For this edition of the column, I am forgoing my usual approach, which is to talk about recent works of poetry under the umbrella of a specific theme or grouping. Instead, I’m offering a kind of gift guide: though disparate in aesthetic and topic, these are books that came out in the past year which I find rewarding by writers I think are important to know. Subconsciously, I suppose, I chose books I’d teach in a contemporary literature class: books that deserve rereading and discussion, that offer new models for form and aesthetics, that offer provocative critiques of our moment in history. All of which is simply to say, I tried to choose books I think ought to be read right now. While this list is by no means complete—so many other incredible books came out last year (TC Tolbert’s Gephryomania and Eleni Sikelianos’ Your Animal Machine: The Golden Greek spring to mind), and some will be considered in future columns—I hope you think of it as a good place to start.
Let’s begin with one of the most talked-about books of 2014: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. I love interesting career trajectories—poets who, rather than resting on their laurels, continually up the ante for themselves with different rigorous challenges with each new book. Rankine’s style, tone and structure have changed so much over the years that although both are fantastic, ground-breaking works, I doubt anyone would identify Nothing in Nature is Private, her first, published twenty years ago, and Citizen, her fifth, as written by the same author.
Citizen, which documents the commonplace racist encounters so deeply embedded in American life, is bracing and intimate, complex and accessible, personal and universal. The book is comprised of a series of prose poems—accounts of racist actions received and witnessed, written in the second person—plus lyric fragments, a section on Hurricane Katrina and the fraught public response to its devastation, as well as scripts for “Situations,” performance/film/installation pieces (many collaborations with her partner, the artist John Lucas) both completed and in process. Much of the work asks questions like “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” and “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” and “Did she really just say that?,” intercut with astounding works of contemporary art speaking to similar questions.
I think about Citizen through the lens of theorist Judith Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure: Rankine’s discussion of actions and gestures (such as Serena Williams shaking her finger at discriminatory calls during the US Open) that aim to “negat[e] the moment” of injustice as a way of “propel[ling] us back into the legible world” reminds me of Halberstam’s assertion that sometimes the most radical political act by those who are marginalized might be one of utter disruption, or even self-annihilation. But what jars me most about Citizen is the void it makes visible around itself: why are we not positively flooded by books that “absorb the world” in these crucial ways? Even when “the throat closes” in response to the often violent and invasive “kiss the world offers,” as Rankine writes, we have a duty as writers to “hack away,” in all senses of the phrase: to sputter and cough and refuse, and to keep slicing at that which seeks to entrap us.
I am heartened by two other politically-charged books that came out last year which do this: Jan Clausen’s Veiled Spill: A Sequence and Emily Abendroth’s ]Exclosures[. Although this is Abendroth’s first full-length book and Clausen has publishing since the late 70s, the two books have much in common: grave emotional urgency conveyed through playful diction; innovative structures devised to relay the kinetic assimilation of multiple levels of political concern; and a dedication to real-life activism that goes beyond the page.
The veils and spills in Clausen’s book are myriad: Muslim niqabs, toxic overflows of radiation, suppressed desire, information leaking through redacted military documents, the fluidity of gender, sugar—and then poison—left out in the kitchen for ants. In Abendroth, the metaphor used is that of riffs and exclusions, and the specific concerns here range from the prison system to land usage rights to bombardment training to the bail bonds market. Despite/because of the subject matter, both poets rely on wit and wordplay: “We better get global warming figured out toot sweet, they moaned, cranking up the AC,” reads a line in Veiled Spill’s first poem, continuing a bit later, “This is the world. Where you can do anything. Synthesize a garden or tweet about Art. Pour concrete and sprinkle designer compost and sow exotic grasses. Draft an ars poetica on your mobile.” In “Exclosure 6” Abendroth writes, “What is the figurable distance between…a chrysalis and being fisted / between ‘you’re listless’ and ‘you’re aghast’.”
Both poets’ works are ambitious and full-hearted; both pulse with anger and humor and passion, and both (like CA Conrad, discussed below) invent forms by which to contain and decant the enormous scope of their questions. As Clausen’s sequence cartwheels from found and collaged government documents to litanies to homophonic translations, it acknowledges the limitations of such experimentation in the face of environmental and other impending doom: “I can do what I want with form but not for long,” she writes. One of the ways Abendroth offers “exclosure” is through a kind of fill-in-the-blank form, as in this passage from “Exclosure 21”:
Indeed, it was rumored that said persons had been ceremoniously, if discreetly, transferred to over 30 different and as yet unnamed [refugee camps] [private microlending firms] [non-arable bio-areas] [triple-celled chambers] [pay-to-publish marketing schemes] [armed teams of undercover subcontractors] [medical test sites].
“Perhaps it ends like this: ferocity,” says one line in the Clausen. And while both books are dystopian, to be sure, as Abendroth writes in the book’s afterword, appropriately titled “A Closing Note in Favor of the Improbable,” “in the face of this reality, one goal of our contemporary poetics must, of necessity, be to sound the catastrophic and debilitating reverberations” of living in our culture. She goes on to ask “How do we insist on keeping our practices ‘risky’ in ways that actually nurture us as a community—cultivating and supporting an ample, untamped dedication to reciprocity and its extension?” In her work and Clausen’s, we have evidence of poets aiming to do just that.
At a more intimate level, this is also what Katie Ford’s third book Blood Lyrics is doing. When I think of the notion of the lyric, I think of Emily Dickinson’s ecstatic, frantic intensity, her deeply internal and image-bound moral questioning. This is the kind of lyricism Ford is employing in this heartbreaking sequence of poems—“Our Long War,” as she calls the book’s second section—about a mother willing her sick infant daughter to live, even though she is the citizen of a country that causes others to die. “Lay me on the threshing floor / and bleed me in the old, slow ways, / but do not take my child,” the speaker prays in the opening poem, “A Spell.” It always amazes me when writers manage to find access to their voices during moments of urgent, lived terror; even more amazing when writers connect their personal suffering with more global, political sufferings—songs of “hell and the brutal body,” as Ford says, and writes poems about hospitals in Baghdad next to the ones about her own NICU stay. As a mother (and one who experienced the death of her baby), I am deeply moved by the ordeal Ford describes: where “there should have been delight, delight / and windchimes, delight,” instead there is “barely lit bone.” As a middle-class white American, I am grateful for a poem that acknowledges my uneasy comfort: “the war can’t know what it wants: / we make meals / pay a tax, and dream nothing / hard enough to wake us.” Blood Lyric is a good choice for anyone experiencing or recovering from deep loss: Ford’s willful, spiritual and intelligent battle to praise “the human, gutted and rising” will resonate and bring solace.
Almost Blood Lyric’s emotional opposite, yet investigating similar borders of vulnerability, despondence and hope, is Lauren Ireland’s The Arrow, a debut collection of stylish, melancholy, fragmented miniature poems (one is called “Sorry It’s So Small”) that document a world seen viewed with both cynicism and deep longing. The Arrow has an ironic, heightened, millenial vulnerability: nothing of import happens and yet, to the speaker, it feels like everything has happened. “It’s all as bad as it seems & we are / all going to die & we all love each other anyhow” she writes in the book’s opening poem, “Baby Relax”.
As hipster-glib as it sometimes sounds, The Arrow wears its heart on its (tattoo) sleeve: an “Aubade” includes the admission “I am all, remember this & that? / & you’re all, no” “but here I am. anyway. / walking fast. & gloveless.” Ireland is issuing a call to “ratchet up the love” even though “it’s harder than it looks.” In “Hurry Up You’ll Miss the Bullshit” she writes “I’m not broken & / you are not broken so let’s all be happy.” Anyone who thinks they love Broad City or Girls would do better to spend time with this weird little document with lines like “If the future is a roller rink my skates are white / & my smile is white & I am dead & I am / couples skating to Cypress Hill.”
For years I’ve been following the powerful kitchen magic of Hoa Nguyen’s poems, which, not unlike Ireland’s, are spare, cheeky and otherworldly. In case you’ve hitherto missed this original voice, thanks to Red Juice, a new collected volume of poems that spans from 1998-2008, you can catch up. Nguyen is what they call a “mid-career poet,” and it’s fascinating to see how, in contrast to someone like Rankine, she has been working to maintain her singular vision and style for over twenty-five years.
Although Nguyen is a learned scholar and teacher of her wide-ranging influences—which include the Black Mountain College, the Beats, the second generation New York School, and others—her voice is resolutely her own: informal, domestic and irreverent, sloppy and precise, warm and brusque. There is so much historically impermissible stuff in these poems: exclamation marks and food and political rage and the occult and dirty words and the sweet, off-kilter truisms uttered by children. Although her poems are full of aphoristic brilliance, I find Nguyen difficult to excerpt, as the postmodern sensibility of incompletion is such a part of what distinguishes them. So here’s one here in its entirety, the poem “Time Out from the Hazard Garden & Instantaneous Baloney”:
I wish I had Candy Land pants
Smear sweat nuzzle the cat
I’m smug and well fed
Pat my stomach in public
flatten the napkin and malarkey conversations
Mind the squiggle
“Rain can be too much or too little”
Not being able to eat my noodles
DISAFFECTED AND DEAD
I am the public I brush up against
It’s lovely to find Nguyen at Wave Books with her press-mate CA Conrad, a fellow mystic traveler. Over the last several nomadic years Conrad has established himself as a larger-than-life American poetic voice and presence in the outsider/outrider tradition of Walt Whitman, John Weiners and Anne Waldman; in Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, he makes the bold move to depart from his own past praxis—his “poetry factory”—and force himself to find new, active methods for being in an “extreme present” for the poem during both its conception and its revision.
I’m crazy about how this project combines a dead serious activist mission (connecting with other humans despite and in full acknowledgement of war, violence and environmental degradation) with wacky procedural methods ripe for inspiration. I love that it lays the whole process and intention bare for all of us to see with a kind of transparency all too rare for poets…and yet the resulting poems are still mysterious and wholly unexpected. Like Nguyen, Conrad works with very short lines, fragment, humor, a mix of high and low cultural reference, emphatic interjections, and methods of divination.
For example: in the (Soma)tic “Cormorant Stagecraft,” the procedure involves meeting/invoking a spirit animal, enacting it physically, then drawing “eight pictures of” it “in different phases of your enactment of their lives.” He continues,
On the back of each write a message. Write a bit of confession from the bird, hippo or unicorn you choose to be. Create an e-mail account for this exercise to include at the
end of the message. Leave the pictures on the subway, in the bathroom at a museum, or
the coffee shop counter. Anyone who writes you must receive your animal’s reply. Your animal correspondence is YOUR TRUEcorrespondence! All your notes from the exercise become the poem.
Conrad’s notes become a poem called “What Is Bribery in Poetry Going to Prove” and includes the lines “I love being a statistic involving / spun sugar on a stick and instability / a thousand stories in a / thousand drops of saliva.” For sheer originality, make sure to check out this wild ride of a book.
Let’s round out the Wave Books triptych with a look at Rachel Zucker’s fifth book, The Pedestrians, which I want to compare with Olena Kalytiak Davis’ third book, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems. Zucker and Davis are poets whose work holds similar concerns: motherhood, ambition, neuroses, libido, the purpose(lessness) of writing (and of the writing life), and the unstable self at the heart of it all. “I have no other, not even I,” writes Zucker; “’i’ has not found, started finished ‘i’s’ morning poem,” writes Davis. Both poets connect to a literary lineage of confession a la Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds and Robert Lowell (“’i’ has fucked with the facts so “you” think she’s robert lowell,” Davis writes, “[but whoever saw a girl like robert lowell?],),”. (Alice Notley also comes up frequently in Zucker, since she was working on her 2014 non-fiction book MOTHERs, about Notley, her own mother, and other mother figures literary, imaginary and real while writing The Pedestrians). Both writers dare the reader to alternately love and deride them (“the ‘poet-narrator’ did not ‘want to be liked’,” Davis writes), as, perhaps, they love and deride themselves: they remind me of horror movie creatures who defiantly pull their faces off to reveal the fascinating monster hidden underneath.
Zucker and Davis’ new books illustrate two disparate approaches to this similar ethos. The Pedestrians is a book in two sections. The first, Fables, is a sequence of low-affect prose poems in third person about a married couple struggling vainly and valiantly; the poet-wife is grieving, insomniac, yearning, loving, impatient, angry. The second section, The Pedestrians, is a series of plain-spoken, often short, sometimes discursive “associative games” as she terms them (a term that could also apply to Davis’ work) that seem to come from a life crammed so full of child-rearing, city living, and dreams—“so terribly interruptible”—that there is no space for anything but the tersest poems.
Where Zucker is interested in stripping away the varnish, Davis paints tromp l’oeil over layers of peeling paint. Where Zucker’s tone is often depressive, Davis’ is manic. Davis riddles poems with Shakespearean moments like “o sweet floccose!” and “if evil choose a place to lay its wrack / it lie(s) with ‘i’: that stenched and (w)retched dish.” At the end of the poem “Sonnet (Silenced)” (one of several “shattered” sonnets, a form she’s been working at for over a decade now), Davis pleads, “o sterilize the lyricism of / my sentence: make me plain again my love.” I find both methods bracing: Zucker’s deliberately flat-footed prose (in the face of her earlier, more lyric and allusive work) and Davis’ etymological high-wire act are two ways of getting at similar material/self. Zucker’s “Real Poem (Happiness)” reads in its entirety “We’re all fucked up because in English the phrase ‘to make someone happy’ suggests that’s possible,” and the ending of Davis’ poem “Alaska Aubade (Winter) agrees: “the sex and the poetry—weren’t they supposed to be / bigger and better than this? than fucking me?”
From two by mothers let’s turn to two by fathers: Douglas Kearney’s Patter and John Gallaher’s In a Landscape. Kearney opens Patter’s first section with the line “to be daddy’s to ascend, steady, into cruelty”: in both books there is an attempt to find the tenderness inherent in the role of father, despite obstacles stemming from poor historical models, racism, pornography, violence, ambivalence, etc. “Brains over brawn, they say,” Gallaher writes, “but it would be better if you could have both.” For a series of “Father of the Year” poems, Kearney nominates such damning figures as Darth Vader and Daedalus; in a poem devised as a “Word Hunt” game, he dares us to find words like “FRIENDLY,” “WORTHY” and “RESPECTABLE” in a block made up only of the letters from the word nigger. For Gallaher, the poem is a way to “[find] myself somewhere I was unaware of” in “a time of displacement.”
Like so many others discussed in this column, Kearney and Gallaher have created exciting new forms: Patter is packed with daring visual and sound poems, poems that typographically shake and slide, expand and contract across the page; In a Landscape’s seventy-one chatty, contemplative poems are in a three-stanza, long-lined procedural form written over the course of many years while listening to John Cage’s piano composition of the same name and reading Cage’s SILENCE. In a Landscape reminds me of Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, or of David Antin: it’s a lesson in the structure of non-structure.
Gallaher’s book wrestles with identity through the lens of adoption at age three; Kearney’s through the lens of trying to get conceive a child. Like Zucker, Gallaher seeks to undo the overtly poetic with casualness, even for the toughest moments of confession:
how my first father is an abstraction, who made it to just about
twenty-five, and a couple months ago
I was contacted by a guy who’s twenty-five
who turns out to be my son. One for one.
Kearney is more like Davis: all linguistic dexterity and brazen bravado. From “The Miscarriage: A Minstrel Show” (one of a series of miscarriage poems, each more poignant and darkly funny than the next):
damn-near dam husband! peel your peepers of their sandgrits
imtermediately, says your beloved.
paterfamilisn’t I hears not a cock crow but a crow crow.
morning broke not water but tomato!
“The best ghosts trust they’re not dead,” Kearney writes in “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” and Gallaher’s poem “II” begins with this quote from his daughter, “Ghosts are people who think they’re ghosts.” I urge you to invite the haunting poems in all the books discussed here to transmogrify you soon.
Books Discussed in This Column:
]Exclosures[, Emily Abendroth, Ahsahta Press, 2014
Veiled Spill: A Sequence, Jan Clausen, GenPop Books 2014
Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, CA Conrad, Wave Books 2014
The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Copper Canyon 2014
Blood Lyrics, Katie Ford, Graywolf Press, 2014
In a Landscape, John Gallaher, BOA Editions, 2014
The Arrow, Lauren Ireland, Coconut Books, 2014
Patter, Douglas Kearney, Red Hen, 2014
Red Juice, Hoa Nguyen, Wave Books, 2014
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf, 2014
The Pedestrians, Rachel Zucker, Wave Books, 2014
You Animal Machine: The Golden Greek, Eleni Sikelianos, Coffee House Press, 2014
Gephryomania, TC Tolbert, Ahsahta, 2014
MOTHERs, Rachel Zucker, Counterpath Press, 2014