Great poetry that makes no sense: America’s 2018 Poetry Roundup
Why is everyone transgender all of a sudden, I can hear the voices asking. Voices of people I know, from places I grew up, or even where I live now. Are they “transitioning” just to be difficult, to be different, to agitate us? Are they just trying to make us use their terms and imagine their trysts? Maybe they could just altogether cease and desist.
And if you are standing on the outside of all things “trans” or “non-binary” or “gender-fluid,” peering in with bewilderment while nervously thumbing a pocket catechism, unsure where to begin to make sense of it all, maybe the first step is to stop trying to make sense of it.
And reading poetry, like the books in our 2018 poetry review, can be a great way to not make perfect sense of a thing, but to just be with a thing.
In his collection Anybody (W. W. Norton and Company, 2016), for instance, Ari Banias does not sit you down and precisely explain what transgender means and what it was like to have transitioned from female to male. He shares realities, facts, feelings—i.e., poems. And his poems are so real, good, true that a doctrinal soul might ask: How can someone so nakedly contradict fundamental church teaching and human truth about the body and yet be so, well, really fantastic to read?
The answer is that great writing, whether it takes on gender, race, sexual assault, police violence, immigration, body image or any number of burning subjects filling the shelves of new poetry these days, is really about a writer looking for truth and meaning and connection through words. It always is.Good literature takes you by the hand to a place you may not even like or want to know about and makes it compelling. Maybe even makes it beautiful. The poetry in this year’s review finds truth and beauty all over the place.
Banias speaks of his years as a girl, brandishing the we pronoun, as someone just trying to survive. “Five years our chest inside two sports bras flattened/ further by the fabric bandage we pin close/ around our torso adamant/ inside of awkward-gesture-awkward awkward/ to speak dodging pronouns to visit to sleep/ on the lace-draped living room couch.”
“Double Mastectomy” compares a mastectomy with destroying an old house (“the curved banister, the glass knobs/ where were these now—/ some dump?”). And Banias confronts the implicit question: How could you do that? He comes to an answer as he approaches the surgery room: He became a man for “the possibility of/ the possibility of/ my body.”
Anybody is not just about gender, but about things such as plastic bags, which are, Banias says truthfully, poignantly and comically, “the majority of what I have,/ I mean what I literally/ have the most of in my apartment….” He suggests that the way plastic bags are mashed into one another in his house, or the way all people have plastic bags, can serve as a metaphor for human connection. Grounded whimsy like this operates in much of his work.
Whatever else Banias might be, he is still just a vulnerable guy and practicing artist trying to live his life: “I saw one kid the other day point a phone/ from their window into mine to take a photo of me I wanted to take/ one in response as reminder that hey it’s a window/ not a mirror and the object talks back.”
Great writing, whether it takes on gender, race, sexual assault, police violence, immigration, body image or any number of burning subjects filling the shelves of new poetry these days, is really about a writer looking for truth and meaning and connection through words.
Every poem in the new collection by Terrance Hayes, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for his collection Lighthead,bears the book’s title: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018). It suggests that everything he writes, or could write, can be folded into the danger and violence inherent in a black life in the United States. And, as with the Banias book, I can hear the same voices: Yes, I know black people have had it hard. But is it really that bad? Is America really that mean to them?
But a simple line like “Probably twilight makes blackness darkness” can wheedle into the brain of doubters. It subtly conjures up a truckload of hard images—how black skin becomes in some people’s eyes frightening or sinister in the shade of early evening. (And all of the implications and reactions to that “darkness” that follow.) A phrase like this proclaims no political position or social ideology. It just potently describes the way things actually are.
While most of the poems in this book address in some fashion race and racial injustice, poems with sharp edges and blistering descriptions, sometimes they just talk about what the author is into. In one “American Sonnet” it occurs to the poet that it is amazing that “Miles Davis & John Coltrane/ Standing within inches of each other didn’t explode.” If all of these poems are written to his assassin, they are telling the killer not just the hard things. They are also calling out, quite simply, “This is what I love, this is who I am!” Maybe what I love is its own kind of weapon against a killer.
Jenny Xie’s poetry moves. It flies, it burrows, it goes between. Xie immigrated to the United States at age 4, a fact that weaves through much of her work. “Rootless,” which opens her new collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018),lays it all on the table: “I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.” On her journeys, the sights zoom by: “Wooden spirit houses on the road to Kampot spray-painted gold, capacious enough for a pot of incense, a rice bowl, and one can of Fanta.”
The speaker isn’t the only one in motion. Her inner life swishes around, too: “My guilt goes off/ then returns, wilder.” How, Xie asks, does the self change while in transit? In “Metamorphosis” the speaker documents the trials of a migration experience, the rhythms of the body and the world: “Over time, she grows out her hair. Then she sprouts nerves/...She lives inside a season of thrift, which stretches on.” “Naturalization” is about movement, too, from an old country to a new one, the familiar to the alien. It’s hard to see what’s ahead. “Such were the times. All of us nearsighted.”
Bruce Beasley is a recent convert to Catholicism, a faith wherein, as he wrote in an author statement, “the soul is singular and indivisible...cannot be divided.” To others, the soul has “parts.” A new age pamphlet he was once given stated that depression and feelings of emptiness were caused by parts of your soul breaking off and going to another realm called “Nonordinary reality.”
Beasley’s new, sparkling collection, All Soul Parts Returned (BOA Editions Ltd., 2017) wends its way not only through those opposing teachings, but through the deep gloom and nihilism of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, several parts of the Catholic Mass, his childhood depression, mass shootings, Black Friday, the writings of the pastor Rick Warren and the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. (I did the questionnaire online after reading this book. I was rated “somewhat unhappy.” This only made me more unhappy.)
Beasley manages to write about all these topics not snidely or “from above,” but with love, patience and groundedness because he knows he is inextricably involved in them. The poem “Reading The Purpose Driven Life, with Schopenhauer,” for instance, was not ironic and winking. He takes the popular pastor Warren, as well as the septic Schopenhauer, seriously.
Writing about something as mundane as a governmental program like Social Security, he turns it into a startling metaphor: “There’s a ‘Trust Fund’ with trillions hoarded in it/ to compensate for every yearly lack/ but, like God, no one can agree if it exists.”
This is a major book by an astounding writer. Beasley captures an age of both shamans and Catholics, where one is easily able to move from tribal ritual to postmodernism to religious tradition and back again. He gives the cold water of the Baltimore Catechism its poetic due. It may bemy favorite book on the planet now. “How is the soul like to God?” “The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die.” Have you read two better sentences this year? Beasley reminds us that great writing is great writing wherever you find it.
With All Soul Parts Returned, Bruce Beasley captures an age of both shamans and Catholics, where one is easily able to move from tribal ritual to postmodernism to religious tradition and back again.
Marcy Heidish’s My Son, Saint Francis (Dolan and Associates, 2018) tells the story of Francesco—Francis’ common name—from the perspective of his father, Pietro. Through this lens, Heidish both reminds the reader of Francis’ vibrant life and calls the reader to identify with and have compassion for Pietro, whom Francis disavowed. While Pietro is often a villian of Francis’ story, in this collection he speaks now “dead about a year” and comes off as loving, humble and remorseful. Pietro addresses all parents in “A Call.” “To all of you who cannot understand your children:/ Down the rolling centuries you march, a multitude,/ bewildered, blamed and blaming, bruised and baffled.”
All of Heidish’s poems tell Francis’ story in a modern voice, using simple language—almost as if Pietro has accepted some of Francis’ simplicity in the next life. At times, these poems grow repetitive, and Heidish tells where she might show. In “Spite,” for instance: “I worked hard to give Francesco the best/ Always I had pleased myself by doing this./ Then I did not see the best way what he had.” Despite these moments of over-explanation, My Son, Saint Francis is an interesting read for anyone wanting to experience this beloved saint.
Many of the poems in Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017), a National Book Award finalist, are fragmented, chopped up; lines are crossed out. A few of them are laid out with sentences splayed across the page or curving downward. Their challenging form in some way mirrors the difficult topics they address, such as the massacre at Wounded Knee and other similar tragedies in Native American history.
Her work also takes on the smaller tragedies and ironies that attend everyday life. Long Soldier is on to herself and on to those around her. Her power lies in her noticing a thing, and then, if need be, dismembering it: “then I heard a poet trouble and say:/ I’m a straw man for leftist critique.” In the knowing, plain-spoken reportorial style she employs throughout the book, she goes on to define, elliptically, both straw man and leftist. She begins, brilliantly: “straw man: a person set up/ top button open/ as a cover a front/ amber body/ for questionable enter/ prise an argument/ such straw hair goldly/ easily refuted.”
Long Soldier gets into the interstices between the interstices, the very thoughts between the thoughts.She has a sharp eye for hypocrisy in the ritualistic, a prophetic glance at anything that seems like maybe it doesn’t get squinted at enough. She responds in a series of lengthy poems and poetic fragments to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, delivered by President Obama in 2009, an event no tribal leaders or representatives were invited to witness. She misses nothing: “WHEREAS when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders/ high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through/ me.”
She continues: “Whereas I could’ve but didn’t broach the subject of ‘genocide’ the absence of this term from the Apology and its rephrasing as ‘conflict.’”
In the poems of Whereas, Layli Long Soldier gets into the interstices between the interstices, the very thoughts between the thoughts.
The wild ostentation of late 20th- and early 21st-century America becomes the prism through which readers of David Tomas Martinez’s Post Traumatic Hood Disorder (Sarabande Books, 2018) perceive might and right, ennui and love and solitude and the oceanic depths of history. The go-go Reagan era acts as a sort of base camp at the foot of the 1980s. In “Us vs. Them,” he recalls an elementary school duck-and-cover drill and the murky possibility of nuclear annihilation: “They were Communists/ had the bomb, and were evil/ Reagan told us/ from the small grave/ of a TV screen.”
Also featured is the belovedly trashy decadence of the turn of the 21st century. “On Maury/ one sister chastises another for naming her children/ after cars/ she’ll never own.” Culture offers consolation, too, as when “I used to have to get drunk,/ watch Twilight or When Harry/ Met Sally to cry.” For Martinez, the past is always prologue: “The American Dream is to be debt-free/ which I am not, nor may ever be, but at least/ I’m not afraid of the Russians.”
What is the difference between an artistic prophet and a religious scold? How does a poet call out “wrong things” in our culture without coming off as self-righteous?
City Under Siege (Angelico Press, 2017)by the Catholic poet Mark Amorose, is composed mostly of sonnets and other short poems thatdelve into the Catholic world, its rituals, saints and traditions. (I was gratified to see Jesuit references: There is a poem about Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J.: Apostle to the Pimas, and “At Tyburn” is dedicated to the English martyr Robert Southwell.) Amorose’s images are sharp and evocative, such as a coiled up snake compared to a rosary. His use of classic poetic form is assured, his lyric rendering of church teaching bracing.
Then there are moments when he speaks of churches in secular Canada in the poem “Quebec.” Amorose writes, “The remnants of Faith still fascinate/ and sunlight breaks through hedonism’s haze.”
It is only one word, “hedonism,” but it reveals an entire worldview. It appears Amorose is saying that people who have left the church are “hedonistic.” Or that a non-Christian world is necessarily hedonistic—a world in which pleasure and not love or self-sacrifice or God is the highest good. But is this actually true, that non-Christians are necessarily corrupt pleasure-seekers? Honestly, are they?
Or consider the poem “His Brother’s Wife.” It criticizes the German Cardinal Walter Kasper for encouraging the church to find ways to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist. For Amorose, Kasper’s capitulation to the age is counterpoint to the strident witness of John the Baptist, who excoriated Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. The Baptist stood up for strict legal purity; Kasper tears it down. “The Eucharist is theirs to take at will,/ for John is dead, and dogma is outdated.” (The poem could also be alluding to Kasper’s supposed endorsement of same-sex unions as potentially containing elements of Christian marriage.)
The poet is comparing a Catholic who gets divorced, remarries and desires to receive the Holy Eucharist to King Herod, one of the most wicked men of the New Testament. And he is comparing a church leader who seeks compassion for the “divorced and remarried” as one who would sanction Herod’s wickedness. The poem is sad, rigid and blows the “crime” it is criticizing phenomenally out of proportion.
In his collection So Where Are We? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Lawrence Joseph writes about the issues of the day and the decade past: 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, the war in Iraq war, Hurricane Sandy. Poems bear titles like “In a Post-Bubble Credit-Collapse Environment.” They evoke questions not dissimilar to those around Amorose’s collection—can “issue” poetry, war poetry, “social justice” verse evade sloganeering? Joseph’s work avoids reductionism when he simply tells the facts, like in “Syria, about the devastating endless war in that country. A woman reports, “You won’t believe what I have seen...a decapitated body with a dog’s head sewn on, for example.”
Joseph weaves together the death of Eric Garner while in the hands of police with torture by employees of the CIA, who insist, (and I acknowledge that the following is not easy to read, but ignorance is worse): “rectally infused purée of hummus, nuts, and raisin...isn’t torture...but, merely, legally justified means/ of enhanced interrogation.”
He equates, deftly, (and probably enragingly to some) the U.S. with ISIS, asking: “Technically speaking,/ is a head blown to pieces by a smart bomb a beheading?”
Joseph finds a kind of base of horror and violence in the insane contradiction of American life: “Along these lines, the trouble I’m having// comprehending the schizophrenic prisoner/ on death row must be forced to take antipsychotic// medication to make him sane enough to execute.”
As a whole, these poems are a sort of a catalog of crimes and tragedies. The grand bet in the Christian faith is that hope and redemption always follows tragedy. It has to. It can’t not. Describing the world as it is, going deeply enough, really laying things out, one arrives at the saving power of God. The divine may be hard to find subjects like these, but our faith tells us it is there.
In his collectionSo Where Are We?, Lawrence Joseph offers poems that are a sort of a catalog of crimes and tragedies.
Donna Masini’s 4:30 Movie (W.W. Norton and Company, 2018) frames grief using both the form and the imagery of film. This grief is described in explicitly spiritual terms. The speaker asks “What is prayer but a rigged up jerking doll hefting/ its measly petitions” and names St. Anthony oil, Lourdes water, St. Peregrine and “prayer prayer prayer” in her list of “What Didn’t Work.” Masini’s work challenges us with startling images of “the subway: each corpse looking into a cell phone screen” and the impermanence of waves, SoulCycle and 8mm film.
The collection speaks earnestly about feeling let down and abandoned, yet feverishly seeks solace in art, finding that “Here the weariest/ come to rest/ in the swirl/ of light and time and water.” Masini’s latest book is punchy but also a bag of frozen peas.
Nikki Giovanni’s A Good Cry: What we Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017) is a book of plain-spoken poems by the much-lauded poet, activist and first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. It is filled with very simple lines, that betray a double-edged feeling about some of the non-shimmering work of legendary poets: Is it wise or is it simplistic? Has her best work run its course, and yet we give a work like this its due, simply because Nikki Giovanni wrote it?
Are lines like the following “simplistic” or are they both wisdom and great poetry cut down to its bare roots: After a stanza about warning children not to run into traffic, she writes: “We need to tell/ the cars/ and/ trucks/ and/ buses/ Not to run/ Into/ Our children.”
Giovanni is not trying in this collection to write “The Wasteland,” or “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” She is taking time to tell you about some things that matter to her. How to make soup, memories of Maya Angelou, the opening of the Museum of African-American History, Black Lives Matter, an ode to the class of 1964 at Fisk University. Sometimes a great line rears up. In “Epicure”: “Communion and sex/ Are about the only things/ That don’t go well/ With garlic.”
In Wonderland, (W.W. Norton and Company, 2018), Matthew Dickman re-enters youth in all its peaks and valleys—without exaggeration or cliché. In “The Order of Things” Dickman zips back on the skin of a second grader and shares the shame-inducing punishments doled out for wetting one’s pants, noting “how/ no one tried to stop it.” In one of the titular poems, Caleb, a boy just a few years older, must comfort his mother amid domestic abuse. Dickman juxtaposes images of Caleb “throwing the stick// in the air/ and imagining it’s a sword on fire” with the same boy in “his parents’ bedroom/ where he will kiss her busted lip.” In this way, Dickman’s poems impart the unjust ways we learn about injustice. In later poems, we see Caleb again, a few years older and now violent—eventually branding himself with a swastika.
While many of Dickman’s poems tell stories and carry narratives across poems, they also follow their own meandering logic, like a late night conversation. “Don’t you// ever wonder about people’s ears?” Dickman asks the reader in “Orchard.” Wonderland is littered with religious imagery and characters and punctuated with anaphora. The mood of the collection is dark and heavy but not decidedly against hope. Instead it seems to ask the reader to answer a simple question: Is there hope amid all this suffering?
The mood of Matthew Dickman's Wonderland is dark and heavy but not decidedly against hope. Instead it seems to ask the reader to answer a simple question: Is there hope amid all this suffering?
The opening poem in Erika Meitner’s, Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA, 2018) is full of rat-a-tat-tat declarations touching on everything from the Holocaust to Leviticus, from Captain Marvel and German thrash music to the New Deal, Syrian refugees and a moderate Marco Rubio. It reads like a series of news bulletins, simple declarative sentences that attempt to throw a net over the world and unite it in the chaos of art. While many of the pieces traffic in the sad and tragic, Meitner also touches on the wry moments. A Jewish woman living in Appalachia, she tells us the only problem comes during the holidays when, “When I’m sure our house/ is the saddest on the block because it is unlit.”
Dan MacIsaac’ In Cries from the Ark (Brick Books, 2017) opens with the line: “Never send a raven/ to do a dove’s work” The collection is largely composed of brief sketches from the animal kingdom, quiet and wise bursts of well-crafted imagery that render glory to a thing simply by telling us what it’s like.
The emotional centerpiece of Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018), the moving new collection by Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, is a collection of letters from black Union soldiers. “for instant look & see/ that we was never freed yet/ Run Right out of Slavery/ In to Soldiery.” She glides easily into form, such as in Ash: “House the seasons singe and douse/ House that believes it is not a house.”
Calling Samantha Zighelboim’s The Fat Sonnets (Argos Books, 2018) “brave” or “vulnerable” could seem presumptive. I don’t actually know how she might feel about these sketches of a life as an obese person (“My body is an immoral restaurant,” she writes in “Mundus Ediblis.”) But the startling experience of reading such nakedly personal poetry about a topic rarely written about is only compounded by the high and devastating quality of the work.
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This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Great Poetry That Makes No Sense,” in the November 12, 2018, issue.