I haven’t been blogging but I have been reading. Here's a roll-up of some of the books of poetry I've read this year.
Looking Back to Place
This is a very small run of an anthology of New Mexico poets, published by the Harwood Arts Center in Albuquerque. I couldn't even find a photo of the book jacket online. Lame. The back cover talks about people’s relationship to place and how place is sacred, etc. But it wasn’t a very satisfying look at the place that is New Mexico. There were few good NM poems but the scope was not limited to this state. Jill Battson had two good poems: “Lightning” and “As Seen from New Mexico” and Maresa Irene Thompson’s “What Water Means to Desert People” was great. I probably has higher expectations since the project was such a locally produced one.
I found the complete opposite result with Inez Hunt’s High Country Poems. Obviously self-published but I managed to find that cover online! This is a book I found in Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the very fine local bookstore there, Tome on the Range. Yes, the book looks awfully self-published and by that I mean bad graphics, bad layout, bad titles and really distracting backgrounds. The book practically reeks of bad design ideas. Did I mention the complete font overdo on every poem? But guess what? Looks are deceiving. Yes, the poems are classic, stereotypical western poems. But the writing was so much better than your average cowboy poet. I now wildly speculate that Inez Hunt was simply out of print and some friend or family member put together this anthology of her best poems out of kindness and respect. I’m not 100% on this theory but she apparently did leave poems to her daughter and now here we are with this great thing.
Excerpts from "Ghost Town House"
...storms strike hard
To shake the chinking loose
And cold settles in a down-draft
Through a sodden flue.
Glass shatters or is stolen,
Leaving hungry holes.
The floors break through
Where memory grows too heavy for the joist.
The rats gnaw tediously along with Time
In little bites.
On a recent trip to Arizona, I picked up With the River on Our Faces by Emmy Perez at the University bookstore in Tuscon. Perez’s poems of place depict Southern Texas and El Paso. Perez also writes Rio Grande poems and poems about border politics. “The History of Silence” was the best poem inside and I wished I could find the long poem transcribed online so I could include it in my Poems for Dictators list. Her poems are meandering like rivers and occasionally remote. Some of her gaps are too mystifying and obscure, but there’s a 2016 poem that mentions Trump’s wall.
Pat Mora books always feels like a good poetry deal to me. This book covers all forms of water topics: the sea, rivers, rain, birth and general wetness. It’s about women and water, about danger, slyness, erotica, Frida Kahlo. The poems have some great titles, like “Coatlicue’s Rules: Advice from an Aztec Goddess” and “Malinche’s Tips.” This poem invokes the landscape of the southwest that I feel and smell everyday. Mora also gets political about borders in poems like “La Migra” ("Let’s play La Migra /I’ll be the Boarder Patrol.”)
The amazing poem “Let Us Hold Hands” is often posted online as a healing or political poem performed in a convocation.
I also picked up the book Buzzing Hemisphere by Urayoan Noel in Tuscon under the faculty authors section. This is an amazingly experimental book about translation. Poems are in Spanish and English but never strictly translated. Noel takes liberties with his own poems! The book is also about borders between hemispheres, politically speaking, and the hemispheres of the brain. Noel uses language experiments with word play, spacing, bolding, layout, numerics, letter casing, and experiments in word choice for his translations. For instance, in English the word might be “musicians” but in Spanish the word is “mercenario.” So translations become inter-textural! And some of these experiments are no small feat (pun intended). There’s a form he calls a Sunnet in there, a syllabic staircase sonnet that manages a mono-rhyme poem with the correct syllabics in both Spanish and English. There are also poems that use Google Translate, anagrams created with anagram apps (one called United States shaped into a concrete poem), poems translated from spoken word. English and Spanish are shuffled around.
For anyone interested in the art of translation, this is a great book for you.
Poets and Poetry
Recently, my parents moved from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania (where they retired) to Cleveland, Ohio, where my brother lives. I spent two weeks in late 2016 helping them comb through 30 years of stuff and stage it for removal to local charities or trash. My mom and I have never particularly shared the same interests in books. She likes historical fiction and I like experimental fiction (as a kid I liked scary fiction!). But anyway, in her stack of books to give away she had a book called Poe & Fanny, a novel by John May, an historical novel about a literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe, about a particular time in his life. So as historical fiction, the story is highly speculative but it portrays a very historically detailed account of Edgar Allan Poe’s time in New York City.
It takes place right at the time his most famous poem, “The Raven,” had been published. Poe was living with his wife and mother-in-law (who were also his cousin and Aunt) and explores an affair he was having with one of his admirers, up-and-coming poet Fanny Osgood. The novel doesn’t really prove an affair happened but offers an interesting possibility.
Chapters switch points of view between Poe, Fanny, his mother in law and his editor friend Willis.
The books reads like a historical fiction but there are interesting parts of academic considerations, like on page 25 where you learn in detail about the feud between Poe and Longfellow, which apparently was more of a paid editorial intended to drum up subscriptions for the offending paper. Author John May considers what Poe might have really thought of Longfellow as a writer, his meter, awkwardness and poetic ambition.
Pages 39 and 52 talk about “The Raven” specifically, it’s reception and explication. Fanny meditates on the poem’s sorrow, finds it emotionally compelling, and appreciates its vitality and gravitational pull. She insists the meter is a reflection of the heartbeat. Poe’s friend Willis later considers the poem's use of the name Lenore as a rhymed code word for Poe’s wife Sissy. Willis explores connotations and word derivations in the poem and about Poe’s wife’s impending death of tuberculosis.
Page 64 depicts Poe’s famous recitations of the poem and his affinity with women.
The end of the book includes real poems from Poe and Fanny both referenced in the novel and poems that might reveal evidence of an affair.
The violence and violent rhetoric in America has been very depressing this year. So it was comforting to read the book Revolutionary Memory, Recovering the Poetry of the American Left by Cary Nelson. I learned about this book from a MOOC I took last year on Modernism from the University of Illinois. Nelson hasn’t published an anthology of labor poems yet (and most of these poets are out of print) but this book serves as a veritable introduction to leftist poetry and how it was suppressed out of public consciousness in the 1950s.
Many of the new MOOCs on Modernism are starting to explore more marginalized poets as a refreshing alternative from the academic canon. This includes poets of color writing at the time, not just the Harlem Renaissance but writers who are Asian and American Indian. Nelson also explores the political writers who were all persecuted during the McCarthy Red Scare era which hit hard both Hollywood and academia. Turns out, McCarthyism is still hitting academia hard because these poets are never taught as part of the Modernist era, although they were published in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Langston Hughes is the exception that proves the rule. He is taught widely as part of the Modern Harlem Renaissance but his most most political poems are always excluded.
Nelson reintroduces many poems written about and during the early 20th century labor movement, poems about the Spanish Civil War, and poems about political speech, all which have been essentially erased from our social memory but also from the history of American poetry.
This is a fascinating look at a whole lost genre of poetry, which oddly wasn’t even recovered and repurposed during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.