Saturday poetry pick: Obit

Book cover

Obit, by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon Press, 2020.

(Update: For a much broader and more in-depth look at Obit, read Ilya Kaminsky’s interview with Victoria Chang.)

In her new collection, Obit, Victoria Chang address, tackles, teases apart grief—always a giant, messy subject. Here, it’s larger, as the poems explore mourning the death of her mother and her father’s stroke. The poems use the format of an obituary, with a subject and a date or a time frame, to return to all the aspects, large and small, of illness and death. She writes of the deaths, on their dates, but she includes an obituary for her mother’s lungs, which “began / their dying sometime in the past.” Another poem addresses her father’s stroke: “Logic—My father’s logic died on June / 24, 2009 in bright daylight. Murdered / in the afternoon.”

The poems circle around and return to the dates of death, the dates of the stroke, and in these recurrences embody, for me, the experience of grief and its unsettling relationship with memory. In “Friendships,” Chang notes: “It’s true, / the grieving speak a different language. / I am separated from my friends by / gauze.” She includes a poem for the dress her mother wore before cremation, a poem for giving all the old clothes away, poems about the doctors, even self-portraits (“Victoria Chang”).

It’s not just the way that she looks hard at grief’s many faces, but her imagery. In “The Ocean,” she says, “The water in / my body wanted to pour into the ocean / and I imagined myself being washed / by the water, my body separating into / the droplets it always was.”

Throughout the book are paired poems, shorter, like small interruptions, many of which begin, “I tell my children.” The middle section, “I am a miner. The light burns blue” (from Sylvia Plath), uses space and fragmentation that explodes grief open and embodies isolation.

It feels odd to say that, since first seeing some of the “Obit” poems in journals, I’ve been looking forward to this collection, just as it feels odd to call a poem about grieving “beautiful.” Because it isn’t. But these hard looks at loss, for me, spoke powerfully toward healing.

Saturday Poetry Pick: The Galleons

book cover

The Galleons, by Rick Barot. Milkweed Editions, 2020.

Balancing narrative, image, and rhetoric, The Galleons pulls the reader in from the very first couplet, in “The Grasshopper and the Cricket”:

The poetry of earth is a ninety-year-old woman
in front of a slot machine in a casino in California.

How can I not keep reading? Barot fills in additional details, “her sharp red lipstick / in two lines across her mouth, put there // by her daughter” and “her wheelchair, painted blue // like a boy’s bicycle.” There is a comparison with Gertrude Stein, and then the reader’s lens moves to the food court, where the speaker is “reading a magazine / article about the languages the world is losing.” And while the grandmother “is playing the one-cent slots, // and her money will go far into the afternoon,” the speaker turns to Keats’s “sonnet about / the grasshopper and the cricket, ceasing never.”

The Galleons is a complex collection, interrogating the movement of people and goods, the experiences of immigration and the effects of colonialism. A series of ten poems, each called “The Galleons”, is spaced throughout the book, much like ships crossing the ocean, but beyond the title, each is a unique exploration of the physical, historical, or metaphorical galleon. For a deeper understanding, I recommend reading What the Lyric Means to Me: A Conversation with Rick Barot and watching the Seattle Arts and Lectures Q & A session with Barot and Jane Wong.

The Galleons is also a kind of love poem to Barot’s grandmother, who appears throughout the book in various journeys. “The Galleons 5” is a poem in two voices. The grandmother’s recorded reminiscences are interposed with the speaker’s interior thoughts, so that the reader can experience the interview in real time, the competing internal and external voices, or read the voices as two separate poems.

As a reader and as a writer, I’m fascinated by the way Barot pulls together, for example, in “Cascades 501,” an overheard story of heart surgery and the view from the train window of “Punky little woods,” “The bogs that must have been left / by retreating glaciers” (which expands the poem into prehistory), “the summer backyard with the orange soccer ball,” and “the pickup truck / parked askew in the back lot,” noting “Each thing looks new / even when it is old and broken down.” Then the poem moves again, but I’m not going to spoil the ending.

One of my favorite examples of the movement in the book is in “The Girl Carrying a Ladder,” which braid musings about a luxury-brand punching bag with a story about a girl carrying a ladder to school, with a discussion of camouflage and school kids and apples and, underneath it all, the recurring theme of desire and sacrifice, questioning how those scales might be tipped.

Another favorite example is “The Blink Reflex.” The poem begins by talking about the “three or four great stories that you will have in your life,” and then transitions into a discussion of how memory changes a story “its beginning and middle / and end collapsing with its teller into a disappearing conclusion.” The speaker recalls one such story that, with age, is now symbolized by the image of “the moist towelette packet we were given with our meal, / the wonder and absurdity of it.” Then the poem moves swiftly to a scene of two young lovers sitting in a tree, and then the story of a friend calling another friend for advice after a dog was struck by a car. We now have layers of stories. The poem then returns to the consider what the lover from long ago might be doing and finds “Like dozens of old keys // in a drawer, so many of the wrong people with the right name” and their stories, until learning that the man he was searching for had “transferred to / another college, gone to film school, and become a producer // of TV documentaries.” The poem ends with a list of the man’s films. Stories. And those stories bring us back to the poem’s argument at the beginning, but deftly, subtly, letting the reader make the connection.

Through all these shifts, the speaker is steady–guiding the reader through each transition. These poems are the sound of thinking, and that steadiness enables them to make these moves, and makes the moves themselves even more powerful.

I haven’t talked about art and museums, which are important here. I haven’t talked about endings, although Barot discusses them in the interview. I haven’t talked about “The Flea” or “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick” or “The Marrow.” I recommend making their acquaintance, and I have very much enjoyed spending this time with them.

Saturday Poetry Pick: Winter: Effulgences and Devotions

book cover.

Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, by Sarah Vap. Noemi Press, Inc., 2019.

Part memoir. Part elegy for her father, for childhood, for the planet. Part literary critique (Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man.” Part critique of humanity, or our human-ness (again, “The Snow Man”). Part fragment. Part commentary. Part running conversation with her children.

The book is a curation of pieces written while trying, over years, to write a poem about winter. In this way, the book is a museum. The title of Donald Hall’s book, The Museum of Clear Ideas, comes to mind. Here, though is a museum of chaos and investigation and yes, clear ideas, and yes, those effulgences, those tendernesses, an ongoing devotion.

In the book, Vap sets up systems and smashes them. For example, Most of the poems are titled Winter, except when the pattern breaks by expanding (“Winter, my mind”; “Winter, the beginning”) or just breaks (“Sovereign Good”; “Christmas Eve, Miscarriage”).

In the book, every page is bordered, top and bottom, in tiny type, by the sentence “Drones are probably killing someone right now” with no end stop, so that the killing is as relentless as the reminder of it.

Vap sets aside chronology, the book formed on a different arc, or a gyroscope. In “Winter, a few years later,” she asks:

“What happens if I smear a single question across time—who is innocent, and for how long. What makes us.

What of ours is our own.

Is it still possible—in this world—to have a soul.

What if I extend my question across hears, and across thousands of attempts to write a poem.”

So much of the book takes place in quiet, in early morning moments, rain or snow outside the window. A moment that is, almost always, swiftly interrupted, the interruption embodied by the intermittent dangling “, I.”

Or when she says:

“Sometimes I long to make a full, complete sentence beautifully crafted because I believe it would indicate something about how my mind.”

So much happens in this book that it is overwhelming. So much happens again and again.

In this book, Vap will not let us forget that “the pinging from the naval and industrial sonar surrounding this peninsula is exploding not just the brains of whales and other sea creatures—it is also directly entering and exploding the brains of our family-animal, I.”

I love this book because embraces, fiercely, the family-animal and because that animal is moving and messy and delightful and sometimes fevered, sometimes very hard.

I love this book because it juxtaposes, with clear thinking, the family-animal with the world at large—all the complexes, all the children at risk.

It is at once intimate and vast.

Saturday Poetry Pick: Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

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Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, by Jake Skeets. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

This book encompasses multiple layers, like the geological strata it references. We could discuss it for days—on multiple levels. Instead, here I offer an appreciation, in hopes that you will take a closer look at this book.

Let’s start with negative capability, that ability to hold two conflicting thoughts or ideas—or images—in the mind. When reading Jake Skeets’s book Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I was struck, over and over, by how the poems enacted that, embodying both devastating tragedy and a beauty that is rooted and transcendent.

I’m not going to be able to replicate the spacing onscreen in WordPress, so I’m including screenshots, with the poem’s words in alternative text.

The sky places an arm on the near hills. / On the shoulder, dark gray--almost blue--bleeds // into greens // blue-greens // turquoise into hazy blue // pure blue // no gray or gold // or oil black seeped through

(I love the line “The sky places an arm on the near hills.”)

intestines blown into dropseed / strewn buffalograss blood clots / eyes bottle dark / mouth stuffed with cholla flower / barberry / yellow plant / greasebush / bitterweed

Even beyond the images of teeth and skulls and wildflowers, or weeds, that haunt these poems, the music itself is haunting, staying in the mind and the ear. Consider this passage from “Maar”:

“Buffaloburr veins around siltstone
mounds on the monocline

flow rock smooths over into oar
cutleaf cornflower overgrown

pollen blown out
larkspur and beeplant on the meadow

grasp at the basement fault
taut atop diatreme”

A later line in the same poem says “laccolith ghost shadows over hungry dust,” and the word laccolith has lodged in my brain.

The collection includes several multiple-poem sequences, and in these sequences, Skeets allows each poem its own form, its own space on the page.

Skeets attends to space on the page masterfully. In “In the Fields,” a discussion of white space interacts with the white space around it.

dogs / maul / remains / like white / space / does

The poem’s form and placement open up questions and implications of both “white” and “space.”

Skeets works across pages in these lines from the sequence “Drift(er).”

a train (binding) passing through
I try to hug him (binding) through the spine

Then, in another poem called “In the Fields,” the words are blown up across the space of the page.

crows // scavenge / remains / like // letters // on white space

The lenses in these poems multiply perspectives, telling stories of love and elegy, and opening questions. Some are personal. Some are historical. All are important. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is on my must-read list.

Saturday Poetry Pick: Quite Apart

book cover with collage.

Quite Apart, by Krystal Languell. Akron, OH: The University of Akron Press, 2019.

(Yes, I missed last week. It was my birthday, and the entire day devoted to family and birthday activities. It was a wonderfully lovely day then, and now I’m glad to be back with a new book.)

Last March at AWP, I stopped by the University of Akron Press table to talk with Mary Biddinger, which meant that, of course, I would walk away at least one book (signed), and I’m delighted that I walked away with Krystal Languell’s Quite Apart.

The first thing I noticed when I opened Quite Apart was the table of contents. Instead of pointing to each poem, it lists five sections: “Invocation,” “Last Song,” “Middlemarch Poems,” “Lost Song,” and “Little Runaway.” While the poems in “Invocation” and “Middlemarch Poems” do carry titles, Languell is inviting me to fasten my seat belt and journey with her.

This collection feels like a road trip into and a reckoning with the past. The poems in the first section set this up by reaching across time and geography, with “Poem to My Friend in Philadelphia,” “Poem to My Friend in Ohio,” and others. The voice is loving and empathetic, and at the same time there’s a deadpan quality, a wry wit that refuses to pull punches. From “Poem for My Friend in Chicago”:

“Not a pedestal but a kind of chaise
longue of the gut, where love’s bile
just wants to relax. . . .”

The “Last Song” and “Lost Song” sequences each arrive in fifteen eight-line poems. Each reads almost like a list poem and almost like flash fiction. For example, from “Last Song”:

“Closely watch your best move, the naming. Double stop.
That is, two ideas at once in music. Hold the pair of them.
I wanted to be two in all ways, and one other said I had failed.”

and from “Lost Song”:

Mannequins go in a big museum of artifacts, confirming
the history of civilization is repeated gossip about cliques.
The group said I looked like a new woman and then moved
away as one, barking, “Couture’s not dead! . . .”

Between the songs, Languell offers a retelling or reinterpretation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch—think of the CliffsNotes that you really want to read. In these poems, she shuns punctuation and uses line breaks to organize the text while enacting the intrigues between characters, which in the poem are not named.

The poems are presented as a reading journal, and the first, “June 10,” begins:

“the study of a character
where individual ethic surfaces
it’s the unaccustomed depth where fervor
is lived
it’s solitude in imagination
planning the perfect crime but
never intending to actually do it”

Another journal entry, “June 17,” begins:

“the time for her ideas was on the
matter of wallpaper and linens
she asks permission to speak
is often told that’s the last of it”

and the poem ends with:

“how fortunate that she be young and
formidably unsilly yet before long he’ll
wish he had a stupid bride or none at all
instead of this unusual figure
gritting her teeth minding her inner life”

The book’s final section, “Little Runaway,” employ parentheses to replace initial capitals, commas, and periods. The result is a visual fragmentation, evoking the book’s title by setting each clause more visibly apart. It reminded me of the way Alice Notley uses quotation marks in The Descent of Alette, but the parentheses were harder for me to look past (and the nesting of clauses (nested parentheses) makes them easier to parse but more complicated). Also, the symbolism is devastating in that the information, and by association, the speaker, is now parenthetical.

I enjoyed the range and inventiveness of this book, and I look forward to reading more of Languell’s work.