Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Dear Readers, I hope your August was lovely.

We traveled: to Edinburgh (just for a few days; our first trip out of the country as a family), where I was delighted to find the Scottish Poetry Library, and later in the month spent a quick weekend at Niagara Falls (our son adored the Maid of the Mist, as did we), with a chance to visit a dear friend on the Canadian side.

Our garden is winding down, school is starting, and the blankets are on the beds at night. Wishing you all a happy fall (or spring, Australian readers), and happy reading.


I know many of you have probably already donated to the relief efforts in Texas. If you’re looking for more ways to help, Book Riot put together a list of book/library/publishing-related ways to do so. Texans, we’re thinking of you.


Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin*, by Rachel Khong: A quietly beautiful novel about one year in the life of a woman who comes home to help care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Empathetic and funny without shying away from the terrible frailty the disease exposes in both patient and caregiver. Recommended.

The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber: My favorite entry (so far) in Graywolf’s “Art Of” series for writers. I’ll be coming back to this book.

Day, by A.L. Kennedy: I bought this novel in the Edinburgh airport and read it cover to cover on the flight home. Day is about Alfred Day, a young man from an unhappy home who volunteers to serve as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War II. The book begins in 1949 as Day is working as an extra in a war movie that triggers memories of his experiences.  It’s absolutely stellar.

The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie: One of my finds at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. This is a collection about Scotland; Ms. Jamie wrote one poem a week in 2014, and those poems became this book. I love her engagement with the natural world (from “High Water”: “When the tide returns / from its other life / bearing its adulterer’s gifts”). Recommended.

Lessons on Expulsion*, by Erika L. Sánchez: Full review of this bold collection here.

The Mountain*, by Paul Yoon: Six gorgeous stories from a master of the form. Longer review coming soon.

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin: The brilliant finale to Ms. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (the first two installments of which I inhaled at the very end of 2016). Highly, highly recommended.

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett: A little gem of a book; the uncommon reader is the queen, who discovers late in life a passion for reading. Spend an afternoon with this charming novella while you wait for the second season of The Crown.

The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy: If you’ve read “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ms. Levy’s gut-wrenching New Yorker essay, you know how gifted a writer she is. This memoir builds toward the events of that essay in candid, clear prose. Unfortunately, the last few chapters fizzle, holding back in ways the rest of the book (which deals with infidelity, alcohol addiction, and infertility, among other difficult subjects) does not.

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu: In New Delhi, Mr. and Mrs. Jha decide to relocate from their small apartment complex to an upscale neighborhood after Mr. Jha sells his business for a significant sum . They know the move will be difficult, but they can’t foresee its effects—hilarious and otherwise—on their neighbors, new and old, and their son, struggling at an American business school. Ms. Basu skewers the rich with a smile, and I was delighted by her nuanced characterizations of long-time friends Mrs. Jha and Mrs. Ray; it was good to see middle-aged women given such close attention.

*I received copies of these books from their publishers for review consideration.

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Last Week’s Reading: March 5 – 11

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey: I’ll post a longer review of this book soon, so for now I’ll just say that I loved it. The hook: three astronauts undertake a long-term simulated mission to Mars, and both they and the loved ones they leave behind struggle with isolation and epiphanies during their experience.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: What a lovely novel. Exit West has that graceful fluidity that seems effortless but of course isn’t effortless at all, but the result of a writer’s very hard work. It’s about Saeed and Nadia, two young people falling in love as their city falls apart, destroyed in the conflict between government forces and militants. The pair begin to hear rumors of doors not between rooms, but between countries—doors that have been appearing all over the world. Soon migration doesn’t require a passport, but merely steps through an (unguarded door); the trouble becomes what to do once you find yourself on a beach in Greece, or a mansion in London, or a mountainside in California. As Nadia and Saeed navigate through strange new worlds, Mr. Hamid breaks up their narrative with vignettes of other migrants, giving a global feel to an otherwise intimate narrative. Beautiful writing and a timely tale. Highly recommended.

Baptism of Desire, by Louise Erdrich: I enjoyed this 1989 collection, Ms. Erdrich’s second, just as much as her first (Jacklight). The first group of poems plays with Catholic imagery and theology, while the second section includes narrative poems about various characters (like Mary Kroger, the butcher’s wife). The third section, my favorite, is a long poem, “Hydra,” about both the mythological figure and pregnancy. The prose tale of “Potchikoo’s Life After Death” makes up the fourth section (I don’t think I’ve seen a story in a short collection like this before, but I enjoyed it thoroughly). Poems about marriage, domestic life, and the natural world close this strong collection. You can read Baptism of Desire‘s first poem, “Fooling God,” at the Poetry Foundation.

What are you reading these days?

Last Week’s Reading: February 5 – February 11

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: I loved this family saga about Korean immigrants in twentieth-century Japan. You can read my full review here.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman: I grew up watching the film adaptation (starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton) of this 1966 play, and I was delighted to find that the screenplay matches the script almost exactly. It’s a firecracker of a play about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons, brought to life with some of the wittiest, cruelest banter you’ve ever read. My copy, which I found at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, is a first edition, and it includes stills from the first production–imagine my surprise at seeing a very, very young Christopher Walken in these pages! Perfect escapist reading.

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey: This 2012 collection by former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is brilliant. Thrall takes as its focus the poet’s interracial background, interrogating classic paintings that depict mixed-race people and themes and exploring the poet’s relationship with her white father. Two of my favorites from this beautiful, necessary, American collection: “Rotation” and “Enlightenment.”

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and Neil Gaiman did not disappoint. In these tales, he brings the Norse gods to life—wise but fallible Odin, hulking Thor, dangerous Loki (and he points out that much of what must have been passed down about goddesses and other female figures has been, alas, lost—hence the disproportionate number of myths about male figures). A gifted storyteller and fascinating legends makes for a classic combination. Gorgeous cover, too.

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro: A subtle, unnerving novel about a woman, Etsuko, who recalls one hot, eventful summer in post-war Nagasaki decades later, after she’s moved to England. Her older daughter has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter comes to visit Etsuko at her country home. The writing is atmospheric and outwardly serene, but malaise creeps beneath the surface. I’m amazed at Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in showing how characters mean exactly the opposite of what they say. Even more amazing is that A Pale View of Hills was his first novel. Recommended.

13 Poems to Celebrate Ladyfriends on Galentine’s Day

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Friends, there’s a holiday that we should be celebrating with mimosas, flowers, and massive quantities of waffles with whipped cream.

I’m talking, of course, about Galentine’s Day.

What’s Galentine’s Day, you say?

giphy

It’s only the best day of the year, according to notable Pawnee citizen Leslie Knope.

Galentine’s Day is February 13, and it’s the day when “friends leave their husbands and their boyfriends* at home and just kick it breakfast style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair, minus the angst. Plus, frittatas!” [*For the record here, in my opinion, and I’m sure in Leslie’s as well,  Galentine’s Day is a celebration for all ladyfolk, including trans and queer friends!]

Anyway, Leslie Knope competes only with C.J. Cregg for the title of “Carolyn’s Favorite Fictional Female Government Official,” and let me tell you, those ladies would throw the best planned and wittiest Galentine’s brunch this fine nation has ever seen.

I like to think that brunch would feature readings hand-selected for participants by Leslie Knope; as dedicated Parks and Rec fans know, she once matched poetry with Scotch in a way that moved even the stolid Ron Swanson.

So, in honor of Leslie Knope and Anne Perkins, and in celebration of Galentine’s Day, here are 13 poems on friendship by female poets. Some are elegiac, some are sad, some are funny, some are opaque, some are straightforward—but all are by talented ladies, and I hope you like them.

Happy Galentine's Day!Patricia Spears Jones, “What Beauty Does”

Regan Huff, “Occurrence on Washburn Avenue” 

Elizabeth Woody, “Girlfriends” 

Katherine Philips, “Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia”

Tess Gallagher, “Love Poem to Be Read to an Illiterate Friend”

Bernadette Mayer,“On Gifts for Grace”

Rebecca Lindenberg, “Letter to a Friend, Unsent”

Jessica Greenbaum, “I Had Just Hung up from Talking to You”

Margaret Kaufman, “Photo, Brownie Troop, St. Louis, 1949” 

Colette Labouff Atkinson, “Perhaps this verse would please you better—Sue—(2)”

Carolyn Kizer, “October 1973”

Lucilla Perillo, “The Garbo Cloth”

Eloise Klein Healy, “The Beach at Sunset”

What will you be reading to celebrate Galentine’s Day?

Bringing Sexy Back (To Valentine’s Day): 17 Steamy Poems by Esteemed Poets

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Valentine’s Day is upon us, friends, and in its original form (featuring fifteen poems), this has been one of the most popular posts over the last few years. For 2017, I’ve added two poems, for seventeen total. Do you have a favorite I should feature next year?


Toss that teddy bear and give your significant person the gift of verse this Valentine’s Day.

That poet everyone reads at weddings is actually much more appropriate for the bedroom:

e. e. cummings, “i like my body when it is with your” 

An unsexy title for a very sexy poem (check out those ellipses!): 

Li-young Lee, “This Room and Everything In It”

The “Oh, snap” kind of sexy:

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, being born a woman and distressed”

Wistful sexy:

C. P. Cavafy, “Body, remember”

Bitter sexy:

Thomas Wyatt. “They Flee from Me”

Literate sexy:

Robert Hass, “Etymology” (start watching at 18:42)

Damn sexy:

Audre Lorde, “Recreation

Desire, frustration, and jewelry. Also: socioeconomic tension. (And the first overtly lesbian poem I read as a teenager. Bit of a lightbulb moment, there.)

Carol Ann Duffy, “Warming her Pearls”

Difficult to choose just one Donne poem, but hey, let’s go with the salute to nakedness:

John Donne, “To His Mistress Going to Bed”

Restraint and abandonment, all at once:

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! (269)”

For the Dear Readers who are also parents: 

Galway Kinnell, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”

Maybe this is where they got the title for Blue is the Warmest Color:

May Swenson, “Blue”

I hate birds, but this poem is still amazing: 

Henri Cole, “Loons”

You’ll never look at roses the same way again, I promise:

D.H. Lawrence, “Gloire de Dijon”

And yes, a Neruda poem. But I can’t find it anywhere on the interwebs, so you’ll have to go find a copy of World’s End or Late and Posthumous Poems for yourself. 

Pablo Neruda, “Física”/”Physics”

Sexy in translation: 

León Salvatierra (trans. Javier O. Huerta), “Act”

Desire in list form: 

Major Jackson, “Superfluities”

 

Your turn: what’s the sexiest poem you’ve ever read?

“The weary ones, the sad, the suffering, / All found their comfort in the holy place”: Emma Lazarus’s “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport”

 

I wrote this post in December 2015. It’s disheartening, to say the least, to feel the need to share it again, but such are the times we are living through.

I strongly urge you to support, in any way you are able to, the International Rescue Committee.


I was poking about, looking for a Chanukah poem to feature in honor of the holiday (and New_colossusHappy Chanukah, Dear Readers), when I came across a poem that speaks a bit to the holiday itself, but even more to our present moment. Please bear with me as I come around to the poem.

A personage who shall not be named (like the J.K. Rowling villain he seems so desperate to emulate) is voicing repulsive xenophobia, indifferent to the plight of thousands upon thousands of people fleeing violence and seeking no more than what most Americans take for granted: the right to live freely in peace, to pursue happiness. This person, and any who claim to be interested in the Founding Fathers, would do well to recall George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, assuring them—often persecuted in other lands for their religion—of their welcome in America. Herewith, an excerpt:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

[…]

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington [emphasis mine]

It was the synagogue of this very congregation, the oldest synagogue still standing in America, that inspired Emma Lazarus to write “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” a lovely poem that muses on the plight of exiles and the comforts of shared devotion, and should recall to us all—believers and non-believers alike—the great privilege of living in a country in which freedom of religion is enshrined in law, and the great wisdom, the necessary humanity, of embracing people of goodwill of all faiths, or none at all.

If the name Emma Lazarus sounds familiar, it’s because she’s also the poet whose verses famously adorned a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Light and not darkness upon our paths, friends.


 

To donate to the UNCHR, the UN Refugee Agency, click here. 

To donate to UNICEF, click here. 

To donate to Save the Children, click here. 

Recommended Reading: The Tornado is the World, by Catherine Pierce

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Years ago, my friend A. (who has great taste) sent me a link to a poem by a friend of hers. That poem was Catherine Pierce’s “The Mother Warns the Tornado,” which is very, very good.

The Tornado Is the World photo by Carolyn OliverI’ve never forgotten it (I watched Twister quite a bit in my formative years), and so I was delighted when a copy of The Tornado Is the World*, Ms. Pierce’s new book of poems, appeared in the mailbox. It’s just as excellent as “The Mother Warns the Tornado” promises.

How do we live in a world where disaster might be just around the corner? This is the question The Tornado Is the World explores in its three sections, beginning with the poem “Disaster Work,” which asks: If you truly focused on each and every tragedy unfolding in the same moment,

How could you do the impossible work
of putting your child to bed,
saying goodnight, closing the door
on the darkness?

You couldn’t, of course; we bear the unbearable by setting it aside, considering it only briefly, or when it happens to us (and it will).

That’s why the metaphor of the book’s title works so well: you can’t predict when the world is going to come for you (“Checks / and balances, and I wait for the tally to be evened”), or how bad the damage will be. In these poems (about two dozen out of the collection, including the entire second section) the tornado is a malevolent entity, power personified. “But the tornado cannot stop. Will not. / The world cannot stop turning, and this minute / the tornado is the world,” the poet writes in “The Tornado Visits the Town.” It gathers objects and living things in a terrifying harvest, as in “The Tornado Collects the Animals”:

The tornado will wrap them tight.
It will make sure the poor things
know what it is to be held.

That’s such a powerful image, echoing the repeated image of the mother huddling over her child in a dry bathtub, trying to protect him from a force of nature, becoming a force of nature herself, maybe.

Though rage and anxiety are swift currents running through this collection, so is gratitude. Gratitude for being spared, for the ability to observe and catalogue aftermaths, but also gratitude for the beauties of this terrible, fearsome world: the hawk (“something prehistoric”) hunting in the suburbs, the “crocus-blessed” Southern winter (“an unhinged sweetheart— / all gloss and lilt, until the shift.”), beach towns and bars and dreams.

I loved this collection, and commend it to your reading.

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


If you’re looking for another poetry collection about destructive natural phenomena, I recommend Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

“Would I love it this way”: W.S. Merwin’s “The Morning”

Merwin's Garden Time photo by Carolyn OliverThis week I’ve been reading W. S. Merwin’s new book, Garden Time. It’s beautiful and calm and melancholy,  just what I needed this week. Mr. Merwin is 89, and losing his eyesight; I read that these poems were dictated to his wife, Paula.

He’s one of this country’s most prolific writers; I think I first read his work when I was in high school (his translation of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) and then again a few years later with his introduction to a volume of selected poems by Thomas Wyatt. Mr. Merwin’s own poem “Berryman” is one of my favorites, one of my writerly touchstones.

Anyway, “The Morning,” the poem that opens Garden Time, is worth the price of admission. I love it, and its phrases have been flitting in my mind for days. I hope you’ll love it too.

What are you reading this week?

“We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.”

Dear Readers,

This is the third year I’m sharing this post; today, I also recommend Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”


I’m not a religious person, but many people I treasure are very religious, and I’m always

"Eagle silhouette" Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Eagle silhouette” Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

grateful for their prayers and their generosity of spirit. Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem” gives me a way to think about prayer that is comforting and uplifting without listing toward the dogmatic.

For that reason, I think “Eagle Poem” is the perfect poem for Thanksgiving week, when we give thanks in our own ways, both secular and spiritual, for what we have and what we have not.

Recommended Reading: Bestiary, by Donika Kelly

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A bestiary, as you probably know, is a catalogue of beasts, either real or mythical or both. It’s a rich framework for a book of poems, and Donika Kelly’s Bestiary*, longlisted for the National Book Award, is a wonder. Here you’ll find birds, bears, centaurs, Pegasus, dogs, the Minotaur, a werewolf, and a mermaid—and poems of love, grief, and human monstrosity.

Bestiary photo by Carolyn OliverThese poems bear evidence of trauma, particularly childhood abuse, which makes them both difficult to read and deeply moving. (You can read Donika Kelly’s brief statement on who she wrote the book for here.) The speaker in the long poem “How to be alone” chronicles her loneliness, curling on the couch with her dogs, challenging herself to admit all that she has endured (including her mother’s death, her father’s abuse, self-harm, “the little ways you brick up your heart”). Each four- to seven-line stanza appears on its own page, emphasizing the speaker’s isolation. It’s an incredibly intimate self-portrait.

Bestiary is a book I’ll come back to again, not only for the way it confronts human frailty, but for its love poems. “I have never known a field as wild / as your heart” begins “Love Poem: centaur.” “Love Poem: Satyr” finds the creature calling to its love “with a breath / of spring, a small wind warmed in my breast / and shaped by the lips you loved.” These poems swell with lyric beauty.

I highly recommend this collection. To get a taste of it, you can read “Bower” at VQR here, and “Pegasus” at Graywolf’s website.

You can also read more about Bestiary here and here.

What’s the last poem you read?

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