“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold”: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73


Dear Readers,

I know it’s only been five months since I posted a Shakespeare poem, but what’s fall without the most famous fall sonnet of them all? Admittedly it’s a bit gloomy, but I hope your autumn views (still spectacular here) make up for it.

Sonnet 73

William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

A view from my neighborhood.

A view from my neighborhood.

5 Reasons to Read: The Wangs vs. the World, by Jade Chang


Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World* is an exuberant, madcap debut novel about a family in crisis. It’s also one of the most anticipated novels of the fall. Here are five reasons to give it a try:

  1. the wangs vs the worldIt’s a spin on classic immigrant stories: Charles Wang, the patriarch of the family, came to the United States from Taiwan with next to nothing. Decades later, he’s a multimillionaire with a thriving cosmetics business—until the financial crisis hits. Suddenly Charles finds himself with no business, no home, and one very upset family. His new plan: head back to mainland China to reclaim the family land stolen in the Cultural Revolution. But first he needs to get from L.A. to upstate New York in a 38-year-old station wagon.
  2. It’s a road-trip novel: I can’t really remember the last time I read one of these. This is a high-energy book, and part of that is because the scenery changes so often–from L.A. to Arizona, Texas, New Orleans, North Carolina, and a tiny town in New York that hasn’t yet been found by New York City residents who need a country breather. Ms. Wang has a knack for conveying the flavor of a place, and she’s especially good at writing food, from crawfish and doughnuts to flaked whitefish and multi-course banquets.
  3. It’s chock full of compelling characters: Charles is headstrong, brash, lucky and then very unlucky, and full of dad jokes. He loves his luxuries (like his cigarette boat “painted with twenty-seven gallons of Suicide Blonde, his best-selling nail polish color”), but he loves his family more. Barbra, his second wife, is all seething analysis under her quiet exterior. Saina, the eldest daughter (a disgraced New York art-world darling) is torn between two men, and worse, can’t figure out how to move into the next phase of her life. Andrew is a sweet and funny would-be comedian. And Grace is an overprotected, undersupervised, suicide-obsessed, self-indulgent teenager. You’ll end up loving her.
  4. It’s angry: The first lines are, “Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, he was mad at history.” Despite the futility of these feelings—sure, if none of twentieth-century history had happened, Charles would still be happily ensconced on his family’s land in China, he thinks—Charles still has them. Anger is, I think, an understudied emotion in novels, but this one has it in spades. All the Wangs, and most of the other characters who flit into their orbits, are angry about the way their lives have turned out. It’s compelling to watch them work their way out of that feeling.
  5. The ending: Well, I can’t really say much about that, can I? It’s satisfying without being overly neat—I loved it.

What are you reading this week?

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


Recommended Reading: Monica Youn’s Blackacre


Monica Youn’s Blackacre* practically shimmers with intelligence as it ranges over subjects including desire, territory (physical, emotional, imaginative), race, and fertility. Here intellect meets imagery with an intensity so great it took my breath away.

fullsizerender-5In the first section, eleven poems circle and interrogate Francois Villon’s fifteenth-century Ballade des pendus (Ballad of the Hanged Men); these poems are about transformation, and life as much as death. In “Portrait of a Hanged Woman,” the speaker rejects the Greek notion of catastrophe (the fall from grace):

No it is
the sudden

elevation of
a single point—
one dot

on the topography
of a life.

Later in the poem, she writes:

A life is not
this supple

it is not meant
to fold, to be
drawn through

a narrow ring.

These very short lines do make me think of falling, always (although that’s maybe my own readerly idiosyncrasy), which plays against the assertion that catastrophe is an elevation. And see how the narrow lines mimic the “narrow ring” of the second quotation?

Blackacre‘s second and third sections offer an eclectic sampling of forms, lengths, and subjects, from the brief, ekphrastic “Quinta del Sordo” to the multi-section “Epiphyte.” These are poems intimate enough to be whispered, learned enough to be declaimed from a lectern.

It is in the third section that the poet introduces the “____acre”; as Monica Youn explains in an essay for The Poetry Foundation, “‘Blackacre‘ is a legal fiction, an imaginary landscape. Just as we use ‘John Doe’ for a hypothetical person, lawyers use ‘Blackacre’ as a placeholder term for a hypothetical plot of land.” The hypothetical nature of the poems’ titles belies their specificity (“minnows wheeling in meticulous formation/ the occasional water snake, angry, lost.”) and (for some) their grounding in the presumably autobiographical “I.”

While I have returned and will again to many of these poems, it’s the fourth section, comprised of two poems (both called “Blackacre”) that I cannot get out of my head.

The second of the two poems, which you can find here, is an extended meditation on Milton’s famous Sonnet 19 (“On His Blindness”); you might remember its final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

“Blackacre” is a long prose poem in fourteen sections. Each section takes as starting point the last word in the corresponding line of Milton’s poem, from which the speaker undertakes a close reading of the sonnet and her own experience with infertility. In the first section, she notes,

I came to consider my body — its tug-of-war of tautnesses and slacknesses — to be entirely my own, an appliance for generating various textures and temperatures of friction. Should I have known, then, that by this act of self-claiming, I was cutting 
myself off from the eternal, the infinite, that I had fashioned myself into a resource that was bounded and, therefore, exhaustible?

I read this poem for the first time in the car, as we drove west at twilight. The sky gradually darkened, and I struggled to catch the last of the sun so I could read the last few pages of this brilliant, cooly radiant book.

Highly recommended.

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

Recommended Reading: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood


When Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed* arrived in the mail, I could barely contain my glee. Margaret Atwood (the Helen Mirren of authors, as I sometimes think of her) taking on Shakespeare? Yes please!

Hag-Seed photo by Carolyn OliverHag-Seed lived up to all my expectations (and it’s the best so far in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, too). I highly recommend the book (and teachers, it would be fabulous to teach alongside its source material), which is often funny, often touching, often a rollicking good time (especially for Shakespeare aficionados), and always thoughtful. It’s a tour-de-force reimagining of The Tempest, and like the original, a provocative examination of theatre, authorship, imprisonment, revenge, and grief.

Felix Phillips is the impresario Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have been beyond avant garde (audience complaints include “Did Lear have to take off all his clothes?”; Felix thinks, “What was so bad about Macbeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.”), and after the sudden loss of his beloved daughter, Miranda, he throws himself into the play he thinks will bring her back to life: The Tempest. However, he’s so caught up in preparations that he doesn’t notice the machinations of Tony Price, his glad-handing lieutenant, who, with the help of Lonnie Gordon, the Chairman of the Board, subsequently ousts Felix from his position.

Despondent, Felix retreats to a hovel in the Canadian backwoods, contemplating revenge and building a new life as “Mr. Duke.” As his alter-ego—which is of course Prospero, as he knows—he takes a job teaching Shakespeare through performance to prison inmates. Years pass, but when Tony and Lonnie seem poised to pass within his orbit, Felix hatches his revenge plot—and begins to teach The Tempest to the Fletcher Correctional Players.

Hag-Seed is delightfully layered; it’s a novel whose plot is taken from a play, and in the novel the characters are enacting the play as they prepare to enact the play (got that?). And by writing Felix teaching his players The Tempest, and respecting their (varied) readings of it, Margaret Atwood is teaching us about the text and its interpretations—while also conveying the importance of literature in prisons. “It’s the words that should concern you [. . . ] That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners,” Felix thinks, going through the metal detectors and chatting with the guards.  Atwood is, of course, fascinated with imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last, Alias Grace), so it’s a treat to watch her teasing out the power relationships in the novel (and in The Tempest).  It is, as the kids used to say, very meta.

As some reviewers have noted, the minor players are not remarkably distinct from each other; our knowledge of their backgrounds is limited. While that might be a fault in a standalone novel, to me this decision makes sense given the source material. Without picking up your Collected Works, can you recall how Stephano and Trinculo differ?

There are, of course, departures from Shakespeare’s play. Felix is animated not only by revenge and a desire to reclaim his position, but also, most importantly, by grief (in a way that Prospero is not). For Felix, staging The Tempest is a way to make Miranda live again, to take substance, almost. During his years of exile, his imagining of the lost girl is a ghost, a spirit, gradually transforming into Ariel whispering in his ear.

And Prospero, in these years of exile, is Caliban, misshapen by grief and the thirst for vengeance, pinched by loneliness into a new version of his former wild self, but able to call up sweet music and language all the same.  That’s why (I believe) the book is called Hag-Seed, after one of Prospero’s epithets for Caliban; the word brings them together, and means, of course, the child of a witch. And what is Atwood if not a conjuror, and what are her books if not progeny that cannot die?


My take on Margaret Atwood’s most recent previous novel, The Heart Goes Last (which I read as a take on Milton)

Review of Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s novelization of The Taming of the Shrew

Review of The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale

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

Recommended Reading: The Best American Short Stories 2016 Edited by Junot Díaz and Heidi Pitlor (series editor)


I love The Best American Short Stories anthologies; usually, I’ll have one around for quite awhile, dipping in from time to time when I want to read a story but don’t want to commit to a novel or a whole collection.

This year, though, I read The Best American Short Stories 2016* cover to cover, and I’m soimg_0839 glad I did. Like many writers, I subscribe to a rotating cast of literary magazines, but it’s impossible to read them all—unless that’s your job. Guest editor Junot Díaz and series editor Heidi Pitlor read many, many stories and chose twenty for this year’s anthology. Their choices are diverse in style, length, subject, and authors’ identities. This is a stellar collection, and I highly recommend it.

While I’d be happy to read any of these stories again, and Junot Díaz’s introduction is not to be missed, standouts (to me) included:

  • “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In Enugu (a city in Nigeria) a man looks back to his childhood, when his friendship with a family servant his own age ended disastrously. “Reading did not do to me what it did to my parents, agitating them or turning them into vague beings lost to time, who did not quite notice when I came and went.”
  • “The Letician Age” by Yalitza Ferreras: A girl and geology, tragedy and family, love and a volcano. “Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes someone else.”
  • “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” by Lauren Groff: Tensions simmer as two friends and their husbands share a house in France. “She’d never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age.”
  • “Bridge” by Daniel J. O’Malley: “His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth.” A boy, supposed to be studying, watches as an elderly couple prepares to jump from a bridge. Absolutely killer last line, which I won’t quote.
  • “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata: A changed figure from a man’s past returns asking for help, or maybe to confront him. “The first thing he felt on the staircase was a knot forming in his stomach, a forgotten seed of guilt he didn’t care to inspect, and now it was threatening to grow.

Two other stories, “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus and “Gifted” by Sharon Solwitz, scared the heck out of me. The first is about a little boy who suddenly and totally withholds all affection from his parents; the second is about a woman whose son becomes critically ill. That’s not really what they’re about, of course–that’s just the framework, but let me tell you: chills. I had to go eat a piece of chocolate after “Cold Little Bird.”

And if you haven’t yet read Louise Erdrich’s excellent LaRose, you can get a taste here; her story “The Flower” is adapted from the novel.

Finally, one of the best parts of these anthologies are the Contributors’ Notes at the end–each includes a short bio of the author and some background on how the story came to be written and published—whether dashed off in a day or labored over for years and dozens of drafts. Fascinating.

Have you read any of the “Best American” anthologies? Do you have a favorite to recommend?

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

“A far sea moves in my ear”: Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”


Around this time last year, I wrote a quick poetry post to welcome our first niece into the world. I’m delighted to say that this week, we welcomed our second niece (the first on my husband’s side of the family)—she was unexpectedly early, but given her sweet countenance and perfect health, I suspect that, like a wizard, she arrived precisely when she meant to.

This week, then, I’m reading Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” a poem that might remind parents out there of their own first mornings with little ones. This stanza in particular had me strolling down memory lane:

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

Welcome to the world, Eleanor Hermione!

Recommended Reading: Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing


For quite some time after I put it down, I didn’t know what to make of Marisa Silver’s new novel Little Nothing*.  It’s a book as unusual as its heroine, Pavla.

img_1131Born in a nameless country (vaguely central or eastern European) at an unspecified time (perhaps the turn of the last century) to aged parents desperate for a child, Pavla consistently defies expectations. First, she’s born a dwarf, to her parents’ chagrin (her name means “little”).  And then, as a child, Pavla proves exceptionally nimble in body and mind, earning the respect of her classmates and a place as her father’s helper in his plumbing projects.

And then she grows beautiful (though not taller)—a wondrous transformation to the village, but an alarming one for her parents, who fear for her future once they are gone.  To the villagers, “Pavla is a sentence they cannot finish, an equation they cannot solve, and their desire to figure her out obviates any privacy she might otherwise hope for.”

Gripped by fear and love, Pavla’s parents turn to a charlatan to “cure” Pavla; his torture makes her taller, but changes her too. Now the privacy she might have hoped for is obliterated; to make her way in the world, she must travel with the charlatan and his assistant, Danilo, playing the Wolf Girl in their vaudeville act.

These are the first of Pavla’s transmutations, some of which she is not even aware of; Danilo, who loves her from afar, is the witness who traces her over the course of the novel. Their stories run in parallel, passing through prison, tunnels, an asylum, a deep dark wood. In many ways, this is a book about how we find ourselves in dark, hidden places.

As have no doubt realized, Little Nothing begins in the world of the fairy tale, but we read Pavla’s incredible story through a realist lens (there is quite a bit about plumbing, for example). The first part of the book was so spellbinding, the prose so finely crafted, that I was disappointed when it was over; like Pavla, I wasn’t ready to leave the village where she’d come to be valued.

But in life, nobody escapes trauma, and the departure from the village is necessary. Little Nothing is an often allegorical story of how one strong, determined soul can be transformed, sometimes radically, by traumatic experiences, and by love. It’s haunting, and recommended.

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

“lavishing honey light at her auburn feet”: George Elliott Clarke’s “Discourse on Pure Virtue”


I live in Massachusetts. Usually, the autumn is  annoyingly brief here, bookended by humid heat and frigid cold on either end, but this year it’s truly ridiculous: the temperature is supposed to hit 84 today.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I found this week’s poem, with its heady and yet unoppressive warmth, so appealing.

Naomi at Consumed by Ink has more than once recommended to me the poetry of George Elliott Clarke, who is currently serving as Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, and while I despair at finding one of his collection at a bookstore near me (the poetry section at the bookstore closest to my house is anemic when it comes to Americans, let alone anyone else), I did find a few of his poems online.

This week I’m reading “Discourse on Pure Virtue.” It’s a response, in a way, to Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”; in Mr. Clarke’s poem, “All these pleasures will we prove” immediately recalls the famous “Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove” of Marlowe’s. However,  this is not a direct reply, as is Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (you can read both of these poems here); instead, it’s more of a response, or a riff.

Marlowe’s poem is a seduction, wherein the speaker tries to woo the nymph with promises of pastoral pleasures. In “Discourse on Pure Virtue,” it is the speaker who is seduced by the beauty of “The brown girl, golden, sable-eyed.” Just look at all the words used to describe her and her features: exuberant, august, individualized, warm, light-dark. She’s “flowering yellow hibiscus”; her smile shows her “warm, sun-dyed, terracotta lips”; her sari is “lushly brocaded gold silk.”

I love the way the poem luxuriates in these radiant details; it’s a summoning of “virtue” completely antithetical to the way I think of the word visually (Pilgrim portraits, conduct books, grim New England winters). Similarly, “discourse” in the title suggests a certain Enlightenment-era orderly recitation of facts in service to an argument. Instead the poet gives us boundless joy.

What do you think of the poem? And what other poems are you reading this week?

Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead


Chances are that you’ve heard of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, since it’s earned Oprah’s seal of approval (which came with a surprise early release date) and it’s already a bestseller.

Dear Readers, The Underground Railroad absolutely lives up to all of the good press.

The Underground RailroadIn a tale that echoes the Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels, The Underground Railroad follows the journey of Cora, teenage girl who escapes the hideous cruelties of a Georgia plantation (only to find uncertain harbors) via the Underground Railroad. In the novel, it’s not only a path of safe houses, trusted helpers, and secret routes, but also an actual subterranean railway, with branches and lines—all dangerous, all necessary.

By fashioning the narrative with this kind of mythic, not-quite-fantastic element (there are others: the notorious Tuskegee experiment is transplanted to antebellum South Carolina that is supposedly “progressive”; in  gatherings that resemble our notion of the Salem witch trials, ordinary citizens in North Carolina conduct lynchings every Friday night), Mr. Whitehead reveals what he calls “states of possibility.” Each stop on Cora’s travels through this alternative Southern landscape—albeit a landscape grounded in the terrible  facts of slavery—resonates through facets of American history that we must not forget.

Handling this dense underpinning of history and metaphor with grace and subtlety, Mr. Whitehead in The Underground Railroad never loses sight of the individual human story. Cora’s journey is the novel’s main line, but at intervals other branches spin off, illuminating the lives of secondary characters. These include Ajarry (Cora’s grandmother, kidnapped in Africa and brought across the ocean), Caesar (a literate man, the slave who convinces Cora to escape), and Ethel (a white woman who, for a time, grudgingly shelters Cora).

But the book belongs to Cora, an unforgettable character, a heroine. At the beginning of the novel, she’s on the sidelines; when her friend tries to get her to dance, “Cora never joined her, tugging her arm away. She watched.” Abandoned by her mother, who escaped alone, Cora is a “stray” among her fellow slaves, living with damaged women in a cabin called Hob. When she escapes  though, she becomes the object of one man’s focus: she’s hunted by the same fanatic slave-catcher who failed to find her mother.

Cora is wary and slow to trust (absolutely understandable), strong-willed, intelligent, and very brave. She witnesses horrors that should be unspeakable, impossible; she is haunted by what she has seen and what has been done to her. The tension, even when she seems relatively safe, is always high, so that when the narrative grants her a reprieve, it feels to the reader like a long exhalation after a breath held too long:

She grabbed his hand. The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book before.

I hope you’ll open this one. The Underground Railroad is highly recommended.

Read more:

A great review of The Underground Railroad (much more thorough than this one)

An interview with Colson Whitehead


Recommended Reading: The Best American Poetry 2016, Edited by David Lehman (series editor) and Edward Hirsch (guest editor)

Best American Poetry 2016

In Robert Pinsky’s words, the Best American Poetry series is “a vivid snapshot of what a distinguished poet finds exciting, fresh and memorable,” a selection of more than 70 poems drawn from literary magazines large and small.

IMG_0679I love dipping into these collections whenever I have the chance—I especially like the inclusion of poets’ comments on their work in the Contributors section—but this year was the first that I sat down and read the whole book cover to cover in a few sittings, and I wholeheartedly recommend the experience.

Series editor David Lehman’s introduction considers Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as poem and prophecy, making the case, I think, for poetry engaged with the concerns of the day, while guest editor Edward Hirsch writes about the role of lyric poetry in the contemporary landscape (among other things, lyric poetry is, he writes, “a nonutilitarian form of language sometimes put to utilitarian ends, used to build nations and to undermine them, to reinforce power and to protest it.”)

As he read through hundred upon hundreds of poems, Mr. Hirsch (who is the recipient of many honors and awards, the author of many books, and the current president of the Guggenheim Foundation) writes,

What I found myself responding to, what continued to compel me, was precision and surprise. Memorable lines, craft deployed. Poems that demonstrated a certain kind of thinking, imagistic or metaphorical thinking, poetic inquiry. Literary investigations, obsessions, intelligence. Emotional accuracy. Poems written under pressure, poems in which something dramatic is at stake, at risk, for the speaker, who would not be deterred. A kind of ruthless authenticity. Poems that take themselves to task.

“Precision and surprise”—those are qualities I found over and over again as I read The Best American Poetry 2016*, across a broad spectrum of poetic forms and subjects. Poems by Jill Bialosky, Michelle Boisseau, Natalie Diaz, Amy Gerstler, T. R. Hummer, Major Jackson, Keetje Kuipers, Cate Marvin, Hai-Dang Phan, Anya Silver, and Adrienne Su particularly struck me, though I found something to admire in every poem in this collection. I should also note that roughly half the names in this collection were unfamiliar to me, which is both a testament to the editors’ choices and my own

A review of each poem would of course be unreasonable, so I thought I’d leave you, Dear Readers, with a handful of favorite lines, though they do seem lonesome away from their poems.

Off-shore, the whale-roads are so thick
with monsters that were you nimble enough
you could dash across their breaching.
(Michelle Boisseau, from “Ugglig”)

making their great speeded way across the darkest hours,
rippling the sapphired sky-water into a galaxy road.
(Natalie Diaz, from “How the Milky Way Was Made”)

They are all boys, ceaselessly.
(Cate Marvin, from “High School in Schuzou”)

And this, from Edward Hirsch’s introduction:

[Poetry] is an art form that continues to thrive in unexpected ways, engaging and evading its own history, setting out on unknown paths. We live, perhaps we have always lived, in perilous times, and stand on the edge of an abyss, which absorbs us. We are called to task. Poetry enlarges our experience. It brings us greater consciousness, fuller being. It stands on the side of life, our enthrallment.

Add linebreaks, and that’s a poem too.

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.