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

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

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”

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

the-underground-railroad

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.

Recommended Reading: Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

commonwealth

Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth* is like an unfamiliar lake on a ninety-degree day that you can’t  wait to sink into; even if you don’t know how deep it goes, you won’t want to come up for air.

img_1022It starts in Los Angeles, with a bottle of gin and orange trees heavy with fruit. Bert Cousins walks into the christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s new daughter Franny with a completely inappropriate gift (the gin), which when mixed with fresh-squeezed juice from the backyard oranges leads to revelry not usually associated with christening parties.

Then Bert kisses Beverly, leading to the unraveling of two families and the imperfect attempt to knit together a new blended family. Beverly and Bert move to Virginia with Franny and her older sister Caroline; Bert’s four children—Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie—visit during the summers, leaving their mother Teresa behind in L.A. Bert and Beverly are “careless people” in many respects; the children are often unsupervised, and they find their (dangerous) freedom exhilarating: “It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren’t, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

The kiss is the first of three turning points in this excellent novel. The second involves a terrible accident; the third is when Franny, adrift in her twenties, meets the acclaimed novelist Leo Posen and tells him her family’s story.

Commonwealth follows eleven major characters over fifty years—and manages to deliver full portraits of their lives in less than 350 pages. Each chapter is as exquisitely paced and revealing as a short story (indeed, several of the chapters could stand alone as stories), and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ms. Patchett’s storytelling makes the ordinary gripping; for instance, when Franny is treated like a cook and maid by Leo’s publishing friends in the summer house they’ve rented together, I started biting my nails, wondering if she would snap. I practically cheered when, earlier in the book, Teresa puts her four kids on the plane to their father (who had pushed for full summer custody) without suitcases but with a list of all the appointments they need (dentist, doctor, etc): “Beverly Cousins wanted her family? Have at it.”

I started off thinking that Commonwealth would be a book about divorce; and it is, of course, but it’s more about family, bad decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions, loyalty, and friendship. My copy of the book is studded with notes marking favorite passages and lines (“Franny’s skin was so translucent it acted more as a window than a shade.”); I’m willing to bet that if you pick it up (it’s out today), your copy will be too. Commonwealth is highly recommended.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of Ann Patchett’s other books?

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

** Confession: Though I own Bel Canto and State of Wonder (the former acquired at a delightful book swap birthday party in January 2009, the latter at Target, which maybe tells you something about my collecting habits), Commonwealth is the first of Ann Patchett’s books that I’ve read. I admire her work on behalf of independent bookstores, and you can be sure that if I ever visit Nashville, Parnassus Books would be the first stop on my itinerary.

Recommended Reading: Absolute Solitude by Dulce María Loynaz, translated by James O’Connor

Absolute Solitude

I’m so happy to have been introduced to the work of Dulce María Loynaz (1902-1997) through Absolute Solitude*, a selection of her prose poems translated by James O’Connor.

Though her early work was well received in her native Cuba and abroad (including by writers like Gabriela Mistral and Juan Ramón Jiménez), after the Cuban Revolution Loynaz stopped writing poetry (her books were banned for decades), leaving her work to be rediscovered by a new generation when she won the prestigious Premio Miguel de Cervantes in 1992. You can read more about the poet, her struggles, and her legacy in this piece by translator James O’Connor.

Most of Absolute Solitude is taken up with a large selection from Loynaz’s book Poems Without Names (Poemas sin nombre), originally published in Spain in 1953. These prose poems are brief; almost all are less than a page in length, and most are shorter than a paragraph. (The one-line poems are almost aphoristic.)  The Spanish originals and English translations appear on opposite pages.

The poems are intensely personal, and yet encompass universal themes: the agonies of love, the pleasures and terrors of solitude, wrestling with the divine. I was reminded, at different times, of Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Leonard Cohen, and Gabriela Mistral; while I often find contemporary prose poems difficult—too obscure, I suppose—these I found to be transporting.

Here are a few of my favorites.

IMG_0676 IMG_0675 IMG_0674 IMG_0673

For me, the blank space on the page following each poem was an invitation to pause and think carefully about what I’d just read. I loved this jewel of a collection.

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.

Recommended Reading: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures

Serendipitously, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures* arrived on my doorstep on the ninety-eighth birthday of Katherine Johnson, pioneering scientist mathematician and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—and one of the subjects of this engrossing book about the black female mathematicians who helped the United States win World War II and the space race.

IMG_0659Margot Lee Shetterly’s writing is straightforward and lively; it is clear how passionate she is about her subject. She hails from Hampton, Virginia (“Spacetown USA”),  the setting of Hidden Figures, where, she writes, “I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Only years later did she learn about the history of the women who worked in West Area Computing, a division of black female mathematicians (called “computers,” since they did complex calculations by hand) at Langley Research Center. To keep up with war demand, these women (and their white counterparts) were recruited by NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA), the agency responsible for ensuring American air supremacy in World War II by researching and testing advancements in aeronautics.

Despite the fact their expertise was badly needed, the West Computers, including Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, and Mary Jackson, often faced longer routes to advancement than the white women who did the same kind of work, and all women at Langley found it difficult to break into the ranks of the engineers.

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. [. . . ] Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all.

Besides the hurdles common to all the female mathematicians and engineers working at Langley, the black women of West Computing faced segregation in the workplace and in Hampton; even after segregated bathrooms and cafeteria sections at Langley disappeared, their children were sent to schools separate from those of their white colleagues. Many of the West Computers were working mothers; some were also widowed or separated geographically from their spouses. Given the difficult work and long hours of the job, this presented its own set of challenges, which Hidden Figures touches upon.

Hidden Figures places the story of the West Computers in the context of war, the fight for civil rights, and the space race without losing sight of the details (though I did want a bit more explanation of the mathematical and scientific tasks the engineers worked on). Necessarily, the book focuses on a handful of women, but also emphasizes that they were not alone; as Ms. Shetterly writes, “For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.”

The story of these mathematicians, engineers, and scientists is one of  discrimination and perseverance, dedication and curiosity, orbital trajectories and soap-box derbies. I came to admire the women of this book immensely; they are the epitome of grace under pressure, and it’s long past time their story was told.

What nonfiction have you been reading lately?

P. S.: Fellow Trekkies, there is a fantastic anecdote in Hidden Figures that you don’t want to miss.

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

“The cathedral in his sea-black eyes”: Ocean Vuong’s “Telemachus” from Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Recently I read Ocean Vuong‘s much-lauded collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, his first full-length collection.

Night Sky with Exit WoundsIt is indeed a remarkable collection: so open, so intimate, so assured. I was impressed by the range of forms (including haibun, which I don’t come across too often), especially by “Seventh Circle of Earth,” which responds to the murder of two gay men. The poem consists of the numerals 1 through 7 spread out like a constellation over two pages; each number corresponds to a footnote, where the words of the poem reside. The effect is moving—the words are literally too small to do justice to the tragedy; the numbers are bleak.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is—as you might expect from a book that deals with grief, displacement and the immigrant experience, domestic violence, suicide, sexuality, and love—intense. Take “Telemachus,” in which the speaker does not, as you might expect, assist his Odysseus-father in conquering  his lost kingdom. Instead,

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

It’s an evocative poem, one that left me surprised at each turn. If you like “Telemachus,” which you can read in full here, then I commend Night Sky with Exit Wounds to your reading.

What poems are you reading this week?

Recommended Reading: The Granite Moth by Erica Wright

The Granite Moth

Are you looking for the right book during the transition from summer into fall? Look no further: with its page-turning plot and crisp autumn setting, Erica Wright’s The Granite Moth* is the book for you.

IMG_0592On Halloween night, private investigator Kathleen Stone—Kat, or Kate, Katya, Kathy, Keith, Kennedy,  or another alias, depending on who’s asking—is waiting on a friend and former colleague to drop off some leads that could help her build a case against her nemesis, cartel boss Salvatore Magrelli. Ever since she left undercover work for the NYPD, she’s felt much more comfortable in disguise, and this night is no exception, so she’s surprised when her friend Dolly, the star of the Pink Parrot’s famous drag show, recognizes her from his position on  the club’s float.

Minutes later, the float explodes, and Kat finds herself juggling two cases at once as she’s pulled into investigating the incident by Big Mamma, the club’s owner, who’s convinced it’s no accident. When Kat infiltrates the Skyview, a tony private club run by Magrelli’s wife, the murder of an employee makes her think that the two cases are possibly connected—as hate crimes.

What I liked best about The Granite Moth, in no particular order:

  1. The plot: It’s full of twists and turns, but it’s not convoluted, and it doesn’t rely on sexual assault as a plot point or character motivation (hallelujah!). Also, until now I’d never read a detective novel with (potential) hate crimes as a focus. Timely, unfortunately.
  2. The secondary characters: Dolly and his friends at the Pink Parrot are fully differentiated and fleshed out, as is Kat’s former colleague and friend Ellis, an NYPD detective. The only character I had a hard time understanding was Meeza, Kat’s assistant; it wasn’t clear why a smart, capable woman is interested in V.P., a small-time criminal.
  3. Kat: Kat is smart and brave, though scarred by her work undercover and reasonably worried about the dangerous people crossing her path–a far cry from the usual marks she pursues.  She doesn’t carry a gun, which makes her resourceful; scenes have more room to breathe since violence isn’t always imminent. Disguise is her weapon of choice, but she also listens carefully and carries bolt cutters. Plus, I enjoyed Kat’s sense of humor (wry, as befits a PI).
  4. The writing: Ms. Wright’s prose doesn’t call attention to itself, which (for me, anyway) is ideal in genre fiction, but it certainly has some lovely moments, like this image: “Ellis stopped abruptly and turned me to face him. He ducked down until he was peering into my eyes with his translucent one. I could see myself in his pupils, the smallest nesting doll in the set, the one with nothing inside.”

If you, like me, aren’t a connoisseur of crime fiction but like to sample the genre from time to time, I’d happily recommend The Granite Moth.

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