Recommended Reading: Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

Layli Long Soldier’s collection Whereas* is a searing response to the congressional apology to Native American peoples (tucked away in a 2009 defense appropriations bill, signed by President Obama but not read aloud or offered in person to tribal leaders) and the legacy that apology (such as it is) represents.

Whereas considers the language of government bureaucracy and history in poems that vary wildly in form. Here you’ll find prose poems, a historical narrative (the blistering “38”), found poems and poems that depend on erasure, a poem in the form of a definition, and on and on. It’s almost dizzying—you never know what the next page will bring.

The work of living and observing language and its uses: these stood out to me as the twin subjects of Whereas. Of the latter, Ms. Long Soldier writes, “If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title.”  In one of Whereas‘s most quoted passages, she writes, “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” The personal—mothering, writing, living—serves as a counter to the formal, insidiously impersonal language of government documents, and it also highlights the effects that language has on people, culturally and physically. The poet writes of her weariness, her tooth that was pulled instead of saved thanks to budget sequestration (“Yet the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.”), her relief at a real apology offered by someone close to her.

Layli Long Soldier melds form and content in impressive, important ways. Whereas is highly recommended.

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

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Last Week’s Reading: April 2-8

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: I requested this book on the recommendation of my friend Mary, who owns Newtonville Books, where Ms. Hartnett once worked. Rabbit Cake is narrated by precocious but not precious Elvis Babbitt, who recounts the events after her mother’s untimely death by drowning due to sleepwalking. As Elvis and her sister and her father try to hold their family together, each takes on different coping strategies of varying effectiveness (there’s a talking bird involved, and dozens of cakes). There was potential here to veer into over-stylized Wes Anderson territory (I love Wes Anderson, but I do not think I would care for his work in novel form), but Ms. Hartnett’s assured debut remains grounded in the Babbitt family’s frailties and love. Recommended.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar: This slim, striking collection whetted my appetite for Kaveh Akbar’s full-length book of poems Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming this fall. The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are intimate and beautiful, a catalogue of desires—for drink, for God, for understanding—fulfilled and unfulfilled.

Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach: I’ve been on the lookout for Fortune’s Pawn ever since Rory recommended it years ago, and after striking out at bookstore after bookstore, I finally requested it from the library. Devi Morris (think Starbuck meets Ripley) is an armored mercenary with a big ego and the skills to match it. Ambition leads her to take a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship that gets into even more trouble than its name suggests. Devi thinks she can handle it, but she has no idea what she’s in for. This is a fun, action-packed sci-fi novel with a bit of romance—a perfect palate cleanser if you’re between more serious reads.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’m on a bit of a sci-fi kick, as you see. I adored this novel, which is like a whole season of Firefly packed into a book, only with more aliens. The setup is conventional: Rosemary Harper wants to escape her past, and what better way than be joining the crew of a ship that tunnels wormholes through space? Of course the crew is completely unconventional, from the reptilian pilot Sissix to the friendly AI Lovey and the cook/doctor, six-limbed Dr. Chef. On a long deep-space assignment, the crew faces adventure and loss and meets some of the most interesting sapients in the galaxy. The concerns of the novel are serious—how families are made, what sentience means, how gender and sexuality might look in a galaxy filled with different species, how risk should be valued—but the tone is lighthearted and warm. It’s a delectable book, and highly recommended.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: Another entry in the “poets I should have read years ago” category. I’ve run across Terrance Hayes’s poems before, but this is the first time I sat down to read a whole collection. Lighthead is such a good collection: playful, melancholy, and multifaceted. These poems felt full to bursting with the richness of their language. My favorites included “The Golden Shovel,” a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”; “Carp Poem”; “God Is an American”; and “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (not pictured since I read it as an e-book): This 2008 essay collection fell a bit flat for me; I’m used to breaking out into the kind of chortles that alarm small children and passersby when I read David Sedaris, but no one near me was the least bit startled while I read this book. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading—a few essays are quite moving—but I don’t feel the need to buy it for my own library.

“And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.”

Readers might notice that on or around April 11 every year I post this poem or one like it, in honor of someone I loved very much.


To an Athlete Dying YoungHousman

A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


 

(Rest in peace, EVC.)

Last Week’s Reading: March 26 – April 1

There Now, by Eamon Grennan: I’ve forgotten what led me to request this poetry collection from the library, so if it was your recommendation, please let me know in the comments! This was my first time reading Mr. Grennan’s work (I’m sure I’ve said this before, but the more I read contemporary poetry, the more I realize I haven’t read) and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There Now features poems that are short on commas, long on inventive hyphenated adjectives, and virtuosic in their syntax. I’ll be adding this to my Christmas list come the end of the year.

A Separation, by Katie Kitamura: In A Separation, the narrator learns that her estranged husband is missing, and travels from London to Greece to seek him out. That their separation is secret makes an already unfortunate situation even more complex, especially when Christopher’s overbearing mother and possible fling are thrown into the mix. This is a cool, controlled a novel that’s more about the narrator’s psychology and observations on relationships than it is about the mystery plot. While I appreciated those observations and Ms. Kitamura’s handling of alienation as a theme, the style—run on sentences meant to approximate the slip-patter of thought—was to me intrusive, and detracted from my reading experience.

Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier: I’ll be posting a full  review of this searing collection soon.

My Darling Detective, by Howard Norman: This new novel by one of my favorite authors didn’t disappoint. Full review coming soon.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, by Morgan Parker: Goodness, I wish I could have made it into Boston to hear Ms. Parker read from this collection—with their rhythmic intensity, these poems beg to be read out loud. Pop culture, politics, and personal experience are woven together throughout the collection, which ranges in tone from jaunty and risqué  to forlorn. “I’m a little unpolished / behind the scenes,” the poet writes. Some of my favorite poems include “99 Problems,” “Delicate and Jumpy” (“I’m a museum / of  necklines and cloudscapes, a heaven / diving into the wrong hard mountain.”), “Afro,” and “Slouching Toward Beyoncé.” An excellent collection and a must-read for its perspectives on race, feminism, and vulnerability.

Saga Vol. 7, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples: I adore Saga; it convinced me to try other comics and graphic novels, but aside from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, none have impressed me like Saga. This installment is pretty bleak, but I think that was to be expected. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for Hazel and her family next.

Last Week’s Reading: March 12 – 18

The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt: One on Graywolf’s “Art Of” series on writing techniques (and I’m curious to know your favorites if you’ve read any of the others), this little book is about syntax in poetry: its musicality, how it relates to the poetic line, how poets from Bishop to Kunitz deploy it. It’s on the technical side, understandably, with much discussion of rhythm and grammar, and I suspect therefore would be of most interest to poets/writers.

SPQR, by Mary Beard: I’ve been working on this book since January, and finally made a big push to finish it last week (hence the lack of fiction on this list). This much-acclaimed history of Ancient Rome considers a period of about a thousand years, tracing notions of democracy, empire, and citizenship. The parallels with our own historical moment are sometimes quite uncomfortable. Though this is, of necessity, history in broad strokes, I appreciated Ms. Beard’s keen eye for detail, her readings of architectural evidence and art, and her attempts to give shape to narratives that have often disappeared (those of enslaved people, children, and women). If you’re in the mood for history, I highly recommend SPQR.

Hagar Poems, by Mohja Kahf: I liked the concept of this collection, which plays with different aspects of the Hagar/Hajar story (with Abraham, Hagar conceived Ishmael, and then mother and son were exiled when Sarah gave birth to Isaac), but the execution was uneven. In these poems, Ms. Kahf plays with a multiplicity of voices and settings, and is most successful in tongue-in-cheek poems like “Hajar Writes a Letter to Sarah as a Cathartic Exercise Suggested by Her Therapist” and the moving “Little Mosque Poems” sequence.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, by Carlo Rovelli: You might think of this as a more in-depth companion to Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (which appeared in English first, though this book was first to be published in Italian). In Reality Is Not What It Seems, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli walks readers through the development of physics from Democritus up to quantum gravity, which is still being explored and theorized. The tenses get a little wonky (but time is relative, right?) and I can’t say that I now understand special relativity or the structure of a 3-sphere, but goodness, this stuff is absolutely fascinating. And Mr. Rovelli appreciates poets (he quotes Dante, Lucretius, and Shakespeare, among others), for which I continue to hold him in esteem. The further I got into this book, the more trippy and weird and beautiful the cosmos seemed. I wish I had a head for physics, but since I don’t, I’m glad there are books like this one to make me feel I understand the structure of reality a little better.

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 19-25

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: I confess that this is the first George Saunders book I’ve read, and now I get what all the hype is about. The novel takes place on one night, in the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln’s body has been delivered. His grieving father, faced with the loss of his son and the looming loss of his country (the war is not going well), visits the cemetery, to the surprise of the resident ghosts. Mr. Saunders stretches the form of the novel in unexpected directions, and the result is polyphonous, nuanced, joyful and terrible, and—dare I say it?—Joycean, in a good way. Highly recommended.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Everything there is to say about this book, a father’s letter to his son about moving through American life in a black body, has already been said, I think, but: yes, it’s searing, bleak, and galvanizing. And the writing is beautiful. Highly recommended.

Peacock & Vine, by A. S. Byatt: As an object, this book is covetable—gorgeous thick paper, a carefully chosen font, around 50 full-page photos—but I closed it and wished for more. It’s an essay, A. S. Byatt is careful to say, that through various lenses considers the lives and work of the artists Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. I knew a bit about Morris coming into the book, but nothing about textile designer Fortuny, and in both cases I felt out of my depth because of my lack of knowledge. Byatt’s writing is gorgeous, of course—is there a writer who can describe color better?—but I think this book is best suited for people particularly interested in the two designers. Made me want a Fortuny coffee-table book, though.

Look, by Solmaz Sharif: In Look, Ms. Sharif’s debut collection, poetry is an act of witnessing, even when what is witnessed is erasure. These poems focus on the way war destroys or maims the body, relationships, and language itself. A powerful, sad, cohesive collection. Highly recommended.

(The library was good to me this week, as you can see. Wish I’d had time to write longer reviews!)

Last Week’s Reading: February 12-18

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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, by Megan Marshall: Full marks to this illuminating biography of one of the twentieth century’s best poets. You can read my in-depth review here.

Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop: Thanks to Ms. Marshall’s biography, I succumbed to the temptation to update my version of Bishop’s complete poems. This volume contains all her published poetry, several uncollected pieces, translations, and some works in progress—a feast, by any measure.

The Essex Serpent photo copyright Carolyn OliverThe Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry: From the moment I saw the cover of this novel, I coveted it. Last month I ordered in from the UK, not willing to wait until its summer release here—and goodness, I’m glad I did. The plot: In 1893, Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed amateur natural historian, sets out from London with her son and her friend/nanny/maid to visit Essex, where she hopes to make exciting discoveries and escape the oppressive memories of her marriage. Further up the coast, fear ripples through a small village after a series of unsettling events lead many to believe that the legendary Essex serpent has returned. Cora hopes that the beast turns out to be a living fossil, while William Ransome, the local curate, believes lack of faith is responsible for his parishioners’ panic. When Will and Cora meet, their intelligence and opposing beliefs draw them together like magnets, and the nature of friendship is tested. The supporting characters are finely drawn and the setting is sumptuous—this is a novel you’ll want to devour. Mark your calendars for June 6, U. S. readers.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: Had I known more about Sojourner Truth’s life, I probably would have chosen to read Nell Irvin Painter’s biography of the legendary abolitionist and suffragist instead of this primary source (Nell Irvin Painter also wrote the very helpful introduction to this book). Because Sojourner Truth could neither read nor write, her story was necessarily mediated through amanuenses. The Narrative is composed of three parts written or compiled at different times by different figures, and while some of Truth’s speech is set down, it’s hard to tell if it’s an exact transcription (almost all of the work is in the third person, and the first co-writer offers her own opinions freely). Still, I’m glad I read it, since I learned more about Truth’s ordeals as a slave in New York, her years as an itinerant preacher, and her unstinting efforts on behalf of freed persons after the Civil War.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona: I loved the concept of this comic, but I think it’s geared for readers younger than I am. Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl living in Jersey City with her Pakistani American family, discovers she has shapeshifting abilities. Becoming Ms. Marvel is no easy task, as she needs to learn how to channel her new powers while simultaneously navigating tricky relationships with her friends, family, and classmates. Essentially, this is a more complex and interesting version of the Spider-Man story, and I’d definitely recommend it for teen readers.

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?