TTT: 10 Books on My Winter TBR list

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl. Be sure to check out her blog for other takes on this week’s topic!

If fall is the season for all things cozy, for me winter is a time of reflection and stillness. This is the time of year I most enjoy reading in depth nonfiction like biographies and books about nature. Winter means long books for me–stories you can really sink your teeth into. And of course, it means reading a lot of poetry. Here are ten books on my to-read list that I’m hoping to spend some time with this season.


Throne of Glass Series by Sarah J. Maas (656 + 689 + 664 + 992 for a total of 3001 pages)

This is a great time of year to binge read (or in this case, binge finish, a series). Plus who doesn’t love to escape the winter weather into a world of magic and dragons? The books are long, but they so far have just flown by–perfect for gloomy winter weekends.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King (599 pages)

The cover for this book is just genius–and I really like King’s writing when it isn’t scary. His science fiction for example is really great. And even the horror still haunts me to this day, so you know he’s doing something right. This seems like a no brainer for my winter list.


African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals by David Hackett Fisher (800 pages)

I love, love, love cultural and material histories that highlight marginalized communities. There is so much we take for granted about where our US American culture comes from, and this book aims at stripping that thick layer of ambivalent mayonnaise from our cultural history. I am here for it.

Fabric: The Hidden History of the Material World by Victoria Finlay (512 pages)

Material history? Check. Fashion and fabric have been traditionally looked down upon as topics because of their close association with women but what we wear says a lot about us and how we interact with each other and the world. Historical dress and fabric fascinates me. This will not be the first history of fabric I’ve read and I dare say it will not be the last.


All of these are longer books that have been sitting on my bookshelf

The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow (663 pages)

Rilke is a poet made for the winter–lonely, romantic, meditative. And this translation is supposed to be the best.

Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges (481 pages)

This volume has side by side English and Spanish pairings, so I can attempt to read the Spanish and then read the translation and start matching them together. I’ve only read a few things by Borges, mostly short stories, but I’m hoping to rectify that a little this coming year.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. J.D. McClatchy (592 pages)

This is one of two major 20th century poetry anthologies in my collection (the other one is from Penguin) and these primers are always a great introduction to major movements. Their size is a little intimidating, but I’m hoping to read both this year and see whether it’s worth keeping both or choosing my favorite as a reference.

A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass (429 pages)

This book cracks me up because its title is clearly ironic. Except that form could be talked about in volumes and volumes I suppose so perhaps it’s a fitting title after all. Anyway this is less poetry than poetics (though this has a host of other names) basically its nonfiction about poetry.

Historical Fiction

The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks (560 pages)

A feminist reimagining of one Chaucer’s most interesting characters from The Canterbury Tales? You need say nothing more.

Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang (546 pages)

I don’t know if there’s any genre I can categorically say I love more than revisionist historical fantasy. I bought the audiobook of this and I can’t wait to listen to it on my way to and from the library. Or while doing dishes. Or doing anything really.

Are you planning on settling in with a long book this winter? Let me know which one in the comments.

Reading Through the Stacks: 14. John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet – A Civil War epic – Part 1

It took me a solid month (off and on) to finish this book. Normally I can read a book of poetry in a day because they’re usually only about a hundred pages, but this epic novel in verse weighs in at 385 pages. And I know you’re thinking, but Allie, if you can finish one hundred pages a day–then shouldn’t you have been able to finish this in under a week?

The answer to that is yes–except I really hate reading about the Civil War. And this was really dense narrative poetry that babbled on about battles. If you enjoy novels in verse, you might really enjoy Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body. It really has a lot going for it and a lot going on in it. It’s complex, but although it’s told from multiple points of view and uses different meters, it’s linear and it tells a familiar story. Plus it was published in 1928, so it’s not like jumping into Shakespeare even though both authors mostly use blank verse. So if you enjoy reading about the Civil War you’ll probably enjoy this book.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the book, mostly due to the subject matter and how the Civil War is presented. This is not Benét’s fault–you can see this kind of treatment of history in oodles of history books, films, fiction, and popular narratives. I just don’t like it. There are some fantastic lines in this book, the women who are depicted are relatively complex and interesting, and while Benét spends a lot of time describing battles and army life–that’s not the sole focus of the book. Hardship in general is not the sole focus, and this gives the verse a lot of life and energy and kept me more engaged than I could have hoped for.

Since it took so long to read this book, I figure we’ll give it its due and split this into multiple posts. That way we can hit the most interesting bits, and I can rant about why I don’t like the Civil War time period (despite the hoop skirts).

In this post, we’ll just give a little context: I’ll tell you about the author, the format, the characters, and basically introduce you to the book. Then in later posts we’ll talk about:

  • how race is depicted in JBB (John Brown’s Body–I’m going to make free use of this acronym) and how white writers use race to bend our perceptions of the Civil War
  • how gender is depicted
  • the performance of this poem as a play at San Quentin
Photograph of Stephen Vincent Benet. Young white man with glasses wearing a suit.
Sourced from Poetry Foundation: Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) was super famous during his lifetime–bigger than T.S. Eliot or Robert Frost during the years he was alive. He was that mythical being–that unicorn of unicorns: a bestselling 20th century poet (selling in the tens of thousands). Finding this out really surprised me because I’d never heard of him. But some of his works are still in print and this epic novel in verse still graces the shelves of the Oakland Public Library.

He’s well known for romantic, heroic poetry that was his way of showing a patriotic spirit. He was admitted to the military at the end of WWI, but dismissed 3 days later for poor eyesight. Although he never served in the military, he makes great use of all kinds of sources to write movingly about war.

“Benét’s genius was for intelligent, affirmative, easily accessible, somewhat sentimental American portraiture of the sort that popular fiction and the movies sometimes exploited.”

Poetry Foundation

So really, it was no wonder he was so popular. While his contemporary poets were busy perfecting rhyme and meter (like Frost), considering the wonderous nature of the everyday (like William Carlos Williams) or pushing the envelope in terms of subject and form (like T.S. Eliot), Benét was creating American myths in the western myth tradition. In this sense, he reminds me a lot of L. Frank Baum in his creation of a distinctly US American fairy tale.

He applied and received a $2500 grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1925 to complete the epic verse on the Civil War, and they moved to the much cheaper Paris so that the family could live off of the money for as long as it took to complete the manuscript (Poetry Foundation). Benet created the work much sooner than he expected–15,000 lines in only about 2 years. And it was marvelously successful both critically and financially, outdoing Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (and it is much better than that particularly epic poem–that I can tell you) (Poetry Foundation).

The poem is divided into 10 sections, an invocation to the muse (which sets up the genre as epic poetry in the Greek tradition), a portion set on a slave ship (the horrors of which are really hard to read), and then the rest of the story moves through 8 books or episodes. Book 6 is probably my favorite as it has the most female characters and the least amount of battles.

So what is the epic poem about? It’s sort of a panorama, an almost cinematic take on the Civil War featuring characters on both sides of the war, battles and ballrooms, enslaved people and generals. Although it is very much a product of its time and has the white cultural superiority lens you might expect, it is also extremely well put together and more sympathetic than I would have expected, especially towards its female characters (although it never reaches towards empathetic, which is a failing in my opinion). It moves through different years and different scenes with a sense of drama, which is why it totally makes sense that it was performed as a play. I’m looking forward to seeing the San Quentin performance, and I’ll give you my thoughts on that in an upcoming post.

But to end today’s post, I thought we’d just talk a little about John Brown, in case you were wondering about the title.

“John Brown’s Body” was a Union song during the Civil War. It’s pretty rousing honestly, and you’ll probably recognize the tune even if you’ve never heard the words because the poet Julia Ward Howe turned the tune (changing the words) into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You can read more about the history in this PBS article.

And who is heaven looking down on kindly while his body is a mouldering in the grave? That would be the abolitionist John Brown. He believed that all slaves should be set free immediately, and was willing to fight in order to do so. Many of his sons also joined him in this quest, which he believed was a holy mission. He was… kind of out there honestly. He was arrested after holding Harper’s Ferry for a few days and executed, but he became something of a Union and abolitionist martyr. If you’re interested in reading more about John Brown, but from an African American perspective, I would highly recommend reading The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which follows a young, recently freed Black boy who joins (not so willingly) John Brown’s crusade for freedom. It is satirical and challenging, but so well written. Honestly one of my favorite books I’ve ever written in this time period.

We could go on about this book, but I think that’s a good place to end this first section. We’ll get into more detail in the next installment and actually look at some lines from the piece!

How do you feel about the Civil War time period? About epic poetry? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Reading Through the Stacks: 13. Let there be plot!

Let’s read through Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Taking a break from the 20th century, we’re going to chat about a poetry collection from a famous author, who’s asking a very interesting question within her poems:

How many words does it take to tell a story?

Margaret Atwood (1939-) is a prolific writer in nearly every genre. She really doesn’t need me to give her an introduction. But if you haven’t read a book by Margaret Atwood, you could do worse than to start with her poetry. She started publishing poetry in the 1960s–and her first two books were award winners. She writes about the nature of dualities, about women and their treatment by society, and about grief. Her writing is pretty lean and very easy to read. She uses questions effectively throughout her poems and encourages readers to engage with difficult ideas. Dearly is her first new collection in over a decade, and uses fairy tales and songs to look at life, aging, and our connection with each other and the planet.

And if you are new to poetry–this is a great collection to start with–especially since it Atwood has enough bestselling weight to make an audiobook of her collection. It’s available on Libby from the San Francisco Public Library, and likely from your local library too. The audiobook is read by Atwood.

Plot abounds throughout these poems. Sometimes this is absolutely explicit such as in the pronouncement at the end of “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage”: “Let there be plot.” I think this commitment to plot, which is not always a common poetry element, makes Atwood’s work more approachable to readers who are used to reading fiction. There are narratives and stories woven into the poems.

It’s more common in poetry for narrative to be used as allusion. “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage” is a clear example of this–we’re expected to understand the reference so that the poet doesn’t have to explain the narrative but can instead allude to it and draw new comparisons and conclusions. Older poets (and Atwood herself) frequently draw on mythological or biblical stories to do this, more modern poets often reach to fairy tales, popular culture, and other stories. But the point is still the same–to use a comparatively well known reference to illuminate something personal. Atwood often uses these devices to make familiar things less familiar. Her speakers are extremely skeptical of appearances:

“The world that we think we see
is only our best guess.”

from “Walking in the Madman’s Wood”

One of the things I absolutely love about this collection is how much Atwood can communicate in three lines–an entire film as it turns out:

“The aliens arrive.
They are smarter than us, and carnivorous.
You know the rest.”

from “The Aliens Arrive: Nine Late Night Movies”

She also makes great use of repetition, as in the poem “Souvenirs” the repetition of “remember” works really interestingly in this quote. It brings its own rhythm to the poem, but to me it also suggests an accompanying fear–that of forgetting. As if saying the word over and over again becomes a kind of spell or charm:

“But who is to remember what?
It’s a cute cat hat, but you’ve never been there.
I can remember buying it
and you can remember that I once
remembered: I remembered
something for you.”

from “Souvenirs”

Also, can we take a second to appreciate the hard ka sound of “cute” and “cat” and then the sing-song rhyme of “cat” and “hat”?

Atwood’s poetry asks a lot of questions, and its generally really well done, but I think this example might be a rare overuse. What are your thoughts? Do we need all 3 questions here? All four lines? I think I would have stopped at two.

“Do we have goodwill?
To all mankind?
Not any more.
Did we ever?”

from “The Twilight of the Gods”

I love the use of song language throughout the poems as well. But I think I’ve gushed enough. Margaret Atwood definitely doesn’t need me to plug her work, but I’ll do it anyway. Go and read Dearly!

Reading Through the Stacks: 12. Modern Rhymes and Meter

Join me on a tour through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re talking about a semi-modern master, Elizabeth Bishop. Since The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is, well, complete, I didn’t pick up any other collections of her work. And I’ll be doing that throughout this challenge–reading the most complete book where possible.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a relatively unknown poet during her lifetime, only publishing about 100 poems. She liked to tinker and perfect her works instead of moving onto new ones. Even with a small set of poems (the collection is less than 300 pages), she’s considered to be one of the most important 20th century poets. She’s referenced a lot in books about poetry, and she won a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award.

Many of her poems use older forms–she has a flair for iambic meter and rhyme, but she often doesn’t feel beholden to making strict use of these forms. She frequently varies meter and uses off rhyme within her poems, so though her work is really structured, it feels much more modern and contemporary than I would have expected. Bishop also painted, and her images are crystal clear, nuanced, and clever.

I am not the biggest fan of rhyme when it comes to poetry (probably because it’s really not my strong suit), so I have to admit that while I loved a lot of lines out of Bishop’s poems, I loved fewer of her full poems. But still lines like this inspired me to add them to my collection:

“sluggish fireflies
the jellyfish of the air”

from “Manuelzinho”

She just has such a gift for image. With just a few words she manages to convey mood, movement, and another place, another world.

I also like the way the speaker in Bishop’s poems doesn’t just declare, she thinks and feel. This gives her poems a lighter touch, as if you are taken on a journey with the speaker to find the right words to convey the experience:

The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.

from “Four Poems: II / Rain Towards Morning

Freed birds out a giant birdcage is an unusual metaphor for rain, but the insertion of ‘I think’ really struck me since there’s nothing concrete to be uncertain about. Instead it communicates not that the metaphor is not uncertain for the speaker, but that the scale is uncertain.

Some of the poems in the book are definitely a product of their time. If not quite racist, they certainly bring up uncomfortable aspects of United States culture towards race and white superiority:

the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps–
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once; 
we are driving to the interior.

from “Arrival at Santos”

I would say on the whole, the poem from which this is taken is critical about the tourist’s expectations and viewpoints, but not quite critical enough to assume that in a different country things were going to be not just different than what the speaker is used to but worse. This is a pretty tame example, but it illustrates subtle attitudes in a handful of her poems. Granted, inferior/interior is a good rhyme but has a lot of colonialist undertones.

Reading this book at the same time as I was reading a book on formal poetics (rhyme and meter and such) was very interesting because Bishop plays with form a lot and was referenced in the book several times. Overall her work is little formal for my taste, but she’s definitely a pretty approachable poet who rewards readers with really lovely sounding lines and excellent alliteration.

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

from “Song for the Rainy Season”

Visit the Poetry Foundation’s site to read some of Bishop’s best known work in full such as “The Moose” and “One Art.”

TTT: A Dozen of My Favorite Words

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week’s prompt is book-adjacent, but a fun prompt for me as a poet. It’s about favorite words. And actually limiting it to ten was extremely difficult, so I have chosen (with much narrowing down) a dozen to share with you.

Have you ever repeated a word so often that it loses all its meaning? All the significance is gone and you just have the sound. You begin to question the spelling–and if you keep going, you question the sound too. Have you been mispronouncing, misunderstanding this word all your life?

The famous Shakespeare line “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” suggests (rightly according to much of literary and linguistic theory) that the word and the thing bear no real relation except the associations that we as speakers make. These associations are deeply held, but we’ve seen throughout history that words can change meaning, take on new meanings, and be invented altogether. Language is fluid and dynamic–it evolves with us and can’t be taken for granted.

All this rambling is to say, I chose these words for the sounds, for how I feel about the sounds and the way they feel in my mouth rather than their meaning alone (but of course meaning creeps in). I also like the way many of these words suggest other words or suggest moods. It’s hard to stop at 10, so here are 12 I really like, deliberately not in alphabetical order but rather the order in which they came to mind.

1. scandalous

Starting off with a three syllable word. Something about it feels luscious or luxurious to me. The first syllable lingers in the mouth so the rest feels like a secret.

2. lounge

So onomatopoeia is when a word for the sound tries to imitate a sound, and I almost feel like lounge does that. Doesn’t it sound like it just wants to lie around all day?

3. close

Say this word out loud. Then tell me if you thought of close as in close the door or as in hold me close. Interesting right?

4. swing

This word has energy, it moves up in pitch when you say it, and I love how it contains the flight of wing. I have my own personal memories attached to this word too–swings and my childhood seem inextricably linked.

5. skip

I mean this word is obviously short, but it’s short when you say it too, has a skid and stop quality, like it’s full of false starts.

6. elusive

I think this word doesn’t really sound all that elusive or hard to grasp, like scandalous it lingers–I like the word because it’s kind of sensual and the syllables are pleasing. But a word like rural seems way more elusive to me in terms of its pronunciation.

7. shade

I love both interpretations of this word, from the dappled sunlight under a tree to throwing shade. Either way, it covers you.

8. moment

Another word I feel is more elusive than elusive. This word wants to hang on, but instead it slips away. It’s soft too, like a whisper or murmur.

9. vine

I think I like v sounds, and -ine is great too. How possessive mine feels or entwine. But vines themselves? I can take them or leave them. Ivy is pretty. And a pretty word too. Too bad I swore I’d stop at 12.

10. spool

I love these sounds. That double oo is just wonderful to read.

11. nimble

This word’s sounds fit the meaning for me, quick and weaving

12. fall

I actually don’t like they way most of the -all words sound, I think the ‘f’ softens it a bit and gives it a less uniform texture, even for a word that’s so short.

bonus words:

I’m a word addict and I can’t help myself!


I have this memory of my cousin ordering pralines and cream at Baskin Robbins when I was a kid. (pray-lean was her pronunciation) and it just sounded so decadent. She was acting in a local troupe at the time and she’s always had a marvelous voice. But in that moment I thought that was the coolest ice cream order anyone had ever made.


This one is just too much fun. If you’ve listened to the soundtrack for the show, maybe you have also fallen in love with the way Idina Menzel pronounced this word.

Let me know some of your favorite words in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 11. Summer at the Cinema

The sloth painting on the cover reinforces the purposefully slow, thoughtful pace of the collection.

Join me as I read through the Oakland Public Library poetry collection.

So this week has not quite gone to plan, and this book is going to be a few days overdue. Whoops. But I’m glad that I finished it and didn’t just turn it back in because I so thoroughly enjoyed Troy Jollimore‘s collection, Earthly Delights.

This is another new book from the library’s collection, and it’s Jollimore’s (1971-) fourth book of poetry. Jollimore is also a philosopher and teaches at California State University, Chico. Although I didn’t know that before reading the collection, it doesn’t surprise me. The collection is meditative and playful, especially with themes of leaving and return, such as in the last poem of the collection which is an imagination of Odysseus before he leaves Ithaca. There’s a lot of looking back in the book, but I wouldn’t call it nostalgic. Wistful for the beginnings of things maybe, but not nostalgic in the sense that it believes we can or should return to another time.

The book feels very summery to me. Part of this is the literal mention of summer in several poems, but it’s also a mood, a languid, slow moving rhythm that feels like long summer nights on the porch. It feels ripe, at its peak but also if you pick up some peaches, they may be rotten, such as discussions about our current political state. Here’s a sample of that summery feeling I’m picking up on:

it takes three drinks to make the music
sound the way it’s supposed to sound,
that the taste of the air on summer evenings

is always a little bit bitter,
always a little bit tinged with regret, that this is
your language, your city, and no one but you

can speak it, and no one but you can save it.

Troy Jollimore from “Landscape with Ambiguous Symbols”

Jollimore uses a ton of references–the classic ones are here of course–few collections are complete without mentions of Greek mythology, but beyond those references there is so much discussion of cinema. This takes the form of individual movies, such as a long poem on American Beauty and others on cinema classics that he calls screenshots. I don’t know if there’s a work like ekphrastic (poems about visual artwork) for poems about cinema, but it’s not a true ekphrasis in that it’s not really describing what we see so much as capturing some of the mood or a philosophical question the film delves into. For example, Jollimore delves into questions of identity in his poem about the film Being John Malkovich:

Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich
was pretty much the inevitable choice
to play the character ‘John Malkovich.’
Who else could imitate that wheedling voice,


…But know,
the very question that the film itself

forces us to confront is, who am I
when someone else lives through me?…

Troy Jollimore, from “Screenshots: Being John Malkovich”

So the philosopher definitely comes through here–the film brings up questions, but the poem does not concern itself with answering the questions. Rather the poems (and this can be said about poetry throughout the book) rephrase the questions in really moving, insightful ways. Because of this the book feels intellectually rather than emotionally moving, and it’s clever without resorting to barbs.

I am excited to pick up a copy of this collection and start making notes in it. There’s so much to pick apart in this book, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is definitely a book to reread.

Reading Through the Stacks: 10. A Sentient House

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Findings by Wendell Berry, published in 1969.

Wendell Berry (1934-) is a novelist, essayist, poet, environmental activist, and farmer. His work is grounded in place, and the landscape of Kentucky, where he was born and has spent a large portion of his life, is very important to his work. As such, in his poetry he’s known for writing pastoral and elegiac poems. He’s been publishing poetry consistently since the 1960s, but his essays are more widely read.

Findings is a short book divided into three sections. The first and largest section is “The House,” which is structured almost like a five act play, ending with an epilogue. Although the poem is not really menacing or sinister, the sentient nature of the house and its experience of so much family death through the generations definitely gave me haunted house vibes. It’s really only the first section, “The White and Waking of the House” that fits this perception so neatly, but it was hard for me to shake that first impression even though the rest of the long poem ties more neatly into cyclical ideas of life and death and the stability of place through change.

From the ashes and lives
of the past house, this house
continues to a summiting
now-waking at hot noon
in the deadly sun’s emblazonment;

Wendell Berry, from section 3 in “The White and Waking of the House”

Even though day and night are juxtaposed here (and throughout the poem), I can’t help but feeling death and dark get more time on the page. Consider just the word “ashes” compared to lives–the “sh” of ashes lingers in the mouth, and the two syllable word takes longer to say than “lives.” Also the lives are of the past house, a past structure, a myriad of past lives–to me this reinforces a kind of haunted feeling. And then you can continue that through to the “deadly sun”–even daylight becomes menacing.

I’m not sure if other people would interpret this poem the same way, but I think it was absolutely the perfect poem to read in October–my favorite time of year to read spooky things.

But here’s a passage from the end of the first movement of the poem, which I think may be more in line with the themes on continuity through cycles elsewhere in the book:

the house
performs a substantial movement
of interiors–
each day a room,
where waking is made whole
though day proceed to day
by accident,
and succumb by necessity
to night
when the stars
verify their continuance

Wendell Berry, from section 14 in “The White and Waking of the House”

To me this passage speaks of how the places we live give meaning to life, although day to day proceeds without our say or guidance or control, the house makes life whole–purposeful. As if the purpose is the house, is the community therein. And this is just one part of this poem! Each section builds in really interesting ways, and then we move to “The Handing Down,” which is a meditation on aging, and then we end with three elegies at the end of the book. This collection gets top points for structure in my opinion.

No one needs me to say that Wendell Berry is a complex, interesting poet. I can definitely see myself spending a lot of time dissecting his work (and there’s a lot of it out there), so I can’t wait to start searching out Berry’s work and making lots of notes in the margins.

What do houses represent for you? I’d love to know what you think of this symbol in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 9. A Biting Wit

I love the insects on this cover.

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re discussing a new book: These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit by Hayan Charara.

Hayan Charara (1972–) grew up in Detroit, and some of his poetry deals with the decay of this particular urban landscape, his Lebanese cultural roots come through mostly in meditations on Arab identity in the United States, and the associated erasure and racism Arab people experience. He’s a professor of creative writing, currently at the University of Houston.

What I admired most about this book of poetry was just how clever it was. There are several sections that showcase this really well, two of which are series of haiku. One, centered on a specific place (the porch) show the dramas of everyday, mostly through conversation. Although each haiku stands on its own, they link together in time to tell the story of an evening and a neighborhood.

On the porch–
we speak long distance, I think,
for the last time.

Hayan Charara from “Porch Haiku”

The poems are particularly well constructed throughout the book–there is a lot of attention to structure in the individual poems as well as in the collection as a whole. The language throughout is pretty clear, and the poet presents a personal politics that encompasses rather than being removed from poetry. For example, in “The Prize” he describes the poetry winners of the Pulitzer Prize in relation to World War II. The collection speaks through and across time in really interesting ways. And it has a really thoughtful use of profanity, although the use of this language in poetry is maybe a topic for another day.

But I have to admit, my favorite section of the book is a seven poem section titled “Mean,” which are, as you might guess, a little bit nasty. I think poetry can come across as a little elitist and holier-than-thou, held to these sacred or noble feelings, but in my opinion, poetry should be honest, vulnerable. Sandra Cisneros said in an interview:

“I discovered a poetic truth, that you have to write as if what you had to say is too dangerous to publish in your lifetime. Then your ego gets out of the way, and you allow the light to come through you, the blood jet that Sylvia Plath talked about. You write from a more honest place.”

And the truth is we’re human, and sometimes what we think and feel is mean, nasty, and bitter. We can’t deny that any more than the fear, embarrassment, doubt, or sadness we feel. I think these poems are courageous, and–I know I’m a horrible person for saying this and I think that’s exactly what I’m meant to feel–funny as well. They are witty and terrible and kind of–eek–delightful. I won’t quote them because for copyright reasons I really try and only use quotes from poems in this blog, and you really need the whole of the short poems to feel the sting. Let that be a reason to look up the book of poems at your library.

Instead, I’ll end my discussion of the book with an excerpt from what’s probably my favorite poem in the entire collection:

“The girl is older than the boy,
the boy older than the cat, and the cat
which cannot communicate
what it knows about age, hates
the cactuses on the windowsill–“

Hayan Charara from “Older”

The poem works through a series of comparisons about the age of things, and it ends on such a beautiful melancholy note.

Reading Through the Stacks: 8. War is a Terrible Thing

I’m not going to lie–it took me a while to get through this collection: Selected Poems by Kenneth Patchen. And while the book wasn’t terrible, I’m really glad that it wasn’t the complete poems because I don’t know how much more of his work I really wanted to read.

Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) wrote over 40 books in his lifetime, including a number of volumes of poetry. He also wrote a radio play, and was interested in art. He painted quite a few poems, a couple of which I’ve included here. He considered himself not a painter, but a writer with paint as a medium. There are also a considerable number of his poems that he illustrated, but honestly these are some of my least favorites of his since they rely on very time-bound jokes that are just…not that funny. He had a debilitating spine problem that caused him a lot of pain, and for the latter part of his life he was essentially bound to the confines of his bed.

The book’s best poems are its darkest, which highlight the dark themes through the words themselves–either slipping and oozing or cracking over the tongue as you say them, sticking like sand or grit between your teeth. They echo the sentiments of the poem and make them harsh to read, which is very well done, but other poetic devices seem over used to me like the “O” invocation.

There is a lot of meditation on the nature of death and the violence and injustice of war. Nature and humanity’s actions are often juxtaposed throughout the poems to call attention to the peace, stability, and relative order of nature in contrast to the chaos of mass slaughter and war.

It’s kind of bleak, really. The hopeful lines in the poems seem way more forced. I think this stanza sums up a lot of this book for me:

“The columns of death glow faintly white
Within the forests of this destroying planet.
Here gleeful beasts track each other
Through lanes of winter and rotting heroes.”

Kenneth Patchen from “These Unreturning Destinies”

From the horror of war to women as whores–Patchen or Patchen’s speakers at least, don’t seem to have a very high regard for women, there is a lot of madonna/whore imagery throughout, where women are either carnal, dirty creatures or untouchable idols. Even when love/sex is portrayed positively, it’s with some version of Snow White, white skin, red lips, who is somewhat untouchable. Women are largely objects of desire and contempt, rather than fully realized people, and I have to admit any poet that writes that way is going to immediately limit my enjoyment of their work. I don’t like the dismissal apparent in the line:

“…I said no and she said some female stuff”

Kenneth Patchen from “He Was Alone (As In Reality)”

When Patchen strays into the abstract, he kind of loses me by saying a lot of nothing. But I do think his anti-war and killing poetry is quite moving. He even, which struck me as unusual for a white poet of his era, has nuanced (although not exceptional views–let’s not kid ourselves), about race. In fact, the very discussion of race at all in anything but a perpetuation of stereotypes seems pretty unusual to me for white poets in the late 1930s when some of these poems were written. I’m not trying to give Patchen more credit than he’s do, but it did strike me that he was discussing race in a way that saw the humanity in people both the good and the bad as well as in himself. Of course, the title of the poem, “Nice Day for a Lynching” feels grotesque, but when it was written, that’s probably a sentiment that would have been expressed by white people attending the murder while cheering and posing for photographs. Patchen writes:

“But I know that one of my hands
Is black, and one white. I know that
One part of me is strangled,
While another part horribly laughs.”

Patchen from “Nice Day for a Lynching”

Patchen in this poem attempts to grapple with his complicity, his empathy for suffering, and his whiteness. I haven’t seen this from a lot of white poets, but I don’t care for his conclusion, which focuses more on his own feelings and selfhood than the person who has just been brutally murdered for sport. The poet uses the senseless death as a reckoning with racism and the concept of race but ultimately, in the words of Bo Burnham “Insist[s] on seeing every socio-political conflict / Through the myopic lens of [his] own self-actualization?” However, the reckoning at all in the 1930s is something and reinforces his themes about violence and death in a more nuanced way, as you cannot get a complete look at violence in the United States by looking only at war, you have to look at violence through race and systemic racism.

So…. yeah. I have some complicated feelings about this book. I can’t say I loved it. I can’t say that I’ll ever read Patchen again, but I can’t say I hated the book either.

Reading Through the Stacks: 7. Religion and Rhythm

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re talking about James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance period as well as a prominent member of the NAACP. He’s most famous for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He also served in a diplomatic position under Theodore Roosevelt in Venezuela and Nicaragua, worked as a professor at NYU and Fisk University. He was also known for collecting Black oral histories and cultural records.

Which brings us to this particular book first published in 1927. In the preface for the book, Johnson discusses the sermons he remembers being delivered by African American preachers, the patterns they followed and the importance of these all Black spaces:

“The old-time preacher brought the establishment of these independent places of worship and thereby provided the first sphere in which race leadership might develop and function.”

James Weldon Johnson, preface p. 4

By giving people separate spaces for worship, preachers made it possible for people to gather and seek community, tell their stories, come together, and plan for a better future. Johnson emphasizes the intelligence of these preachers, who often memorized huge sections of the King James Bible, particularly the Old Testament but the text was a leaping off point–not the main substance of a sermon.

Johnson also emphasizes the rhythm and mastery of language that preachers called upon:

“He [the preacher] knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rhythmic words more than it is anything else. Indeed, I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer incoherencies. He was a master of all the modes of eloquence. He often possessed a voice that was a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper to a crashing thunderclap.”

James Weldon Johnson, preface p. 5

Johnson discusses at length his reasons for not using dialect to try and capture African American speech patterns and emphasizes the way it has been used in American culture and literature to create pathos or humor. Neither is what the poet seeks to convey here. He is interested in capturing rhythms, ideas, and a time and place in American culture that he feels is disappearing.

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of religious poetry (as you’ll know if you read my last post), I feel differently about this work with its careful attention to rhythm, improvisational and captivating as jazz (which I’m a big fan of) and it’s detailed language–so rich and evocative. Also, although I don’t believe that Bible stories are true, there is no denying that when told well they are excellent stories. As a lover of fairy tales, folklore, and history, I was swept away by the language in this book. Here’s a sample from the section on creation, where a few lines in the Bible are expanded:

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

James Weldon Johnson, from “The Creation,” p. 17-18.

In Johnson’s hand religion becomes the stuff of wonder and poetry. I read through this book really quickly, spurred ahead by the language and intonation that Johnson mentions in the introduction. This is a really approachable book of religious poetry that breathes light into the stories. If your interested in works and commentary about Christianity, I would highly recommend this book.