A deeply incomplete review of this spring’s best new poetry
Rimbaud famously claimed a poet makes him or herself a visionary through “a long, boundless and systemized disorganization of all the senses.” In order for a reader to find any familiarity or comfort in a poem by Rimbaud, and thus pleasure, a reader is forced to abandon the frames of reference they carry into reading any of his work. Giving into an experience of this type—in the best of his poems—through the dramatic fury of his language, ones’ insides are ridded of the accumulating toxicity of too much sense, meaning and neatness. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Though not attempting to stake a claim as lofty as visionary, Sara Nicholson’s debut book of poems, The Living Method (The Song Cave, 2014) nonetheless attempts to unshackle one’s reality in an ambitiously meaningful way. This book is plain weird, but to leave it there would reduce her work to a novelty. Take for instance the following excerpt from “Everests,” in which it’s tough not to nod along, only to find ourselves afterwards mystified.
If in the dark we propose the fiction
That winter is obstructed by chords
Death will float in our memories
Like a rafter of gold. Little fruits
To be wasted in the hypothetical forest.
For a mountain we might move outward,
But for love of the resemblances
We will remain part of this town, of that town
Obsession with language fills these pages in a way that mirrors Rimbaud, poems that convince you that, in Nicholson’s words, “representation / estranges us from the modern world”; a seemingly backwards notion, but believable as long as one is willing to enter into the marvelous drama of the poet’s verse.
Eleven Questions And Something Like Ten Suggestions
If you take care of the poetry, will the love take care of itself?
Does it matter what kind of love you mean, or what kind of love you want?
What’s the difference—in terms of literary portrayals; in terms of how they are realized in language—between erotic love, on the one hand, and all the other kinds of things we are used to designating as love, on the other?
What—if anything—do you want to encode, so that the poem contains something that only your lover, or your beloved, will understand?
“Does the imagination dwell the most/ Upon a woman won or a woman lost?” (W. B. Yeats) “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” (John Keats)
Can a love poem get outside—all the way outside—the ways of thinking in which the beloved is pursued, and “won” or “lost,” like a deer in a hunt or a prize on a game show?
Is love a third thing, something that belongs to neither of you, something that exists between you and gets addressed the way that a story or an orange or an idea can get addressed? Or are you writing to, for, and about, a person?
Are you writing a poem for yourself, or for a particular person you can name (see Frank O’Hara, “Personism”), or for a set of real people, or for everyone, or for no one, or for strangers?
Are you writing a poem as a gift, or as a plea, or as a means of reconciliation, or as a kind of announcement, a cry of happiness (as in O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You”)?
Do you want other people to see themselves in your poem, or it is just about your beloved and you? (Or do you have more than one beloved?)
Can you write a poem for a beloved without deciding, and without ever knowing, how you would answer any of those questions, so that the only good answer turns out to be the completion of the poem?
Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town, “Use ‘love' only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years." I’d add: for love poetry the heart is an organ that pumps blood, period. Despite all our medieval romanticizing of the heart as the seat of romantic emotion, it has no actual relation to love—which is the infinitely complex product of some combination of chemicals and the brain/mind.
Which is to say that the best love poems—to my way of thinking, anyway—tend to resist, at least in part, being love poems. I think of Marvin Bell’s “To Dorothy,” which begins:
You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
Or Rilke’s “Love Song,” where falling in love renders the soul suddenly clumsy, because the soul in love seems to get in the way of everything:
How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
Since love—especially if it’s requited—often fills us with a kind of temporary emotional sureness, expressing a permanent or totalizing feeling of certainty is an easy mistake a writer can make in a love poem. Rilke’s “Love Song” presents the lovers as two strings on a violin being played at the same time. Rather than end there, though, Rilke turns to the larger, persistent, unanswerable questions—the sort of questions love has no answers for:
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
He ends by simply expressing the wonderful and mysterious presence of love as it exists inside the larger context of those metaphysical unanswerables:
Oh sweetest song. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Rilke seems to be saying that love doesn’t erase our vast uncertainties about life, and it’s important to remember that. Still, love fills us and the world around us when it’s here. This thinking—to my mind—is complex and honest about limits, which is what a good and truthful love poem requires.
Wayne Miller is the author of The City, Our City and The Book of Props, both published by Milkweed Editions. He is also the translator of I Don’t Believe in Ghosts, a collection by Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo, and the editor, with Kevin Prufer, of New European Poets. Miller currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and teaches at the University of Central Missouri, where he co-edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. Visit his website at onlythesenses.com
Goodnight! are we excited Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams debuted at #11 on the New York Times trade paperback nonfiction bestseller list! To give you some idea of what that means, a book called Heaven is for Real is on that same list.
Lydia Davis’ highly anticipated, fifth collection of short stories, Can’t and Won’t, is out. In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Davis quotes from a “popular writer’s” work:
“‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that,” remarks Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”
In other words, Davis is a poet. Her stories could conceivably be called prose poems, if prose poems sold better. Davis’ work reminds me of the poems of Russell Edson, but a little less surreal, whatever that means. Hey, and until it starts to sell better, all poetry is on sale through April 30th. That’s a picture of our poetry section in the lower, left hand corner, before it went on sale.
Speaking of poetry, on Friday night Ron Padgett, a member of the Second Generation New York School Poets, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his Collected Poems, published by Coffee House Press! I’m always tempted to say “Our own Coffee House Press,” but isn’t the point that books don’t belong to anyone? I met a painter once who told me he couldn’t be less interested in keeping his own work once it was finished. But is art ever finished? I’m just kidding. About the italics, I mean. Congratulations to Ron Padgett and our own Coffee House Press!
Speaking of Friday night, it was standing room only for poets Sara Henning, Matt Mauch, Gretchen Marquette and Kyle Adamson. Click here for a list of our upcoming events. Click here for a recipe for Espresso, Almond and Ghiradelli Dark Chocolate Pudding Cups. Yummo.
T-shirts for sale! Afternoon Printing and Common Good Books have teamed up to bring you the first in a series of limited run t-shirts. For now all I’ll say is that one says “Tomes Not Drones” and makes a great gift for moms.
NYRB Poets has published the Love Sonnets and Elegies of Louise Labé, a poet of the French Renaissance who published her complete works by the age of 30 “and then disappeared from history.” Susan Stewart, Rosanna Warren and Rainer Maria Rilke have all chimed in on Labé’s “startling poems,” but perhaps her highest praise comes from The Polar Bear, a character in Samuel Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women: “A great poet, perhaps one of the greatest of all time.” Good enough for us.
Valentine’s Day sucks for a lot of people: they either aren’t in love and wish they were or are getting over a romance gone bad or are in the throes of falling in love which carries with it intense bewilderment and a lot of outright fear. My favorite love poems are the ones where it’s quite clear that the poet writing the poem has been through his or her own difficulties with love. Knowing what a broken heart feels like seems a good prerequisite for writing a great love poem. I also think that love poems written from longing, desire, and uncertainty have an edge over the more self-satisfied variety that are congratulating themselves on how lucky they (and their beloved) are.
Jim Moore is the author of Invisible Strings, Lightning at Dinner and, forthcoming in 2014, Underground: New and Selected poems, all published by Graywolf Press. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, the Nation, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Threepenny Review, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere. Moore is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota and at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs, as well as online through the University of Minnesota Split Rock Arts Program. He is married to the photographer JoAnn Verburg. They live in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Spoleto, Italy.
WHAT TO EXPECT: thirty two is clean and easy on the eyes. It is a beautifully laid out magazine full of crisp photography. It is the perfect magazine to read on a Sunday morning: calming, engaging and full of things you don’t necessarily need to know but want to know. You can expect one of the most excellent interviews I’ve personally read in a long time between Katharina Eggers, thirty two's founder, and Bartholomew Ryan, assistant curator at The Walker Art Center. There is also a smile-inducing excerpt from Minneapolis legend Andy Sturdevant's new book Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, winners from a Revolver short story contest, a review of the infamous (and awesome) Low performance at Rock the Garden, and an essay on the legendary apple-breeding at the University of Minnesota. You guys, there’s even an entire, extremely enlightening spread on “the life and death of malls” in Minnesota.
WHY IT’S UNIQUE: It is an artful and thoughtful love letter to the Twin Cities. thirty two highlights the special little things that make this such a cool place to live.
WHO SHOULD READ IT: Midwesterners, or those unaccustomed to the wonders of the Midwest.
WHET YOUR APPETITE: One of my favorite parts of the magazine is entitled “the art of hoarding” and tells the story of a South Minneapolis couple that “scouts estate sales in hopes of adding to their collection of the beautiful, the bizarre, and the unexpected.” The spread drew me in with the drippingly rich photography and kept me entertained with the enticing interview with the couple that wraps up with:
"Kate needs her home to have soul, and everything fro the Communist propaganda to the chickens contribute. ‘I feel like you can come into our house and get a little bit of an idea of who we are and how we think about things by the stuff that we surround ourselves with,’ she says. In a kitchen cupboard, their first egg sits next to a skull, possibly raccoon. Life and death, side by side, illustrating the cyclical nature of Kate and Bob’s home. ‘Even though we go to estate sales and I keep thinking, ‘Yep, this is pretty much what our place is going to look like when we’re dead,’ it doesn’t deter me.’"
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
When Kevin Young, one of my favorite poets when I need a love poem, writes about desire – “I want, like /water, you— / something wet / gainst the back / of my throat” – he plays with the familiar conceit of desire as a thirst, but gives it his own bluesy twist. The poem, called “Gutbucket,” finishes with the saucy (and lonely) plea, “Carry / me out / reel me in / I been down / this well too long—”. Young knows (even seems to enjoy the fact) that when we write a love poem, we enter the realm of cliché. These blues been sung before; we know others may have said it better; yet love does make fools of us, and we want to try our hand at it. Probably for this reason, one of the most interesting species of love poem is a narrative poem, in which the writer tells a little piece of the story, introduces us to the culture of a particular relationship—by definition, original material, which can carry us beyond ourselves into someone else’s world. One I’ve always admired is Jane Mayhall’s “Notes for a Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary,” which tells of the union of two bohemians, who didn’t really see themselves as the marrying kind. “How could anything so rash happen?,” she asks, and complains, “The Pastor in seersucker, red-faced…The Parish didn’t even have a piano/ But wedding strains, coached to overdo (and love / is private).” I love her line “The worst disasters were golden givers of advice: sausage makers.” The poem is about resisting the sausage-making of love’s clichéd forms – weddings being a major one. Yet, what may initially seem a lament against a tired institution and its sugary-sweet trappings (the cake was “Tastee brand”) becomes a poem of gratitude for the mystery that true love brings. “Because we didn’t believe in obligations,/ we never thought about divorce,” the poet muses. “And we were blessed. Going to sleep with / you at night, to welcome the strange, uncoercive / incense of another day.” I think the best love poems all contain something of this opposition—the Tastee cake (the cliché of love, which is always with us), and the uncoercive incense—that is, the continual and all-permeating surprise of love’s ability to carry us where we don’t expect, the uncliché of it. Reel me in!
[Excerpts from Kevin Young’s JELLY ROLL: A BLUES and Jane Mayhall’s “SLEEPING ON JUDGMENT DAY,” both published by Alfred A Knopf.]
Deborah Garrison is the poetry editor at Knopf and a senior editor at Pantheon Books. She is the author of two collections, A Working Girl Can’t Win: and Other Poems and The Second Child.
A deeply incomplete review of this spring’s best new poetry
Emily Dickinson’s well-rehearsed “I dwell in Possibility” may strike some, myself included, as a call to little more than indolence. It doesn’t defy logic that a poem beginning with the line “I dwell in possibility” might go on to say plainly “I would take a diet soda / if you’re heading that way. Thanks.” But to dwell in Possibility—not just any possibility, but a possibility that is capitalized; a deity, insofar as the poet is concerned—is not to simply stop making decisions but to listen and include, if not always trust, one’s instincts; to recognize “the distance between sight and perception,” as Matthew Gagnon put it recently; to honor speech by recognizing its potential force as threat and lifesaver, and so to see one’s next move clearly, when possibilities surround us, which one can’t hope to avoid, but can decide to dwell in just by calling a split-second an eternity. Each of these books dwell in Possibility, in effort to more truly act and enter in the world they refuse to reduce to a size they can speak of, lest it turn inconsequential. Will you hear them in this world? Will you take, as Spencer Reece says, a “vow of attention”? Will you never be the same?
At night I count
not the stars
but the dark.
Except “The dark don’t stay dark.” The morning light “takes / its own sweet / time to arrive.” Time claims to have the luxury of coming and going, but nothing is that cannot be forever, not according to memory, nor one’s worst fears. Kevin Young’s Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) is both elegy and song; a love letter from son to father sent without the reassurance of a measurable distance. It is the in-between—as Young might say, “the gray”—of night and morning, when the hours do not pass with any comfort, any sign of greater understanding, where Young locates his metaphors and finds himself (quite literally) awake to the insufferable possibility of meaning.
Frangibly enjambed, Young’s poems tiptoe on the surface of short lines, divided mostly into couplets, on a mission to coax rhythm as if failing to count sheep. Throughout the book’s first sections, which revolve almost exclusively around his father’s death, Young remains as angry and incurious as restless and impelled by thoughts that keep him up like little fingers mercilessly plucking the same, out of tune string. Instead, Young “make[s] good time” in airplanes, flying over where his pain resides, as if in perpetuity. He learns to play grief’s instrument, listening for the man his father was in words that strangers say, learning how to read a plate: need “not be returned.” And yet, even the evidence of grief can’t come back to us:
The borrowed handkerchief
Where she wept
Returned to me months later,
What does come back, what keeps the time, what helps make sense out of a Book of Hours is one “lone heart’s” beat: “un-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” The “hip-hop” of Young’s unborn son mapping the beat inside a train. Young, his wife and child, and a memory that has nowhere to go besides the future. “Mourning, I’ve learned,” writes Young, “is just / a moment, many.”