It’s been a great summer for reading. While at the beach, I made my way through Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, all except the final, separately-published At Last, which I left the beach and drove two hours to procure. (Warning: these novels are not just about addiction, they enact it.) Also enjoyed Elizabeth Spencer’s No Place for an Angel, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. Made the glad acquaintance of Elizabeth Taylor the writer and her novel, A Game of Hide and Seek, and am in the midst of reading a new (to me) book, Fair Play, by one of my favorite authors, Tove Jansson.
Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. One my favorites. Rich & strange, humid and spooky.
Swoop by Hailey Leithauser. Sharp and sonically resplendent: Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy/as religion…
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey. Stunning. And hybrid!
The Dead Eat Everything by Michael Mlekoday. I ordered it because of a poem I read on Verse Daily and it hasn’t disappointed. You ain’t bigger than this river, son—
Also Dean Young’s The Art Of Recklessness, a highly entertaining and inspiring book of prose on poetry which I’m rereading because I’ve just assigned it for an online course. Turns out that it’s the perfect text for a generative class.
A few weeks ago in a used bookstore I randomly came across a short story collection called At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson, a writer I’d never heard of. All of her stories are delightfully strange, and the novella-length “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is one of the best things I’ve read all year. That story in particular reminded me of another fantastic (and fantastical) writer, China Mieville, whose book The Scar I read this summer and cannot recommend too highly.
I’m enjoying Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the layered and labyrinthine 800+ page winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, even though I have to keep going back and checking things because the plot is so complex and the characters so numerous; and finally Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins: full of details about weddings, travel, water-closets and the disposal of animal carcasses in early nineteenth century England. Fun!
Yesterday, I read a story called “The Heron,” by Dorothe Nors (from the September 9, 2013 issue of The New Yorker). It is translated from the Danish, by Martin Aitken, and narrated by an older man who is approaching death. It is so grim that it really made me happy. Alcoholics, sickly herons, and a suitcase containing a dismembered body appear in it.
About a week ago, I started a long novel by Victor Hugo, titled The Laughing Man, which was originally published in 1869. The book was recommended to me by the French poet Claire Malroux and tells the story of Ursus, a man who dresses in bearskins and lives in a caravan, whose only companion is a wolf named Homo. As the action shifts forward in time, it includes a boy with a mutilated face, whose mouth has been perpetually carved into a grin. Hugo wrote the book when he was living in exile. I want to watch the 1928 silent movie of the same title directed by a German expressionist filmmaker.
I am also reading a new translation of The Walk, a novella by the Swiss writer Robert Walser, who lived in an asylum and died while out on a Christmas day stroll. Walser’s prose is pellucid and quietly philosophical. He has a poet’s sensitivity to the small things of the world, and I’m drawn to his mind.
Finally, I have read (several times) the proofs to Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, a tender and melancholy new collection of poems to be published this month. Like all her books, it is unlike the others. Glück’s sentences move like Balanchine dancers against a blue field that accentuates their lean sinewy bodies. They seem purified and stripped of extraneous detail. Like Balanchine, she can be both abstract and narrative. She is both classical and contemporary. She is always original.
Bach by John Eliot Gardiner
That’s Not Relevant by Isaiah Toothtaker
Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece ed. Diane Rayor
DS (2) Dreamstories by Kamau Brathwaite
Stephane Mallarmé by Roger Pearson
Stephane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose ed. Mary Ann Caws
Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle by Rosemary Lloyd
Collected Poems by James Schuyler
In late summer you need an audiobook for working in the garden or long drives alone. Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin (Random House Audio), read by the incomparable Roy Dotrice, has just as many dragons as Harry Potter, and much more sex and treachery.
You also need the nonfiction book of the season, read with your feet up, or aloud to someone else who eats it up like you do. This year, it’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
And because this is late summer of 2014, you also need poetry to make sense of events in Ferguson, Missouri. Take for your meditation Abide, by Jake Adam York (Southern Illinois University, 2014). York, a white Southerner, not only considers your shared racial history, invoking names, and places, and crimes, but promptly circles back and goes over it again. He is in no hurry to move on.
Two different poems in Abide are entitled “Abide,” for example, and a third title includes the same word. Two different poems have epigraphs to John Earl Reese, murdered for being Black in Mayflower, Texas, in 1955. In each approach the angle is different; in each the poem stands complete. So you stay with York in Mayflower. Or Okemah. Or Bogalusa. You don’t mind, because the ground is so bloody rich.
What’s important about Mayflower now—and about Ferguson—is you might move on from there, to say, O that was a long time ago or O they’re all dead. And it was, and they are, or they will be. But the poet tells you to stay there anyway, to abide, where the blood is. To not try to move on before it’s all been absorbed.
Some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading recently include Love and Mathby Edward Frankel, which brings out how astonishing the relationship between mathematics and the physical world is (and which inspired me to write a poem called “The Tenderness of Mathematics”); The Black Eyed Blond by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville), probably the most convincing recreation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow (though still not quite as evocative of the Southern California of my childhood as Chandler’s novels); Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words, a satire of the Mann Booker literary prize; Death And The Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler, one of the few philosophically sophisticated books accessible to a general audience, and which isn’t about personal immortality at all, but rather argues that our finding certain things and activities valuable depends on the assumption that the human race will continue into the indefinite future; Spencer Reece’s The Road To Emmaus, a clear, direct and moving book of poems; and the two volumes of John Ashbery’s translations of French poetry and prose, which include his partial translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros.
I read a lot of books that aren’t poetry but that feed my need to wrap my tongue around rich, tangled language. After imploring look-the-other-way librarians to renew my library copy well-beyond the maximum allowable times, I finally ordered my own copy of William T. Stearn’s Botanical Latin (Timber Press, 2004). As Stearn writes in his introduction, this book provides “a working guide to the special kind of Latin…used by botanists for the description and naming of plants.” It’s worth a flip through if only for the delicately lined drawings of plants and flowers, broken down, like the sumptuous language that supplements them, into their various components.
Leap from botany to The Flowers of Evil. I’ve been reading (well, for like three years) Keith Waldrop’s translation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Because my own French ranges from non-existent to très pathétique, I can only read the translated poems on their own terms, how they stand up as poems in English à la Waldrop. Of the several translations I’ve read of The Flowers of Evil only Waldrop (who, along with Rosmarie Waldrop, is as close to poetry-deity as one can be and still be mere, alas, mortal) manages to make Baudelaire feel current and vital. It takes an incomparable poet and translator like Waldrop to unearth Baudelaire’s brilliance, too often buried, depressingly, under stilted, lackluster translations. Also worth mentioning is Waldrop’s 2009 translation of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (I’ve only been reading this one for two years, too soon to offer anything insightful!).
A quick mention of Bernard de Vries’s Getting to Know Saskatchewan Lichens (Nature Saskatchewan). I love a late-bloomer story, and de Vries, a regional authority of all things lichen, published this fetching field guide in 2011 when he was 90. The photos are gorgeous, and with such poetic common names as Boreal Pixie-cup and Blue Blister Lichen, how can you not love lichen?
Early summer’s great reading pleasure was Felix Feneon’s witty, mordant, illuminating Novels in Three Lines. A literary Zelig of turn-of-the-century France (read Luc Sante’s terrific intro), Feneon wrote items for the anonymous news-in-brief section of the French paper Le Matinthroughout 1906, collected here to fabulous effect: “Eugene Perichot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartrier. Eugene Dupuis came to fetch her. They killed him. Love.”
Mid-summer I finally slowed down and read Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow in the proper manner: in as close to one sitting as possible. Its aphoristic gifts accrue into a work that’s funny, numb, tender, acute, banal, wise, heartbreaking, and absurd. Like life. “Baby we are radically alive,” she writes, “I name my god Get It Together… You’ve got to get inside language to be free.”
Currently I like meandering with John Gallaher In a Landscape, his new book-length sequence. “Life gives us numerous opportunities to practice counting,” Gallaher writes, in a poem that features a math problem involving apples and turnips, geologic time, Neil Young, Aunt Carla’s donated kidney, his kids playing a fishing game at a state fair, and the time “Person X showed up at my apartment / in San Marcos, Texas,… wearing a raincoat and heels, / and nothing else.” The book muses on just about everything in the world.
And then there’s the dream-drowning in the Beowolfian sea of Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, first introduced to me in the pages of Poetry magazine. Reading it, I keep flashing on Laurie Anderson intoning “full fathom five, my father lies” in “Blue Lagoon,” from the album Mr. Heartbreak. Make sure to watch the mesmerizing films that accompany the Drift project, posted on Harriet. I’m excited to review the book for Boston Review.
Two quick ideas: the great American poet Allen Grossman died this summer, after long illness. His last book, Descartes’ Loneliness,contains unforgettable, almost hallucinatory poems about the loss of a cognitive center. In a very different vein, Tayari Jones’s classic American novel Leaving Atlanta is again available. It’s devastating, thrilling writing. Americans tend to write about “race” and “class” as plug-ins; this book makes them visceral and real.
I recommend starting with a bit of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books); and of course her latest collection. Or, perhaps, her Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010). Indeed possibly one of her single collections, all of which show how inimitable her work is; among my favorites, Tristimania (Carnegie Mellon, 2004).
Quite possibly ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes, (FSG). Deeply moving, finely made.
A surprising new book and highly entertaining, The Apartment of Tragic Appliances by poet Michael Snediker (punctum books/Peanut Books, 2013).
What we expected from Mark Wunderlich, his best and a memorable new collection from Graywolf, The Earth Avails.
Then a wonderful English poet, Grey Gowrie. In particular, part two of Third Day: New and Selected Poems, “The Domino Hymn: Poems from Harefield.” This suite turns over a new leaf in subjects and occasions for lyric poems in English. As the Times Literary Supplement noted, “‘The Domino Hymn’ rages movingly against the dying of the light, covering heroic distances and charting epic struggles in the space of eighteen unflinching and atmospheric pages.”
And finally, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks.
Reading for me is a communal path driven by desire, curiosity, gap-filling, and coincidence. Here are some recent emergences:
Stephanie Young had been talking about Testo Junkie for months. When I finally got around to reading it, I found Beatriz Preciado’s experiment with testosterone as scholarship (like Freud’s cocaine, or Benjamin’s hashish) quite compelling.
My gender does not belong to my family or to the state or to the pharmaceutical industry. My gender does not belong to feminism or to the lesbian community or to queer theory. Gender must be torn from the macrodiscourse and diluted with a good dose of micro-political hedonist psychedelics.
In anticipation of Fred Moten’s visit, the Bay Area Public School organized reading groups to attend to Moten’s work. I met with a small group to read The Undercommons by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten.
Look: the problematic of coalition is that coalition isn’t something that emerges so that you can come help me, a maneuver that always gets traced back to your own interests. The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?
My friend, poet and scholar Chris Chen, is a fountain of great book recommendations. He pointed me towards Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor, which is a helpful guide to understanding the production of poverty in our era:
The primary clients of the assistantial and carceral wings of the neoliberal state are essentially the two gendered sides of the same population coin drawn from the marginalized factions of the post-industrial working class.
To counteract hopelessness about the state of the world, I try to read what I can about resistance. The uprising in Ferguson provided an occasion to return to “The Wreck of the Plaza”:
To say that ends and means have come apart is to affirm again the changed character of our present moment: the very measure of ends and means learned by revolutions of the 20th century no longer holds.
The publication of Here Come The Warm Jets gave me an excuse to go on tours with dear friends. I went to the East Coast and Midwest with Stephanie Young and the Northwest with Lindsey Boldt. I had the pleasure of hearing these women read night after night, and two of the poems that were often on the setlists happen to be published in the same issue of Elderly. Stephanie Young’s “A New Name” and Lindsey Boldt’s “And A Great Whine Was Heard” are for the ages.
I’ve been rereading a number of first books recently: I’ve been thinking (not entirely disinterestedly) about brashness and the oddly capitalistic pressure to brand oneself.
In memory, Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle is easily compartmentalized, flattened, but when you enter it–especially rereading–it explodes into gesamtkunstwerk. Dark, baroque, precise, and urgent as hell.
Ada Collins’s It Is Daylight is my favorite book to have come out of the Yale Younger Poets competition in a long spell, though Richard Siken’s Crush comes near. Both are propelled by manic speakers wrestling for their lives with the fact of their enclosure. Collins’s speaker, shut in a room, a house, dives further inward; Siken’s voice, helplessly embodied, pushes himself into his skin(s), questions its moments of rupture, and traces the archeology of his corporeal condition.
Valeria Luiselli’s two books, Sidewalks (essays) and the novel Faces in the Crowd, are contemporary works of high modernism. Their poises, concision, and the play between sharp detail and dusky lacunae were refreshing.
On days when I try to write prose, I find it helpful not to read in English, so it’s Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Though the book is founded in misanthropy, confusion, and other distancings, nevertheless I find myself perceiving its various landscapes, bosky or intellectual, as Rousseau. And I find myself, anachronistically, testing his thought against the standard (for me) of Thoreau. But instinctive misreadings and those extreme exits from the self are one of the main arguments for reading at all: they refresh the entire world.
A few years ago, a friend told me she only wanted to read dead father poems, for the obvious reason. I read Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars on the train right before seeing my father for the last time, in May 2012. While many people whose fathers weren’t dying admired that book, the coincidence made it especially resonant for me. I reread the collection this spring and can’t stop thinking about it. This week I picked up a new gathering of spooky visitations, Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance, and it speaks to me in a similar way. The second section, “Interview with a Samizdat Poet,” is a remarkable evocation of conversations past—what vanishes, what lingers in fragments.
I sank into Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems in a nasty Saratoga Springs motel this August, and, impressively, it outshouted the post-horse-race drunken partiers. Those bouquets of exclamation points! Other excellent collections I’ve lingered in lately: Bill Manhire’s Selected Poems, Maria Hummel’s House and Fire, Tim Seibles’s Fast Animal, Jane Satterfield’s Her Familiars, David Wojahn’s World Tree, and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. Jahan Ramazani’s critical book Poetry and Its Others is terrific.
For a critical project of my own, I’m reading about reading. I consume as much speculative fiction as I can, too, where literary transportation is a constant theme—see Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land or Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, featuring all-powerful poets. My new favorite novel about reading, though, is Among Others by Jo Walton—good enough to inspire me to plow through her whole backlist. For the rock and roll version see Gwyneth Jones’s amazing Bold as Love series, which I would reread right now if I weren’t afraid of becoming so engrossed I’d ignore all my responsibilities.