Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains from Glen Maury Park
Deferred Action
 
Look at the mountain, find my boots, abandon
     walls, look at the mountain. It’s all I do.
The president tweets DACA is dead while
     the magnolia publishes other news: the future
will be pink. Whom should I listen to?
     Beets for lunch. Do not think of my father,
who loved them, as juice bleeds over the salad. Do not
     remember my mother-in-law, whose jewelry I wear,
glassy teardrops strung along a chain.
     She died far away, last verses unheard.
It’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,
      he plays, the curator of beatness who
visits class with Dylan on cue. Scratches
      under scratches. No one’s allowed to dream
anymore. A student comes by with poems and fear
     of deportation. So many words; so few.
Evening, home, where once I found on the lawn
     a note from neo-nazis. Look at the mountain,
crowned in rose. Where black is the color and none
     is the number, the singer foretold. Still I talk,  
fail to talk, and grant some songs their visas.
     And look at the mountain, its gloomy hunch, its glow.

House Mountain, visible from my desk past telephone wires, is a daily reference point that appears in many of my poems, often as a way to touch base with forces much larger than my own little life. The piece above was in 32 Poems; in the final poem of The State She’s In, now three months old, the same mountain gives me a stern talking to about ambition. This morning House Mountain is invisible behind haze. It doesn’t mind giving me a metaphor for an uncertain, unforecastable future, apparently. Nor does my cat Ursula, who has taken to chasing her tail on a staircase newel. The other day she fell off, busted a lamp, and slid down rump-first behind the upright piano–clearly enacting the state of my brain.

DACA survives, at least for a while: good. A monstrously destructive president slides in the polls: all right. My daughter’s stories of recurring police brutality to Black people in Philadelphia: the record keeps spinning. I’m not writing much these days, but I think the 2020s are going to be another great decade for protest poetry. There were two powerful ones in the New Yorker I flipped through yesterday, by the always amazing Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes. They remind me that I don’t have to be writing; I can just wait out the mists. Being a reader, voter, donator, person at rest: those are all fine, too.

A few good things I’ve been a part of lately: the Practices of Hope reading I participated in a week ago was warm, lovely, inspiring, and pretty much ego-less (recording here, the About Place issue it’s based on here). Verse Daily kindly featured a poem of mine, “Unsonnet,” that recently appeared in Ecotone. I have a gigan about my parents’ pine green Gran Torino in Literary Matters: anybody else old enough to remember those seatbealt-less rides in the “way-back”? Sweet interviewed me here. And I have an essay about teaching in my part of the south in Waxwing (a former colleague calls this place “Confederatelandia”). That one I did write recently–miraculously, really, given how hard this spring was!–but it’s just a 1500-word expansion of comments I would have made on an AWP panel called Teaching in the Confederacy, organized by Chris Gavaler and featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop. Editor Todd Kaneko urged me to keep digging deeper into my own evasions, making it a better piece, but I presume it will be outdated in about five minutes. As I just wrote to a former student, now a professor himself and wondering about how to be a better teacher-scholar during Black Lives Matter, I’m in a constant process of self-renovation these days.

As is necessary. I think about Breonna Taylor every day, and the dreaming she can no longer do.

Best for what?–reading 2018

urs and booksI love hearing about people’s favorite books, and regularly shop and read from lists published everywhere every December. I’ve even written a short discussion of my favorite genre books in 2018, to appear in Strange Horizons‘ annual roundup a few days from now.

But I’m skeptical of these lists, too: “best” for whom, when, and why? For what purpose? I’ve found no single critic out there who shares all of my own tastes and obsessions, even though I’m part of a demographic heavily represented in literary journalism. What makes a book powerful is partly latent in the text, but is also contingent on circumstances. Even for one reader, the stories or voices that feel most necessary can vary from day to day. There’s no value-neutral, objective “best” out there.

I can certainly name the poetry books that most wowed me this fall, that I kept wanting to share: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes, and, a little belatedly, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. Does that make them the best? It means they’re really good, for sure.

But I also bought poetry books for friends, marking a few poems for each that I thought would especially appeal. Asghar and Chang were on that list, but so was Ada Limón’s The Carrying, which I also remembered loving–and as I reread it, the book gained even more force. Some books grow over time. Does that make Limón’s book the best, even if a December reviewer barely has enough perspective to see it? Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by Alessandra Lynch worked like that for me, earlier this year. On first encounter, I felt frustrated by how the poems skirted the central subject–rape–but the successive readings you have to do for a reviewing assignment changed my reaction to profound admiration. And while I just read Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, I can say it’s almost unbearably powerful, and maybe you should read it wearing oven mitts–where does THAT criterion go in the rankings? Really, I liked or loved almost all of the poetry collections I read in 2019 (listed below, excluding things I didn’t like enough to finish)–but I have no idea which will mean most to me five years from now.

Honestly, much that I read last winter is pretty hazy. On the novel side, I remember being deeply affected by Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing and thinking the prose beautiful. I feel similarly about Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which I read just this week, although the book’s sad irresolution disturbs me. There were several other novels I couldn’t put down–that inspired hours of intense delight. But Richard Powers’ Overstory, a massive tome that struck me in June as being a little clunky in a few passages, seems so far to have changed my brain the most. I mean, I’ve always loved trees–isn’t that practically a requirement of poethood?–but they loom larger now, more deeply rooted in my imagination, more prone to overshadow those little humans flickering around their boles. If a not-quite-perfect book alters how a human sees the world, might it not be the best for, say, trees?

Well, what do I know, really? I read a lot, but I’ve consumed the tiniest fraction of this year’s output (and fewer novels than usual, perhaps because I spent much of the summer revising my own). Happy New Year, and go read something from this list, or somebody else’s, because they’re all partial. In any case, bruit what you love. We all need a variety of angles to make sense of a landscape.

POETRY

1/2 Allak, Keine Angst* (poet I met in England)

1/2 Driskell, Next Door to the Dead (met through AWP)

1/3 Winn, Alma Almanac* (Barrow Street press mate)

1/4 Adair-Hodges, Let’s All Die Happy* (reviews)

1/5 Fisher-Wirth, Mississippi* (friend and writer I admire)

1/6 Young, Ardency (teaching), and reread 5/6 for another class

1/9 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (teaching)

1/15 Forche, The Country Between Us (teaching)

1/20 Lynch, Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment* (for review)

1/28 Cooley, Breach (teaching)

2/2 Dungy, Trophic Cascade* (reviews)

2/9 Chen, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities* (reviews)

2/16 Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

2/25 Trethewey, Thrall (teaching)

2/27 Kaur, Milk and Honey (recommendations)

2/27 Mahato, In Between (recommendation)

3/3 Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (AWP prep)

3/3 Schwaner, Wind Intervals (local poet)

3/6 Smith, Good Bones* (AWP prep)

3/14 Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

3/17 Bell, Ornament* (teaching)

3/23 Taylor, Work & Days (prepping for campus visit)

3/25 Taylor, Forage House (teaching)

3/31 Igloria, Haori (prepping for campus visit)

4/1 Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She’s Having a Mid-Life Crisis (“)

4/14 Givhan, Protection Spell (author I admire)

4/23 Reagler, Teeth & Teeth* (friend)

4/23 Keen, Milk Glass Mermaid (friend, rereading)

4/28 De la Paz, Post Subject (friend, also scouting for teaching)

4/29 Smith, Wade in the Water* (poet long admired)

5/7 Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (reread for teaching)

5/8 Howe, Magdalene* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Santos, Square Inch Hours* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Miller, Women Disturbing the Peace* (friend)

5/15 Erin Belieu, Slant Six (picked up at AWP)

5/22 Emerson, Claude Before Time and Space* (fandom)

6/6 Tavila-Borsheim, Love Poems* (picked up at conference)

6/6 Robinson, A Cruise in Rare Waters (by a friend)

6/6 Hancock, The Open Gate (local writer)

6/10 Kindred, Says the Forest to the Girl* (friend)

6/21 Eusuf, Not Elegy but Eros* (met at a conference)

6/21 Meng, Bridled* (review)

6/24 Chang, Barbie Chang (word of mouth)

7/5 Banka, You don’t scare me (“met” her virtually)

7/11 Joseph, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman* (fandom)

7/22 Kildegaard, Course* (fandom)

7/29 Daye, River Hymns* (recommended by a friend)

7/29 Williams and Humberstone, ed, Over the Line: Intro to Poetry Comics (research)

7/30 Hayden, Collected Poems (teaching prep)

7/31 Coleman, ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (teaching prep)

9/11 Ginsberg, Howl (reread for class)

9/25 Plath, Ariel (reread for class)

10/12 Limon, The Carrying* (fandom)

10/13 Hayes, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin* (fandom)

10/15 Bishop, Questions of Travel (reread for class)

10/17 Bishop, Geography III (reread for class)

10/18 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (fandom)

10/19 Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (reread for class)

11/11 de la Paz, Requiem for the Orchard (reread for class)

11/17 Gay and Nezhukumatathil, Lace & Pyrite* (fandom)

12/10 Ostriker, Waiting for the Light (former teacher)

12/18 Asghar, If They Come For Us* (reviews and word of mouth)

12/19 Reed, Indecency* (Pulitzer)

12/20 Stallings, Like* (reviews)

12/20 Taylor and Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle* (I’m in it)

12/20 Senechal de la Roche, Winter Light* (colleague)

12/23 Vorreyer, Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story (review)

12/27 Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me* (fandom)

12/29 Smith, Incendiary Art* (fandom)

  

FICTION

2/10 Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (word of mouth)

2/18 Strout, Burgess Boys (friend’s rec)

3/4  Ward, Sing Unburied Sing* (prizes/ reviews)

3? Albert, The Hazel Wood* (review in NYT)

5/3 Locke, Bluebird* (NYT mention)

5/20 Due, The Good House* (NYT mention)

5/23 Robinson, Shaman (fandom)

5/29 Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (had somehow never read it)

6/2 Powers, Overstory* (reviews)

6/8 King, Outsider* (fandom)

6/? LaValle, Changeling (reviews)

7/8 Weber, Still Life with Monkey* (fandom)

7/18 Shaffer, Hope Never Dies* (what the hell)

7/20 O’Callaghan, The Dead House* (NYT review)

7/25 Hummel, Still Lives* (like her poems)

8/19 Walsh, Ghosted* (audiobook, from review of book)

9/5 Makkai, The Great Believers* (general fandom)

10/5 Galbraith, Lethal White* (general fandom)

10/7 Carter, The Bloody Chamber (reread for class)

10/16 Jones, Mongrels (reread for class)

11/11 Adcock, The Completionist* (audiobook, from review of book)

11/17 Schoffstall, Half-Witch* (review)

11/18 King, Elevation* (fandom)

12/1 Novey, Those Who Knew (book club)

12/8 French, Witch Elm* (review)

12/25 Meijer, North Wood* (gift)

12/26 Edugyan, Washington Black* (gift)

12/27 Moore, Ghostographs* (review)

 

NONFICTION

1/2 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (references in other books)

2/2 Adichie, We Should All be Feminists (word of mouth)

4/22 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (word of mouth, teaching possibility)

5/? Brownell (for teaching/ research)

7/5 Cleland, Mastering suspense, structure, and plot (for research)

7/6 Moore, Flash Nonfiction (for teaching)

7/9 Percy, Thrill Me (research)

7/12 Nelson, Bluets (reputation)

7/13 Connors, Salmon Matters (by a friend)

12/16 Tsvetaeva, Letter to the Amazon (recommended by daughter)

*=published within the last year or so

book-presents.jpg

October list, with bright spots

  1. Every U.S.-residing woman I’m in conversation with, of every generation, remains upset about Kavanaugh’s confirmation. For me it’s like trying to do my best work as some disembodied voice mutters in my ear, Even when we believe you, we consider the “assaults” you have suffered laughable. This is worth remembering about people as we walk through the world, how some are raining on the inside.
  2. The day I rotated off the AWP Board of Trustees, the scale read two pounds lighter. You think that’s related to salt consumption, and you’re entitled to that opinion.
  3. Grounded by Hurricane Michael, I missed my last board meeting in San Antonio. I’m sad to have missed catching up with the AWP staff and other board members, who are really the most wonderful people. But I wrote a poem (about Kavanaugh). Rested. Caught up on some work. As soon as I gave up trying to rebook flights, the sun came out.
  4. One of the papers I graded argued that while it was offensive for Sylvia Plath to use Holocaust metaphors in the persona poem “Daddy,” she may have appropriated that collective persecution because she knew that her own story, as a survivor of domestic abuse, would not have been believed. It was such a measured essay, not excusing anything, yet tending towards empathy in a way I found moving. People have to stop trash-talking millennials.
  5. The other essays were pretty damn good, too. Messy, sometimes, but we’re all messes, right?
  6. This is not a to-do list. This is a doing-it-because-I’m-not-yet-undone list.
  7. Have I mentioned that in response to those iffy blood sugar numbers I received in late summer, I’m doing a pretty good job drastically reducing carbs? I’m shocked I can manage it, given all the stresses of the season, but I actually feel better. There’s a certain undergrad I often see walking to school while munching a bagel, however, and every time I pass her, I groan.
  8. Mice are trying to repossess our house. When Poe catches one then absent-mindedly releases it, I’m reminded of the Senate and Brett Kavanaugh.
  9. The president is dog-whistling the KKK again, but my university gave us all some relief this week: a couple of buildings are being renamed (one after our first student of African descent, John Chavis, who was also the first African American in the COUNTRY to receive a college education–and that was here; the other after our first tenured woman professor, Pam Simpson, who was also my mentor); some important alterations are also happening in Lee Chapel.
  10. More sunshine: I received an acceptance this week from The Common, and two other magazines I admire gave me “but send more” rejections. I now understand how very, very kind that is. My thanks go out, too, to Rise Up Review, which featured my sonnet “Inappropriate” last week.
  11. This morning I read Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and mumbled “holy shit” on every other page. It’s a forever-book. Hayes may be, as he claims in those pages, a Time Lord.
  12. I believe you and will keep on believing you. I’m convinced that matters. I just wish the weather weren’t taking so long to change.

fem lemon blam
Still life with oblivious cat and lemon balm