Books for Reading

Zach Savich
May 20, 2014
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I’ve been sitting in the yard reading Hillary Gravendyk’s Harm (Omnidawn, 2011), saddened by her death on May 10. One poem starts, “Ahead the sky is winnowed to its smallest feature.” One starts, “The route within is familiar— / dedicated pilgrims // prefer circuits.” One ends, “The sound water makes when it runs through leaves.”

I interviewed Gravendyk about Harm in 2012. She said this, which I’ve thought of subsequently during illness and when considering the possibilities of the lyric:

It is my contention that illness, or at least chronic illness, isn’t really a narrative. Rather it is a collection of durations, of endurances. I tried to make an argument that chronic illness brings us closer to Bergson’s ideal temporality of the duree, in that it forced a subject to encounter bodily experience, bodily time, in advance of logical or rational language.  I’m not sure that’s right, but I do think the idea of that helps me point to the reason why I find lyric such a productive mode to express what one might consider the “queer” temporality of chronic and traumatic illness. Lyric opens the possibility for an exploded language, one that can ignore the chronological and the narrative in favor of the associative and the expressive.  The poems in Harm work hard to produce a set of affective responses out of the shards of experience. My own illness experience is characterized not by a narrative throughline but by the aporetic and the fragmentary. Lyric, and experimental lyric forms, offer a place for these kinds of (il)logics to take center stage.

Leaves blowing past me and through the kitchen window. I pace on the patio bricks. I’m grateful for Hillary’s poems.

*

I intended to write a review of Harm, shortly before we conducted that interview. I never did. While blogging for KR this spring, I’ve intended to write about many books. But now it is warm enough that the days seem to be taking care of themselves, and I wish only to be a poet; this morning, for example, I saw a tiny birdhouse with copper flashing, and I had a thought about the word sidle. And you want me to care about criticism?

And so, in the spirit of David Bartone’s Snow-Viewing Party, held here in 2009, and of Timothy Liu’s reviewing of 100 books at Coldfront, I’ll conclude my season of posts by mentioning a few of those books in a breezy, bloggy style. Books to read outside so we can stay alive a little more.

Andy Fitch, Sixty Morning Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014, 511 pages)

This collection of interviews with Dan Beachy-Quick, Lisa Robertson, Cathy Park Hong, Eleni Sikelianos, and fifty-six other poets is an indispensable, chatty casebook of contemporary poetics, from the co-author of the delightfully peripatetic Ten Walks/Two Talks. Perfect as a rangy and insightful introduction to current poetic practice—this fall, I plan to assign it to every first-year MFA student in the country—and for well-schooled readers eager to eavesdrop on close talk about sophisticated enthusiasms. Don’t have someone to chat with about Steve McCaffery’s “claims that a descriptive lyric poetics likewise offers a transparent window onto a scene—one into which we project ourselves as readers?” You can read Fitch’s interview with Lytle Shaw. (“Description too often gets maligned,” Shaw’s reply starts, “but sure.”) Fitch is an impressively adept interviewer, and the interviews in Sixty Morning Talks (each about one-cup-of-coffee long, if your cup is the right size) will lead you freshly to—or back to—the work of some of my favorite poets.

Natalie Lyalin, Blood Makes Me Faint but I Go for It (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014, 67 pages)

Also new from Ugly Duckling, Lyalin’s second full-length collection presents leaping exclamations that are at once disarming and disquieting: “I did not panic over my stigmata,” the book’s second poem begins. “It was mild!” Its poems are sometimes on the edge of comedy—“The arsonist killed it last night!”—and often, simply, on edge. “My mountain is called grief I say, and when feeling toothed, that is, when teeth come into a conversation I miss mine,” Lyalin writes in “Small and Private Tragedies”; I’m reminded of Beckett, of Edson, by the quickness with which a seeming glitch in diction (“toothed”) sparks a bodily revelation.

Similar metamorphoses propel some of my favorite poems in the collection, such as “You Should See My White Vest,” in which Lyalin conjures an insistent imaginative reality through a series of statements beginning “he should see,” and “I Want to Lead All These Lives,” which concludes with a sequence of affecting transformations: “I rode a chariot, I grew a beard. It took me months to trace myself back to myself. I’m my own father and mother and all the geese that ever flew past your wide-open windows.”

These poems, however, are invested in more than the performance of a lively, stylized imagination; their engagement with history, story, and image can offer stunning clarity, as at the end of “Bulgarian Cough Remedy”: “As a whole, your children are young-looking / and many are twins, tentatively holding up the peace sign / in photographs with drying garlic in the background.”

Natalie is my friend; it’s OK, I’ve written about strangers before, I disclose anything you wish, immaculately, assailably. I intended to write about Blood Makes in a post that would highlight several recent books by poets who live close to my house in Philadelphia. That post would have also discussed the newest book by one of my colleagues at the University of the Arts, Sebastian Agudelo’s Each Chartered Street (Saturnalia, 2013, 83 pages), a collection of searing urban pastorals that treats the place “between the hair product aisle / and the Sista’ Chips by the cashier /at WengWai’s Convenience Mart” and a curb’s “vials, dime bags, spent condoms” with the meditative range that Hecht and Wilbur brought to Italian fountains and monuments. Agudelo’s ornately poised sentences are at once incisive and prismatic, as in the opening of “Corner”:

To chart this country, what better coordinates

than Wayne and Coulter, at the stoplight now,

when going northwest, a Chevy Impala coup—

detailed with racing stripe to match the neon

glowing from the undercarriages, rims spinning

to a distortion that gathers more momentum

every beat—is commandeered by a kid adjusting

his lycra du-rag in the rear-view mirror

The city is “all too real” in Agudelo’s poems (in one poem, he wryly mocks intellectuals who “nod to the real in quotes”). Its reality is shot-through with daily labor, idiomatic pivots—“They’re neighbors, after all, the folk I ride with, / though I covet nothing from them,” Agudelo writes in the intricately reflective long poem, “Commute”—and allusive perception that links Each Chartered Street’s Blakean vision to a syllabus that veers from the Analects to Montaigne to “tinny hip-hop” that “sizzles from the speakers of a clamshell phone.” Do you sometimes lament the lack of world in some contemporary poetry? Then read this. It will show you some contemporary world to lament.

The last book I was going to discuss in my Philadelphia post was published by two neighbors whose skills as writers, editors, and book artists I covet, JenMarie and Travis Macdonald, of Fact-Simile Editions. Perhaps you know their poetry trading cards? Or their annual magazine? Or perhaps you have seen Brian Foley’s Totem (2013)? It’s a “modern-day ‘girdle book’ adapted from the medieval monastic tradition of important texts meant to be worn on the reader’s belt.” That is, it has a leather strap, for danglin’, so you can spin and leap and have the chapbook close at hand. Also, it’s bound in denim, as though for glory. Holding it is like holding a thigh in your favorite jeans. Pictures and ordering info here. Check it.

There are also poems inside. The first starts

Beginning is: unlike:

being lost : corresponding: every person:

made riddle: to the point:

of rain:

That verb form alone—to be “made riddle”—pings me gentle in the buckle. Foley’s writing goes on to chart the “delinquent: omens: / pumping: out of nowhere: each day.” It’s a book I could simply quote from, telling you about “partial darkness: / not clearly one thing or another: rather / the present.” You might hear a tinge of Ashbery in those lines’ evolving articulation of precise and highly qualified partiality, and a stammer that recalls Creeley, an accumulation that ends in clear ethics that recalls Oppen…Those associations might sound overblown, but I’ve recently done some readings with Foley, so I feel all right making them.

And other recent books? I’ve written elsewhere about my deep appreciation for Gillian Conoley’s Peace (Omnidawn, 2014), and I’ve been excited about Ralph Angel’s Your Moon (New Issues, 2014). And about the latest book by former KR blogger Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory [guma’] (Omnidawn, 2014), but now I’m going to go outside and be quiet for a while.

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