There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

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You Can’t Stop Mourning: Featured Poetry by Morgan Parker

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Morgan Parker from her new book, Magical Negro. Parker’s previous book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, ends with the unpunctuated line “Why do you get up in the morning”—and Magical Negro offers playful and powerful answers. This ekphrastic piece follows conceptual artist Adrian Piper, whose “Everything” series pivoted from the poem’s enigmatic title. “Here are some ways in which,” Parker writes, “you are not free.” Her truncated lines often drift into our chests: we’ve been spoken to, and we want to hear more.

“Everything Will Be Taken Away      after Adrian Piper”
You can’t stop mourningeverything all the time.
The ’90s, the black Maxima with a tail,CD wrappers, proximity to the earth. 
Glamour and sweating in your sheets.Speaking tongues. Men, even. 
You are a woman nowbut you have always had skin.
Here are some ways in whichyou are not free: the interiors
are all wrong, you are a droughtsprawling. When you see god
you don’t like what you see.It is never enough to be born
again and again.
You like it at church whenstrangers hold your hand.
You have a mouth men bless.You look good enough to bury.

From Magical Negro. Reprinted with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Morgan Parker.

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

This year was a year of catch-up reading: I found myself busy with books that I really should have read years ago. But without a doubt, when it comes to adventures in gorgeous and transformative literature, better (much better) late than never.

Top of my list is Fools by Joan Silber. Silber’s first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway in 1980, but I—many of us younger writers, I think—didn’t come to know her work until Ideas of Heaven, her fifth book and a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. The “ring of stories” form rocked my world back then, and Silber’s ability to inhabit first-person narrators of such widely diverging identities, time periods, and voices was a revelation. With Fools, that same form, now sometimes referred to as a “story cycle,” is intricately crafted, and the stories are arguably even more satisfyingly, thematically linked (When is it wise—or not—to be a fool for something?).

For me though, what caused a Silber-reading marathon (Household Words, The Size of the World, Improvement, Lucky Us) is the wisdom embedded in each story, each character’s journey: These are stories about—simply put—the deep and wide messiness of a life’s arc. People are complicated, and life happens to us and at us more than we ever hope/imagine when we set out as young people. There are no cheap seats in life, and even so, it’s all meaningful, and it matters, and those are the echoes I most want vibrating in me when I put down a book.

Two short novels that seem to me under-read specifically because they were ahead of their time: Ed Lin’s Waylaid and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In the department of literature by and about people of color, the challenges and pitfalls are too often framed in terms of the either/or versus both/and conundrum: Is the book primarily “about race/racial identity” or about human beings living whole human lives inside their skin in a specific American setting? Both these novels so clearly do not concern themselves with this artificial question.

Beale Street, published in 1974, is a love story: Tish and Fonny are a young woman and man whose circumstances and racial identities make it extremely difficult for them to live happily ever after, and the journey toward that possibility is entangling and profound, much larger than just the two of them.

Waylaid (2002) takes place in the ’80s and features a 12-year-old Chinese-American, male protagonist who lives in and manages his parents’ seedy motel on the Jersey Shore: His first and ostensible problem is that he desperately needs to get laid, but really he’s figuring out how—as a big-for-his-age, smart, horny kid and the only Asian-American kid around—he’s going to grow into a manhood that is his own and find hope in humanity while surrounded by sad, lonely adults (his immigrant parents included). Both Waylaid and Beale Street render powerfully this truth: For people of color, racism is everyone else’s problem; we are just trying to live the fully human lives we are entitled to. The freedom to write character-driven stories that engage racial experience as essential but not essentializing may seem basic to us now, but as an Asian American writer-friend said to me recently about Waylaid: “No one was writing Asian Americans like that back then.” And the same could be said about Baldwin/Beale Street in the ’70s. (Note: I’m mad excited about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation, but I also encourage all to read the book first if you can!)

I’ll close with two poetry collections—The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. I tend to read poetry in a more sensory than cerebral way and am not very good at writing “about” poems or poetry collections. So I’ll just say that both these are provocatively and aptly titled and hope you’ll be thus compelled to immerse mind and senses in the work of these fierce, gifted poets.

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A Year in Reading: Kaveh Akbar

It’s been a long 2017. So much of being a poet as I understand it is about maintaining a permeability to wonder, and that’s been difficult work in a year spent in the long shadow of a fascistic regime, a year in which the earth has grown increasingly desperate in its attempts to warn us about the damage we’re doing to it.

The (perhaps feeble ((but noble))) balm—a year of books, richer than any I can recall. It’s like the world of poetry knew we’d need it to rise up and carry us, to orient us toward our livable tomorrows. Poets are watchers, wonderers. And they have the magical ability to make us realer than we can make ourselves. Elizabeth Alexander writes: “We are of interest to one another, are we not?” I like thinking of poems as little empathy tablets, granting us access to (and compassion for) lived experiences unlike any we’ll ever know firsthand.

Here are some new books (mostly poetry, listed in no particular order) from the past year that have helped me wander and wonder from one day into the next:

Frank Bidart – Half-Light

Anaïs Duplan – Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus

Marwa Helal – I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return

Traci Brimhall – Saudade

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas

Rachel McKibbens – blud

Sahar Muradi – [Gates]

Steph Burt – Advice from the Lights

Maggie Smith – Good Bones

Cait Weiss Orcutt – Valleyspeak

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Nicole Tong – How to Prove a Theory

Craig Morgan Teicher – The Trembling Answers

Nicole Sealey – Ordinary Beast

Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead

sam sax – Madness

Javier Zamora – Unaccompanied

Marcus Wicker – Silencer

Alex Dimitrov – Together and By Ourselves

Ruth Awad – Set to Music a Wildfire

Bill Knott – Selected Poems

William Brewer – I Know Your Kind

Morgan Parker – There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé

Carl Phillips – Wild Is the Wind

Marie Howe – Magdalene

Ghayath Almadhoun – Adrenalin

Patricia Smith – Incendiary Arts

Tyree Daye – River Hymns

Gabrielle Calvocoressi – Rocket Fantastic

Mai Der Vang – Afterland

Sarah Browning – Killing Summer

Alessandra Lynch – Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment

Chen Chen – When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities

Adrian Matejka – Map to the Stars

Finn Menzies – Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn

Eve L. Ewing – Electric Arches

Shane McCrae – In the Language of My Captor

Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah) – The Silence that Remains

Franny Choi – Death By Sex Machine

Laura Kasischke – Where Now: New and Selected Poems

Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation

Megan Stielstra – The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

Hanif Abdurraqib – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Melissa Febos – Abandon Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power

Alissa Nutting – Made for Love

Roxane Gay – Hunger

Kevin Young – Bunk

Wendy Xu – Phrasis

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Gabe Habash

Due to unremarkable, inevitable, and momentous circumstances, I didn’t read as much this year as I would’ve liked. Many distractions were bad, but some were good. My wife published her first novel. Twin Peaks, the best television show of all time, came back and somehow got even better. I played a lot of Zelda and Super Nintendo. But, like every other year, the books I loved were great company. Here are some I’ll remember from 2017.

1.
Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is one of the funniest, most surprising, and consistently enjoyable books I’ve ever read. It’s glitch fiction, composed of short notebook entries (“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. January 9”), poems, and stories that read like anti-parables. Written during life under Joseph Stalin, these pieces go by very quickly—they briefly spasm in a few directions, give you an unexpected punchline or no punchline at all, and then terminate (many conclude with just the word enough).

In one story, a man waits for another man, gradually growing angry. When the other man finally shows up carrying food from the store they argue about time, until one wallops the other over the head with “the biggest cucumber from his satchel,” killing him. The final line of this story (which is only a few hundred words) is: “What big cucumbers they sell in stores nowadays!” Another story ends with Kharms confessing he actually can’t write anymore: “Wow! I’d write some more but the inkwell’s gone missing somewhere.”

Recalling writers like Richard Brautigan, Lydia Davis, Franz Kafka, Joy Williams, and Samuel Beckett, this is delightfully error-ridden writing that squirms and wriggles against the expected and logical, creating its own nonsensical logic in the process. A few of my friends have now read most of this book, just because I kept sending them pieces.

2.
Morgan Parker wrote my favorite book of poetry that I read this year: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Like Kharms, Parker is funny and surprising, but she writes with such fearlessness that it’s impossible not to follow her. Deploying astonishing line after astonishing line, the book offers questions (“Is a mother still a self,” “What does money cost”), subversions (“With champagne I try expired white ones/ I mean pills I mean men”), and wonderful writing (“Right now six people are in outer space,/ and you are growing smaller in my mind.”). This book is a brilliant riot of consciousness: “So what if I have more regrets/ Than birthdays I am old/ For my age, I am made of water/ Why do you get up in the morning.”

3.
The Vanished by journalist Léna Mauger and photographer Stéphane Remael is an extraordinary investigation of the johatsu, the group of 100,000 Japanese who vanish without a trace every year.

Though many disappear because of shame, debt, and the societal pressure for success (one student disappears when he’s faced with taking his exams), the book includes a range of voices, places, and stories, including: the companies that help those who wish to vanish to move in the middle of the night; Tojinbo cliffs, a popular suicide site, and the man who devotes his life to dissuading those considering suicide there; Sanya and Kamagasaki, neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, that have been wiped off maps but are inhabited by people hoping to disappear, including day-laborers living in tiny rooms; and otakus, from the Japanese word meaning “home,” referring to people who waste away and lose themselves in monomaniacal passions like doll and fanzine collecting or video games. Complete with amazing photographs, this is a fascinating and exceptional book.

4.
Hernán Díaz wrote my favorite passage of the year. It occurs toward the end of his debut novel, In the Distance, so I’ll avoid specifics, but not since László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango have I read such an exhilarating narrative turn.

 In the Distance is about a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan Söderström, who is separated from his brother on his way to America. What follows is one of the most compelling deconstructions of a genre convention I’ve ever read. This is an old-school Western turned on its head—Håkan hates guns and becomes an outlaw legend on accident. But maybe what makes it great is that it’s also a memorable immigration story, not to mention a powerful depiction of loneliness, while being stuffed with some of the best landscape writing around (“Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.”). And in addition to that narrative turn toward the end, there are countless other great moments: Håkan gets roped into a wacky naturalist’s search in dried-out seabeds for a jellyfish-like organism that supposedly created mankind, and during one drug-induced passage, Håkan looks at his own brain.

5.
The end seems to be the best place to start with Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, which has my favorite ending of the year. Not just because of the twist in the last few pages (which are staggering), but because the novel sneaked up on me. It kept getting better and better and I couldn’t really put my finger on why I was enjoying it so much. A Working Woman is set in Madrid, and is about struggling writer Elisa, and her roommate, the more headstrong Susana. Susana finds a sexual partner through a personal ad; Elisa wanders Madrid’s ruins and edits a book she dislikes while contending with an unspecified psychiatric condition. Gradually, through their volatile proximity and an art project, the two become enmeshed in each other’s madness, resulting in an elusive mindbender that mutates and resists any effort to box it in or categorize it. Somehow, the book reveals itself without yielding its secrets.

Other books I loved that I read this year: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; Winter in the Blood by James Welch; Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls; Large Animals by Jess Arndt; Close Range by Annie Proulx; The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels; Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy; I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy; Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; The Plains by Gerald Murnane; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt; Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin; What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh; Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall; The Bell by Iris Murdoch; Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; Old Open by Alex Higley; Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter; Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy; The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza; and Difficult Women by David Plante.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Julie Buntin

On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.

My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?

In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.

I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.

The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.

The ones that were extremely sexy: Jardine Libaire’s White Fur, Jamie Quatro’s forthcoming Fire Sermon.

As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.

There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.

I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.

I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.

So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.

Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Start With These Five New Books of Poetry

You should buy new books of poetry. Sure, there are novels and memoirs that are worth your money, but don’t be averse to verse. Show libraries your love, but buy poetry. Buy poetry for escape and for inscape. Buy poetry to pause the world, to hide from it, to consider all its hues and microscopic wonders. Buy poetry because poets deserve to get paid. Buy poetry and leave copies on your kitchen table. Buy poetry and read it aloud — to yourself, to someone you love, to someone who loves you but hates poetry. Buy poetry to learn what it means to be surprised and stirred by words.

Start with these five new books.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
“At school they learned that Black people happened.” Parker’s gifted poems shift and pivot. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” she writes: “What kind of bodies are movable / and feasts. What color are visions. // When he opens his mouth / a chameleon is inside, starving.” True to the collection’s title, Beyoncé’s presence is present — she calls Lady Gaga “Tonight   I make a name for you.” She listens “for prophecies / from my daughter’s sticky mouth” and tells her “Never give them / what they want, when they want it.” She prepares a will: “A vigil will be held in memory of / a prime evening / sweating like ice in a glass.” And there’s other gems like “Another Another Autumn in New York,” when the narrator smirks “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap.” She smokes, eats a whole box of cupcakes, steps on leaves: [I] “confuse the meanings / of castle and slum, exotic / and erotic,” and “breathe dried honeysuckle / and hope. I live somewhere / imaginary.” So many sweet and sour lines here. One of my favorites comes from “Delicate and Jumpy:” “Soon a beer-colored sky will sneak / up behind the fence. I toss my hair / to the street without permission.”

American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Every once in a while, poetry needs to say to novels: I’ve been around longer, and I can tell stories better. Howell’s the kind of poet who can announce the apocalypse in a whisper. American Purgatory is set in some charred near-future that looks increasingly like our present, where “persons are held to service and labor.” Where “dust here is big,” and people “work a whore’s hours, but care less.” I love how Howell yokes the mythic with the muddy: “Everything dies, I tell him an old lover said that / to me each night. Slade rises to bend backward, / his hand on his hip, his eyes open straight to the sun.” Howell documents a diseased, dehydrated world through three characters, whose dreams are like threnodies. “From a distance the brushfire looked like veins crossing, / a flame’s thin arm, like electric wires, like Christmas”– lines that loosen the reader into one character’s dream of “two diamondbacks, a cross / of tails bent to the motion of a lock.” What can they — we — do in a world like this? “Above us / geese charge / north on abacus wires strung tight to — what. What sky / are we held by? Who counts our sins.”

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
In 2009, then-President Obama signed a resolution “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution contains a litany of sentences that begin “whereas,” and ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” The resolution was signed in silence. There was no announcement. No ceremony. Long Soldier was angered by the mode and method of the apology, and wrote a book in response to it. Whereas is a poetic document of force, an indictment of bureaucratic language that makes violence passive. She begins a section of “whereas” poems with the statement that she is a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation, and “in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” She begins: “Whereas when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through / me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it / that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses — I read / each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.” Long Soldier’s book is diverse in form and function, a beautiful work of book art that needs to be held and museum-shown.

Fair Sun by Susan Barba
Paging through Barba’s collection, I first opened to “Marathon,” the penultimate poem in the book, and was instantly hooked. “Only the moon over Soldier’s Field Road sees us depart, / quiet until the sun apocalyptic above the hospital / jars us into words at river’s bend, electric pink / feedback feathering the water.” Rare is the pitch-perfect running poem, but Barba captures this New England moment: “Human / technicolor snakes and schoolbuses perambulate / the park and idly limber in preparation to go west.” Barba’s poetry settles on the tongue. “How Should We Live Our Lives?” is a poem worthy of framing. The first stanza follows the title’s question with another: “With love / and trepidation / sign our letters?” More questions follow, before we realize this is an internal conversation that reaches the air: “Daughter, / as you grow up I / will grow old, / a fact that shocks / you, even at age three.” The narrator laments “Love has no part in this.” Barba is masterful at finding the shine in disparate moments: “Yellow coldness, puddles in the mud. / The brush of winter waiting for the sky to dry.” A book to read, and re-read.

Blackacre by Monica Youn
“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace.” Instead, it is the “sudden /terrible // elevation of / a single point— / one dot // on the topography / of a life.” Youn effortlessly shifts between many forms in Blackacre, but I find myself returning to her columnar poems that careen forward like freshly sharpened arrows. Her sense of poetic lines is keen and clean; her work feels sculpted. And then she stops a reader in her tracks with prose-poems like “Desideratum:” “But what is it that you want?” We are placed in a high-school parking lot, the humidity visible like “sluggish cellophane ripples, epoxy threatening to go solid.” A truck starts, with rope “knotted to its tow hitch,” and that rope “begins to play out, uncoiling, looping, unlooping itself …hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac.” You — audience, reader — “find yourself lurching after it, staggering,” hoping to grab it. Afraid “what that rough plastic rope would do to your hands, what the sudden jerk would do to your shoulder joints, whether, once having grabbed hold, you would ever be able to let go.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for poetry. Poems are a dangerous invitation, but if we can grab hold of the language, we are caught. We are changed.

A Year in Reading: Bridgett M. Davis

Throughout this year, I’ve been writing a proposal for a memoir about my mother. To inspire myself, and to indulge in others’ work before I’m afraid of being influenced by it, I’ve read and reread several memoirs. Of those, I came away from Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in renewed awe and gratitude for how she shows a shimmering portrait of mutual love. With Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, I marveled at the wit and razor-sharp lens she brought to bear on her own pretensions, born of racist confines. I found Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its daughter raised by a single gay father in 1970s San Francisco, bearing witness in an essential way. I then discovered on my own bookshelf Hilton Als’s searing and astonishing book The Women. I’m almost embarrassed to say I bought this book off a discounted-book table at an indie bookstore years ago and hadn’t yet read it. I devoured it as if to make up for lost time. No one, anywhere, has yet to convey with such unapologetic rigor and compassion the interior life of a black mother, and I haven’t fully recovered from it.

When Feminist Press announced its Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, I again reread my worn copy of her seminal novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, just to remind myself anew how books change lives, how that book changed mine. Also, I’m fortunate enough to direct a writer-in-residence program at the college where I teach, which allows me to invite several writers to campus. It makes for a natural homework assignment, as I always read their work before they arrive. Lucky me that my homework this year included Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Flood of Fire about the opium trade in 1800s India (read the entire trilogy and be amazed); Monique Truong’s magnificent Bitter in the Mouth, about a Vietnamese-American growing up in the American South; Marilyn Nelson’s poignant memoir, How I Discovered Poetry (which took me back to her Faster Than Light: New And Selected Poems); and Morgan Parker’s smart, sharp poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (stay tuned for her 2017 release, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce).

This year also marks my son’s senior year in high school; he wants to pursue acting. His drama teacher assigned Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist and, as I sometimes do, I read the book alongside him. In light of the election, Deveare Smith acutely reminded me that artists’ activism is everything. Speaking of which, on Sunday following the election, I joined authors Nicole Dennis-Benn and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh on a panel for The Hustle reading series in Brooklyn. It was soothing to come together around literature, and I’m grateful to now have Dennis-Benn’s revelatory novel, Here Comes the Sun, at my bedside to tumble into each night, like a balm. But I’m still reeling from something voiced during that panel. When I noted that a Donald Trump presidency (writing that phrase feels so tawdry and sad) required us all to “do more,” Al-Khatahtbeh said, “I plan to do less.” She said that since 9/11, she and other women Muslim writers and activists had spent untold time and resources and psychic energy trying to convince “them” that they too are Americans, that they too love this country, that they are not the enemy. She said, essentially, that it’s time for others to do that work. Amen.

I went home and read her slim, explosive memoir, Muslim Girl, and was startled by its candor and force, and also by how prescient the book is. In describing her experience of being in Britain this past summer, Al-Khatahtbeh wrote: “As impossible as we were hoping — imagining — the rise of racism to be, it can, in fact, win. The U.K.’s decision (Brexit), was a clear demonstration of that, and, at worst, it was a sign of what was waiting for us come November.”

I’m like most of you, I’m sure, in that I’ve read a lot of essays and op-eds and news stories and manifestos since the election. Nothing shook me like the words of Sarah Kendzior, who has studied authoritarian states for over a decade. “My Fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you,” she wrote. “I want you to write about who you are…what standards you hold for yourself and for others…Never lose sight of…what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.”

Looking back, I see now that the best books I’ve read this year are themselves a prescient compilation, a kind of personalized, serial guidebook for the new world order we now inhabit; it’s an indicator of what I believe in, who I strive to be, what matters to me. I plan to remind myself of this in the dark days ahead, remind myself that it’s important to remain true to my own ideals.

What’s really important, as we enter 2017, is that we validate one another’s humanity. May good books help us do just that.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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A Year in Reading: Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

I open every year by rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s something about it that pulls me back, eagerly, to the work. Like many people I know, I open most years hopeful and willing to be seduced by possibility. So much of that book reminds me that the brightness of a welcoming new year is brief, that there is certainly a darkness that we’ll have to survive again.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
My first book, a book of poems, was released this summer. I’m sure that for some people who do this, it means that they spent a lot of the year agonizing over their own work. I did, but I also hit a point where I didn’t want to look at poems anymore. At least not my own. I fell in love with the poems of my peers: Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved. There’s something really refreshing about diving into brilliant poems after spending months picking your own poems apart. The stakes are low, and you can allow yourself to sit back and be overwhelmed. Another poetry book I deeply loved this year is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. Jess is a historian, truly. The book is filled with brilliant black folklore, all centering on the redemption of ragtime performer Scott Joplin. I had fun reading the book, sure, but I was also reminded of why I found myself to poems in the first place: endless possibility.

I’m a music writer who loves reading about music. I keep a copy of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with me at all times, sometimes reading bits of it out loud to any willing audiences, in the backseats of cars, around dinner tables. There’s an open letter to Sufjan Stevens in the book, and I am always overwhelmed by it. Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements was really exciting for me. I’m always interested in new stories behind the bands I love, and The Replacements are so incredibly fascinating in that way. There’s always so much more to them than I expect, at every turn. I maybe love Bruce Springsteen too much to indulge in the sprawl of his memoir, though I purchased it in good faith. After a chapter or two, I realized that maybe the book was written to get folks to fall in love with him, and I’m already there.

I was lucky enough to have Angela Flournoy read at my book release party in New York this summer, which pulled me back to a second reading of The Turner House. After that, I was forced to ask myself why I don’t treat myself to new fiction, instead of falling back into the same handful of fiction books I love. I did a panel on politics with Kaitlyn Greenidge, and purchased her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, thinking that I’d get to it sometime in the winter. But I started it the next day, and finished it within 48 hours. It reminded me of how fiction can slowly and gently surprise, unlike poems, which sometimes have to reveal the surprise early in the work. I won’t spoil anything about Greenidge’s book, but the ending was so perfect, I read over it twice. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of those rare things that is actually as good as everyone says it is.

I’m on the road a lot these days, more than I’d like. I’m in small plane seats and in quiet hotel rooms and in corner booths at coffee shops in cities where I know no one. It’s not ideal, but this was the year that I truly felt like I lived the motto of “read more than you write.” I’m hoping 2017 will leave me just as lucky.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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