“Scraping toward the first of you”: Patricia Smith’s “Katrina” from Blood Dazzler

Blood Dazzler

Reading Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler during the horrible floods in Louisiana (unnamed, but devastating; already more than a dozen people have died and thousands have been forced from their homes) gave the collection an awful resonance.

Blood Dazzler is a polyphonic testament both to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and IMG_0587to the power of poetry. Ms. Smith’s poems are beautifully constructed in a wide range of forms; the poems’ subjects include nursing home residents who drowned,  the head of FEMA, a dog left behind by its owners to ride out the storm, and even Katrina herself. It’s an unforgettable collection, and I highly recommend it.

You can read one of the collection’s two poems named “Katrina” here, as well as listen to Ms. Smith read it. You’ll hear the menace of the storm, a menace that begins in one of Blood Dazzler‘s early poems (“5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005”):

For now
I console myself with small furies,
those dips in my dawning system. I pull in
a bored breath. The brine shivers.

Please see here, herehere, and here for ways to help the victims of flooding in Louisiana.

5 Reasons to Read: Riverine, by Angela Palm


Angela Palm’s Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here* is the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and one of the books that book people have been talking about all year. Here are five reasons to read it for yourself.

1. The Midwest setting: As I’ve written before, I would love to see more books (fiction IMG_0088and nonfiction) set in the Midwest. In Riverine, Angela Palm makes the oft-neglected flyover country mesmerizing, drawing readers in to her flood-prone rural Indiana town. And if place as a character is your thing, you cannot miss this book—Ms. Palm is fascinated by how places shape people. In these pages you’ll find mediations on abandoned buildings, the green of Vermont, the rituals of prison visits. But Riverine is absolutely strongest when the focus is on the author’s Indiana origins.

Most folks could see the river from their porches. Everyone could smell it. When a flood was coming, an ancient stench of mud and fish and scum hung in the air—the scent of the river amplified, swollen and ready to burst. The flood itself, though, the water’s tipping point, always arrived in the middle of the night.

2. The hook: Riverine is a book about the author’s youth, adolescence, and young adulthood and her relationship with her hometown and family, but intertwined with these is her connection to Corey, the neighbor boy she adored for years. The possibility of their future together is truncated when Corey is convicted of murdering two people and sentenced to life in prison. Still, Angela Palm can’t let him go, and a significant portion of the book considers what happened to the compassionate boy she knew, and how she comes to grips with the fact that she can’t let him go.

There was light and love at his core, and I had known it as my own. It had corrupted, somehow, dividing and dividing, rooting low, far from the sun.

3. The structure: While Riverine doesn’t share the range of essay forms used in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, there’s a little of something for everyone in Riverine. Organized into three sections, the book works as a memoir in linked essays. Two of them stood out to me. “Dispatches from Anywhere But Here” considers locales and buildings through the lens of different criminal justice theories, while “On Robert Frost’s Lawn” has a quasi-dreamlike tone. Neither of these pieces was my favorite, but they both hint at the deep well of talent Ms. Palm has to draw from. This author has a lot left in the tank.

Unbroken windows are an illusion, like small towns, meant to tell us that “nothing bad happens here.” But it’s not true. The problems of humans manifest wherever humans are, razing each landscape raw as freshly tattooed skin.

4. The publisher: I know I don’t write much about which publishers and imprints I prefer, but friends—Graywolf. It’s a nonprofit press that brings out some of the best poetry, fiction, and nonfiction out there. If you spot those three wolves on the spine, chances are you’re in for a real treat, and Riverine is no exception.

5. The writing: I’ve been giving snippets throughout this list, so hopefully the work speaks for itself. Here’s another bit I liked:

The need to look at other landscapes for clues about what already lies within us is real. It is a variation on distance, that thing you need to put between yourself and a problem in order to see it clearly.

I think that goes for reading, too.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“first rubythroat / in the fading lilacs”: Maxine Kumin’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small” from And Short the Season

Whereof the Gift Is Small---poetry, Maxine Kumin, poem of the week, poetry discussion, flowers, nature

Last week, I had the pleasure of reading And Short the Season, the last collection by Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). Usually I try not to read late collections until I’ve read a few early collections for reference, but I couldn’t pass up this beauty when we stopped in at Island Books in Rhode Island last month.

IMG_0019In the collection, Kumin writes about her New Hampshire farm, politics, the seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, and the approach of death. These poems, simultaneously elegant and earthy, made me want to pick up Kumin’s selected poems.

Today’s poem, “Whereof the Gift is Small,” refers to and quotes from a sixteenth-century sonnet often called “Brittle Beauty”  by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. (As you can see, Kumin also took the collection’s title from this poem.)

Here’s Surrey’s sonnet:

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel’s tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

(Carol Rumens has an excellent write-up of the poem in The Guardian.)

In “Whereof the Gift Is Small,” which opens And Short the Season, Kumin takes Surrey’s theme—that beauty is not only frail and transitory, but maybe even dangerous—and softens it considerably. Surrey, the last person executed on the orders of Henry VII, died at 30; “Whereof the Gift Is Small” appeared in print in 2011, when Kumin was past 80. True that beauty is swift to fade, she writes with the benefit of those extra fifty years; true that there’s “a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart / on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm / him underground.”

But look, she seems to say, at the texture and richness of nature’s brief beauty; consider the beginnings made out of ends: the rubythroated hummingbird in the “fading lilacs,” the alyssum (an annual, usually cream-colored, that smells like honey), the bee in the bleeding heart (a flower that looks like its name), the green of the new grass eaten by the living horses. Consider the “bluets, violets,” the “little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes.” These delicate flowers (all of them small, or composed of very small petals bunched together) are a rainbow of color, and like a rainbow, short-lived.

While the speaker’s “wet feet, wet cuffs” and her sneakers suggest (to me, anyway) a child outdoors at first light, soaked with dew, the poem’s last line—“brittle beauty—might this be the last?”—reminds us that the speaker is no child, that this season, this gift, could be the last whose shock of color she witnesses, and versifies.

What poems are you reading this week?

Recommended Reading: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett


Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond* is the most unusual book I’ve read in years.

It’s not quite a novel in the sense that we’re used to thinking about novels (with a plot or a trajectory, even), but neither is it a collection of short stories; nor is it prose poetry (though it makes the ordinary somehow unreal, a quality I associate with poetry). I suppose, given its length, that you might think of it as vignettes organized into a novella.

In these twenty pieces, some a page or two long (or less), some the length of more traditional short stories, Ms. Bennett takes us inside the mind of an unnamed narrator, a woman living alone in a cottage on the coast of Ireland.

IMG_0066In self-conscious stream of consciousness, the narrator reflects on gardening, visiting her neighbors, drinking, taking a bath during a storm, the proper way to eat porridge. As these seemingly quotidian activities suggest, nothing dramatic happens in Pond, exactly—and yet it’s still riveting.

That’s because the book is really about a mind observing itself; I never knew in which direction the mildly misanthropic narrator’s mind would go as she considers her relationships to places and objects. Sometimes she’s quite funny, offering her opinion on the proper kind of tea cup (white, chipped in the right places), rhapsodizing about tomato paste (it is indeed a terribly overlooked ingredient), fretting over the deteriorating knobs on her very old and tiny stove; sometimes she seems terribly sad, too much alone, despite how much she enjoys solitude (and despite the fact that she mentions friends and lovers with some regularity). I often felt a sense of unease as I read, since it seemed the narrator, fascinated as she is by the world, isn’t quite sure she wants to be part of it.

Here she describes chopping vegetables. While often the sound is “mellow and euphonious,” late at night, she writes,

I go on with my guillotining and methodically pare down this robust gathering of swanky solanums until they lose colour. Chopping, taking it all to pieces, in a kind of contracted stupor, morning, noon and night; trying not to pay any heed to my reflection in the mirror as I do so. I can’t stand that—above all I can’t stand to see the reflection of my waist, winding back and forth, there in the mirror just to my right—looking as if it might take flight when I know very well it can’t.

As you can tell by how this review totters along, Pond is terrifically difficult to describe, though I’m very glad I became tangled up in it. I think that if you like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Thoreau, or Emily Dickinson, you’re a prime candidate to give it a try. It’s a strange book, as unsettling as often as it is beautiful, and well worth the hours you’ll spend with it.

Have you read anything unusual lately?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“still the geese keep coming”: Meg Kearney’s “Loneliness”


Friends, I’m pretty sure I recommend Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column at least half a dozen times a year, but here I am, at it again.


Last week’s column featured a short poem by Meg Kearney called “Loneliness,” a vignette that illuminates the title emotion.

It’s a little slice out of time; the poem could be describing something that happened last autumn or something out of a fairytale.

And the details are so effective at placing us in the moment: the goose’s foot that feels like the little girl’s hand, the V of the geese that is “two fingers / spread against a caution-yellow sky.” Two fingers in a V is the sign for peace, which the poet plays against the poem’s violence (the father is “about to bring down his third goose” of the day), echoed in the girl’s gesture of kindness that is a severed foot.

What do you think of the poem?

Recommended Reading: Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl

If I were a distinguished novelist offered a choice of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt into a novel, The Taming of the Shrew would not be at the top of my list. First, there’ve been enough memorable film adaptations (the Taylor/Burton version, Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You) that I’d be worried about finding some elbow room. Then there’s the play itself—rough around the edges with an odd framing device. And good lord, the misogyny! Could it be tamed? Should it?

IMG_7137In Vinegar Girl*, Anne Tyler transforms Shakespeare’s rollicking, occasionally revolting play into a genteel romantic comedy that would make a surprising good vehicle for, say, Sandra Bullock about fifteen years ago. Or Mila Kunis, come to think of it.

Kate Battista is twenty-nine. She lives with her father, an odd but brilliant researcher of autoimmune disorders, and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny, an occasionally perceptive standard-issue teenage narcissist (going through a vegetarian phase, oy). Kate works at a preschool, where her total honesty makes her a favorite with the four-year-olds she minds, but not with the staff or the parents. She’s quite intelligent and talented with plants, but after an altercation with a botany professor (she said “his explanation of photosynthesis was ‘half-assed'”), she was essentially expelled from college. Since Bianca and her father needed Kate’s help at home—her mother having died, as mothers in these sorts of stories ought to do, it always seems—she moved back in, and now she drifts in place, like slightly surly kelp.

Though she generally accepts her father’s eccentricities—the nutrient-dense mash that makes up almost all their family dinners is unforgettable—Kate finds his sudden desire and pathetic attempts to bring her in close proximity to his Russian assistant, Pyotr, rather annoying. And once she realizes what the pair are after—a green card—amusement turns to alarm.

Ms. Tyler nixes the original’s subplot involving Bunny’s many suitors (there’s just one, an erstwhile Spanish tutor); instead, the focus is almost entirely on Kate. What does she expect of herself, and what does her family expect of her? The book asks us: What do we expect from women as caretakers? Why do we treat single women differently from married women? What does it take to get out of a years-long rut?

As such, I think Vinegar Girl treats the open question of The Taming of the Shrew (how ought men and women live in relation to each other, with respect to marriage?) as settled; Ms. Tyler (and I sincerely hope, the rest of us) are firmly in favor of abuse-free egalitarian relationships in which spouses support each other.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of drama before the nuptials, or that Kate and Pyotr don’t perplex each other, though. They have quite a time muddling through each other’s defenses and ingrained habits; it’s a treat to watch them spar with each other. Particularly funny are Pyotr’s adages, which never quite work in translation (“Work when it is divided into segments is shorter total period of time than work when it is all together in one unit.”) and his spot-on assessments of American speech patterns.

Vinegar Girl is the second Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation I’ve read. The first was Jeannette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time, and I love how different the two novelizations are, how remarkably distinct in approach. Vinegar Girl is an enjoyable, light comedy that asks serious questions. Recommended.

Have you read any Shakespeare adaptations lately? And what’s your favorite Anne Tyler novel?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.


“An interval like summer passed”: Jana Prikryl’s “New Life,” from The After Party

New Life

When I read Jana Prikryl’s The After Party* last week, I struggled to connect with most of the poems in the collection. I felt this was a failing on my own part; Ms. Prikryl is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, my favorite non-book publication, and she has contributed poems to some of the best magazines in the world.

IMG_7418Still, while I respected the craft at work in these poems, and the ingenuity of “Thirty Thousand Islands,” a long poem in forty-two parts that makes up the second half of The After Party, it wasn’t until I read Dan Chiasson’s thoughtful review in The New Yorker that the collection really opened up for me. He examines The After Party through the lens of loss (Ms. Prikyl’s older brother died suddenly in 1995), while I’d been trying to understand the poems in the context of migration and exile.

I went back and re-read most of the book, and was rewarded.

This week I recommend Jana Prikryl’s “New Life,” which you can read at The Baffler**.

Its imagery is arresting (the opening lines are: “From the fields of a calendar, its snow / packed firmly into squares, I farmed you.”) as is the speaker’s address to the brother who lives in her memory. The form is unobtrusive, but underscores, I think, the control it takes to examine a deep loss.

What poems are you reading this week?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Full disclosure: I occasionally work for The Baffler on a freelance basis.

5 Reasons to Read: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

5 Reasons to Read Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes, the first in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series (set to be at least nine novels now, and also the basis for a new show that’s apparently pretty good) was published in 2012. I bought it in 2013, and read it . . . last week. Such is the fate of books in my house.

IMG_7416The book follows James Holden, the executive officer on an ice hauler working the rings of Saturn, and Detective Miller of the Ceres security service, who’s handed a missing persons case that looks ugly. Both men are drawn into a web of intrigue that extends throughout the solar system. This is space opera, after all.

Leviathan Wakes is a sci-fi mystery, and it’s a great read. I’m definitely going to pick up Caliban’s War, the second book in the series, probably next summer—this kind of novel is a treat, like a yearly walk down to beachside clam shack.

If you’re  on the fence, here are five reasons to give Leviathan Wakes a try:

  1. It’s a doorstop at 561 pages, but it reads fast: I stayed up late and then woke up early to finish it, and I love sleep. Each chapter is chock-full of tension, and the action almost never lets up.
  2. The setting is way cool: Leviathan Wakes is set in a middle future—earlier than Star Trek, later than The Martian. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but hasn’t reached the stars or other species yet. Corey (the pen name of two writers) does a great job exploring what it would take to get us to that point, and what the costs would be.
  3. It’s smart but not inaccessible: This isn’t a Michael Bay summer blockbuster kind of book, but it’s not as cerebral as Ancillary Justice (which I loved). There’s a nice balance of action with consideration of how race and class—and war—might look in our future.
  4. It’ll remind you of classic sci-fi movies and TV: Are you a fan of Alien, Blade Runner, The Abyss, or Firefly? Then Leviathan Wakes is going to ring your bell. It’s got the gritty noir of Blade Runner, the misfit crew of Firefly, the atmosphere and tension of The Abyss, and some serious callbacks to Alien and Aliens.
  5. It stands alone: I like a good series as much as the next person, but I dislike cliffhangers that try to force me to pick up the next book. Leviathan Wakes has a satisfying ending that whets the appetite for the next book. Just right.

Have you read any good sci-fi lately?

What I Did on My (Impromptu) Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation

Dear Readers,

You might have noticed that things have been a bit quiet around here lately. Regular programming should resume this week, but perhaps you’d like to know what’s been going on since your erstwhile book recommender and poetry pusher disappeared. Since the last time I wrote:

  1. We moved into our first house, which we are really, really excited about. It’s just the right size for us (and the obscene number of books I own), and for the first time in ten years my desk is not in the dining room. Also we named our house Bag End.
  2. We’ve visited with two dozen friends and family members at the house in under a month, which is awesome, and possibly explains why I’ve read a grand total of only four books and completely neglected this site since we moved.
  3. I’ve had another story and another poem (both quite short) published, which I’m also, really excited about. There are links over on carolynoliver.net if you’re interested.
  4. We took an actual vacation with my family to Rhode Island, where I read three of the four books I just mentioned and saw four movies in a movie theater. Totally recommend the new Star Trek, btw.
  5. I discovered that a month away from blogging is a bit too long for my taste. I’ve missed writing about books, and reading what other bloggers have to say about them. Onward!


The Great Library Rundown, Part 4: Here Be Black Holes

Space Reads

It may surprise you to learn, Dear Readers, that as a kid I wanted to be not a writer or a historian, but an astrophysicist. My parents gave me a subscription to Astronomy and a telescope, entertained my wild theories about gravity, and  took me out to see Mir and the planets after dark, which I loved.

And then I realized that astronomy and physics are all about math. Valiantly as I might have tried, math never clicked for me, and thus here you find me, an editor and writer.

Still, I love dipping back into the world of spacetime, so to speak. Here are two science-related titles for your consideration.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

IMG_7035I absolutely loved this tiny (81 pages, not counting the index) book. In plain language, Carlo Rovelli discusses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ greatest discoveries and theories in physics, ranging from relativity to particle physics and back again. The section on heat and the nature of time completely fascinated me. Do note that one isn’t going to completely grasp these concepts after reading; this is more of a mind-opening book, the kind that encourages curiosity and further reading (take this: “The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics”).  I will definitely be buying a copy of this book for my shelf at home–it’s the kind of book I want to dip back into from time to time. Highly recommended.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Jana Levin

IMG_6798I requested this book after reading Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) ringing endorsement, but I was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. The book is about the decades-long attempt to record gravitational waves (produced in the collision of black holes)—a worthy,  interesting, and timely topic: LIGO (the laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) detected gravitational waves in February, 100 years after Einstein’s prediction of their existence. Jana Levin focuses on the personalities of the original movers and shakers behind the push to build the massive LIGO machines, and while this might have been a good strategy, the execution is problematic. Long sections of interviews are reproduced without commentary, for example, leaving the reader in the dark about the author’s analysis of various points of contention. Throughout the book, crucial scientific terms that a layperson wouldn’t be expected to know aren’t explained, and I found multiple grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities (perhaps the book was rushed through production after the LIGO detection). This is, alas, a book that would have worked better as a long-form magazine story (like the story about earthquakes in the New Yorker that just won the Pulitzer).