Lists, On Poetry

Enormous Zippers Unfastening: Ten Poems for the End of the World

We don’t know when it will happen -- whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month -- but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end. Consider Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive -- a hawk's wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” -- to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp. In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats's “The Second Coming" and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden. If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one's own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world. 1. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo “The world begins at a kitchen table,” Harjo starts. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Communion and community thread throughout her poem. “It is here,” at a table, where “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Harjo thinks our end has been foretold: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.” Her poem concludes with resigned hope: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” Her focus on a shared domestic space helps us forget about the enormity of the poem’s backdrop. 2. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost Is Frost’s poem a microcosm of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno? Maybe. Yet I also like the origin story from astronomer Harlow Shapley: while Frost was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, he twice in one night asked Shapley how the world would end. Shapley’s response formed the polarities of the poem. Read by countless middle-school students in requisite units on American poetry, “Fire and Ice” is heavier than its nine lines appear at first glance, and like much of his other work, darkly comic. Equally apocalyptic in spirit, and perhaps even more final in its small-town sadness, is Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” which ends with a minor apocalypse: a boy’s injury leads to amputation and then death, but the townspeople, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” 3. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski The September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker had a black cover, and on its back page waited this poem. Zagajewski wrote the poem before 9/11, but like the verse of Yeats and Auden, sometimes words need to wait for their proper moment. Note the evolution of the titular statement throughout the poem: we are called to “try to praise,” and then “you must praise,” “you should praise,” and finally the exasperated, exhausted, and yet somehow calm final “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” Zagajewski said there was not one particular event that birthed the poem, rather, “it’s the way I have always seen the world” -- on the brink, and yet beautiful. 4. “Disappointments of the Apocalypse” by Mary Karr Maybe we will be laughing at the end. Mary Karr seems to think so. “Warring factions” will set the date for the end of the world. Physicists will send “copies of the decree to paradise / in case God has anything to say.” A lunar eclipse portends the end, and “Those who hated the idea stayed indoors” but will step out “onto porches and balconies to see / the human shapes twist and rise / through violet sky and hear trees uproot / with a sound like enormous zippers / unfastening.” Karr’s lines unfurl toward hilarity and back again, and yet her lines capture quite what we’d expect an absent God to sound like as he watches his creation combust: “where the last spreadeagled Xs clung like insects, / then vanished in puffs of luminous smoke, // which traveled a long way to sting his nostrils, / the journey lasting more than ten lifetimes.” 5. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz “Those who expected lightning and thunder / are disappointed” on the day the world ends. From bees circling clovers to fishermen mending nets to vegetable peddlers shouting in the street, the world moves on, unknowing of its end. We almost certainly will not know when the end will come, and Milosz especially thinks those who expect “signs and archangels' trumps” will be disappointed at the lack of ceremony. If Harjo thinks our end is our beginning -- or perhaps symbolic of one of our daily customs -- then Milosz thinks our end will be a surprise for most. Except one: “Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, / Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / No other end of the world will there be, / No other end of the world will there be.” 6. “How it Ends: Three Cities” by Catherine Pierce Three iterations of the end of the world: Austin, Texas; New York, N.Y.; Okemah, Okla. In Austin, grackles line the pavement, “tails oil-black.” Nobody calls out of work. Instead, they “just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence.” There a man “reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird.” The narrator wants to wake it up. On the east coast, at lunchtime, the city smells sweet. Everyone hunts for one last taste. Even a “feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots.” Finally, in the Midwest, the animals slowly become strange. “Goldfish leap down the street's puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings.” A horse gallops down the street. The narrator's dog “dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.” 7. “End of Winter” by Louise Glück All stories about the end of the world are really about the end of our own worlds, the little, often unnoticed deaths that surround us daily. Glück's poem has always felt strangely personal and interrogative for me. It begins with a bird's call during the “still world” of the winter, but then immediately becomes direct in the second stanza: “You wanted to be born; I let you be born. / When has my grief ever gotten / in the way of your pleasure?” Later: “never imagining the sound of my voice / as anything but part of you— / ... only / persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye.” Is this a mother? Is it God? It might be both: creators alike, after all. 8. “Econo Motel, Ocean City” by Daisy Fried I love the skill and restraint needed to develop a poem in a single room -- a motel room, no less. Who among us has not felt that his or her particular end would come in some aberrant motel room, “Korean monster movie on the SyFy channel, / lurid Dora the Explorer blanket draped tentlike / over Baby's portacrib to shield us from unearned / innocence.” If we are to believe Pierce and others, the end will arrive with a bit of blurring: “Grease-dusted ceiling fan / paddles erratically, two spars missing. Sheets whirled / to the polluted rug.” The family is splayed in this comfortably uncomfortable place: “My glasses on the side table / tipped onto scratchproof lenses, earpieces / sticking up / like arms out of disaster rubble. Your feet hooked over my feet. What miasma / lays gold dander down on forms of temporary / survivors wandering the promenade?” They are at peace in this “Sad Armageddon / of marriage: how pretty much nice / we meant to be, and couldn't make a difference.” 9. “The End of the World” by Dana Gioia We should lighten up a bit as we near the end of the list -- a little poetic calm before the concluding storm. The narrator and his companions “stopped the car where the river curled,” at what is called the end of the world. They “scrambled down” beneath a bridge, cross the “gravel track of a narrow ridge” and thread the woods to reach the actual river. The narrator stands alone where the “white water goosetailed with eddying swell.” As in many of Gioia's poems, he brings us to the final resting place of the poem and then steps back. We are with the narrator at the end of this world, looking downstream, where “There was nothing but sky, / The sound of the water, and the water's reply.” 10. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish This is how the world ends: at a circus. MacLeish's sonnet is actually a single swollen sentence. “Quite unexpectedly,” it begins, as Vasserot, the “armless ambidextrian” lit a match between his toes, and the lion is biting a performer's neck -- while the theater of the absurd reaches its pinnacle, “Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.” The final stanza is masterful, garbled, clunky, recursive, and as close as our inadequate minds can image to the real, messy end. Most likely then, above our paled faces and “our dazed eyes,” there will be “nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.” Image Credit: YouTube.
The Millions Top 10

The Millions Top Ten: February 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Fates and Furies 6 months 2. 4. Fortune Smiles 3 months 3. 3. Slade House 5 months 4. 5. The Big Green Tent 4 months 5. 8. What Belongs to You 2 months 6. 9. My Name is Lucy Barton 2 months 7. 6. The Heart Goes Last 6 months 8. 7. City on Fire 5 months 9. 10. A Brief History of Seven Killings 3 months 10. - The Past 1 month For the first time in five years, but also the third time in six, Jonathan Franzen sent one of his books to our site's Hall of Fame. And with the ascension of Purity, that makes Franzen three-for-three on his most recent novels reaching such hallowed ground. (Sorry, Kraus Project, but it looks like the streak is limited to fiction; and sorry as well, Strong Motion, but it looks like you arrived before the Franz-y* picked up full force; you'll have to content yourself with Brain Ted Jones's Millions essay instead of a HoF berth.) Filling Purity's spot this month is The Past by Tessa Hadley, which was featured in both our Second-Half 2015 and also our Great 2016 Book Previews. The novel concerns siblings who reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house, but it really shouldn't be summed up by its plot. The author would protest. After all, in an interview for our site last year, Hadley remarked upon the dangers that come from focusing too narrowly on plot and sequential order, and how she controls that impulse when she writes: Things in life don’t, on the whole, add up or get resolved in that deliciously satisfactory, finalizing way that novels are so good at. Nineteenth-century novelists resolved their plotty novels so magnificently because they shared convictions about meaning and fulfillment that we surely mislaid somewhere in the 20th century. But I do believe that “leaping over the gaps” doesn’t mean you can’t hold a story together. Rather, we’ve grown suspicious of stories that resolve too satisfactorily. The danger is that if you fill in all the gaps you lose the essence of the story, you write something stodgy and merely consecutive, instead of keeping your hand on the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place. Elsewhere on this month's list we see Marlon James's A Brief History... move up on spot, which is good because that means you're listening to my repeated pleas for you to buy that book. It also appears that next month our list will welcome two new additions, as both Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last seem destined for the Hall of Fame. *No, I don't want to apologize for that. It was good. This month's near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Lost Time AccidentsEternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, Girl Through Glass, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month's list.

55 More Thoughts for English Teachers

A lot has changed in my life since I first offered 55 thoughts to English teachers. After teaching for more than a decade at a high school with over 3,000 students, I now teach at a school with less than 850. I went from a California-style school surrounded by businesses and pharmaceutical companies to a single-building surrounded by woods and mountains. Many teachers would rather retire than start over at a new school, but I believe it is important to teach in one’s own community. I enjoyed my old school, but had a personal reason for the switch: I used to leave the house while my daughters were still asleep. Nothing compares to actually being able to kiss and hug them before the day starts. I have learned that each school has its own culture, but many elements of good teaching transcend districts -- particularly the belief that kids deserve support and love. That change of culture has made me reflect on this most complex profession. Here are 55 more thoughts for English teachers. 1. Teach the students in front of you, not the students you had last year, not your favorite students from a decade ago. 2. Yours is not the only course students are taking. 3. You've been thinking about yesterday's lesson, about how students must have appreciated those clever lines from Marianne Moore or Natasha Trethewey. Students have been thinking about a thousand other things. That is fine, but learn a method to bring them back into your world of words. 4. Question your standards. Every year, every unit. 5. If you are frustrated by the complaints of students, try this: for one day, write down all of your own complaints. You will quickly reach the bottom of a page. Students will always complain; help them see why what you are doing in class has significance. 6. Often in literature, method is more important to learn than meaning. 7. There is more to a student's world than your classroom. 8. It is never your job to stop a student from writing. 9. You can dislike William Shakespeare, but your students still need to read him. 10. This is the Humanities. You are showing them possibilities of being human. 11. Don't try to teach anyone other than your students. Standing in front of a captive audience each day can inflate your sense of self. You are not your spouse’s teacher. Don’t lecture the cashier at the supermarket or your neighbor. 12. Each student is someone's child. 13. Always prepare them for what comes next. It is tempting to make your students experts at impressing only you. 14. School is not a business. 15. Get some sleep. Naps are divine. 16. Before you respond to an email from a parent, administrator, or student, wait. You teach communication; do it well. 17. Help them see. 18. “When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it.” -- Toni Morrison 19. “I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out -- an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.” -- Marilynne Robinson 20. Morrison and Robinson capture the same concept: when a student feels invested in her writing and reading, she will surprise you. She will excel. 21. Help students earn confidence, but realize that confidence is temporary. Humility lasts. 22. If objectives are your only objective, you have become an object. 23. Have students read local words. Find the best articles from your local newspaper. Ask your students: is this how you see the world? Find out what is important to their parents. What are the words used in their home? 24. One single sentence from your mouth, positive or negative, might stay with a student forever. You can joke, but never make a student feel like a joke. 25. Hide metafictive messages in handouts to make sure students are paying attention. 26. If students trust that you care about them, they will often rise to your expectations. 27. Course failure reverberates beyond your course. Have you done everything possible to help them? Forget your pride when it comes to student failure. 28. Political parties are parties that you should crash. They will sell you out, use you as a pawn. 29. If students don't love stories, make them love pages. If not pages, then paragraphs, sentences, words. 30. Help them explain why they love the stories -- films, shows, songs -- that they love. 31. Annotations build confidence. They help students talk with a text. Students will resist the practice at first, but make the holding of a pencil while reading a habit. 32. Teach now, not in the past. 33. Some days, all you need to accomplish is to get students to read beautiful sentences. 34. Burn textbook worksheets. 35. If they say you give them too many handouts, they are really thanking you. 36. Read a few sentences of James Baldwin aloud at the start of the course. Read those same sentences again at the end. See if students listen a bit more closely. 37. Teaching is not containment. Embrace the uneven moments. 38. Thank your best former teachers. Forgive your worst. 39. Laugh with them. 40. Students want to hear stories about you, but do so sparingly. You are a performer, but the show is not about you. 41. Give them the “The Ladder of Abstraction” by Roy Peter Clark. Students live and breathe details; show them how those details can transform their writing. 42. You can probably read well, but students need to hear literature read in their own voices. 43. Teach students how to read your comments on their essays. Messy handwriting is fine. Make them work for it. But make sure the work is worth it. 44. If you don't want to grade it, they probably didn't want to write it. 45. Remind them what it means to feel wonder. 46. In the grand scheme of literature, novels are novel. Your students don't need to slog through big books. 47. They are not reading them anyway. They are reading someone else's misreading of them. 48. If you think you were better than them when you were a teenager, you are wrong. 49. Find your writing from high school. What would have helped you? It will also help them. 50. There are far more dangerous professions than teaching, but few are more difficult. 51. Summer is always coming soon. 52. Have students read to each other. One-to-one. Literature is another level of living. Some days they will drone on. 53. But you know they only need one day, sometimes one minute, for that other world to open. For all it to change. 54. Show students how you think. Write an essay, but show them your notes, plans, drafts, and edits. The mixture of fallibility and expertise will make them trust you. 55. Be good to them. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Transfigurations of Self and Soul: Four Essential Essay Collections

In the age of memoir, essay collections are a tough sell. Like short story collections, books of essays seem destined to be sampled rather than appreciated start to finish. That is a shame. Good essay collections are performances: multiple acts of form and function, threaded together with theme. I have always loved the fiction of Andre Dubus, but it was not until I read Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair that I began to understand the mind and heart behind the stories. This is not to say that essays serve an ancillary function, but rather that essays contain the inevitable need to require a point -- either one orchestrated by the writer, or one imbued by the reader. A masterful essay collection is a metered intellectual exercise. It is enjoyable to settle into the novelistic voice of memoir, but it is athletic to sprint, pause, breathe, and start again with the short-range essayist. Here are four essay collections worth reading: writers who challenge, surprise, and eventually reward their readers for staying the course. 1. White Girls by Hilton Als Als is a literary showman, and White Girls is a masterful routine. The first act, “Tristes Tropiques,” is a nonfiction novella about the writer’s complicated longing for SL (Sir or Lady), whom Als considers his twin. The essay takes its name from a book by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose own interest in twins mirrors the romantic manner in which Als considers his own doubling. “I have always been one half of a whole,” Als writes, for “my ghostly twin, my nearly perfect other half” was his stillborn older brother. At roughly 80 pages, “Tristes Tropiques” is massive, a seemingly illogical choice to begin a collection, but White Girls is no average performance. “This Lonesome Place,” Als’s take on Flannery O’Connor, is best captured in its final sentence: “Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O’Connor’s voice her uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Als writes with equal verve about Truman Capote, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, André Leon Talley, and James Baldwin, yet my favorite is his treatment of Michael Jackson. I first read “Michael” in The New York Review of Books, where even its four-part structure felt inevitable. The essay begins in 1972, when “the female elders tell us what to look out for:” the men who exit the neon-lit Starlite Lounge in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Als hears Jackson’s first solo hit, “Ben,” escape from the bar before the door closes. How fascinating that a film-soundtrack song about a rat was a “mournful ballad,” which was embraced “among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing.” “Ben” was Jackson personified, “all child -- an Ariel of the ghetto, whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.” The ability to capture a soul in a single sentence is no small gift. 2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin Als mentions Baldwin’s essay about Jackson, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in which Baldwin writes that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated -- in the main, abominably -- because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” To sing the praises of Baldwin as an essayist is nothing new, but The Fire Next Time needs to be read and studied more often. It is a pair of epistles; the first, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation. Eternally a writer formed by hymn and sermon, his conclusion rises: “For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” “Down at the Cross,” the longer, second essay, sears the page. This was 1962, this is now: “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else -- housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers -- would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.” Baldwin hits so many notes here, yet I always return to his strained relationship with God and his house. “On the blindest, most visceral level,” Baldwin never was able to “disengage myself from [the] excitement” of church: “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.” That Baldwin follows these memories with a critique of the structure and soul of that church is the rhetorical power of The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” 3. The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney Poet and playwright McSweeney carries her rhythms to prose, and the results are essays that remake the boundaries of criticism and personal narrative. The concept of the “necropastoral” describes the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral.” The occult angle suggests the blurring of the real and surreal, orchestrated by the strangeness inherent in most literature. Here she writes of Wilfred Owen (“The poems form a continuous, necrotizing battlefield, a skinlike surface, pitted and dubious, capable of inscription and unexpected transmission, full of holes and wounds through which pity can escape like a stench”); of Jack Smith’s continual, obsessive editing of his pastoral film, Normal Love; and her fellow Catholic artist Andy Warhol, who, “possessed by media, becomes another medium in a fluxing, necrotic, necromantic, anachronistic field of media” and others. Finally, McSweeney -- a poet-essayist elsewhere interested in transformation, as in “how Catholic saint’s lore is really a kind of media theory, an idea about how certain kinds of power moves from place to place” -- examines translation as perhaps the apex of art. Translation “works on extant materials and transforms them -- conforms them -- into new, sculptural, legible shapes.” Translation might be the most human of arts: it requires humility, transformation, resurrection in new language. In that vein, the art of the essay is an exercise in translation. 4. Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden It is tempting to call Madden’s approach encyclopedic, but that suggests horizontal over vertical inquiry. Madden’s range is certainly wide, but he also manages to dig, and the end result of his essays here (and in his first collection, Quotidiana), is not merely collection but accumulation. “Spit,” the first essay in the book, is a representative sample. Madden begins with learning how to spit while “walking down a thin path through the thick Maine woods” sometime in the '70s. Next he considers the antiseptic properties of the action, and how his daughter spit on him by mistake as they were about to enter church. He remembers his friend teaching him how to “gleek,” which happens to be the name of the space-monkey from The Wonder Twins cartoon, a monkey that chattered rather than spoke clearly. That idea of marble-mouthing makes him think of how his father, a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, would sing to him and his siblings, and how Madden would become obsessed with the misunderstanding of lyrics. That leads him to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” -- “Catch the spirit, catch the spit” -- and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who “was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way.” He continues to Isaiah 50:6, Mark 8:22, when a fan spit in the face of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and, finally burrows down to personal stories, concluding with one of shame. This is what essays were made for, in the words of Madden’s introduction-style chapter: essays are “oxymoronic characters, rooted in the natural world, derived from real experience...always reaching toward ideas, trying to transcend mere description or depiction. Thus, essays, perform a kind of sublimation of the solid; from the concrete, they attain abstraction.” Essays as transfigurations of self and soul.
The Millions Top 10

The Millions Top Ten: January 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Fates and Furies 5 months 2. 4. Purity 6 months 3. 5. Slade House 4 months 4. 7. Fortune Smiles 2 months 5. 8. The Big Green Tent 3 months 6. 9. The Heart Goes Last 5 months 7. 10. City on Fire 4 months 8. - What Belongs to You 1 month 9. - My Name is Lucy Barton 1 month 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 2 months It's with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn't the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let's work on keeping it here, eh? This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee's Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack. Their success means Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It's a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind "I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night." To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you're still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki's praise to coax you over the threshold: I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling. Also this month in addition to A Brief History... we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell's in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You "offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today."   This month's near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.

The Golden Child: Seven Literary Editors Pick Their Favorite Issues

Writing about literary magazines in 1930, Ezra Pound noted that “The work of writers who have emerged in or via such magazines outweighs in permanent value the work of the writers who have not emerged in this manner. The history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Such a pronouncement is equally true of the present: many of our finest contemporary writers made their debuts in these “little magazines,” and many continue to publish new and exciting work in these publications. Travis Kurowski, one of the foremost scholars of this literary world, posits in Paper Dreams that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production,” might “create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Online and print literary magazines capture and document the literary moment. Editors serve an essential role in that process. My years of working with editors as a contributor have taught me that they are passionate, discerning stewards. It is often a thankless job to cull through thousands of submissions and deliver far more rejections than acceptances. Yet editors love the opportunity to make discoveries, to champion work, to shape and finally share an issue with readers. Since they are so devoted to their publications, I asked editors of seven great literary magazines to select their favorite issues. Here are their choices. 1. Poetry - Don Share, editor - February 1931 Like any editor, I’m humbly obliged to feel that the best issue of Poetry is the one I’m working on now, but literary history tends not only to humble, but lay low, most editors: think Thomas Wentworth Higginson, somehow failing to publish Emily Dickinson.  So my choice will have to be our so-called “Objectivists” issue of February 1931.  It was guest-edited for Harriet Monroe by Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky had been a contributor since 1924, and at Ezra Pound’s urging (they’d met in 1927), Harriet agreed to let Zuk put together an issue of the magazine.  It became something of an albatross for him later (apologies for that metaphor), but the issue was a great success for Poetry.  Featuring such later luminaries as Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, Basil Bunting, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth, among others, it became a kind of blueprint for Anglo-American modernist poetry; and “objectivism” is in all the literary history books now.  An unfortunate and conspicuous aspect of this is how white and male the table of contents is.  Still, it was our most influential issue.  Despite its indisputably legendary status, it also featured work seldom spoken of today: a poem by Whittaker Chambers, who would become infamous later with the Alger Hiss trials; a long-forgotten Imagist poem by Martha Champion, who was a student at the University of Wisconsin; and a statement on poetry by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler so mystifying and obscure that it required a further statement by Zuk and then a rebuttal to that from Ford and Tyler; alas, it’s been that way for poetry ever since. Above all, I love Zukofsky’s frustrated account of the editorial process, for as it turns out, there was no such thing as objectivism: “Harriet Monroe at the time insisted, we'd better have a title for it, call it something. I said, I don't want to. She insisted; so, I said, alright, if I can define it in an essay, and I used two words, sincerity and objectification, and I was sorry immediately. But it's gone down into the history books; they forgot the founder, thank heavens, and kept the terms, and, of course, I said objectivist, and they said objectivism and that makes all the difference. Well, that was pretty bad, so then I spent the next thirty years trying to make it simple.” Most Poetry readers will have heard of Pound’s dictum to “make it new,” but in reality, this issue of the magazine may well have taught many the virtue of keeping it simple. 2. West Branch - G.C. Waldrep, editor - Spring/Summer 2015 One issue!  So hard, even in the handful of years since I took over West Branch in 2011 -- all the children are exceptional, and all of them are deeply-loved.  That said: for me, one of the joys of putting together an issue of a journal is trying to imagine lines of coherence between, across, and among different works.  I spend hours ordering each issue, thinking about these lines, imagining how different works interact with one another.  In that sense, my current favorite is WB 78.  This issue was, for me, grounded in two great short stories -- Benjamin Parzybok's “News of the Week” and Victor Robert Lee's “Border Control.”  They're very different, but each time I read them I feel a slug of adrenaline enter my system, and I feel extraordinarily honored to have been the one who brought them to a wider audience.  Each is obsessed with the gaps in desire -- the dead zones in which desire, through its absence, bides its time.  There are other echoes throughout the issue:  Parzybok's taxidermied gorilla echoed in Charlie Clark's poem “Elegy to a Black Bear Head Poorly Stuffed and Mounted;” the body augmented by damage in Patrick Roscoe's dreamy story “Beggars” and Roxane Gay's “Ugly Love,” and again in Brian D. Morrison's poem “A History of Biting Circa 1599.”  Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne's circus poems imagine fire-eating, lion-taming as more ways the body expresses its own insufficiency.  “I can / look away from you whenever I want,” Corey Van Landingham's speaker asserts in “Exegesis” -- but in the end (of the following poem, and otherwise), it's the irreducible body of the other, its incompletion, its hunger:  “To drink the same milk as a boy / in the city, never considering his mouth.”  His mouth, like the white polar bear you can no longer not imagine.  Yes. 3. The Iowa Review - Jenna Hammerich, deputy managing editor - Fall 2009 My favorite issue of The Iowa Review is our Fall 2009 river-themed issue. In 2008, the Iowa River and its tributaries flooded so badly that FEMA pronounced 85 of Iowa’s 99 counties disaster areas. As a nation, it seems, we tend to use our rivers and forget them, though they’re as essential to our identities as they are to our ecosystems. As our then-editor David Hamilton put it, “We all tend toward belonging to a river.” A collection of carefully curated essays, stories, poems, drawings, and photos of/about rivers, our Fall 2009 issue offers “our representation of River.” In it, artists and scholars from across the country consider rivers’ environmental, industrial, and psychological importance, their various histories and roles in our lives, and the lamentable condition of so many of them. Frederic Will, Fleda Brown, Laura Sayre, and David Wagoner elegize/analyze the rivers in their lives; Amy Leach and Ashleigh Pedersen imagine new rivers, new responses; Anat Pick articulates a river via sound poetry. I’ve never learned so much from one of our issues or been so grateful to have had a hand in publishing it. 4. New England Review - Carolyn Kuebler, editor - Summer 2015 I’ve never been comfortable with the word “best,” but I can’t resist the chance to think about what would make one issue of New England Review better than another, or at least to say what makes an issue -- any issue -- good. Better. Best. “The China issue,” as we call it around the office, comes to mind both for aspirational reasons and for what it turned out to be. We aspire to publishing more international writing, in a more deliberate way, and putting together this issue taught me how to do that; but it also taught me how, despite their obvious similarities, the China-related writings were just as varied and fit just as well (often better) with their English-language neighbors as with each other. In Vol. 36, #2, Summer 2015, we published reverent, mysterious poems in translation by Ya Shi that seemed to speak intimately with poems by David Baker and Bruce Bond. More politically edged poems by Xiao Kaiyu complemented Wendy Willis’s thoughtful essay about the artist Ai Weiwei, which paved the way for Jeff Staiger’s brainy David Foster Wallace critique. Yin Lichuan’s pop sensibility closed out the issue on the heels of Michael X. Wang’s short fiction about a rural Chinese village, its straight-shooting storytelling power reflecting that of Ed Skoog’s unsettling poem, which preceded it. An essay by the inimitable Marianne Boruch about, as she says, “poetry as diagnosis,” deepened the conversation inwardly, while Camille Dungy’s essay about a trip to Maine showed us how the most superficial of kindnesses reveal something of our racial history. Now, looking back on the “China issue,” I marvel at how it also includes a high-voltage story by Steve de Jarnatt, subtle and gorgeous fiction by Carla Panciera and Sharon Solwitz, James Naremore’s thoughts on Orson Welles at 100, and haunting love poems -- if they can even be called that -- by Kazim Ali and Vandana Khanna. So, yes, 36.2. Now that was an issue. 5. Brevity - Dinty W. Moore, editor - Fall 2015 It is of course excruciatingly difficult to pick out one favorite issue after 18.5 years, and the truth is, usually the upcoming issue is the real favorite, the one that the editors are most excited about.  That’s how it should be, if the magazine is thriving and growing.  But to say “the next issue is my favorite” would be a cop-out, so I’ll pick our 50th issue, from Fall 2015, for a few excellent reasons: (1) The issue features two of our most frequent contributors, Rebecca McClanahan and Diane Seuss (and they are frequent because they rock words); (2) We finally snagged a writer I've long admired, River Teeth editor Joe Mackall, after years of begging him to send something along; (3) The issue is truly international with work by Shahnaz Habib, an Indian writer eating in a Yemeni restaurant, Lina Ferreira, born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, Cary Tennis of Salon fame, now living full-time in France, and Matthew Komatsu, an American but writing about his stint in Afghanistan; and finally (4) All the work is solid, surprising, and strong. 6. Tin House - Rob Spillman, editor - Fall 2007 How can you possibly have a favorite amongst your children? In my case, 67 children or issues of Tin House? The most fun and rewarding, though, might have to be Issue #33, in the Fall of 2007, called “Fantastic Women.” It sprung out of conversations I had with Rick Moody, where we tried to grasp a certain moment we were noticing, that there was something going on with women writers who were pushing the speculative envelope, that their work was distinct from their male colleagues, weirder, more hybrid. I enlisted Moody to help us put together an issue completely devoted to these women (still the only issue of Tin House that has had a guest co-editor). We were blown away by the contributions. It was a thrill to unleash fierce new work by writers like Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Lucy Corin, Julia Elliott, Samantha Hunt, Shelley Jackson, Stacey Levin, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet, Alissa Nutting, Stacey Richter, and Julia Slavin. It is still one of our most talked-about issues, and one we have subsequently anthologized and expanded into book form. 7. Shenandoah - RT Smith, editor - Spring/Fall 2010 Since a group of Washington and Lee students, including one T.K. Wolfe, founded Shenandoah in 1950, the magazine has published over 200 issues, either in paper or online, so it’s nearly impossible even to contrive a method for selecting the “best” issue -- the one with a Seamus Heaney essay?  the Ha Jin story? the Native American issue?  issues with James Merrill poems or Marianne Moore poems?  the issue featuring Richard Wilbur’s essay “Poetry and Happiness?”  Instead, I’ve simply chosen my personal favorite, Volume 60, Number 1-2, perhaps due to the work involved and the pleasure I have derived from editing it and re-reading it. The Spring/Fall issue of 2010 is a bright red, perfect-bound book of 264 pages adorned with a print of Barry Moser’s woodcut “Mrs. Cope’s Nemesis,” an illustration for the story “A Circle in the Fire.”  Inscribed in yellow are “60th Anniversary Issue” and “A Tribute to Flannery O’Connor.” Not all the 20 poems are as directly Flannery-related as Claudia Emerson’s trio of character portraits (of Red Sam, LucyNell and Hulga) or Rita Mae Reese’s “Apocrypha: Flannery and the Book of Tobit,” but verse by Rodney Jones, Charles Wright, Dave Smith, and Betty Adcock fan the flames of gothic wit and regionally-sown universality. And there’s much more to savor -- Flannery essays biographical, theological, geographical, anecdotal, and feminist; fiction (by Ron Rash and Joyce Carol Oates) directly referential to the Georgia’s National Book Award-winning Flannery, as well as more obliquely related narratives (by Starkey Flythe, Fred Chappell, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers), photos of the O’Connor farm Andalusia, cartoons, collages, letters from the peacock-loving author to Shenandoah editors. And I wouldn’t want anyone to miss LaWanda Walters verse homage “Piano Legs,” which brings Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach to “Good Country People” and the Misfit in that infamous parrot shirt.  Nor Marlon Barton’s moving story “Pasture Art,” which is a visceral account of human suffering and the wishful near-miracle of “a hay dragon spitting red-tin fire” to animate and complete a collection of folk art. No one could bring to the mysteries of airy nothingness a local habitation and a name better than O’Connor, but those who have followed the trail she blazed have kept the spirit alive, and this issue of Shenandoah, I think, has done a respectable job of compiling and packaging some of the artifacts.  Fortunately, we still have 50 or 60 copies for sale.  

CTRL-F, DELETE: Word-Trends, Sneaky Cliches, and Other Turns of Phrase You Should Immediately Delete From Your Manuscript

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing. Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often: 1. Impossibly Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually -- you know -- conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.” When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise. Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane: “Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.” “In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.” “The sun was even higher, impossibly high” “Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together” “They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.” “I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.” But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall." Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.” None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible. If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need. 2. Ridiculously In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:” “Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.” “DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.” However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat -- it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous: “It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.” 3. Skitter/Skittered/Skittering skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. "the girls skittered up the stairs" draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing. It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing: “The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.” “Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.” “Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.” “Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.” “She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.” As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself? 4. Feelings Moving Like Weather Patterns Across Faces “Leon watched her face out of the corner of her eyes. It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives clouds across.” Sound familiar? This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times -- probably before, and definitely since -- to count. 5. Shocks of Hair "He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair." “His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.” “The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.” “I'll never forget the first time I saw him -- the wild shock of black hair.” “He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.” “Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.” “She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.” “To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.” And my personal favorite: “He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.” If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these. 6. "...All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs..." Who was the first person to use "sharp angles" and "jutting limbs?" I don't know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It's over, everyone -- done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters. 7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings: ““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.” “Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.” “The boy's shoulders slumped and he began to groan.” “I can see it in their shoulders -- slumped and weighty.” “She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.” “He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.” That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh. Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”: “On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita) So evocative! So refreshing! 8. In Conclusion All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing -- and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere -- keep one eye on what’s trending. If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we. Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.
Lists, Notable Articles

Most Anticipated, Too: The Great 2016 Nonfiction Book Preview

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Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the first half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 45 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new biography of the late Leonard Nimoy by his Star Trek crewmate William Shatner to a book-length essay on art, modernity, and the city by Olivia Laing to a pair of new studies looking at the legacy of the 1960s-era War on Poverty. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Dillard, Tama Janowitz, Thomas Piketty, Roxane Gay, and many more. Set aside some space on those bookshelves, Millions readers. This is looking to be a very, very good year for nonfiction. January Eternity Street by John Mack Faragher: Long before The Big Sleep or Boyz N the Hood, Los Angeles was a lawless, violent city better known for its murder rate than for its orange groves. Faragher, a Yale historian, follows L.A.’s tumultous rise from its origins as a small Mexican pueblo at the edge of the loosely governed frontier in the 19th century. “[T]here is no country where human life is of so little account,” one Angeleno wrote in 1853. “Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous.” (Michael) The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky: A memoir of two long-term friendships, one with a woman novelist and the other with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet. Written in a collaged and non-linear way, it’s an honest and fierce examination of the ways that platonic and romantic loves inform one another -- and how their losses devastate in equal measure. (Hannah)     Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr.: A syndicated columnist and NPR commentator, Dionne is a pundit for people who hate pundits: lucid, funny, ideologically coherent without being rigid. Here, he argues that today’s radical conservatism is rooted not in Tea Party opposition to Obamacare but much further back in history with the Republican Party’s choice of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. (Michael) February: Leonard by William Shatner, with David Fisher: Anyone with fond memories of the original Star Trek has to be rooting for this book to be good. With his music and photography, Leonard Nimoy always came off as a fascinating, multi-faceted man. Shatner, on the other hand, often came off as a serious cheeseball. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to learn that, beneath the bluster and bad acting, Shatner is a sensitive and observant friend and biographer? (Michael)   In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: New Yorker readers got a sneak preview of this beguiling memoir of Lahiri’s struggle to learn Italian, a language she found herself drawn to for mysterious reasons. Written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein (who also translated the Elena Ferrante novels), Lahiri explores what it means to think and write in another language, and how a new language can give a writer a new voice. (Hannah)     Pandemic by Sonia Shah: Beware germophobes! This book may stoke your fears as Shah describes how vibro cholerae, a marine bacteria in the Bay of Bengal, caused a global outbreak of cholera in the late-19th century. Shah draws parallels between the technological advancements that allowed cholera to spread (steamships, canals, urbanization) with today’s rapid globalization, reporting on modern pathogens found all over the world. (Hannah) March: The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan: At the height of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the hero of Egan’s new book, Thomas Meagher, led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony. He promptly escaped and turned up in America, where he led the New York-based Irish Brigade in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and later won a post as territorial governor of Montana. A Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and columnist, Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Time, about America in the Dustbowl years, which won a National Book Award. (Michael) All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Despite what De Beers would have you think, only 20 percent of American women are married by age 29, a startling demographic shift that Traister examines in this group portrait of America’s female singletons. Based on interviews with academics, social scientists, and, of course, single ladies, this book shows how unmarried women have historically brought about great social change -- and will continue to do so in the future. (Hannah)   Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: The title says it all. This 78-page primer was a bestseller in Italy, and came from a series of popular newspaper articles. It’s written to be accessible and to appeal to the imagination of the liberal arts major -- as opposed to aspiring physicists already well versed in the theory of relativity. In writing for a general audience, Rovelli highlights the beauty of theories of gravity, time, and consciousness. (Hannah)   The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This book­length essay offers an alert and moving exploration of art, anonymity, and modernity as they collide in that great crucible: the city. As in her first book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing deftly blends memoir and criticism; the chapters on David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, in particular, are not to be missed. (Garth)     The Abundance by Annie Dillard: Forty-two years after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which netted the author a nonfiction Pulitzer at the age of 29), Dillard has chosen both old and new essays to fill out her latest collection. In the older pieces corner, “Total Eclipse” exemplifies the author’s naturalistic bent, while “This Is the Life” adds her voice to the 9/11 canon. In the younger pieces corner, she follows a teenager memorizing Arthur Rimbaud, as well as a man who takes a snowball fight a little too seriously. Geoff Dyer provides the foreword. (Thom) The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter: Best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe was a prominent abolitionist and an early feminist who campaigned for women’s rights and social reform. This new biography focuses on her unhappy marriage and lack of independence from her husband, a private life at odds with her public achievements. (Hannah)     Charlotte Brontë by Claire Harman: Arriving just in time for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, this biography will speak to those already familiar with her life story as well as those who have never read a word of her novels. This isn’t the first or last biography we’ll have of Brontë, but according to advance reviews from across the pond, it may be the most novelistic. Harman brings a storyteller’s finesse as she synthesizes decades of research and scholarship, and a realist’s eye to some of the more romantic Brontë myths. (Hannah)   Heads by Jesse Jarnow: Subtitled “A Biography of Psychedelic America,” this new history suggests that psychedelic drugs and the Grateful Dead form a “secret American through-line between the 1950s and the present.” Jarnow, a Brooklyn-based musician and music journalist, uses the history of the legendary jam band and its loyal followers to explore an alternative America packed with “utopian homesteaders and self-taught black market chemists, spiritual seekers and pranksters, graffiti artists and government-wanted hackers, entrepreneurs and pioneering DJs.” (Michael) Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein: The author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter delves into the adolescent years, taking a look at a subject that most parents prefer to turn a blind eye to: the sex lives of teenage girls. Drawing on extensive interviews with young women, Orenstein explores the effects of pornography and social media on a new generation’s sexual coming of age. (Hannah)   April: The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag: “God, guts, and guns made America free,” goes the old line. This revisionist history by the author of Marriage Confidential begs to differ. Drawing on documents from the archives of the Winchester and Colt companies, Haag shows how the gun industry, not freedom-loving anti-colonialists and frontiersmen, sowed the seeds of the bond between Americans and their firearms. (Michael)   All Tomorrow’s Parties by Rob Spillman: A memoir from the founder of Tin House, who was born in Berlin and grew up among West Berlin artists and intellectuals, the son of two musician parents. As a young adult, Spillman made his way to literary New York, only to return to Germany in his mid-20s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As much a travelogue as a memoir, Spillman portrays the changing cultural landscape of Berlin while documenting his own coming of age and search for a place to call home. (Hannah)   One-Man Band by Simon Callow: This is the third volume of Callow’s four-volume biography of the great American icon and enigma, Orson Welles. In this volume, which covers the years 1947 to 1964, Callow tracks Welles’s self-exile from the United States when he produced some of his most lasting work, including Touch of Evil. Watch the video of Welles slurring his lines in a late Paul Masson wine commercial, then read Callow’s bio to be reminded why this is so sad. (Michael)   67 Shots by Howard Means: For many Americans, the 1960s ended on May 4, 1970, when a National Guard troop fired 67 bullets into a peaceful crowd of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. Means uses recently compiled oral histories to piece together the inside story of the campus tragedy that sounded the final death knell for popular support for the war in Vietnam. (Michael)     Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty: Remember when everyone was obligated to pretend to have read Piketty’s 700-page tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Now, the wise folks at Houghton Mifflin have produced a Piketty for the proletariat, compiling eight years of the economist’s columns written for the French magazine Libération. The book begins in September 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and takes readers through the aftermath of the crisis that followed, offering Pikettian analysis of the Obama presidency and the European Union’s debt woes. (Michael) CRUSH edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton: An anthology of essays about formative celebrity crushes from the likes of Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, James Franco, Emily Gould, and more. Swoon-worthy subjects include Jared Leto, River Phoenix, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, and of course, Donny Osmond. It’s hard to resist a book that’s having this much fun with its subject. (Hannah)     True Crimes by Kathryn Harrison: An essay collection from the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. Written over the course of 10 years, these personal essays are about the author’s family: her parents, her children, her in-laws, and even her dog. Katie Roiphe describes the collection as “the most honest family album ever.” (Hannah)     We Are As Gods by Kate Daloz: In the early 1970s, as war raged in the jungles of Vietnam and in the streets of America’s cities, millions of baby boomers headed for the hills in search of rural authenticity. Shunning life in America’s “plastic” suburbs, these back-to-the-landers built geodesic domes and formed non-traditional families to populate them. Daloz, herself a child of former Peace Corps volunteers who decamped to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, focuses on a small group of communards who struggle to hold fast to their high-minded ideals as they endure brutal Northern winters without indoor plumbing or electricity -- and, some might argue, basic common sense. (Michael) The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth: Those who like their true-crime leavened with historical insight may want to take a look at this tale of “America’s first serial killer” who terrorized frontier Austin, Texas, in the 1880s. Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly, chronicles the hunt for a vicious murderer who attacked women with axes, knives, and even steel rods. “Skip Hollandsworth has a bloodhound’s nose for a great tale,” writes Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers. “Through scrupulous research and a finely tuned sense of the gothic, Hollandsworth has brought this Texas-sized true-crime story, more than a century old, to vivid, chilling life on the page.” (Michael) Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride: A biography of James Brown, one of the great musical artists of the 20th century and among the most influential. McBride, who is a musician as well as the award-winning author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, is the perfect biographer for Brown, finding universal American themes in the musician’s life story: the divide between the North and South, rich and poor, and black and white. McBride also delves into the legal battles over Brown’s estate, a subject that sounds so complicated and epic that it could probably warrant its own book. (Hannah) Pretentiousness by Dan Fox: In this book-length essay, art critic Fox wants to make an argument for the virtues of pretentiousness. “Without pretension,” Fox writes, “we would never have 99% of the art, literature, music, buildings, theater, fashion, cinema, poetry, philosophy, food or design that we love.” Drawing on a wide variety of sources from literature to film to fashion and the art world, this energetic and entertaining book is written with a clarity and humor that is decidedly lacking in pretension. (Hannah)   Violation by Sallie Tisdale: “A Buddhist woman who’s written about porn,” one critic has said of Tisdale. “Do you really need another reason to read her?” Well, if you put it that way, probably not. Portland-based indie press Hawthorne Books has compiled this first-ever essay collection by the author of Talk Dirty to Me and The Best Thing I Ever Tasted. The essays span Tisdale’s 30-year career and range in subject from the biology of flies to the author’s experience of working in an abortion clinic. (Michael) May: Labor of Love by Moira Weigel: In this thoughtful work of social history, Weigel likens modern dating to “the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.” Weigel examines the history of dating, and explains why dating not only feels like work, but is a particular kind of unpaid labor shaped by larger economic forces. Our dating rituals (and apps) have long needed the context that this book provides. (Hannah)     Little Labors by Rivka Galchen: Galchen is to fiction what Ferran Adrià is to gastronomy, serving up the whimsical, the startling, and the revelatory in the guise of the delightfully familiar. And here she comes again, bearing a tray of amuse-­bouches: a short book of linked stories and essays about parenthood. (Garth)     White Sands by Geoff Dyer: Originally titled “Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going,” this collection of travel essays asks those three very questions as its British author tours Beijing’s Forbidden City with a guide who isn’t in fact a tour guide, journeys to French Polynesia to soak up the atmosphere that inspired painter Paul Gauguin, and picks up a hitchhiker near a prison at White Sands, N.M. (Michael)   Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips: The latest from the prolific author of Missing Out, On Balance, On Flirtation, and Side Effects -- to name just a few of Phillips’s curiously addictive essay collections, which marry Freudian theory with a literary sensibility. This new collection examines the relationship between prohibition and pleasure, pushing back against the notion that things that are forbidden are necessarily more enjoyable. (Hannah)   Robert Parris Moses by Laura Visser-Maessen: No one was as central to the battle for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in the 1960s as Bob Moses, and few figures of that era are more deserving of a full-dress biography. This book, like an earlier Moses biography And Gently He Shall Lead Them, is an academic title, written by a Dutch historian and published by the University of North Carolina Press. No matter. Any treatment of Moses’s role in the violent crucible of the 1964 Freedom Summer and his later work with the math literacy program, The Algebra Project, is bound to be riveting. (Michael) Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore: Legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell first discovered Joseph Gould on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Gould, Mitchell found an eccentric and charismatic writer who was supposedly working on an epic manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.” When the manuscript went missing after Gould’s death, Mitchell concluded it had never really existed in the first place. Nearly 60 years later, New Yorker writer Lepore picks up where Mitchell left off, to further investigate one of the magazine’s most elusive subjects. (Hannah) From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton: How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Hinton, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, traces the mass incarceration of America’s young black men to a surprising source: President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. With America’s inner cities ablaze with urban riots, Hinton writes, Johnson combined his famous “War on Poverty” with a lesser-known call for a “War on Crime” -- which, over time, helped create a penal system that now locks up one in every 11 black men in America. (Michael) You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt: “I like, therefore I am” is the motto of our social media avatars, and yet -- red heart and thumbs-up emojis aside -- what does it mean to like something? How are preferences formed? By something in our biology? From our life experiences? Do we shape our preferences or do our preferences shape us? Vanderbilt tackles these questions and more in this book that you may or may not like, but will certainly find interesting. (Hannah)     The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton: Fans of Philipp Meyer’s epic novel The Son may want to check out this nonfiction account of Mickey Free -- born Felix Telles -- a mixed-race child whose kidnapping by Apache Native Americans set off a 30-year war between the Apaches and federal troops. Hutton, a professor at the University of New Mexico, relates the violent history of America’s Southwest borderlands where dwindling Native bands, led by legendary chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, made their last stand against the American war machine. (Michael) Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith: A history of the Christian utopian sex-cult cum cookware and flatware makers, by a descendant of one of the group’s founders. As the book would have it, this was possibly the oddest moment in America, when extreme religious fervor in the 19th century resulted in a free-love commune for the devout, which in turn became a major corporation and one of the hallmarks of bourgeois respectability in 20th-century America. (Lydia)   June and beyond Hunger by Roxane Gay: A powerful new memoir about food, weight, self-image, and what it means to feed yourself. Fans of Gay’s Tumblr blog will recognize these themes from her disarmingly diaristic posts about cooking Blue Apron meals. In an era of Instagrammed desserts and lifestyle blogs, Gay’s writing about food is refreshingly sensitive to the emotions we bring to cooking and eating. (Hannah)   The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: An award-winning poet before he became known as a novelist (and recently crowned as a MacArthur genius), Lerner defends his life’s work in this book-length essay about what it means to resist poetry. Lerner examines poetry’s great haters, as well as the work of some of the best and worst poets. (Hannah) I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro: Low-key, little-known comedian Tig Notaro had a run of bad luck to rival Job’s: first she was hospitalized with a near-fatal intestinal infection, then her mother died, and then she went through a break-up. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. A few days after her cancer diagnosis, Notaro took her grief on stage and delivered a brazenly honest stand-up set that went viral. Notaro then found herself on a completely different roller coaster as she experienced fame and national acclaim. Her aptly named memoir reflects on an unexpectedly eventful year. (Hannah) Battle for Bed-Stuy by Michael Woodsworth: The Johnson-era War on Poverty, despised for its over-reach by conservatives and lamented for its under-performance by liberals, hasn’t fared well in history, so it is a surprise to see a book-length study touting its successes. Battle for Bed-Stuy details how LBJ’s antipoverty programs tapped into existing networks of black residents in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to battle endemic crime and shore up the local social safety net -- in the process, ironically, setting the stage for the present-day gentrification of the once solidly black neighborhood. (Michael) The Secret Lives of Web Pages by Paul Ford: Every week, it seems, some starlet’s outsized derrière or surgically reconfigured cheekbones “breaks the Internet,” but how is the Internet built in the first place? Ford, an early blogger and adviser to sites like Medium and Kickstarter, explains it all for you in this breezy overview of the hows and whys of what happens when a web page loads onto your browser. (Michael) Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: In 2012, Hemon, a Bosnian-American fiction writer best known for his novel The Lazarus Project, spent a few months as a “writer-in-residence” at the United Nations, meeting with officials, attending staff meetings, and sitting in on sessions of the Security Council. In Behind the Glass Wall, Hemon struggles to come to grips with the daily reality of a troubled institution that responded all too slowly to the humanitarian crisis that crippled his home city of Sarajevo, but whose charter allowed for the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. (Michael) Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney -- famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
The Millions Top 10

The Millions Top Ten: December 2015

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winnerFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and MeA Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner HouseUndermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Lists, On Poetry

The Whispered Language of Secrets and Fears: Ten Poems for People Who Hate Poetry

Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated. William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed. Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame -- we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough. This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems. 1. “A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr (Sinners Welcome) “It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops ...” 2. “Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion” by Matthew Olzmann (Mezzanines) I might have chosen Olzmann's hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there's something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can't trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I'm willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art. 3. “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise) If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We've all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record's needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one's song.” 4. “Ode to Browsing the Web” by Marcus Wicker (Maybe the Saddest Thing) “I've been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I'm worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet's hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.” 5. “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lucky Fish) For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings -- a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil's poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.” 6. “That's Incredible!” by Michael Robbins (The Second Sex) When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse -- or who don't speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you're part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording. 7. “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo (Digest) Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.” 8. “Before” by Ada Limón (Bright Dead Things) If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.” 9. “Intersection” by Kerrin McCadden (Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes) McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o'clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more? 10. “Nothing Is Haunted” by Sandy Longhorn (The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer's / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.