Open Books: The Goods
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Books on Our Shelves, June 2013
Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer ($35 Graywolf Press)
Here is an opportunity to read nearly 300 letters exchanged between Bly and the current Nobel Laureate Transtromer from 1966 to 1990, when Transtromer suffered a stroke. Included are poems and translations that have not been previously published.
Great wit, passion, and cattiness pour from each of them. Their friendship is palpable. And the letters offer insight into their writing and translating processes, as well as a bounty of opinions on politics, psychology, and the business of poetry. The book is a pleasure to read, the pages nearly turning themselves, because each of them writes so well. Here follow a couple of excerpts to make that point. From Bly, in a letter dated November 8, 1970:
I’ll ask some esteemed loonies in the literary world which time of the year they think most propitious for your descent—April or early October—and then I’ll set to work arranging some readings, and parties. If I’m lucky, I’ll figure a way to get travel expenses—your air fare—from some overfed, understaffed Scandinavian Cultural Foundation.
From Transtromer in 1966, whose deep troubles with the Vietnam War were shared by so many:
I think people in general hope that the biggest dove is actually Lyndon Johnson himself. That’s a dove that is so big it looks exactly like a hawk. It has also changed its appearance of late, after having lived on a diet of meat. What to say about Mr. McNamara? He’s neither a hawk nor a dove. He is presumably an airplane.
Collections of letters can be such a pleasure to read. Certainly this one is.
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Collected Poems by Joseph Ceravolo ($35 Wesleyan)
In 1968, Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, Joseph Ceravolo's debut collection, was selected by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch for the first Frank O'Hara Poetry Award. Though several books followed, little of it has remained in print, and his work, "rich, strange, and quite unlike anyone else's," as Ashbery writes, "has until now been known only to a small but devoted public." Born in 1934 to immigrant Italian parents in Queens, Ceravolo worked as a civil engineer as well as a poet until his untimely death at 54. This extensive volume, edited by Rosemary Ceravolo, his widow, and Parker Smathers, not only gathers the out-of-print poems but includes much work that is published here for the first time, including two long sequences. From his stylistically varied yet consistently intense and at times visionary poetry, we've selected the following—
"Wild Provoke of the Endurance Sky"
Hoe with look life! Sun rises.
Rice of suffering. Dawn
this is roof my friend
O country o cotton drag
of the wild provoke,
there's a thousand years How are
No better to in a stranger.
wild provoke of the endurance sky!
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A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal ($18.95 The Song Cave)
He stares out from the cover of the book. A shy-seeming, balding man dressed in a sweater and tie, he stands near a worn table where a stained tea kettle sits on a hot plate. In this simple room lived a man who wrote poems that were anything but, thousands of them. Born in 1914, Alfred Starr Hamilton led a mostly solitary, circumscribed life in Montclair, New Jersey, residing with his family until his mother's death, then moving to a rooming house down the street and finally to a nursing home, where he died in 2005. Though his poems were eventually championed by David Ray of Epoch literary journal (where he submitted hundreds of them) and by Jonathan Williams of Jargon Society, little of his work saw print or stayed there. What a welcome revelation this book is. "Revelation" seems just the right word to use when discussing Hamilton. He was, as the editors write in their introduction, a mystic poet. His work is generous, wildly evocative, meditative, and inventively lyrical, often rolling with repetition. Our copy holds many scraps of paper marking poems we'd like to share with you, but we'll offer just a couple here—
even time slept on
a leaf for how long
and stole away time
even time came to be
a bud for how long
and asked for time
even a bud came to be
a leaf for how long
and asked for more time
even time stayed at a sundial for how long
and counted its evening feathers then left
I wanted to find a little yellow candlelight in the garden
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My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian ($16.95 Wesleyan)
First published in 1980, Lyn Hejinian's innovative prose-poem autobiography My Life has become one of the iconic texts of postmodern literature. She revised and extended it over the years, eventually writing the complementary piece, My Life in the Nineties. This new edition gathers both pieces and makes for compelling, if at times elliptical, reading. Hejinian's rich work is an evocation of place and time as well as a bracing contemplation of language's ability to make a world.
from "My Life"
It seemed that we
had hardly begun and
we were already there
We see only the leaves and branches of the trees close in around the house. Those submissive games were sensual. I was no more than three or four years old, but when crossed I would hold my breath, not from rage but from stubbornness, until I lost consciousness. The shadows one day deeper. Every family has its own collection of stories, but not every family has someone to tell them. In a small studio in an old farmhouse, it is the musical expression of a glowing optimism. A bird would reach but be secret. Absence of allusion: once, and ring alone. The downstairs telephone was in a little room as dark as a closet. It made a difference between the immediate and the sudden in a theater filled with transitions. Without what can a person function as the sea functions without me.
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Self-Storage by Rebecca Hoogs ($16 Stephen F. Austin State University Press)
If you've attended the Seattle Arts & Lectures Poetry Series, then you've had the enjoyment of hearing series curator Rebecca Hoogs' skillful introductions and savvy questions. What you may not know is that she is also an accomplished poet who has just published her first full-length collection. The poems in Self-Storage are as crisp and lovely as a just-plucked apple—the tart kind. Deftly crafted, they shine with a pleasing complexity, their often wry tone carrying an undernote of melancholy. This is an intelligent, lyrical, and quietly moving book, a delight to read.
I descended to the 4th century
by the route they had marked.
There was a life under this one,
and another under that. It was like
going back in time except I wasn't
any better or purer,
and no matter the life I was under
surveillance. No, I hadn't been aware
that Jesus came from an almond. No,
I hadn't known of the annual miracle
and an underwater tomb. It was all
very Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Annually, I do the opposite of withdraw
and that is my miracle. Here is where
the flood rose to, said the tour guide.
There was no air where you are standing.
But there was no guide.
It was up to me to take myself down
a notch or two. Ascending to the present,
there was a bust in the ticket area
of some Caesar for sale, and behind the bust
a mirror in which I fixed my hair.
I'm so over myself.
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Render: An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell ($15.95 Cleveland State University Press)
This is a haunted and haunting book. Howell’s hard voice (not as in difficult; hard as in calloused) instructs the reader how to perform several acts, sometimes practical (and violent), sometimes metaphoric and dryly comic, that might well come in handy in a post-apocalyptic world. “How to Wake,” “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Be an Animal” and other such directions. The poems read lyrically and literally to differing degrees but are equal in their tough elegance. Nikky Finney wrote of this collection, “Howell draws a map for how to enter the heat and dew of the human being, naked and facing the natural world, desperate to feel. I didn’t realize while reading Render how deeply I was handing everything over.”
4. How to Build a Root Cellar
Let the bounty rot
Let the day’s gas drift up
through the floorboards
Let your stomach bleed
as if your shovel
strikes only rock
As if the soil under
the soil was sold
while you slept
When we birth
we bury the placenta
twice as deep
as we do the body
where its smell cannot draw
predators And you are
And you are the prey
This is the paper you can’t place
The scarp signed Deed
Most mammals most mothers
eat the after
We bury it
eat the before—
To build a root cellar
borrow cold from the ground
Dark from the night
Dig on the hill’s north side
Call your name until
you have one
You have one
You have one
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A Clown at Midnight by Andrew Hudgins ($14.95 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Andrew Hudgins’ eighth book collects solid, gracefully compact poems from a poet who is often wry, emotionally available, and decidedly, shall we say, non-postmodern. Of this book, Linda Gregerson wrote, “recklessness and rigor, in equal measure, mark the stirring poetics of Andrew Hudgins.”
From my neighbor’s dark garden I harvested asparagus;
I pilfered slender spears from their feathery bed
and clipped buds of American Beauty. All spring
and into early autumn I savored a fragrance
redolent of theft. Through summer I plucked squash,
beans, and more squash from his vines.
In the yard where I watched his daughter marry,
I divided hostas by moonlight and daylilies too,
keeping half. My neighbor’s dead, the house for sale
and after dark his garden’s mine to love and plunder.
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Flemish by Caroline Knox ($20 Wave Books)
Ms. Caroline Knox is sui generis (using Latin on a webpage is the best method for describing her). She playfully upends culture's teacup without breaking it. Her work is cherries jubilee on a paper plate— tippy, a bit dangerous, and tasty.
My sister said,
"All the elements in this painting,
Still Life with Strawberries,
seem to levitate"
(by Isaak Soreau [1604-after
Flemish, early 1630s
Gift of Mrs. Robert McKay
Cincinnati Art Museum)
DO NOT WRITE BELOW THIS LINE
it said on the postcard of the painting.
"I'll tell you how to levitate
strawberries," said my daughter.
"Hull a quart. Sprinkle them
with half a teaspoon of balsamic
vinegar and a teaspoon of
confectioner's sugar, let them sit."
Still Life with Strawberries, though,
isn't a patch on his Carnations, Tulips, and Other Flowers
in a Glass Vase with Peaches, Grapes, and Plums
in a Basket on a Ledge with Cherries, a Butterfly,
and a Beetle.
Isaak Soreau was a twin, moreover,
and in 1652 his twin, Peter Soreau, painted Still Life with
Apples, Black and White Grapes, and a Walnut in
a Porcelain Bowl, Together with Chestnuts, a Pear, Figs,
Turnips, and a Melon, All on a Table with
a Bunch of Snipes Hanging on a Nail
(SLABWGWPBTCPFTMATBSHN). Oh Flanders! A Benelux country, a Low Country.
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Letters to Borges by Stephen Kuusisto ($16 Copper Canyon Press)
This gathering of lovely, warm, and poignant poems reflects on various states of exile, including the social and physical separation born of blindness, which Kuusisto shares with the grand late Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. His fine sense of humor and rich wistfulness combine in a poetry that is compelling, quiet, and often profoundly moving and thoughtful.
“Letter to Borges from Houston, Texas”
I fell down this morning, Borges. I blamed this on
the pavement outside the hotel.
There is something about falling when you’re blind,
a kind of synesthesia occurs,
I fell slowly into a cold paradise of blue.
It was like falling into the world in the birth wind.
Do you remember that?
Falling like this is certainly a kind of nostalgia.
I had time to think.br>
“Only God can conceal God,”
That’s what I thought.
My arms were extended like wings.
I should add that no one was awake to see me.
Borges, did you ever laugh in so much blue?
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The Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin, Two Volumes ($37.50 each, boxed for $75; Library of America)
Selected Translations by W.S. Merwin ($40 Copper Canyon Press)
These two compilations, three books in all, present a considerable portion of Merwin’s wonderful, decades-long work. The publication of his Library of America Collected Poems settles him among the luminary American poets, joining such icons as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Walt Whitman. Only two living poets have been thus honored, the other being John Ashbery. The first volume covers the years 1952 to 1993 and includes thirteen books as well as previously uncollected poems; the second volume, covering 1996 to 2011, gathers six books along with uncollected and new work. Each book contains an exhaustive chronology of Merwin’s life to date and considerable notes on those poems in the particular volume. It is grand to see this treatment of one of our culture’s most highly respected poets. A poem from each volume follows—
“Noah’s Raven” (1963)
Why should I have returned?
My knowledge would not fit into theirs.
I found untouched the desert of the unknown,
Big enough for my feet. It is my home.
It is always beyond them. The future
Splits the present with the echo of my voice.
Hoarse with fulfillment, I never made promises.
Going too fast for myself I missed
more than I think I can remember
almost everything it seems sometimes
and yet there are chances that come back
that I did not notice when they stood
where I could have reached out and touched them
this morning the black shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying
Are you ready this time
Copper Canyon Press’s lovely hardcover Selected Translations presents the vital contribution Merwin has made to American letters by ushering into English countless voices from a wide variety of cultures. This book is arranged in three chronological sections, 1948-1968, 1968-1978, and 1978-2011, with each section generously introduced by the poet. In these essays Merwin discusses his process, including how he translates from languages he does not know, as well as specific difficulties and how he dealt with them, such as his pursuit of one particular word from Dante’s Inferno. We’ll share with you here a few short anonymous pieces from “Chinese Figures”—
The hissing starts
in the free seats
Rank and position
gulls on water
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The Phosphorescence of Thought by Peter O’Leary ($15 The Culture Society)
Take this title literally, or nearly so. The book is entirely a shining meditation sprung from the song of a House Wren. The book begins...
to sing alights
on branches bare
of anything other than the sun’s ceaseless iodine
...and what flows from there is a luminous display of philosophy, metaphysics, science, history, and beautifully wrought nature imagery, unspooling from the capacious mind of Peter O’Leary. His vocabulary could shame many a dictionary (“a clotted / discordian of seeds squeezed elementally in a premonitional junctrix”) but one senses that he uses words as much for their well-placed meanings as for their delicious sounding syllables. And thought continually leads back to the wren and its world—
A descending chirruping, a
draining descant he day long intones variously, marking
the little log he’s nesting in.
The woods. The shabby little Forest Preserve.
The swerve of its trashy paths. The partying in its clearings.
The Phosphorescence of Thought is a buoyant embodiment of the music of the mind. One from among the “icons / carved from a ceaseless voice of thinking. The golden hissing notes inside them.”
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Readings in World Literature ($11.95 Omnidawn) by Srikanth Reddy
If that sounds like a course title in a university catalog, it should. This prose chapbook by poet and professor Reddy is a hilarious, smart, and educating gem. The reader is taken along on a professor-narrated journey through the offering of a course titled, “Introduction to the Underworld.” The course description features the poetic— “students will be ferried across the river of sorrow, subsist on a diet of clay, weigh their hearts against a feather on the infernal balance, and ascend a viewing pagoda in order to gaze upon their homelands until emptied of all emotion,” as well as the practical— “[the course will help] develop the communication skills that are crucial for success in today’s global marketplace.” The entire piece is a hoot. The professor’s foils include students (“‘What if I’m ideologically opposed to revision?’ asks the red-headed boy in a New Slaves t-shirt,”) and his child, Mira, who speaks “Old Middle Baby Talk.” The living mingle with the dead, the present mingles with the past, and is the professor hallucinating those figures crossing his lawn or is it Halloween? A book that states, “it is not customarily permitted to visit the underworld. No, the underworld visits you,” is pretty much irresistible.
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Rough Day by Ed Skoog ($16 Copper Canyon Press)
Can a book be thrillingly mournful? Transportingly plainspoken? Reassuringly ominous? Rough Day, Ed Skoog's second volume, suggests the answer is yes, most definitely. The poems are untitled and unpunctuated so that reading the collection is close to experiencing the shifting openness of film, or perhaps like walking with its author as he meditates on past and present and future in language mystical and familiar. He is a welcome companion, whose poems, inventively crafted, offer comfort not through bromide or distraction, but through tender attention and fearless honesty.
John Donne was dean of St. Paul's
born a girl I'd have been Pauline
it's good to hear your other name
names are of interest
doors we pass through to break down
side doors are usually the best way
a series of interrogation rooms
this short curriculum
with the sacked city we are always fleeing
bright on our backs
to make from debris a new thing
it makes me think of my other life
this minor chord
if I step a certain way
or put out my hand...
mist this morning over the ballfield
last night I left my coat
over a wooden banister
now I get colder while my coat
has nobody and no trouble
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Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu ($18 Archipelago)
Here is a book of surrealist poetry that is appealing in a most experiential way. A Romanian, Stănescu lived from 1933 to 1983, so survived World War II and the brutal regimes that followed. His work addresses the complexities of getting through this world with remarkable timelessness. The poem below, "The Second Elegy, in the Style of the Getes," ( the Getae were an ancient Romanian people) speaks so movingly to the relationship of the individual’s survival of injury with society’s need to explain it. Stănescu writes with a profound depth of emotion and elasticity of thought. He is clever with a cleverness that is deeply engaging. This book, a beautifully made object of over three hundred pages of poetry selected and translated by Sean Cotter, has the capacity to aid in living.
“The Second Elegy, in the Style of the Getes”
Every rotten tree trunk has a god.
If a stone cracked open, fast
they put a god in there.
All it took was for a bridge to break
and a god went in the gap,
or for the street to have a pothole
and a god went in there.
Never cut your hand or foot,
not by mistake or on purpose.
They will put a god in the wound,
like they do everywhere, in every place,
they will put a god in there
and tell us to bow, because he
protects everything that leaves itself behind.
Take care, O warrior, do not lose
because they will come and put
a god in the socket,
and he will stay there, turned to stone, and we
will move our souls to praise him...
And even you will uproot your soul
to praise him like you would a stranger.
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Vertigo in Spring by Shannon Tharp ($15 The Culture Society)
This slender collection features an assured and solitary voice, by turns strong, longing, and conflicted. The interior life of the speaker comes through front and center in these tight and quiet poems.
“Postcard to My Sister”
terror made us,
there is no other love.
Think of open sky over
Wyoming, the point
at which hills
is how it
feels to live
alone, to hold
yourself through sleep.
A turn takes place approaching the book’s close— the longed-for other person appears and we find ourselves reading celebratory, but still terse, love poems. The passage of time, an unspecified loss, and the union at the end show Vertigo in Spring to be a spare yet evocative narrative.
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