Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”
In the climactic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—soon to be re-released on its 40th anniversary—a massive UFO lands at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming. Scientists watch in awe as long-missing pilots from the infamous Flight 19 exit the mothership. A grey-haired, goateed man in a blue suit walks forward between the rapt congregation. He lifts a hand to his face, as if to pause on his chin, but then puts a pipe in his mouth. That scientist was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the man responsible for the film’s namesake classification system. Hynek’s cinematic cameo only lasted six seconds, but his spirit infects the entire film. A new biography reveals how Hynek’s life and legend exemplify a lost era. UFO sightings still make the news, but Hynek was something different: a public intellectual who told us to watch the skies. Steven Spielberg explained he “was very influenced by Hynek because he was not looking at UFOs as science fiction, but looking at them as science speculation.” In The Close Encounters Man, Mark O’Connell notes that Spielberg’s friend suggested the title to the director after reading Hynek’s book The UFO Experience. Upon learning of the film’s production, Hynek wrote a curt letter to Spielberg, quipping “Although I am pleased that this recognition is being given to my terminology, I would really have liked to have been informed of this rather than read about it in a national magazine!” Spielberg apologized, made his creative team read Hynek’s book, and even hired the Northwestern University astronomer as a technical adviser. He could not have made a better choice. Hynek truly embodied the “contradictory nature of scientific inquiry and investigation in the twentieth century, with its simultaneous dependence on and rejection of imagination and wonder.” Hynek had earned his doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, and began teaching at Ohio State University in 1936. His first government work was during World War II, when he was the reports editor for development of the top-secret proximity fuze at Johns Hopkins. His contributions were brief, but as McConnell demonstrates, cultural history is often the result of unlikely coincidence. Several years later, when an Air National Guard pilot named Capt. Thomas Mantell tragically died while chasing a “metallic” object “of tremendous size,” the Army Air Force tried to claim that he’d crashed his P-51 “while mistakenly pursuing Venus.” The Air Material Command’s newly formed flying saucer unit, Project Sign, needed a scientist to validate their prosaic conclusion, but “where in Central Ohio could the air force find a professional astronomer who already held a high security clearance and could go right to work with a minimum of red tape?” Hynek accepted the position, and saw Project Sign as a “golden opportunity to demonstrate to the public how the scientific method works, how the application of the impersonal and unbiased logic of the scientific method could be used to show that flying saucers were figments of the imagination.” For the most part, Hynek toed the party line and pleased his bosses, casting away sightings with mundane explanations. He was responsible for “astronomical assessments” of select cases, and played no part in the infamous “Estimate of the Situation,” a 1948 internal Project Sign report that concluded UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin. The report was rejected by top brass, and led to a less open-minded military take on UFOs. Project Sign was replaced with the appropriately named Project Grudge: “Articles placed in popular magazines portrayed flying saucer sighting reports as pranks, mistakes, and delusions, and reassured the public that there was nothing to fear.” Meanwhile, Hynek was back in the classroom, and “used his UFO work as a teaching tool of sorts.” In 1952, after a flurry of sightings that included radar-tracked objects over Washington D.C., UFOs became news again. Civilian research groups were being formed across the country. The CIA formed the Robertson Panel, a short-lived investigation that concluded UFOs did not pose a national security threat but, as McConnell writes, “public interest in UFOs—and the public’s growing tendency to report UFO sightings—was of grave concern.” Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official investigation into UFOs, was then formed largely as a public relations front, a misdirection. The Air Force didn’t have to work too hard; these were the years of the Contactee movement—people who claimed they had been invited on spaceships and given secret knowledge about the galaxy. Pulpy UFO books and “alien invasion movies had taken the country by storm.” Time and Life magazines were speculating about other worlds. UFOs were silly entertainment. Hynek “chafed at the miserable circumstance of having to serve a disagreeable master in order to gain access” to the Project Blue Book files. He had to be a public skeptic—see his logic-twisting designation of a Michigan sighting as “swamp gas”—but in private, his views were evolving. After thousands of sightings yielded a fair number of authentically “unknown” cases, Hynek was convinced of two things: UFOs were misunderstood by the scientific community and the public, and they were worthy of serious research. The government had other ideas. The 1968 Condon Report concluded that the Air Force “should terminate Project Blue Book and get out of the UFO business for good.” Hynek was disappointed, but as part of the system, knew such a conclusion was inevitable. In the years that followed, Hynek continued researching on his own, leading to the classification system that so inspired Spielberg. Hynek is a deserving subject, but O’Connell’s book also is notable as a methodical history of the UFO phenomena in America—a story so often overshadowed by the Roswell incident. (It is worth mentioning that Roswell was not even on Spielberg’s radar; even though the incident occurred in the summer of 1947, researchers showed little interest in the alleged crash until 1978). McConnell’s a great storyteller, and that’s what needed in a history of American ufology: someone to connect the dots into a narrative. McConnell reveals how, even in the days of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Percival Lowell’s speculations about intelligent life on Mars, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between science fiction and science fact in the world of UFOs. What Close Encounters of the Third Kind and events like Roswell offer are narratives, stories to help tether the often disparate, mysterious world of UFOs to lived reality. Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite feel dated, but does feel like it came from a more optimistic time. In one of the first scenes, young Barry Guiler awakens in the middle of the night. His toys are spinning and marching, animated by some mysterious force. He goes downstairs. Punctured Coca Cola cans drip on eggs, lettuce and meat strewn across the kitchen floor. In Spielberg’s vision, UFOs and their occupants are more mischievous than nefarious. Like us, they are curious. During the Condon study, Hynek traveled to Colorado with his colleague Jacques Vallée, the esteemed French astronomer and ufologist. They were talking about what got them interested in science, and Hynek’s confession was telling: “So many people get into science looking for power, or for a chance to make some big discovery that will put their name into history books...For me the challenge was to find out the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.” Like a great scientist should be, Hynek was in awe of the world—of all things seen, and unseen.
Aristotle, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, John Keats, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Pinsky. Poetry has had its fair share of apologists. In Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art, Jeannine Johnson documents a tradition of poetic apology, but notes two important shifts. Shelley “contends with a charge that poetry has become culturally obsolete,” and Matthew Arnold “links the activity of defending poetry with that of defending literary criticism.” Johnson explains that “poets in modern poetic defenses converse with their own anxieties.” In poetry, as in other elements of life, it is more dramatic to have a villain than a friend. Poetry is not the only genre that requires resident apologists—you won’t have to wait long for the next article announcing that the novel is dead—but poetry's form and function inherently require defense. Simply put, prose is our default mode. Poetry is a process of selection, of white space and rhythm. If prose is prayer, poetry is hymn. In my own teaching experience, poetry is best sold to students as one of two extremes. There is the utilitarian mode, in which poetry is weight-training for prose (the syntactic and verbal difficulties of poetry make even layered prose seem conquerable; it is easier to read William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison after first reading Countee Cullen). Then there is the dream-like approach, where poetry is a surreal escape from everyday life—a realm where rules defer to feelings. Both extremes, of course, are exaggerations. But hyperbole has a useful home in the classroom. I love poetry, and I want others to love poetry—or at least listen, for a long moment, to words made with care. I suspect that my job might become a little easier after Why Poetry, the new book by Matthew Zapruder, who recently finished his yearlong tenure selecting poetry for The New York Times. For his final poem, Zapruder selected “The Afterlife” by James Tate, a poem that reminds me of W. Somerset Maugham’s version of “The Appointment in Samarra.” “A man fell out of the tree in our backyard. I ran over / to help him,” it begins, those odd but plain lines following the heavy title. A conversation follows, the dialogue running across lines, with tags peppering the poem—another prosaic stake into this whimsical ground. I shouldn’t spoil the end; channeling Zapruder, I think poetry is better experienced than explained. While Zapruder’s book enters an established canon, he isn’t interested in throwing scholarly elbows. He writes with clear and inviting prose. His tone is careful, but direct. Early in the book he laments that the “act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetuate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place.” Poetry shouldn’t be difficult. Now, that might sound easy for as talented a poet and teacher as Zapruder to say, but he reminds us we each have particular weapons. “We are all experts in words,” he promises us—well-versed in our own ways. And in a pleasant quirk of the book I love, he sends us to dictionaries (how we have lost that communion of searching, skimming, reading, learning, and returning to a text with understanding!). “The better the poem,” Zapruder asserts, “the harder it is to talk about it.” Zapruder’s book avoids the eschatological tone that mars other pronouncements about poetry. He doesn’t think poetry is in danger, and “Probably even robots will write it, just as soon as they get souls.” But for someone like Zapruder, we don’t need sickness for attention. Why Poetry is part-inspiration, part-guidebook, and part literary memoir. We learn his hesitance toward poetry in high school, how he fell for the work of W.H. Auden without fully understanding it. Rather, he offers, we are naturally inclined toward verse: “the energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the language that we recognize and know.” Zapruder walks us through how select poems develop, rather than “what” they mean. Poems remind us of the “miraculous, tenuous ability of language to connect us to each other and the world around us.” He excerpts a speech from Pope Francis to demonstrate how “To live morally, to avoid self-delusion and even monstrosity, we have to think about what we are saying, and to avoid euphemism and cliché.” Poems help us be honest; poems help us be true. They are like whispers of faith, “that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.” Zapruder’s spiritual undercurrent raises Why Poetry into something rare: the cogent and lively argument that poetry truly matters, fueled by passion rather than pretense.
“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters. Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal. Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren. If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books. Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth. What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” I can’t stand him. This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut. Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin. Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth. Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others. Who would be your literary torturers in Hell? Image Credit: Pixabay.
August is an especially strong month for debuts, and includes the collected poems of an essential American voice. Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim Benaim’s debut is charged and honest, but the reader is eased into this journey through a direct invitation voiced on the first pages. True to the title, this is a book about depression, and about the occasional magic tricks that spur us against anxiety. “explaining my depression to my mother a conversation” is masterful, the type of poem I wish could reach so many teenage ears. “mom, / my depression is a shape shifter”—the narrator struggles to distill her world, but her mother’s interrogations are skeptical and curt. Benaim captures the complexity of depression, how “insomnia sweeps me up into its arms, / dips me in the kitchen by the small glow of stove light.” She tries going on walks at night, but her “stuttering kneecaps clank like silver spoons” and “ring in my ears like clumsy church bells, / reminding me i am sleepwalking on an ocean of happiness / i cannot baptize myself in.” So many of these poems made me pause on the page, with quotable lines aplenty: “when my father tells me i am beautiful, / i always hope it’s because i remind him of my mother” and “i don’t know how to connect in a world like this; / in times like these, / where i can’t even speak about myself in first person.” This is a book to share, a poetic window into someone “standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice.” Rummage by Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa A powerful debut, structured around four themes: shame, identity, physicality, and spirituality. “Kwansaba For My Mother” is a seven-line wonder, the type of poem to read again and again to reflect on its weight. A woman’s body “tenses at his / cold touch under her Easter dress, lace / stained by trusted hands.” But this is a praise poem, and a daughter is praising the resolve of her mother, wounded by the past. In “Portrait of Memory With Night Terror,” another poem of shame, a family drives to a carnival “three counties over.” The children want to go on rides, “to slick their fingers with sugar and grease,” but the adults “hadn’t come for fun. / We needed them to feel at home among the grotesque.” They bring the children to the sideshow, teaching them that the mere action of perception often results in objectification. I also think of lines later in the book, when the narrator says she remembers “how good the glint of the strange can be // when you stumble / toward it.” In Rummage, there’s a constant movement closer, as in the palpable “How Not to Itch:” “You have learned how slow // the pulse of grief beats.” Just when I felt settled into the tangible, Oputa turns to the spiritual. I loved “The Prophet Wants to Atone,” which begins “Ask me what it’s like to be a world / always in need of rescue.” What truth. Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow The heart of Dubrow’s poems originate from an autobiographical truth: her husband is a career Navy officer, so much of their marriage exists at a distance. While that subject is apt for personal narrative, Dubrow taps into a general feeling of longing that makes her poems feel in the tradition of works about lovers separated by war. Dots & Dashes is a nuanced take on patriotism and service, and the anxiety created by distance. In “Old Glory,” the narrator watches as a neighbor’s flag “jittered in the rain” during the night. The narrator knows a flag “shouldn’t be torn or crumpled;” although she sees the neighbor “drop it, / leave a mudprint on the corner,” she says nothing, leaving “the stars unthreaded / on his patriotic lawn.” Inert and silent, the narrator of “Old Glory” helps the reader understand the unique anxieties of milspouses, who can feel inert while their other halves travel. Dubrow evens-out those emotions with moving love poems like “The Long Deployment” (“I breathe his body in the sheet / until he starts to fade, made incomplete.”) and “Liberty” (“I believed / in the seam our bodies made, / but when in the morning he put on / his uniform, it was what I’d sewn / myself that held, miraculous, / our warmth.”). Despite the pain in many lines of this collection, there’s a genuine thread of inspiring hope for reunion. So Where Are We? by Lawrence Joseph Joseph’s poems are necessary, immediate, somehow absolutely now and eerily ancient. Themes of his previous collections—Lebanese and Syrian Catholic faith and culture, the memory of Detroit, life in New York City—are resurrected here, but this new book feels like a stake in the ground. The interrogation of the title is whispered throughout as a fear. Maybe we are in a moment unlike any others? If so, Joseph has the care and reach to document our present. Poems like “And for the Record” are tight and heavy, capturing surreal moments—a man babbling in the street—that contain unfortunate truths. After all, “the mind, / like the night, has a thousand eyes.” Joseph documents the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, how the “flow of data // since the attacks has surged. / Technocapital, permanently, digitally, // semioticized, virtually unlimited / in freedom and power, taking // billions of bodies on the planet / with it.” It is not paranoid to feel that something is happening. There is “Too much consciousness / of too much at once, a tangle of tenses / and parallel thoughts.” Harried and brutal, we’ve reached “the point at which / violence becomes ontology.” Joseph is the kind of poet who helps us parse the prophecies from the noise. Testify by Simone John Whenever I see the word “testify,” I think of a scene from James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain when the congregation joins Brother Elisha on the church floor: “the tarry service moved from its first stage of steady murmuring, broken by moans and now again an isolated cry, into that stage of tears and groaning, of calling aloud and singing.” John’s method in this notable debut is incantational. She mixes court transcripts and dashboard recordings with prose poems and personal narratives to create poetic testament. The book is a memorial to Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, to black transwomen and more lives taken early (in “Back Seats,” John writes “We know we age in dog years” and “We savor our youth knowing / midlife ended in middle school.”). This is a book of anger and lament, as in the searing “Trayvon,” how the narrator says she saw her own brother “Fall prey to baited / traps. Some boys can overcome, / but that requires // the luxury of / time.” In Testify, there is not much time. Poems like “Mourning Rites (Or: How We Bury Our Sons)” are acknowledgments that we’ve heard these threnodies before, and they continue to wound as they accumulate. “When the sound of Jays on concrete / makes a sob crawl up your throat, finger // the nylon like prayer beads.” John’s book offers poetry as solace, knowing it is only a temporary salve for the pain. “Eventually you’ll develop / an inner compass to navigate / this path,” one narrator says to her son. “I am laying the groundwork / to keep you alive long enough to get there.” A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang In a concluding note to this volume, Bang writes “These poems are not about her but were written by someone who knew of her.” She is referring to Lucia Moholy, a Czech-born photographer whose work was infamously used without attribution (Bang notes this was done to raise the prestige of the Bauhaus school). While A Doll for Throwing is certainly not meant to be autobiographical, there is the spirit of a photographer throughout. Many of these prose poems are dream-like, philosophical takes that require time and reflection (this is a collection to move through slowly). It is a book about creation, art, and distance, and begins with “A Model of a Machine,” and lines out of an ars poetica: “In the blank space between the following day and the previous night, you see the beauty of a propeller, for instance, and think, yes, I want that silver metal to mean something more than just flight.” These poems reach that ambiguous space. I returned to “Two Nudes,” a tight example of Bang’s style. The narrator escapes work by going on a walk with a friend. The poem seems like it will be a casual jaunt through a day, but by the end of the second sentence, she’s married. Her poems splice time—“Every day was a twenty-four-hour standstill on a bridge from which we discretely looked into the distance, hoping to catch sight of the future”—as easily as they split identity. “I constructed a second self,” she writes. “I photographed myself as if I were a building.” With those second selves, those photographic negatives, Bang can make her narrators find the surreal moments from their pasts that ring curiously true: “The cheek waits to be kissed by air as it was once kissed by the dark-haired boy in the boathouse whose late-night lesson was that the distance between what had been described and what was now happening was immeasurable.” In that distance lies poetry. Half-Light (Collected) by Frank Bidart A massive book that covers 50 years of words, Bidart’s collected contains enough routes and themes to produce years of reading. His style—capitalized words, italics, shifting speakers, personae, autobiography—result in a modern mythmaker who channels the old masters. A poet finely attuned to the contours of sensuality, he can simultaneously be spare and weighty, as in “In the Western Night:” “Two cigarette butts— / left by you // the first time you visited my apartment. / The next day // I found them, they were still there— // picking one up, I put my lips where / yours had been.” Bidart's Catholicism has always been central and generative to the tension in his poems. He's said “something very fundamental to the Catholicism that at least I grew up in was the notion that there is a kind of war between the mind and the body, between the spirit and the body…there is tremendous disparity between the demands of the spirit and the demands of the body, between what the body can offer the spirit and what the spirit wants or needs.” Art “is the closest thing I have found to God. Art is the way I have survived. It has deflected the hunger for the absolute.” Art has been a way of crafting his own sense of a soul, as in “Queer:” “For each gay kid whose adolescence // was America in the forties or fifties / the primary, the crucial // scenario // forever is coming out— / or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” Perhaps what allows Bidart to so fully, and sometimes so shockingly inhabit the lives of others through dramatic monologues is that longing for the absolute in a world with incorrect guideposts: “A journey you still most travel, for / which you have no language // since you no longer believe it exists.”
Poetry forces us to slow down, sit, and pay attention. Poets make us work, and we should be thankful for that; language is resurrected when it’s spun and stretched and smoothed. 2017 is a banner year for poetry: debuts, new takes by established authors, and collections that span careers. In this monthly column, I’ll profile new titles that are worth your time. Stories of transfigurations and conflagrations. Poets affirming their existence on the page. Poetry that cuts through the daily noise and does justice to words. Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in July. Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez Sánchez’s debut collection begins with “Quinceañera,” a poem about desire born when “Summer boredom flutters its / sticky wings.” Cooking wine is guzzled. Old whiskey is downed. “In the warmth of your bedroom,” the narrator pierces her navel with a safety pin, and tumbles backward in time as her skin remains pressed against the present. Out “in the murky dance clubs,” music “vibrating / your face and skull,” there is a pain that “suckles you,” and “Everywhere, / you hold its lumpy head to your breast like a saint.” I put a lot of worth on a poet’s opening salvo, and Sánchez sets her heels into the dirt. Her lines pop and pivot, from sex to God (and divine absence), to immigration and identity. I keep going back to the elegiac “Amá” (“I know you think only white people leave / their families. / I undid my braids too early, I know.”) and a searing thunder of a poem, “Baptism,” whose final lines cut: “Watch me dance / on borders in this dirty dress, / until my wig catches fire.” This is a collection that outlasts its final page, that feeds us endless questions to ponder, that makes us want more: “Amá, I leave because / I feel like an unfinished / poem, because I’m always trying / to bridge the difference.” Some Say by Maureen N. McLane In McLane's poetic-memoir, My Poets, she's written about how listening to recordings of poets transforms their works: "recordings offer a great way to refocus one's attention on the poem." McLane's columnar, phrase-long lines in Some Say made me want to read them aloud. I find that white-paged poems, lines short and margins wide, really help coax the language alive because there’s nowhere to hide (as in prose). “If I say abstract,” she writes, “I don’t mean ideal. / I mean real.” Yes. McLane’s poems often wander into nature, but they always turn back to language, our terribly insufficient but tonally beautiful attempts at naming, placing, cataloging, and feeling the world. She’s also hilarious, as in “Tips for Survival,” which include: “Don’t date flyboys. / Carry blister tape” and “Accept no gift / unless you want that relationship.” My favorite poem here is “Yo,” which bends language without breaking it: “Talking to birches / I am an idiot // & I know you get it / reader—no idiolect // this dialect / riddled with defects // time will fix / or forget/ Whatevs.” All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned by Erica Wright I loved the strangeness of Wright's debut, Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and she’s back with her unique storytelling touch (Wright is also a crime novelist—The Granite Moth and The Red Chameleon—and burns a profluent path through her poems). There’s humor in the face of apocalypse, too: “Quirks of survival leave us roaches / but not pterodactyls. So much for majesty.” In “Spontaneous Human Combustion,” there’s a sense of unknowing: “Someone was here, and now he’s not.” Appropriate to the book’s title, many of these narrators tell strange tales, shrug their shoulders, and move on—but the readers are left transfixed. Take the sublime “American Ghosts:” “These see-throughs want to shake your hand, / none of this calling out to mirrors, letting // daughters burn their locks with matches.” Their translucent forms assemble, and once “outfitted with hymnals,” they “push the light from their palms / until bells ring like rivers cracking in spring.” Although the dead “remember the weight of boots” they “prefer the company of dust.” There’s a matter-of-factness to Wright’s crisp lines, as if we are entering a weird but valid world between these covers. It is not the final poem in the collection, but I recommend doubling-back to the open atmosphere of “American Highways in Billboard Country,” and one epitaph-worthy couplet in particular: “What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?” Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi "Survive long enough / and eventually / everything becomes a revolution.” “Being Asian in America,” one of the shortest poems in Phi’s collection, reverberates outward through the book. There’s sparkling range within these poems, and the reach is fluid. In “Vocabulary,” we begin with two minimum-wage workers pushing shopping carts along the parking lot asphalt to where they rest in the corral. One winter, two workers stand “near the weak warmth of the rattling heat vent.” Like the narrator, the other man “was a nonwhite boy from a poor family.” The man missed his girlfriend, but they’d spent the previous night together, and his joy was obvious: “He said it like their love / saturated every atom of his being, / and shook him, / as if all his veins were laid bare.” The man soon became ashamed that he’d opened his heart to another, and never speaks of his emotions again. Phi might have ended the poem there, but as he does throughout Thousand Star Hotel, he takes disparate and precise moments of family, work, fatherhood, and shows their wider echo. Twenty years after that co-worker closed his heart to the narrator, he turns to the reader: “I make my living with words” but “I still can’t reach out to my friends, / especially my fellow straight boys...I find myself wanting to tell my mother and father I love them and / I just / can’t.” Such piercing laments contained in these lines. Distant Mandate by Ange Mlinko Mlinko's notes for the collection read like a dense prose-poem of poetic ancestry and influences. She writes that her title is taken from László Krasznahorkai's novel Seiobo There Below: “everything is forcing him to take part in a dream that he himself is not dreaming, and to be awake in another's dream is the most horrifying burden—but at the same time he is a favored being, as he can see something, for the sight of which there is only a distant mandate, or there isn't one at all, this cannot be known, he can see, in any event, the moment of creation of the world, of course all the while understanding nothing of it.” A recursive and accurate definition of poetry. Mlinko’s verse calls to mind W.B. Yeats's concept of “Spiritus Mundi,” a depository of souls and spirits, a place where poets’ minds drift in that space between sleeping and waking moments. Distant Mandate feels like it exists in that purgatorial setting, starting with “Cottonmouth:” “A levitating anvil. Omen of seagull / Blown inland. Ranch gate said RIVERSTYX, / but it was the woodland that looked lethal: // no place to put down your foot.” Mlinko’s poems tend to burrow into the dirt and dust while their words lift the prosaic world into abstraction. It’s a collection that demands attention and patience, but there are so many rewards, as in “The Fort:” “From the weathered boards knots pop / like the eyes of potatoes. From brick / salient not a clink of a pupil in a loop-/ hole.” Read those lines aloud, feel your tongue go. Close your eyes, and there you are in the scorched Texan land, with a poet whose ear is tuned to myth.
There’s something beautiful about the seasonal refrain of high school. We start with the optimism of autumn, we survive the dark days of winter, we are charged with the anxious energy of spring, and then we part for the summer. Teachers—like myself—often give students summer assignments. This year I’m assigning On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King to my AP Language students, and Everything’s a Text by Dan Melzer and Deborah Coxwell-Teague to my dual-enrollment seniors. I wasn’t always a fan of summer reading, but I’ve since been converted; after 13 years of teaching public school English, I’ve learned that an open-mind will save you. Teachers, I want you to enjoy the summer. Sleep in. Lounge by the pool. Go to the beach. Watch Netflix. Read books that you can never teach in school. Embrace the freedom of these months, but save a little time for healthy reflection. One of the best things teachers can do is write and read alongside our students. When I read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” aloud with a group of 17-year-olds, I learn something new. I am reminded what it is like to see something for the first time; to be skeptical, and then slowly make an incremental but significant observation about the world through literature. You’ve got to be an optimist to be a teacher. You’ve also got to be willing to take a step back and reflect, and there’s no better time than during the summer. In that spirit, here are 15 summer assignments for teachers. Try one, two, or a few of these, and see if they get you thinking about your profession—one of the most honorable around. 1. Write alternating paragraphs about the best and worst teachers you had as a student. Then, identify when and why you’ve shared any qualities with them during your time in the classroom. 2. Write a two-sentence description of your class from the perspective of a student sitting front and center. Then write descriptions of the same length from the following perspectives: the student who dropped your course, the student who asked you for a recommendation letter, the student who wouldn’t stop talking. How do they each perceive you? 3. Describe the most fantastical, surreal fire drill evacuation possible. The only rule is that it must occur in the midst of one of your major assessments. 4. Why do you teach? Why don’t you do something else? 5. What is one stereotype about teachers that is a lie? What is one stereotype that is absolutely accurate? 6. Read a few pages of Gertrude Stein, and then a few poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then a few pages of Toni Morrison. Explain what each writer is trying to do (with their language, their content, their style). Don’t say whether you like it or not; just try to understand. 7. Vent about one of your worst days during the past year. Fold it up, hide it, and forget about it. 8. Write a letter to the person who you identified as your worst teacher above. Give them the benefit of the doubt. 9. One of your most wonderful, compassionate students tells you that she wants to be a teacher. What do you say? What do you think? 10. Read an issue of a contemporary literary magazine. Try New England Review, Image, The Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Salamander, West Branch, or others. Visit the current issue of an online publication like Booth, The Collagist, or Linebreak. Find work there to share with your students. I recommend Traci Brimhall, Kaveh Akbar, Saeed Jones, Erica Wright, Eduardo C. Corral, Morgan Parker, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Marcus Wicker, Tyler Mills, Adrian Matejka, Rigoberto González—find a writer who speaks to you, and who might speak to the lives of your students. 11. What is a book that you teach that your students hate? Why do they hate it? Be objective: are they correct? If not, what can you do to better teach the book—to better reveal why you think the book is important? 12. Write a letter to a student you’ve failed—not in terms of a grade, but as a mentor. 13. Write a dialogue scene between one of the writers whose work you teach and your students. Don’t have them talk about the writer’s book or writing style. Imagine how they would communicate in everyday life. Let them be people together. 14. List three times that you’ve experienced joy as a teacher. Be specific about the setting, the situation, the people involved. What can you do to capture that feeling again? 15. Praise yourself. Write a paragraph about what you do best as a teacher. After that, enjoy the rest of your summer. You've earned it. Image Credit: Pixabay.
When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don't talk about your book until it's published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005). I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.” When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book. But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections. Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer. Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature. But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body. Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world. Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work. Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.
Max Renn is president of Toronto’s Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you.” He’s always looking for the next provocation to broadcast: sex, violence, and mayhem are all welcomed. Screen shock is victimless, he claims, saying “I give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” But Max wants more for his meager Channel 83. He’s “looking for something that will break through.” He finds the ultimate shock in the form of a pirated video: a dramatized snuff-film called Videodrome, shot in a small red room, with black-garbed torturers and their female victims. Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s classic 1983 film, is perfect viewing for 2017 -- the year a man baptized by television becomes president. The film is an homage to all things small screen: local-access, low-budget, low-resolution. Max, played by a smirking James Woods, will do anything to titillate his viewers, but he’s a sneaky moralist. “Better on TV than on the streets,” he says of violence. Max thinks that he’s controversial, but he soon learns that other provocateurs have what he lacks: a philosophy. In response to criticism of his network’s programming, Max appears on a television talk show, where he flirts with Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry), radio host of The Emotional Rescue Show. They go back to his apartment, and he jokingly asks if she wants to watch Videodrome to get in the mood. He’s taken aback when Nicki likes it, and further unsettled when he sees gashes on her neck. Max prefers fantasy, but Nicki’s flesh has been wounded. When she later jokes that she’s going to audition for Videodrome herself, Max pleads for her to stay away from those “mondo video weirdo guys.” Max soon learns from an agent who secures programming for the station that Videodrome is an actual snuff film. Partially because he wants the show for Civic TV -- but mostly because he fears for Nicki’s safety -- Max tries to find the origin of the video. The trail leads Max to the Cathode Ray Mission, its red and blue sign complemented with the Sacred Heart. A crowd of homeless people sift into the building, where they kneel in front of televisions. They suffer from the disease of electronic disconnection: “watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing-board.” Max is there to find Brian O’Blivion, who is described as a “media prophet professor.” The mysterious professor is absent. “I am my father’s screen,” his daughter Bianca says. She recognizes Max from the show, quipping “you said some very superficial things: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis.” In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” -- a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated. McLuhan earned his doctorate from Cambridge with a dissertation on 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. He once sullied the comic strip Blondie for its representations of masculinity. By the time Cronenberg was enrolled at the university, McLuhan was that now rare commodity: a public intellectual. An honest-to-God pop philosopher. Jefferson Pooley notes that McLuhan underwent a “metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue.” By the time of The Medium is the Massage -- now a half-century ago -- McLuhan was giving presentations to IBM and General Electric, and regularly appearing on television. Tom Wolfe visited McLuhan, and narrated with disbelief: “he sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end.” Douglas Coupland thinks what is most endearing about McLuhan is that he was “a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe -- the Internet -- yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly.” Here was a digital Johannes Gutenberg, suited up as “this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto.” How do we expect our prophets to appear? McLuhan was old school. He was the oldest of institutions, in fact; a Catholic. A convert by the way of G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain. McLuhan said converts enter the church through the back door -- “coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.” McLuhan considered prayer “constant, nonstop dialogue with the Creator.” He attended Mass daily; he was known to sometimes shorten his classes to attend midday service. His son recalled they would say the rosary as a family at night. Like many converts, McLuhan was conservative in his approach toward the Vatican II reforms. He was not particularly fond of the institutional church, and was surprisingly critical of the Jesuits -- those fellow global-villagers. From the outside, these contradictions might seem to denude his identity. Yet paradox is not only endemic to Catholicism, it is downright Christological. Here was an old man telling us about new media. McLuhan taught us that the difference between aphorism and bumper stickers depends on the medium. He was misunderstood, appropriated, re-mixed. He said of his own work “I don’t pretend to understand it.” No sola scriptura here. Hugh Kenner once wrote “Like Andy Warhol, whose works we don’t need to see to appreciate their point, McLuhan is the writer his public doesn’t need to read.” Of course the reference to Warhol -- a fellow eccentric Catholic, who called Videodrome “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” -- is apt. No doubt that Videodrome is a McLuhan-drenched film, but does the film share his Catholic ethos? (For McLuhan, Catholicism was the medium, the message, and the massage). McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave -- real violence -- and then incapacitate them into submission. McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan -- but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.
Poets know form equals function. Even better, poets know form enables function -- which might explain why poets appear more deliberately invested in form than fiction writers. Form is essential to poetry because it requires the union of strangeness and conformity. By nature, poems are acts of selection and deletion. The poet makes her own margins. In fiction, white space is often arbitrary: a clearing of the space amidst dialogue, the breaths between paragraphs. Poems are sculpted art, and it helps to begin them with a sense of form. Edward Hirsch’s The Essential Poet’s Glossary -- what he calls a “shorter and more focused” version of his encyclopedic A Poet’s Glossary -- contains a wide variety of entries. He covers poetic movements and styles, from “abstract poetry” to “zaum,” a “kind of sound poetry, a disruptive poetic language focused on the materiality of words.” A gifted poet himself, Hirsch has long been known as a clear and specific critic. Each entry of this pared volume feels like a tight, concrete prose poem. Lovers of verse are blessed with specific examples and quotable lines. Hirsch’s book sends poets to other books, other poems, and even better -- inspires poets to create new work. My favorite part of Hirsch’s book is his compendium of poetic forms. Many are idiosyncratic and obscure -- adjectives that have never stopped poets before. Each poetic form is an opportunity. A new house for words. In alphabetical order, here are 10 of the most intriguing forms included in Hirsch’s volume. Why not try them yourself? 1. Canzone Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi -- a half-stanza. Hirsch identifies Dante Alighieri as an admirer of the canzone, and the great poet created his own “maddeningly difficult” permutation of the form, which “uses the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.” See also the recursive wit of Marilyn Hacker's "Canzone:" "sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can." 2. Epinicion Pindar began the tradition of writing commissioned victory odes for 5th -century B.C.E. athletes. These poems “called for an ecstatic performance that communally reenacted the ritual participation in the divine.” A race or a wrestling match became the occasion for eternal significance. Gods and heroes were intoned. Steph Curry and Serena Williams deserve contemporary epinicia, but so might weekend warriors on the pick-up court hustling to recreate glory days. It would not be the first time that poetry has elevated the mediocre. 3. Ghazal A gorgeous form, originated in 7th-century Arabia and practiced until the present. Hirsch finds meaning in both definitions of the word: “sweet talk” and “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it must die.” Ahmed Ali notes an “atmosphere of sadness and grief pervades the ghazal.” Agha Shahid Ali calls them “ravishing disunities.” The form has several versions, but in one, there are “five or more autonomous couplets. Each two-line unit is independent, disjunctive.” See Patricia Smith's “Hip-Hop Ghazal:” “As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak, / inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.” 4. Kyrielle A French form with “any number of four-line stanzas, usually rhymed. The last line of the first stanza repeats, sometimes with meaningful variations, as the final line of each quatrain.” Hirsch suggests Thomas Campion’s 1613 poem “With broken heart and contrite sigh” as a text that “fits the letter and law” of the form. Campion repeats “God, be merciful to me” before concluding “God has been merciful to me.” Another useful example: Theodore Roethke’s children’s poem “Dinky:” “O what's the weather in a Beard? / It's windy there, and rather weird, / And when you think the sky has cleared / -- Why, there is Dirty Dinky.” 5. Muwashshah Andalusian Arabic strophic poem that “regularly alternates sections with separate rhymes and others with common rhymes.” Think aa bbaa ccaa and so on. Began in 9th-century Spain and delivered in classical Arabic -- although its final couplet often arrived in more vernacular Spanish. Later, Jewish Andalusian poets adopted the form, which became known as “girdle poems.” Peter Cole describes such a poem as one “in which the rhyming chorus winds about the various strophes of the poem as a gem-studded sash cuts across the body.” 6. Pantoum So much in poetry is lost in translation, including the strict original rhyme of Charles Baudelaire's pantoum “Evening Harmony:” “Now comes the time when swaying on its stem / each flower offers incense to the night; / phrases and fragrances circle in the dark-- / languorous waltz that casts a lingering spell!” The spirit remains. Each line of a pantoum includes between eight and 12 syllables. Hirsch likens the pantoum’s disjunctive nature to the ghazal: “the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines.” At first, the connection is made by rhyme, sound repetition, or even pun, but “there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement turns out to be a metaphor for the second one.” The pantoum “is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus is well suited to evoke a sense of times past.” 7. Renga A Japanese form, meaning “linked poem.” First created “around a thousand years ago” as a “party game,” each stanza of a renga links to the preceding section. Poets bounced tanka-like sections off each other, honing “their skills at creating images and linking dissimilar elements.” In the traditional Japanese method, the composition begins with an honored guest writing the opening, followed by an accompaniment by the party’s host. Certain renga shifted from playful to serious, but those light-hearted poetic games still remain. 8. Tenson In the 12th century, Provençal poets debated in verse battles. Each tenson “could take any metrical form, through the respondent was often challenged to reply in the same meter and rhyme scene used by the challenger.” If no literal combatant existed, poets sometimes created imaginary enemies. Yet contemporary poets likely would have no problem finding literary adversaries, and they could follow the model of Dante Alighieri and “his one-time friend Forese Donati,” who exchanged “six rancorous and insulting sonnets.” 9. Triolet Eight-lined poem, with two rhymes and two refrains. The subject is introduced in the first two lines. The fourth line is repeated later; between those repetitions include lines that expand the original subject. The final lines “knit the conclusion.” Repeated lines evolve in meaning and connotation. Hirsch describes the form as “intricate, playful, and melodious,” -- but notes the first English triolets were prayers by 17th-century Benedictine monk Patrick Carey. According to Edmund Gosse, “nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis.” Innocent, yes, but also sharp, as in the pen of Sandra McPherson: “She was in love with the same danger / everybody is. Dangerous / as it is to love a stranger, / she was in love.” 10. Villanelle Hirsch includes common and tried forms like sonnets, and although I’ve leaned toward the more unique forms, I can’t ignore the beautiful appeal of the villanelle, a true test of poetic endurance and dexterity (one that tempted and strained Stephen Dedalus). A French form by way of Italian pastoral folk songs, the villanelle contains “nineteen lines divided into six stanza -- five tercets and one quatrain.” The rhyme and repetition is as follows: Elizabeth Bishop and other poets have realized the “compulsive returns” of the villanelle form speak to loss: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Others, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, have spun the form into fresh designs, as in “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye:” “You elbow me with your corduroy jacket / when a box chock-full of antique marbles comes up. / I can’t hear your whispers above the auctioneer’s racket. / / The clipped speech of the auctioneer cracked / me up when you impersonated him in bed.” The best poets spring headlong into forms, and, faced with forced constraints and concision, make all things new.
You should buy new books of poetry. Sure, there are novels and memoirs that are worth your money, but don’t be averse to verse. Show libraries your love, but buy poetry. Buy poetry for escape and for inscape. Buy poetry to pause the world, to hide from it, to consider all its hues and microscopic wonders. Buy poetry because poets deserve to get paid. Buy poetry and leave copies on your kitchen table. Buy poetry and read it aloud -- to yourself, to someone you love, to someone who loves you but hates poetry. Buy poetry to learn what it means to be surprised and stirred by words. Start with these five new books. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker “At school they learned that Black people happened.” Parker’s gifted poems shift and pivot. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” she writes: “What kind of bodies are movable / and feasts. What color are visions. // When he opens his mouth / a chameleon is inside, starving.” True to the collection’s title, Beyoncé’s presence is present -- she calls Lady Gaga “Tonight I make a name for you.” She listens “for prophecies / from my daughter’s sticky mouth” and tells her “Never give them / what they want, when they want it.” She prepares a will: “A vigil will be held in memory of / a prime evening / sweating like ice in a glass.” And there’s other gems like “Another Another Autumn in New York,” when the narrator smirks “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap.” She smokes, eats a whole box of cupcakes, steps on leaves: [I] “confuse the meanings / of castle and slum, exotic / and erotic,” and “breathe dried honeysuckle / and hope. I live somewhere / imaginary.” So many sweet and sour lines here. One of my favorites comes from “Delicate and Jumpy:” “Soon a beer-colored sky will sneak / up behind the fence. I toss my hair / to the street without permission.” American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell Every once in a while, poetry needs to say to novels: I’ve been around longer, and I can tell stories better. Howell’s the kind of poet who can announce the apocalypse in a whisper. American Purgatory is set in some charred near-future that looks increasingly like our present, where “persons are held to service and labor.” Where “dust here is big,” and people “work a whore’s hours, but care less.” I love how Howell yokes the mythic with the muddy: “Everything dies, I tell him an old lover said that / to me each night. Slade rises to bend backward, / his hand on his hip, his eyes open straight to the sun.” Howell documents a diseased, dehydrated world through three characters, whose dreams are like threnodies. “From a distance the brushfire looked like veins crossing, / a flame’s thin arm, like electric wires, like Christmas”-- lines that loosen the reader into one character’s dream of “two diamondbacks, a cross / of tails bent to the motion of a lock.” What can they -- we -- do in a world like this? “Above us / geese charge / north on abacus wires strung tight to — what. What sky / are we held by? Who counts our sins.” Whereas by Layli Long Soldier In 2009, then-President Obama signed a resolution “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution contains a litany of sentences that begin “whereas,” and ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” The resolution was signed in silence. There was no announcement. No ceremony. Long Soldier was angered by the mode and method of the apology, and wrote a book in response to it. Whereas is a poetic document of force, an indictment of bureaucratic language that makes violence passive. She begins a section of “whereas” poems with the statement that she is a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation, and “in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” She begins: “Whereas when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through / me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it / that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses -- I read / each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.” Long Soldier’s book is diverse in form and function, a beautiful work of book art that needs to be held and museum-shown. Fair Sun by Susan Barba Paging through Barba’s collection, I first opened to “Marathon,” the penultimate poem in the book, and was instantly hooked. “Only the moon over Soldier’s Field Road sees us depart, / quiet until the sun apocalyptic above the hospital / jars us into words at river’s bend, electric pink / feedback feathering the water.” Rare is the pitch-perfect running poem, but Barba captures this New England moment: “Human / technicolor snakes and schoolbuses perambulate / the park and idly limber in preparation to go west.” Barba’s poetry settles on the tongue. “How Should We Live Our Lives?” is a poem worthy of framing. The first stanza follows the title’s question with another: “With love / and trepidation / sign our letters?” More questions follow, before we realize this is an internal conversation that reaches the air: “Daughter, / as you grow up I / will grow old, / a fact that shocks / you, even at age three.” The narrator laments “Love has no part in this.” Barba is masterful at finding the shine in disparate moments: “Yellow coldness, puddles in the mud. / The brush of winter waiting for the sky to dry.” A book to read, and re-read. Blackacre by Monica Youn “The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace.” Instead, it is the “sudden /terrible // elevation of / a single point— / one dot // on the topography / of a life.” Youn effortlessly shifts between many forms in Blackacre, but I find myself returning to her columnar poems that careen forward like freshly sharpened arrows. Her sense of poetic lines is keen and clean; her work feels sculpted. And then she stops a reader in her tracks with prose-poems like “Desideratum:” “But what is it that you want?” We are placed in a high-school parking lot, the humidity visible like “sluggish cellophane ripples, epoxy threatening to go solid.” A truck starts, with rope “knotted to its tow hitch,” and that rope “begins to play out, uncoiling, looping, unlooping itself ...hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac.” You -- audience, reader -- “find yourself lurching after it, staggering,” hoping to grab it. Afraid “what that rough plastic rope would do to your hands, what the sudden jerk would do to your shoulder joints, whether, once having grabbed hold, you would ever be able to let go.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for poetry. Poems are a dangerous invitation, but if we can grab hold of the language, we are caught. We are changed.