouse; an inebriated friend group witnesses San Juan go up in literal flames; a sexually unfulfilled teen drowns out their impulses by binging TV shows. Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón calls this “an extraordinary literary debut.” —Liv Albright The Lady Waiting by Magdalena Zyzak [F] Zyzak’s sophomore novel is a nail-biting delight. When Viva, a young Polish émigré, has a chance encounter with an enigmatic gallerist named Bobby, Viva’s life takes a cinematic turn. Turns out, Bobby and her husband have a hidden agenda—they plan to steal a Vermeer, with Viva as their accomplice. Further complicating things is the inevitable love triangle that develops among them. Victor LaValle calls this “a superb accomplishment," and Percival Everett says, "This novel pops—cosmopolitan, sexy, and funny." —LA América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora [F] Pitched as a novel that "blends the Latin American traditions of Roberto Bolaño and Fernanda Melchor with the autofiction of U.S. writers like Ben Lerner and Teju Cole," Mora's debut follows a young member of the Mexican elite as he wrestles with questions of race, politics, geography, and immigration. n+1 co-editor Marco Roth calls Mora "the voice of the NAFTA generation, and much more." —SMS How It Works Out by Myriam Lacroix [F] LaCroix's debut novel is the latest in a strong early slate of novels for the Overlook Press in 2024, and follows a lesbian couple as their relationship falls to pieces across a number of possible realities. The increasingly fascinating and troubling potentialities—B-list feminist celebrity, toxic employer-employee tryst, adopting a street urchin, cannibalism as relationship cure—form a compelling image of a complex relationship in multiversal hypotheticals. —JHM Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang [F] Ting's debut novel, which spans two continents and three timelines, follows two gay men in rural China—and, later, New York City's Chinatown—who frequent the Workers' Cinema, a movie theater where queer men cruise for love. Robert Jones, Jr. praises this one as "the unforgettable work of a patient master," and Jessamine Chan calls it "not just an extraordinary debut, but a future classic." —SMS First Love by Lilly Dancyger [NF] Dancyger's essay collection explores the platonic romances that bloom between female friends, giving those bonds the love-story treatment they deserve. Centering each essay around a formative female friendship, and drawing on everything from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath to the "sad girls" of Tumblr, Dancyger probes the myriad meanings and iterations of friendship, love, and womanhood. —SMS See Loss See Also Love by Yukiko Tominaga [F] In this impassioned debut, we follow Kyoko, freshly widowed and left to raise her son alone. Through four vignettes, Kyoko must decide how to raise her multiracial son, whether to remarry or stay husbandless, and how to deal with life in the face of loss. Weike Wang describes this one as “imbued with a wealth of wisdom, exploring the languages of love and family.” —DF The Novices of Lerna by Ángel Bonomini, tr. Jordan Landsman [F] The Novices of Lerna is Landsman's translation debut, and what a way to start out: with a work by an Argentine writer in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares whose work has never been translated into English. Judging by the opening of this short story, also translated by Landsman, Bonomini's novel of a mysterious fellowship at a Swiss university populated by doppelgängers of the protagonist is unlikely to disappoint. —JHM Black Meme by Legacy Russell [NF] Russell, best known for her hit manifesto Glitch Feminism, maps Black visual culture in her latest. Black Meme traces the history of Black imagery from 1900 to the present, from the photograph of Emmett Till published in JET magazine to the footage of Rodney King's beating at the hands of the LAPD, which Russell calls the first viral video. Per Margo Jefferson, "You will be galvanized by Legacy Russell’s analytic brilliance and visceral eloquence." —SMS The Eighth Moon by Jennifer Kabat [NF] Kabat's debut memoir unearths the history of the small Catskills town to which she relocated in 2005. The site of a 19th-century rural populist uprising, and now home to a colorful cast of characters, the Appalachian community becomes a lens through which Kabat explores political, economic, and ecological issues, mining the archives and the work of such writers as Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Hardwick along the way. —SMS Stories from the Center of the World ed. Jordan Elgrably [F] Many in America hold onto broad, centuries-old misunderstandings of Arab and Muslim life and politics that continue to harm, through both policy and rhetoric, a perpetually embattled and endangered region. With luck, these 25 tales by writers of Middle Eastern and North African origin might open hearts and minds alike. —JHM An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children by Jamaica Kincaid and Kara Walker [NF] Two of the most brilliant minds on the planet—writer Jamaica Kincaid and visual artist Kara Walker—have teamed up! On a book! About plants! A dream come true. Details on this slim volume are scant—see for yourself—but I'm counting down the minutes till I can read it all the same. —SMS Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel [F] I'll be honest: I would pick up this book—by the International Booker Prize–winning author of Time Shelter—for the title alone. But also, the book is billed as a deeply personal meditation on both Communist Bulgaria and Greek myth, so—yep, still picking this one up. —JHM May 14 This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud [F] I read an ARC of this enthralling fictionalization of Messud’s family history—people wandering the world during much of the 20th century, moving from Algeria to France to North America— and it is quite the story, with a postscript that will smack you on the side of the head and make you re-think everything you just read. I can't recommend this enough. —CK Woodworm by Layla Martinez, tr. Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott [F] Martinez’s debut novel takes cabin fever to the max in this story of a grandmother,  granddaughter, and their haunted house, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. As the story unfolds, so do the house’s secrets, the two women must learn to collaborate with the malevolent spirits living among them. Mariana Enriquez says that this "tense, chilling novel tells a story of specters, class war, violence, and loneliness, as naturally as if the witches had dictated this lucid, terrible nightmare to Martínez themselves.” —LA Self Esteem and the End of the World by Luke Healy [NF] Ah, writers writing about writing. A tale as old as time, and often timeworn to boot. But graphic novelists graphically noveling about graphic novels? (Verbing weirds language.) It still feels fresh to me! Enter Healy's tale of "two decades of tragicomic self-discovery" following a protagonist "two years post publication of his latest book" and "grappling with his identity as the world crumbles." —JHM All Fours by Miranda July [F] In excruciating, hilarious detail, All Fours voices the ethically dubious thoughts and deeds of an unnamed 45-year-old artist who’s worried about aging and her capacity for desire. After setting off on a two-week round-trip drive from Los Angeles to New York City, the narrator impulsively checks into a motel 30 miles from her home and only pretends to be traveling. Her flagrant lies, unapologetic indolence, and semi-consummated seduction of a rent-a-car employee set the stage for a liberatory inquisition of heteronorms and queerness. July taps into the perimenopause zeitgeist that animates Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss and Melissa Broder’s Death Valley. —NodB Love Junkie by Robert Plunket [F] When a picture-perfect suburban housewife's life is turned upside down, a chance brush with New York City's gay scene launches her into gainful, albeit unconventional, employment. Set at the dawn of the AIDs epidemic, Mimi Smithers, described as a "modern-day Madame Bovary," goes from planning parties in Westchester to selling used underwear with a Manhattan porn star. As beloved as it is controversial, Plunket's 1992 cult novel will get a much-deserved second life thanks to this reissue by New Directions. (Maybe this will finally galvanize Madonna, who once optioned the film rights, to finally make that movie.) —DF Tomorrowing by Terry Bisson [F] The newest volume in Duke University’s Practices series collects for the first time the late Terry Bisson’s Locus column "This Month in History," which ran for two decades. In it, the iconic "They’re Made Out of Meat" author weaves an alt-history of a world almost parallel to ours, featuring AI presidents, moon mountain hikes, a 196-year-old Walt Disney’s resurrection, and a space pooch on Mars. This one promises to be a pure spectacle of speculative fiction. —DF Chop Fry Watch Learn by Michelle T. King [NF] A large portion of the American populace still confuses Chinese American food with Chinese food. What a delight, then, to discover this culinary history of the worldwide dissemination of that great cuisine—which moonlights as a biography of Chinese cookbook and TV cooking program pioneer Fu Pei-mei. —JHM On the Couch ed. Andrew Blauner [NF] André Aciman, Susie Boyt, Siri Hustvedt, Rivka Galchen, and Colm Tóibín are among the 25 literary luminaries to contribute essays on Freud and his complicated legacy to this lively volume, edited by writer, editor, and literary agent Blauner. Taking tacts both personal and psychoanalytical, these essays paint a fresh, full picture of Freud's life, work, and indelible cultural impact. —SMS Another Word for Love by Carvell Wallace [NF] Wallace is one of the best journalists (and tweeters) working today, so I'm really looking forward to his debut memoir, which chronicles growing up Black and queer in America, and navigating the world through adulthood. One of the best writers working today, Kiese Laymon, calls Another Word for Love as “One of the most soulfully crafted memoirs I’ve ever read. I couldn’t figure out how Carvell Wallace blurred time, region, care, and sexuality into something so different from anything I’ve read before." —SMS The Devil's Best Trick by Randall Sullivan [NF] A cultural history interspersed with memoir and reportage, Sullivan's latest explores our ever-changing understandings of evil and the devil, from Egyptian gods and the Book of Job to the Salem witch trials and Black Mass ceremonies. Mining the work of everyone from Zoraster, Plato, and John Milton to Edgar Allen Poe, Aleister Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire, this sweeping book chronicles evil and the devil in their many forms. --SMS The Book Against Death by Elias Canetti, tr. Peter Filkins [NF] In this newly-translated collection, Nobel laureate Canetti, who once called himself death's "mortal enemy," muses on all that death inevitably touches—from the smallest ant to the Greek gods—and condemns death as a byproduct of war and despots' willingness to use death as a pathway to power. By means of this book's very publication, Canetti somewhat succeeds in staving off death himself, ensuring that his words live on forever. —DF Rise of a Killah by Ghostface Killah [NF] "Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to the Romans while Jesus slept?" Ghostface Killah has always asked the big questions. Here's another one: Who needs to read a blurb on a literary site to convince them to read Ghost's memoir? —JHM May 21 Exhibit by R.O. Kwon [F] It's been six years since Kwon's debut, The Incendiaries, hit shelves, and based on that book's flinty prose alone, her latest would be worth a read. But it's also a tale of awakening—of its protagonist's latent queerness, and of the "unquiet spirit of an ancestor," that the author herself calls so "shot through with physical longing, queer lust, and kink" that she hopes her parents will never read it. Tantalizing enough for you? —JHM Cecilia by K-Ming Chang [F] Chang, the author of Bestiary, Gods of Want, and Organ Meats, returns with this provocative and oft-surreal novella. While the story is about two childhood friends who became estranged after a bizarre sexual encounter but re-connect a decade later, it’s also an exploration of how the human body and its excretions can be both pleasurable and disgusting. —CK The Great State of West Florida by Kent Wascom [F] The Great State of West Florida is Wascom's latest gothicomic novel set on Florida's apocalyptic coast. A gritty, ominous book filled with doomed Floridians, the passages fly by with sentences that delight in propulsive excess. In the vein of Thomas McGuane's early novels or Brian De Palma's heyday, this stylized, savory, and witty novel wields pulp with care until it blooms into a new strain of American gothic. —Zachary Issenberg Cartoons by Kit Schluter [F] Bursting with Kafkaesque absurdism and a hearty dab of abstraction, Schluter’s Cartoons is an animated vignette of life's minutae. From the ravings of an existential microwave to a pencil that is afraid of paper, Schluter’s episodic outré oozes with animism and uncanniness. A grand addition to City Light’s repertoire, it will serve as a zany reminder of the lengths to which great fiction can stretch. —DF May 28 Lost Writings by Mina Loy, ed. Karla Kelsey [F] In the early 20th century, avant-garde author, visual artist, and gallerist Mina Loy (1882–1966) led an astonishing creative life amid European and American modernist circles; she satirized Futurists, participated in Surrealist performance art, and created paintings and assemblages in addition to writing about her experiences in male-dominated fields of artistic practice. Diligent feminist scholars and art historians have long insisted on her cultural significance, yet the first Loy retrospective wasn’t until 2023. Now Karla Kelsey, a poet and essayist, unveils two never-before-published, autobiographical midcentury manuscripts by Loy, The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air, written from the 1930s to the 1950s. It's never a bad time to be re-rediscovered. —NodB I'm a Fool to Want You by Camila Sosa Villada, tr. Kit Maude [F] Villada, whose debut novel Bad Girls, also translated by Maude, captured the travesti experience in Argentina, returns with a short story collection that runs the genre gamut from gritty realism and social satire to science fiction and fantasy. The throughline is Villada's boundless imagination, whether she's conjuring the chaos of the Mexican Inquisition or a trans sex worker befriending a down-and-out Billie Holiday. Angie Cruz calls this "one of my favorite short-story collections of all time." —SMS The Editor by Sara B. Franklin [NF] Franklin's tenderly written and meticulously researched biography of Judith Jones—the legendary Knopf editor who worked with such authors as John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Tyler, and, perhaps most consequentially, Julia Child—was largely inspired by Franklin's own friendship with Jones in the final years of her life, and draws on a rich trove of interviews and archives. The Editor retrieves Jones from the margins of publishing history and affirms her essential role in shaping the postwar cultural landscape, from fiction to cooking and beyond. —SMS The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth [NF] A history of the book told through 18 microbiographies of particularly noteworthy historical personages who made them? If that's not enough to convince you, consider this: the small press is represented here by Nancy Cunard, the punchy and enormously influential founder of Hours Press who romanced both Aldous Huxley and Ezra Pound, knew Hemingway and Joyce and Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams, and has her own MI5 file. Also, the subject of the binding chapter is named "William Wildgoose." —JHM June June 4 The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan [F] A gay Hungarian immigrant writing crappy monster movies in the McCarthy-era Hollywood studio system gets swept up by a famous actress and brought to her estate in Malibu to write what he really cares about—and realizes he can never escape his traumatic past. Sunset Boulevard is shaking. —JHM A Cage Went in Search of a Bird [F] This collection brings together a who's who of literary writers—10 of them, to be precise— to write Kafka fanfiction, from Joshua Cohen to Yiyun Li. Then it throws in weirdo screenwriting dynamo Charlie Kaufman, for good measure. A boon for Kafkaheads everywhere. —JHM We Refuse by Kellie Carter Jackson [NF] Jackson, a historian and professor at Wellesley College, explores the past and present of Black resistance to white supremacy, from work stoppages to armed revolt. Paying special attention to acts of resistance by Black women, Jackson attempts to correct the historical record while plotting a path forward. Jelani Cobb describes this "insurgent history" as "unsparing, erudite, and incisive." —SMS Holding It Together by Jessica Calarco [NF] Sociologist Calarco's latest considers how, in lieu of social safety nets, the U.S. has long relied on women's labor, particularly as caregivers, to hold society together. Calarco argues that while other affluent nations cover the costs of care work and direct significant resources toward welfare programs, American women continue to bear the brunt of the unpaid domestic labor that keeps the nation afloat. Anne Helen Petersen calls this "a punch in the gut and a call to action." —SMS Miss May Does Not Exist by Carrie Courogen [NF] A biography of Elaine May—what more is there to say? I cannot wait to read this chronicle of May's life, work, and genius by one of my favorite writers and tweeters. Claire Dederer calls this "the biography Elaine May deserves"—which is to say, as brilliant as she was. —SMS Fire Exit by Morgan Talty [F] Talty, whose gritty story collection Night of the Living Rez was garlanded with awards, weighs the concept of blood quantum—a measure that federally recognized tribes often use to determine Indigenous membership—in his debut novel. Although Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, his narrator is on the outside looking in, a working-class white man named Charles who grew up on Maine’s Penobscot Reservation with a Native stepfather and friends. Now Charles, across the river from the reservation and separated from his biological daughter, who lives there, ponders his exclusion in a novel that stokes controversy around the terms of belonging. —NodB June 11 The Material by Camille Bordas [F] My high school English teacher, a somewhat dowdy but slyly comical religious brother, had a saying about teaching high school students: "They don't remember the material, but they remember the shtick." Leave it to a well-named novel about stand-up comedy (by the French author of How to Behave in a Crowd) to make you remember both. --SMS Ask Me Again by Clare Sestanovich [F] Sestanovich follows up her debut story collection, Objects of Desire, with a novel exploring a complicated friendship over the years. While Eva and Jamie are seemingly opposites—she's a reserved South Brooklynite, while he's a brash Upper Manhattanite—they bond over their innate curiosity. Their paths ultimately diverge when Eva settles into a conventional career as Jamie channels his rebelliousness into politics. Ask Me Again speaks to anyone who has ever wondered whether going against the grain is in itself a matter of privilege. Jenny Offill calls this "a beautifully observed and deeply philosophical novel, which surprises and delights at every turn." —LA Disordered Attention by Claire Bishop [NF] Across four essays, art historian and critic Bishop diagnoses how digital technology and the attention economy have changed the way we look at art and performance today, identifying trends across the last three decades. A perfect read for fans of Anna Kornbluh's Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (also from Verso). War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, tr. Charlotte Mandell [F] For years, literary scholars mourned the lost manuscripts of Céline, the acclaimed and reviled French author whose work was stolen from his Paris apartment after he fled to Germany in 1944, fearing punishment for his collaboration with the Nazis. But, with the recent discovery of those fabled manuscripts, War is now seeing the light of day thanks to New Directions (for anglophone readers, at least—the French have enjoyed this one since 2022 courtesy of Gallimard). Adam Gopnik writes of War, "A more intense realization of the horrors of the Great War has never been written." —DF The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater [NF] In his debut memoir, Leadbeater revisits the decade he spent working as Joan Didion's personal assistant. While he enjoyed the benefits of working with Didion—her friendship and mentorship, the more glamorous appointments on her social calendar—he was also struggling with depression, addiction, and profound loss. Leadbeater chronicles it all in what Chloé Cooper Jones calls "a beautiful catalog of twin yearnings: to be seen and to disappear; to belong everywhere and nowhere; to go forth and to return home, and—above all else—to love and to be loved." —SMS Out of the Sierra by Victoria Blanco [NF] Blanco weaves storytelling with old-fashioned investigative journalism to spotlight the endurance of Mexico's Rarámuri people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in North America, in the face of environmental disasters, poverty, and the attempts to erase their language and culture. This is an important book for our times, dealing with pressing issues such as colonialism, migration, climate change, and the broken justice system. —CK Any Person Is the Only Self by Elisa Gabbert [NF] Gabbert is one of my favorite living writers, whether she's deconstructing a poem or tweeting about Seinfeld. Her essays are what I love most, and her newest collection—following 2020's The Unreality of Memory—sees Gabbert in rare form: witty and insightful, clear-eyed and candid. I adored these essays, and I hope (the inevitable success of) this book might augur something an essay-collection renaissance. (Seriously! Publishers! Where are the essay collections!) —SMS Tehrangeles by Porochista Khakpour [F] Khakpour's wit has always been keen, and it's hard to imagine a writer better positioned to take the concept of Shahs of Sunset and make it literary. "Like Little Women on an ayahuasca trip," says Kevin Kwan, "Tehrangeles is delightfully twisted and heartfelt."  —JHM Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell by Ann Powers [NF] The moment I saw this book's title—which comes from the opening (and, as it happens, my favorite) track on Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece Blue—I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. Powers, one of the very best music critics we've got, masterfully guides readers through Mitchell's life and work at a fascinating slant, her approach both sweeping and intimate as she occupies the dual roles of biographer and fan. —SMS All Desire Is a Desire for Being by René Girard, ed. Cynthia L. Haven [NF] I'll be honest—the title alone stirs something primal in me. In honor of Girard's centennial, Penguin Classics is releasing a smartly curated collection of his most poignant—and timely—essays, touching on everything from violence to religion to the nature of desire. Comprising essays selected by the scholar and literary critic Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of the first-ever biographical study of Girard, Evolution of Desire, this book is "essential reading for Girard devotees and a perfect entrée for newcomers," per Maria Stepanova. —DF June 18 Craft by Ananda Lima [F] Can you imagine a situation in which interconnected stories about a writer who sleeps with the devil at a Halloween party and can't shake him over the following decades wouldn't compel? Also, in one of the stories, New York City’s Penn Station is an analogue for hell, which is both funny and accurate. —JHM Parade by Rachel Cusk [F] Rachel Cusk has a new novel, her first in three years—the anticipation is self-explanatory. —SMS Little Rot by Akwaeke Emezi [F] Multimedia polymath and gender-norm disrupter Emezi, who just dropped an Afropop EP under the name Akwaeke, examines taboo and trauma in their creative work. This literary thriller opens with an upscale sex party and escalating violence, and although pre-pub descriptions leave much to the imagination (promising “the elite underbelly of a Nigerian city” and “a tangled web of sex and lies and corruption”), Emezi can be counted upon for an ambience of dread and a feverish momentum. —NodB When the Clock Broke by John Ganz [NF] I was having a conversation with multiple brilliant, thoughtful friends the other day, and none of them remembered the year during which the Battle of Waterloo took place. Which is to say that, as a rule, we should all learn our history better. So it behooves us now to listen to John Ganz when he tells us that all the wackadoodle fascist right-wing nonsense we can't seem to shake from our political system has been kicking around since at least the early 1990s. —JHM Night Flyer by Tiya Miles [NF] Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot, as evidenced by her National Book Award–winning book All That She Carried. Her latest is a reckoning with the life and legend of Harriet Tubman, which Miles herself describes as an "impressionistic biography." As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject. Tubman biographer Catherine Clinton says Miles "continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life." —SMS God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer by Joseph Earl Thomas [F] Thomas's debut novel comes just two years after a powerful memoir of growing up Black, gay, nerdy, and in poverty in 1990s Philadelphia. Here, he returns to themes and settings that in that book, Sink, proved devastating, and throws post-service military trauma into the mix. —JHM June 25 The Garden Against Time by Olivia Laing [NF] I've been a fan of Laing's since The Lonely City, a formative read for a much-younger me (and I'd suspect for many Millions readers), so I'm looking forward to her latest, an inquiry into paradise refracted through the experience of restoring an 18th-century garden at her home the English countryside. As always, her life becomes a springboard for exploring big, thorny ideas (no pun intended)—in this case, the possibilities of gardens and what it means to make paradise on earth. —SMS Cue the Sun! by Emily Nussbaum [NF] Emily Nussbaum is pretty much the reason I started writing. Her 2019 collection of television criticism, I Like to Watch, was something of a Bible for college-aged me (and, in fact, was the first book I ever reviewed), and I've been anxiously awaiting her next book ever since. It's finally arrived, in the form of an utterly devourable cultural history of reality TV. Samantha Irby says, "Only Emily Nussbaum could get me to read, and love, a book about reality TV rather than just watching it," and David Grann remarks, "It’s rare for a book to feel alive, but this one does." —SMS Woman of Interest by Tracy O'Neill [NF] O’Neill's first work of nonfiction—an intimate memoir written with the narrative propulsion of a detective novel—finds her on the hunt for her biological mother, who she worries might be dying somewhere in South Korea. As she uncovers the truth about her enigmatic mother with the help of a private investigator, her journey increasingly becomes one of self-discovery. Chloé Cooper Jones writes that Woman of Interest “solidifies her status as one of our greatest living prose stylists.” —LA Dancing on My Own by Simon Wu [NF] New Yorkers reading this list may have witnessed Wu's artful curation at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Whitney, or the Museum of Modern Art. It makes one wonder how much he curated the order of these excellent, wide-ranging essays, which meld art criticism, personal narrative, and travel writing—and count Cathy Park Hong and Claudia Rankine as fans. —JHM [millions_email]

Read More Puritan Poetry

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"I am drawn, in pieties that seem/the weary drizzle of an unremembered dream."—John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) At the height of their dominance, the North American mastodon traversed from the Arctic Circle to as far south as Costa Rica, going extinct during the Pleistocene about 11 millennia ago. With an average height of 14 feet and a weight of around eight tons, the pachyderm foraged throughout the frozen American forest for millions of years; white tusk glinting in moonlight, coarse brown hair hanging in ragged clumps from massive haunches, trumpeting trunk echoing in Yosemite, the Berkshires, the Adirondacks. Sometime in the last 20, or 30, or 40 thousand years, one of these mammoths perished in those virgin woods near what would be Claverack, N.Y., her body covered over in rich soil and her bones transmuted into fossils. Above her decaying corpse the glaciers would recede, then the ancestors of the Mahican would arrive, after them came the Dutch, and finally the English. A Knickerbocker whose name is lost to posterity was digging in a marsh by the Hudson in 1705 when he unearthed a five-pound honey-comb ribbed bright-enameled ivory molar. On July 23, the Boston News Letter printed report of a "great prodigious Tooth brought here, supposed by the shape of it to be one of the far great Teeth of a man." Some of those who were enslaved, recalling their lives in Africa, remarked that the tooth looked similar to that of an elephant, but those observations were dismissed. Edward Hyde, the infamous cross-dressing 3rd Earl of Clarendon and Governor of New York and New Jersey, had the molar dispatched to the Royal Society in London, with his own evaluation being that it was from some Antediluvian monstrosity, possibly the Nephilim spoken of in Genesis, the giant progeny of fallen angels and loose women. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather came to the same conclusion, citing the teeth in his Biblia Americana as evidence of the flood. And in Westfield, Mass., a minister named Edward Taylor wrote a poem about the gargantuan teeth. A private man, Taylor was taken to penning verse entirely for himself, and in the molar he saw a muse, writing 190 verses about how it evidenced the glory of God. "This Gyants bulk propounded to our Eyes/Reason lays down nigh t'seventy foot did rise/In height, whose body holding just proportion/Grew more than 7 yards round by Natures motion." Taylor recorded his epic in a commonplace book of some 400 pages, which included lyrics that would eventually be regarded as the greatest of early American verse, described by Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets as a "strange voice, new and yet with old and tested tonalities," sealed away in a leather-bound volume donated by his family to Yale's Beinecke Library and fossilizing on some shelf until discovered in 1937, like an ivory tooth sifted from the silt. After Professor Thomas H. Johnson’s uncovering of Taylor's poetry, some of the lyrics would be printed in The New England Quarterly, and just as a mammoth tooth had charged imaginations in the early 18th century, so would scholars construct grandiose interpretations of the significance of this yeoman farmer, Paracelsian physician, Congregationalist minister, and religious poet. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark van Doren pronounced Taylor the author of the "most interesting American verse before the 19th century," and critics quickly heralded this forgotten writer who had prohibited the publication of his work during his lifetime as the equivalent of the Spanish Baroque poets who were his contemporaries in Mexico City, or as a frontier George Herbert or John Donne, who doesn't just make "one little room an everywhere" but who counts out iambs and trochees while splitting wood on his homestead, plumbing metaphysical poetry's intricacies while braving Nor'easters and fortifying his town's defenses during King Philip’s War. Whether or not Taylor was the equivalent of Donne (he wasn't), the poet crafted some brilliant and beautiful poems, with Werner Sollors writing in his contribution to the Greil Marcus edited New Literary History of America that the minister was a "tinkerer, risk taker, language explorer, multilingual punster, lover of metaphors, and coiner of strange images, a trained rhetorician skeptical of eloquence, a divine with an odd sense of humor, an isolated frontier poet striving for new ways of expressing." Hyde and Mather looked at a mammoth tooth and saw a giant; Johnson and van Doren read Taylor's Preparatory Meditations and God's Interpretations and detected the greatest American poet until Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. What the truth was, in both cases, happened to be different, but no less wondrous because of it. The strange epic inspired by the mastodon tooth wasn't included in Johnson's first edition of the Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, perhaps a bit too eccentric for the New Critics of the day, but the lyrics that made the cut were lauded as among the finest of the 17th century. "Am I new minted by thy Stamp indeed?" Taylor addresses God, writing that "Mine Eyes are dim; I cannot clearly see./Be thou my Spectacles that I may read/Thine Image and inscription stampt on me." Editor of The Poems of Edward Taylor, Donald E. Stanford, snarks that the "puritan tendency to invest all aspects of life with religious meaning had a profound and often unfortunate effect on Taylor's choice of images… [he] had little concern with incongruous connotations. He saw resemblances rather than differences," and yet I'd argue the source of his genius is simile. Taylor has a wit and a metaphorical cleverness that's indicative of conceit; configuring himself as a book stamped with register's approval and God as a pair of glasses is certainly clever. In such a comparison, one sees love as a compass or conjugal pleasure in a flea. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are simple but they're not rustic. Some critics claimed to see in Taylor crypto-Catholicism (inaccurate), or his verse as prefiguring Ralph Waldo Emerson or Gerard Manley Hopkins (fairer). Such claims dehistoricize Taylor, who though a brilliant poet was an orthodox Puritan, concerned more with the Half-Way Covenant than what it meant to be an American poet, much less an American (he was English, after all). During graduate school, I would read fat anthologies of early American verse filled with names that are forgotten. David S. Shields’s beautiful Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries with its bible paper and black ribbon bookmark; Harrison T. Meserole’s slightly gothic purple covered American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, and Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritans in America: A Narrative History, its cover adorned with a ghostly close-up of the woodcut engraved shortly after Richard Mather landed in Massachusetts, depicting his disembodied hands and glasses. During dusk, the sunlight would filter through the canopy of trees that looked over my 19th-century apartment's communal courtyard— which was rounded on two sides by kudzu covered hills and the building behind me, a rickety wooden fence separating me from the railroad tracks and the Lehigh River beyond—and with the sound of crickets and the occasional blare of a train whistle as the bestial metal monstrosity lumbered past, I'd read. Poems like John Wilson’s "To God our twice-Revenger," Edward Johnson’s "New England's Annoyances," Urian Oakes’s "An Elegie Upon that Reverend, Learned, Eminently Pious, and Singularly Accomplished Divine, my Ever Honoured Brother, Mr. Thomas Shepherd," Nathaniel Evans’s "To Benjamin Franklin Esq: L.L.D., Occasioned by hearing him play on the Harmonica," and of course Ned Botwood’s "Hot Stuff." Sometimes I'd sojourn to Bethlehem's northside where 18th-century dormitories of the German-speaking Moravians still stand, walking through a cemetery of flat gravestones down a lonely red-brick path to sit on a bench behind the federal-style church, perusing my collections of forgotten poetry. What I'm saying is that, as with all reading experiences, the atmosphere of where you first encounter early American poetry can make a difference, can add a romance. The early Americans whom we've enlisted in our national story were abundantly and irrevocably different from us. Their concerns were not our concerns, their lives were unfathomable. They were not better than us —often they were clearly far worse (and yes, sometimes they were noble, or steadfast, or loyal). Taylor's obsession with whether he was worthy of administering communion speaks little to secular people. Cracking the spine of one of those anthologies was a way of being with folks whose views were divergent from mine, whose beliefs I sometimes find abhorrent. They would recognize me at best as an apostate and at worst as a papist heretic. I respected them. Sometimes I even liked them. "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome," wrote Anne Bradstreet in her 1664 Meditations Divine and Moral, as Yankee a sentence as has ever been written, and true, I think, even as the winters get shorter and warmer. Coming to love Puritan poetry is an odd aesthetic journey, for poets like Taylor are not easy. It's the sort of thing you expect people partial to bowties and gin gimlets to get involved with. Perhaps that's how one Ipswich realtor read my wife and me, back when we lived north of Boston and with mortgage dreams of millennial wanderlust we toured a 17th-century house just to see how wooden shoe people lived. When the agent discovered my job, I detected his misguided sense of luck, and he told me that just the previous autumn he'd sold "Mistress Bradstreet's house," pointing toward a wooden-planked salt-box across the road. Latter, when I examined the brass plaque affixed to the side, I discovered that he was telling the truth.   Seventeenth-century America had no Donne. There was no Shakespeare or Jonson or Milton in Boston or Philadelphia or New Amsterdam. Still, something about the mistiness of the period, the distance and oddity of these people who were ministers and physicians and the enslaved who wrote verse moved me, as if putting on a pair of divine glasses to read something intrinsic stamped on the soul. Taylor and his mirror of infinity, Bradstreet on hardship and duty, Michael Wigglesworth’s meditations on sin, and dozens of others who if they didn't rise to the heights of the country they left still struck me as beautiful because they were so enigmatic—not because of any perceived universalism, but precisely because they were so unlike us, unlike me. That is, I suppose, a reason to read early American poetry. Not because it's a mirror, but rather a window of fogged, dimpled, rough-blown glass. Too often the justification of engaging with centuries-old literature is because readers will see themselves reflected in those works, but if you want to see yourself go on Twitter. If you want to spend time with something alien, foreign, strange, and odd, read early American poetry.   Preparatory Meditations is an odd book because it wasn't written for consumption, at least not by human eyes. The poet had no concern of readers, or critics, or scholars; Taylor's verse was the most pure that there can be, written for him and Him alone. The work's title refers to the purpose that those lyrics served, to prepare for administering the sacrament of communion (that perseveration being a reason why he was misinterpreted as secretly sympathetic to Catholicism, which he adamantly wasn't). Today such a poet would be seen as an oddball eccentric, an outsider. By contrast, Taylor wasn't just a respected minister, his family was so esteemed that his grandson became president of Yale. Which speaks to the alterity of Puritan poetry—it's very reasoning is countercultural. "Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,/Which from his Table came, and to thine goeth?" Taylor writes. "Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take/And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake." Christianity is so obvious in Taylor's verse that it demonstrates how secular our current age is (especially among Christians). To read Taylor is to be in the presence of somebody with a gem-like intensity, a flame as much as a man, and unless you're a very particular type of person, he is most likely somebody who is little like you. And his poetry can be beautiful. Though Taylor couldn't have thought of himself as an American in the sense that citizens of the United States do, I think it's helpful to countenance that fiction, in part because I find that myth as instructive in and of itself. "Infinity, when all things it beheld/In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,/Upon what Base was fixt the Lath wherein/He turn'd this Globe, and rigalld it so trim?" wrote Taylor. Hemispheric turning and building an everything from nothing, not dissimilar to inventing the idea of America, a fictional domain that's its own type of heretical divinity. No period of American literary history raises the question of what an American is more than our earliest poetry, which during the twilight of empire becomes an ever more urgent query. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury note in their study From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature that "more than most literatures, American literary history is frequently dominated by the interpretations modern writers make of their predecessors," good enough justification at midnight to go back to sunrise. That's not to mention the other reasons to contemplate such verse—that it's often beautiful and almost always deeply weird. At the time of Taylor's rediscovery, the nascent field of American Studies was constructing a new understanding of what this nation meant, and in part that involved retroactively reading events in the 16th through the 18th centuries as prophetically pointing towards the United States, the sort of typology practiced by Puritans when they read the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowing Christ. Ruland and Bradbury write that "any discussion of American literature draws on long-standing speculation… shaped by large questions about the nature of American experience, the American land and landscape, American national identity and the nature of language and expression in the presumed 'New World.'" That's all fantasy of course, albeit useful fantasy. For those constructing a new canon nearly a century ago, these early authors became an invaluable argument for the nation's singular literary origins. William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature that the "reigning theory of American literature as an independent, autochthonous, unique collection of writings with a history of its own appears to be little more than a political fiction" whereby "American literature comes from a certain place" rather than being written in a particular language (namely English).   Such an "ambiguous literary status," writes Spengemann, is due to thinking of writers like Taylor as "American rather than as English, as a primitive phase in the evolution of a truly 'American' literature that would not arrive until a century or two later." Johnson and van Doren saw a giant, when really Taylor was a mammoth (but being a mammoth is good enough). What's fascinating to me about early American literature, if we acknowledge Spengemann's point while turning him on his head, is that works from that gloaming period makes us question what "America" means, that word that after all should be applied to a whole hemisphere and not just 13 British colonies (of 38 that were part of British North America in 1775). American literature is marked by an obsession with defining itself, because in every way that matters, "America" has never actually been a place so much as a variable, contradictory, and difficult idea. From the Aleutian Islands to Tierra del Fuego, both continents of this hemisphere have been endowed with millennial, utopian, and Edenic associations. The Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552 that the "discovery" of America was the "greatest event since the creation of the world" (he made an exception for the incarnation and the crucifixion), while in his India Christiana of 1721 Mather would apocalyptically write "we have now seen the Sun rising in the West." To read American literature then—but especially early American literature—is to read letters from an imaginary realm. From beginnings to endings, Genesis to Revelation, to be an inhabitant of the more than16 million square miles of the New World is to be the citizen of a myth. Who knows if that's how Bradstreet felt as she approached Boston Harbor aboard the Arbella in 1630, among the first of the Puritans to follow the Pilgrims who'd arrived in Massachusetts a decade earlier. "I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose," Bradstreet recalled, "But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church." In her father's spacious library in Northampton, England, she studied the verse of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas and the once-popular Englishman Joshua Sylvester. In America, Bradstreet raised six children in Cambridge. During all this time she wrote poetry. While darning her husband's socks, she wrote poetry. When preparing cornmeal johnny cakes for her children, she wrote poetry. When scrubbing rough wooden floors held together with iron joists, she wrote poetry. When cleaning clothes with burning lye, she wrote poetry. When breastfeeding her babies, bathing her daughters and sons, and burying her children—Bradstreet wrote poetry. Apocryphally it was the Rev. John Woodbridge who filched her verse to London in 1650, where without her knowledge it was published with the grandiose title The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. She was lauded as a brilliant voice, the first sapling of American verse to grow from the stony soil of New England. Much of her poetry, written when she was younger, is inspired by the historical, theological, philosophical, and natural interests of DuBartas and Sylvester, Bradstreet penning miniature epics known as the "Quaternions" about subjects as varied as the seasons or the four providential kingdoms of eschatology. Her poetry that is most remembered, however, is that which is sometimes called "domestic," whether because it conforms to our understanding of what a woman's verse should sound like or because it's far more moving to contemporary readers (in a manner that Taylor isn't). "I wakened with thundering noise/And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice./That fearful sound of 'Fire,'" Bradstreet wrote in a 1666 poem about the accidental burning of her Cambridge house. "When by the ruins oft I passed/My sorrowing eyes aside did cast/And here and there the places spy/Where oft I sat and long did lie." Bradstreet attributes the burning to divine providence, though she doesn’t let the reader forget what it would mean to see the place where you raised your children, loved your spouse, and wrote your verse, burnt to ash. Today the site houses a Starbucks and a CVS, across the street from the legendary Harvard Square newsstand. Part of my attraction to early American poetry, long before I ever lived in Massachusetts, was the charged aura its presence seems to leave behind. Mistress Bradstreet isn't there anymore, but I spent hours reading her poetry where her house used to be, drinking a venti black dark roast. That presumed familiarity can be misleading though, as we try to transform those whom we love into images of ourselves. A detriment and fallacy in contemporary critical thinking is often to refuse taking those in the past on their own terms, to torture them into the Procrustean bed of whatever we believe so that they become ethically more palatable. Not that we shouldn't condemn them when they deserve it, but intentionally misreading them doesn't do justice for them or us either. Emory Elliot writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature that the "advocates of Anne Bradstreet continue to construct an image of her as a cultural rebel who produced poetry in spite of the religious and social forces against her as a woman and a Puritan," while Heimert and Delbanco explain how some see her as a subversive celebrating "things of this world, rhyming out a pagan heat in forced solitude." All of it reminds me of a panel I attended at a conference that was titled something like "Queer Bradstreet," and one of the presenters rather honestly admitted that as much as they wished there was something subversive, radical, or transgressive in her poetry, there simply wasn't. "If ever two were one, then surely we," wrote Bradstreet to her husband, a sometimes governor of Massachusetts, "If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;/If ever wife was happy in a man,/Come with me ye women if you can." Perhaps one can engage with this in a hermeneutic of suspicion, reading against the grain, searching for signs of duress. Certainly that's sometimes the case with poetry. And yet it also does a disservice not to take Bradstreet at her word—not that we should want to emulate the Puritans, not that we don't see what was stifling, zealous, or constricting about their world (though we'd do better to note those instances in our own) but that we show her the respect to acknowledge her humanity, as distant as her time may have been. Anne Bradstreet was Anne Bradstreet, and that was more than enough. Bradstreet and Taylor are the most frequently taught and anthologized of American poets from that vast hinterland of years before the 19th century, since as even Meserole admits "time and circumstance have been unkind to the poetry of this era." They're the most read because, if you'll forgive the simplicity here, they're the best. Dismissing the rest would be a mistake, though. Rhymes are often rough, meters awkward, and Christ knows the themes can be didactic, but to reduce such verse to mere "historical evidence" is to ignore the fact that idiosyncrasy and temporal distance are their own literary affects. Nobody would ever mistake Michael Wigglesworth with Milton, even while he was the author of per capita the single most popular book in American history, the apocalyptic epic poem The Day of Doom. A kind person might surmise that Wigglesworth's name sounding like a character from a British children's television show is some part in why it's hard to take him seriously, and yet the poetry speaks for itself in that regard, for as Bradbury and Ruland conclude, his writing "was not, admittedly, a joyous read." A minister at First Parish in Malden, Wigglesworth was tortured by nocturnal emissions, and believed that his depravity made him incapable of preaching the word of God. He resigned, and the subsequent minister embezzled church funds, so the congregation begged Wigglesworth to return, which he reluctantly did. Almost too spot-on as a parody of the black-clad, dour, humorless and abnegating Puritan, Wigglesworth haunted by his own dirty thoughts and semen. Elliot writes that "Puritan doctrines may have led to self-destructive repression and even depression," which seems clear, but in losing sight of the fact that Wigglesworth was a suffering neurotic, we harden our hearts. And yet the sheer popularity of The Day of Doom speaks to why we should pay attention to Wigglesworth, pages worn to gossamer thinness and ink smudged from fingers periodically licked to turn those pages, binding loose and covers missing. Virtually no copies of The Day of Doom's first edition survive because the book was literally loved to death.  "Still was the night, Serene & Bright,/when all Men sleeping lay;/Calm was the season, & carnal reason/though so 'twould last for ay." Wigglesworth's ballad meter gallops along, giving a poem about the apocalypse a juvenile feel, something almost ironic or even kitsch. If anything it makes the verse more ominous. "For at midnight brake forth a Light,/which turn'd the night to day,/And speedily a hideous cry/did all the world dismay." If we are residents of the United States of Apocalypse, Americans forever obsessed with our dramatic collective leave of this world, than Wigglesworth was the first consummate master of Armageddon, writing a poem that with eerie prescience seems to almost describe a nuclear explosion. Inevitably the Puritans spoke an idiom that was violent, even if they themselves wouldn't have necessarily thought of it that way. Paradise was lost before William Bradford’s slipper ever hit Plymouth Rock, and yet the gleeful despoiling of a land that they thought was virginal speaks to a collective rapaciousness that still slinks its way across our culture. For that reason, and that reason alone, it would be worth it to pay attention to those earliest indications of what this land is, as in their own bloody conflicts they forced themselves into a new type of human being known as the "American." Benjamin Tompson, the first English-language poet to actually be born in America, writes of the colonists' adversaries in New-England's Tears, his 1676 epic about the hideous violence of King Philip's War, that they should be "besmeared with Christian blood & oiled/With fat out of white human bodies boiled./Draw them with clubs like mauls & full of stains,/Luke Vulcans anvilling New England's brains."    Important to observe that this generation of New Englanders were the first who self-described themselves as Americans even while they continued to eliminate the original Americans. It's what's disturbing about reading early American poetry—those authors may have configured themselves as new Adams in Eden, but none of them were innocent. More than Atlantis, the Hesperides, or Utopia, America was a blood-soaked, skull-bedecked howling wilderness, and the Puritans were aware of that contradiction (if less confessional in their role in making it that way). "The Puritan imagination… was central to the nature of American writing," write Ruland and Bradbury, in a way that wasn't the case in other colonies whose great literatures—often far more accomplished than what was being produced in Boston—were extensions of national literatures in Spain or Portugal. They write that the Puritans brought to the New World a sense of " millenarian promise— the 'American dream' that is still recalled in so much modern literature." As crafters of an idea, the Puritans saw themselves as entering into a covenant, where to be an American was to ascent to a particular creed more than it was anything else. But at what price is that dream purchased, especially to acquire the deed to a cursed house that has yet to be built? American literature is always haunted—by a place that never really existed, and the innumerable dead whom we murdered in the land that really did. America is a Faustian bargain.   Now that the sun really does seem to be rising in the West—hard yet to tell whether it's a mushroom cloud or a California wild fire on that horizon—there is something essential about returning to when those myths were crafted, when the fresh green breast of the New World was first espied, or at least invented. Could it have been any different? And what voices do we refuse to hear when we listen to only these? I think about the earliest verse believed to have been written in English in the New World, penned by the notorious libertine Thomas Morton who established his own ecumenical, interracial, non-conformist, and neo-pagan colony known as Merrymount on the site of present-day Quincy, Mass. During their Mayday revels, when Morton invited the Native Americans to Merrymount to celebrate the forging of his new country, he affixed to the Maypole two hermetic, occult, and bizarre poems, but they are lyrics that predate Taylor, Bradstreet, and Wigglesworth by decades. "Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;/Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;/So to the Hymen, now the day is come,/About the merry Maypole take a room," Morton records in New English Canaan, the account of his brief carnivalesque experiment before the Puritans cut down the Maypole, arrested and then expelled Merrymount's leader. The other lyric is all the more mysterious, in keeping with Morton's boast that it was “enigmatically composed… [and] puzzled the Separatists’ most pitifully to expound it.” The author gleefully supplies a gloss of “The Poem,” mocking Plymouth dunderheadedness, but even so the reader might have trouble making sense of such lines as “What meads Caribdis underneath the mold, / When Scilla solitary on the ground / (Sitting in form of Niobe,) was found,” continuing that "the Seas were found/So full of Protean forms that the bold shore/Presented Scilla a new paramour/So strong as Sampson and so patient/As Job himself, directed thus, by fate,/To comfort Scilla so unfortunate." Jack Dempsey gives an enigmatic reading in Early American Literature, arguing that such verse addressed “the most catastrophic human event in seventeenth-century New England: the ’Great Mortality’… [which] between 1616 and 1619 killed as many as ninety percent of an estimated 90,000-135,000 Native Americans inhabiting land from Maine to Connecticut.” The critic claims that Morton is honoring the cemetery upon which his experiment was being enacted, writing that the poem “invokes three famous healers for the world of human troubles it describes”—Oedipus, Proteus, and Asklepios—as well as the pain of the biblical character Job. “Morton’s Oedipus seems called upon to read a riddle concerning epidemic," writes Dempsey, so that his verse could function as a “'comfort,’ if not exactly a cure, for the ‘sick.'" Odd to think about that Maypole today, gnarled tree stripped of bark, two pages of verse nailed to its side, the whole thing crowned with a set of stag antlers. During our own season of pandemic, undoubtedly more than a million Americans already dead, it's a duty to recall the smallpox horror that killed those who lived here before. Our time feels as apocalypse, theirs was. Morton's verse does nothing to resurrect them—he doesn't even name them—but he acknowledges them. He mourns them. That, maybe even more than Merrymount, gestures towards an America-that-could-have-been. Puritan poetry is a verse of the frigid strand and cold shoals, leafless trees whose spindly branches frame a gray sky and of perennial drizzle in an overgrown marsh, of slate gravestones with winged skulls and austere white churches ringed with a foreboding wilderness—solemn, gothic, macabre. I love it in spite of itself, but I mourn for all of the poems too muffled for me to listen. Returning to such verse, I try to make out the sound of that other America, and I wonder if it's possible to hear what future poems may sound like, if there are future poems, lest we get buried in the silt like Pleistocene monsters forgotten beneath the earth. [millions_email] Image Credit: Wikipedia.