Sunday, August 21, 2016

What We're Reading Now

We're always reading fine works of poetry. This month on Poetry Matters, instead of an in-depth review or interview, you’ll find three quick posts about what books have captured our attention: 
So take a look—you might find that next great book of poetry or a poet whose work resonates with you. And friends, please do share with us what you're reading. We're always looking for good books!

From Melva Sue Priddy's Bookshelf

ISBN: 0-300-10792-7

A copy of Georgics was loaned to me by poet Chris Mattingly. His comment about how the same tools used in farming today were used in farming 2000 years ago hooked me. And so they were. I had never read Virgil’s Georgics in its entirety, so this was a pleasure. I soon found I needed a copy of my own so I could annotate it. Lempke, whose father was a farmer, retains as much of the original poetry as possible while translating into American English. She replaces out dated place names, and other obscure antiquities with their geographic, modern equivalents. She retains the four book division and line numbers as closely as possible. What a joy to read about the work of farmers, not as an idyllic pastoral, but as the daily struggle the work is, with ruin from insects and weather a perpetual possibility. Book Four reminded me of my family’s bees, however our’s arrived by mail.

ISBN: 978-1555973896

I return to this memoir written by the son about his father William Stafford. Kim Stafford mines his father’s journals, book, letters, notes and poetry drafts as his father’s literary executor. As well as chronicling the elder’s life and work, it reads as an honest portrayal of the strained relationship between son and father. The poet isn’t understood by his son, though they lived closely and often worked together, until after Kim delves into his father’s papers, and it then becomes part of his life’s work. I attended several AWP conferences and had the pleasure of sitting in on panels including Kim Stafford.

Anthony Fife Discusses Robert Hayden's Collected Poems

Collected Poems
by Robert Hayden
edited by Frederick Glaysher
Norton, 1985

Regarding “‘Mystery Boy’ Looks for Kin in Nashville,” the poem is so profoundly grounded, so deeply of this world that I can’t quite reconcile how distant the poem truly is. The story floats ten feet off the ground, never touching down, despite that fact that its full weight is a burden upon my shoulders each time I think of it throughout any given day. And I think of it often.

Robert Hayden’s work cannot, however, be pigeonholed by the likes of the “Mystery Boy.” Hayden’s oeuvre is quite varied, as would be any half-a-dozen-decades-worth of work, and knowing this, as I read and re read my way through his Collected Poems I can't help trying to recapture that feeling so strongly eased upon me by the aforementioned poem. I ‘v yet to find its like, though I have combed the pages many times. I haven’t found it, at least, in quite the same way.

Whether it’s a poem about Malcomb X (“El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” 86-89) or the legendary fighter Tiger Flowers (“Free Fantasia: Tiger Flowers” 130-131), many of the poems in this collection select a topic, a very specific topic, and more or less stick to it throughout. In this way they are particularly linear. Highly imaginative: definitely. Conscientious in light of the multitude of responsibilities they name and satisfy: absolutely. They pull in and out their masterful focus, never resting long before a single storefront. But highly linear. Having typed and edited the previous paragraph, I think I’ve learned a little more about our “Mystery Boy.” Though many of Hayden’s poems are self-contained—leaning heavily on the book ends of a definite and logical place to start and stop—there is, it turns out, no damned kin in Nashville. The poem—organized but decisively nonlinear—will go on forever. And with no beginning and no end the poem has no choice but to swell and resonate.

Before recently reading his Collected Poems, my only exposure to Robert Hayden was his “Those Winter Sundays” (41). Due to being so commonly anthologized, I was highly aware of “Those Winter Sundays” and the role it plays in 20th Century literature. It’s a marvelous poem, of course; it’s earned its place in the thick books. And, revisiting it now after having read and reread 195 pages of Hayden’s work, I can’t help but feel it serves as the perfect halfway point between the two types of poems I mention above. Definitely linear. Yet allowed off the leash to expand and fill an almost empty room.

Of course, whether it’s the historical epics concerning the lives and exploits of notable personages including but not limited to Malcolm X and Tiger Flowers, character sketches that are also cultural and historical lessons (read the wonderful “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield” 13-14 for proof of my claim), or a poem more like the one concerning the young whomever that begins this brief rumination, Hayden’s poems often tell much more about Hayden himself than the supposed subject of the poems. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him.

Nancy Chen Long Discusses The Book of Goodbyes

BOA Editions Ltd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1938160141

The Book of Goodbyes is Jillian Weise’s second book. Her first is The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. The Book of Goodbyes is the winner of the 2013 James Laughlin Award, which is awarded by the Academy of American Poets to a poet for a second book of poetry. The Book of Goodbyes is also the winner of the 2013 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, which is awarded to a poet with a new book of exceptional merit.

I found the overarching theme of the book to be what the title indicates—goodbyes in its various forms: loss, departure, death, loneliness. The book contains four sections that are presented like acts in a play (Weise is also a playwright): act “One,” an “Intermission,” act “Two,” and “Curtain Call.” With respect to subject matter, the sections titled “One” and “Two” center primarily around two things:

  • The first is how other’s react to the speaker being an amputee, for example “The Ugly Law,” a poem that weaves in lines from a law about disfigured or unsightly people being restricted from appearing in public, and “Café Loop,” which reads as a sort of transcript of things the speaker has overheard in a café: “She's had it easy, you know. // I knew her from FSU, back before she was disabled. / I mean she was disabled, but she didn't write like it. // Did she talk like it? Do you know what it is, exactly?” (You can read the poem here, second poem on the page). “Café Loop” is indicative of the conversational tone of most of the poems in the collection. The collection is peppered with dialog.
  • The second is the speaker’s affair with an older person, someone she calls Big Logos, e. g. “Poem for His Girl” (“I’ll tell you which panties / look good on you // psychedelic plaid / with ruffles on the waist …), “Semi Semi Dash,” “Poem for His Ex,” and “For Big Logos, In Hopes He Will Write Poems Again” (“Maybe it’s because you’re cut off / from your roots, and need to go / to Spain, be with your forefathers …”)

Act “One” tends to dwell more on the disability; “Two” tends to dwell more on the affair. Regarding the intermission between the two 'acts', it is indeed that: It's comprised of three poems that form a narrative about “Tiny and Courageous Finches” named Bitto and Marcel who live in a cave behind the Iguazú Falls on the Argentine side.

The last section, “Curtain Call” is one long poem “Elegy for Zahra Baker.” Zahra was a ten-year old who, due to cancer, was deaf and disabled (she had a prosthetic leg.) She went missing in North Carolina in 2010. Her step-mother confessed to dismembering her and leaving her remains in the wild. The poem includes snippets from news reports, personal reflections of the speaker, snippets of conversations between the speaker and others, dialog from Zahra herself.

Friends, I was quite taken with this book and will definitely re-read it. It’s quiet and powerful, unflinching. I find something about it to be irresistible. Here is one of my more favorite poems in the collection, “Goodbyes.”