What About Poetry?
It counts, too
Welcome to part III of IV of the reading round-up. I separate poetry from my countdown of the year’s reading, not to propagate the ghettoization of poetry in the publishing landscape, though I fear this is what it looks like, but because I read poetry so differently from fiction and nonfiction. (Here are part I and part II, on fiction and nonfiction.)
My sense of the “function” assigned to poetry by the publishing industry, and consequently by the general reading public, is the books you turn to when you need expression for intense and complex emotions, most commonly grief and love, but often these also include nostalgia for childhood, reverence for nature, etc. I have definitely turned to poetry for expression of complex and intense emotions in the past, but more recently I pick up poetry when I’m tired of the same forms of expressions, when my mind needs to be tipped on its side, poked awake, when I want to read something not easily apprehended (or maybe even something I won’t understand), when I’m seeking language to shake me up or that I can linger on, when I want space between words (especially in this time of overfeeding on inane text via Twitter, endless links and tabs).
I have poet friends who read poetry more than anything else, and keep up with books out every year. This is where I feel like I don’t do my duty. I don’t read poetry steadily, but rather based on an occasional gut feeling. It requires more energy and focus, and the wrong poetry book can be a real energy drain. However, I’ve also become aware over time that I would read more poetry if poetry sections in bookstores were larger and more diverse, so this is a factor, too, as I will often buy an unplanned-for book when browsing a store. (McNally Jackson stores in NYC have fantastic poetry sections and I always end up buying poetry when I visit them.) However, I am getting better and more mindful at ordering poetry books I’m interested in (from small publishers), to have them at hand when the right time should come.
In 2021 I read 8 poetry books (not always cover to cover). Presented below, beginning with books by beloved poet friends, by date of publication. I’ve included bits from each book, as the poems speak better than anything I could say, and I always like to see excerpts…
1. Ghost Hour by Laura Cronk (Persea Books, 2020)
The opening section of this collection is a forthright exploration of growing up in white Midwestern America, what was left unsaid, what haunts, what shines. Other poems touch on marriage, motherhood, leaving youth… They are wise with a glint in their eye, they speak with a clear voice, but retain mystery, pay attention and find beauty in a “pink sequined shell from a consignment shop” worn by a previous self, sexiness in a “construction worker/ with two long French braids” in the streets of New York, comfort in the “annoyed sibling state of being on the train” with other commuters. I love this courtship-love-marriage poem:
On Choosing You
You brought love letters from other loves,
records of overdraft, furniture found on
the street. You brought unsophisticated
drawings you made in charcoal and that
wasn’t enough. You brought pages of
your musings, recordings of your voice.
You realized your mistake and brought
bundles of sheets washed and folded tight,
platters of roast chicken, hand creams,
sweets. You sang and your voice gave out.
You started a fight. You caught my eye
while you were looking mournful. Late
at night, after walking together, you gave me
a single photo of you in the future, very old.
You dreamt you were a fish and told me
about it and I could see it all so clearly.
2. Parallel Resting Places by Laura Wetherington (Parlor Press, 2021)
This collection is inspired by Jack Spicer’s Letters to Lorca, where he alternates letters to the ghost of García Lorca with “translations” of his work (which are more like loosely inspired poems). Wetherington alternates poems “after” those of contemporary French poets (“a performance of the process of making sense and breaking it”) with intimate letters to different friends. It’s a regular swaying from transparent to opaque, body to mind, profane to transcendent, gross to tender, uncomfortable to funny. A taste, the beginning of one”
With a Polaroid we can image a past or a future without saying anything
after Jean-Marie Gleize
Dear Animal Farm, dear eighth grade gym class, dear long walk home, dear hi-top shoes, dear ghost girl wearing the shade of a doorway, dear sound at the center,
I am forgetful; you make me a shoe.
I throw myself across the room.
I am a you and you are a you
(each of us a prison.)
there is no way to cure these fists.
Dear Gene Simmons, dear Rimbaud and Verlaine together in a room, dear gunshots, dear whatever your version of love might be, dear glacier, dear sunset, dear thunder,
I am so lonesome I could split.
I discover without digging or architecture
that your other foot is a club.
I dream inside of you, synchronous arc into your skin
like a field of prairie dogs diving home at once.
3. Mortar by Lydia Unsworth (Osmosis Press, 2021)
Unsworth’s poems are often wrestling with the individual’s relationship to landscape and objects, how these can create a sense of home, shield with their heft, or disturb and alienate with their multiplication and decay (“A bike left out all winter saddle erupts into florets of mould. / Untended skin in full sun peels like paint from damp, damned walls.”). For whatever reason, prose poems seem to contain objects best, and she is particularly great at these. This one isn’t a prose poem, but I like it a lot:
The space we have to spread
curious conserves over processed
It keeps, thankfully -
we toast it to get to another day.
I want to bake
but there is too much at stake to spend days by the
oven, to become my own body
in so predictably a way.
Imagine wearing an
the babies that might fly out of me with flour on my
hands; the dough I might roll; the hollow exhale
of a poked cake.
The way a thing rises,
disappoints, is consumed.
We bring it out at the
party, offer it to the room.
More poetry books I read, in the order I would recommend them to a friend:
4. Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson (Vintage, 2000)
I turn to Anne Carson when I want to be surprised and genuinely amazed at what a poem can do. She has various collections that are made up of sections in different styles, and I connect with different parts each time I return to the book. The poems in this collection mostly consider other artists or works of art (Edward Hopper, Catullus, Hokusai) and historic figures (Freud, Audubon). Lazarus is a recurring figure. The poem I kept revisiting is one in a series she calls TV Men. I think I didn’t pay attention to it before because I didn’t understand why she had to recontextualize these figures as being on TV (and I guess I still don’t?). There’s “TV Men: Sappho” and “TV Men: Artaud.” How would you describe what it would feel like to come back from the dead? Carson’s description is extraordinary. An excerpt:
His bones are moving like a mist in him
all blown to the surface then sideways.
I do not want see,
he thinks in pain
as a darkish clump
cuts across his field of vision,
is filling the space,
gets caught in the mist,
twists all his bones to the outside where they ignite in air.
of his bones
lets Lazarus know where each bone is.
shifted forward into solidity–
although he pulls against it and groans to turn away–
Lazarus locks on
with a whistling sound behind him
as panels slide shut
and his soul congeals on his back in chrysolite drops
which almost at once evaporate.
(someone is calling his name)–his name!
And at the name (which he knew)
not just a roar of darkness
the whole skeletal freight
crushing him backward into the rut where he lay
like a damp
under a pile of furniture.
And the second fact of his humanity began.
5. The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca (New Directions, 1955)
García Lorca was never required reading in my education, even during my MFA, though I do remember a week when fellow students were obsessed with his concept of duende. And I knew of him as a romantic, tragic figure from the Spanish Civil War, but not too much of what he was doing with words. I’ve long loved Jack Spicer’s wonderful Letters to Lorca (like Laura Wetherington), though of course his “translations” totally not only take off from the Lorca poems but fly south to Florida.
Anyway, I finally picked up the bilingual Selected (various translators), a gift from either my husband or mother-in-law several years ago, with a clear determination not to feel pressured to approve or continue if I wasn’t feeling the work. But I loved it, in particular poems from Romanero Gitano and Poeta en Nueva York. I was struck by how modern the poems feel. (He was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, but often Spanish poetry reverts to an antiquated, stiff floweriness.)
I fully realize what I have to say next is super annoying, and I realize the irony of saying it being a translator and having written my thesis on literary translation, but there is just no comparison between reading the poems in Spanish and English.
Compare: Verde que te quiero verde
with: Green how much I want you green
Which one makes you feel sexier?
However, this is not to discourage reading García Lorca in any language. Take these lines from Poet in New York, from “Ode to Walt Whitman.” I’m not crediting a translator because I have presumptuously edited it to my own preferences:
Along the East River and the Bronx
the boys sang, showing their waists,
with wheel, oil, leather and hammer.
Ninety thousand miners extracted silver from the rocks
and children drew stairs and perspectives.
But none would sleep,
none wanted to be the river,
none loved the big leaves,
none, the blue tongue of the beach.
6. Love & I by Fanny Howe (Graywolf, 2019)
To me, Fanny Howe’s poems come from a place outside of daily life. I don’t mean that they don’t contend with earthly concerns, it’s more a matter of voice. It’s the voice I want to hear when I look out the airplane window, or get to the end of a very long walk, the voice that comes out of silence.
Some who never feel loved keep traveling.
They sense that an airplane will change their fate
By separating them from gravity.
They say goodbye to air and pebbles when boarding.
They must go on living because they have scores to settle.
And when the wings tremble, suddenly they love to talk to God.
Chatter like I tell you:
“Thank you for the candle colors folding inside the wax.”
I loved the shadow and being away from shouting girls at school.
This went on at a lowering frequency.
7. Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer (New Directions, 1982)
In the words of Alice Notley, this book “is an epic poem about a daily routine,” a single day in the life of a woman, poet, mother of two little girls, wife, living in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1978. It travels through dreams, memories of family and past lovers, hot dogs for lunch, her toddler’s temper tantrum in the library… But this sounds much more concrete than the work, which expands in all directions and feels like thinking, or the mind wandering.
I liked this passage when she’s describing the outskirts of Lenox. (I don’t know if I would call it representative, she plays around with many different styles, I just like it).
The civilized town are places everyone goes by car,
Sears, Zayre’s and King’s, Stop ‘n’ Shop and the Price Chopper
Which is cheaper because they don’t use union labor
Big mothers steer carts with kids past the things
And something called malls are the big thing now
With indoor gardens and no windows where whole families can go
Even on the weekends for pleasure and to buy things
But the malls seem to ruin the lives of the local people
And are all caught up in hideous deals with fraudulent corporations
From the outside these agglomerations look like artless spaceships
Buried into the ground surrounded by cars and some trees in space
And one of the problems with them is that such blatant flatness
Creates winds so fierce in winter one cannot walk
Inside are millions of the objects of novelty and fast-food to eat
In imitation of being rich like kings and being brought things,
Of being surfeited and entertained like queens vomiting
To be able to assimilate more which there isn’t room for
In the spaceless closeted private-property house rendered valuable
Lately by the inability to see another house from it
Though in a state like this it’s nice to be alone
8. A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (Canarium Press, 2016)
I was excited when I flipped through this collection and saw that it was poems and short prose texts inspired by The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagun (a charming book and amazingly relatable for coming from 10th-century Japan). This means documents of daily life, with insights into the mundane, amusing lists, minor confessions, all in an intimate, sometimes gossipy voice. I have a general policy against saying anything critical about contemporary poets publicly (it’s hard enough already), but I have to put my foot down with this one, as there were several markedly classist, verging-on-racist moments, and they weren’t to establish character (the book is categorized as poetry/nonfiction). I think the author is unaware of what she’s actually revealing in these disclosures. E.g. how her “blighted” Chicago neighborhood isn’t gentrifying quickly enough; how it’s hard to work when her cleaner Estela is in the house “with that smirk of unfathomable peace on her face”; how her nanny, “an uncanonized Puerto Rican saint,” doesn’t express sufficient gratitude for the gifts the author gives her, “many of which, I trust she appreciates, represent a considerable expenditure on my part.” This was named one of the best poetry books of 2016 by The New York Times!
(If musings on The Pillow Book and similarly short, unclassifiable texts sounds like a fun read, I would recommend Rivka Galchen’s, Little Labors, instead, which is just delightful.)
I don’t want to end this dispatch on a sour note, so I will note here the poetry books I’ve made an effort to order and am excited to read (next time I get back to the U.S.):
The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis by Joanna Penn Cooper (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014)
Crawlspace by Nikki Wallschlaeger (Bloof Books, 2017)
Some of the Times by Gina Myers (Barrelhouse Books, 2020)
Also, there’s currently a fundraiser on to support Bernadette Mayer.
Got any good contemporary poetry recommendations? Let me know!