The best things I read in November, in no particular order.
Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis. Good grief, everyone should read these poems. Really so pleased and delighted that Lewis received the National Book Award for this. Very well-deserved. (With thanks to Wei for giving us a copy.)
Hold Still, Sally Mann. Difficult and beautiful and strange all at once. I felt a particular bond with Mann, owing to the fact that she lives about an hour from here, in the green, rolling paradise that is the Virginia countryside.
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Why did I wait so long to read these letters? Silly of me. Should be required reading/inspiration for writers.
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. Greene always surprises me. I tend to expect something stuffy from him, which is unfair, and then he eludes me.
As We Are Now, May Sarton. An unflinching and yet moving portrait of a dying woman, locked away and seemingly forgotten in a nursing home, who is striving to stay human and sane.
The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal. What a crazy, unexpectedly fun romp through the Napoleonic era! We follow the air-headed romantic Fabrizio, who is constantly saved from death/torture/exile by women.
Grace asked me for recommendations of poems to memorize and recite for class. I started throwing out suggestions—Elizabeth Bishop! Maxine Kumin! Auden! Everything by Robert Hass and Marie Howe, OMG, Marie Howe!—and I realized: Wow, I do really love poetry. I never thought I did. I always thought poetry eluded my intellect; poems never presented themselves to me in that bold, friendly way like novels did. Poems hid behind veils and shadows; poems could be capricious, malicious. I have never believed that I ever “got” poetry, and I have certainly never believed that I could ever write it (that much has not changed).
Being married to a poet makes you realize how very difficult writing is, and how very miraculous it is when everything comes out well. Poetry is a different animal to me, often alien and shy, but I respect it. I imagine I will always be reading poems, remaining continually and happily mystified by them. I will always love them in the way that you love a humpback whale, because it is so far from being you.
“I have been standing all my life in the/direct path of a battery of signals”
I memorized and recited various poems in my career as an English major, but the one I most remember is “Planetarium,” by Adrienne Rich. It was a difficult, dizzying experience. I mispronounced “Tycho” and only guessed at “Uranusborg.” And those middling couplets were so hard to remember, but that last, fast stanza—it was a delight to proclaim; it made my little sophomore body feel strong, unconquerable, distinct.
We like to talk about the things that “our children” will do, things that we sort of did as children but that we want to elevate to a virtue, to distinguish our offspring from the mundane, materialistic masses. Our children will never watch TV. Our children will play outside every day. Our children will not be pacified with iPhones and iPads. Our children will play with sticks and string. Our children will study Asian languages from birth. All of these things will surely fall by the wayside when and if we actually have babies, but one thing is for sure: Our children WILL memorize poems.
“Learn the psalms and ponder the ways of the early church. Know what must be known. Ancient fathers taught their ancient children, who taught their ancient children, these very things. Puritan Milton with his pagan muses. It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it, too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations. Then, why singing? Why pleasure in it? And why the blessing of the moment when another voice is heard, dreaming to itself?”
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great books. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
I also don’t have any links for you today, so here’s this instead. This book of poems is way better than any links I could dredge up anyway…
This is the first time in my reading history that one of my favorite books from the past year was a book of poetry. Blame it on my brilliant husband, who introduced me to the incandescent and life-altering poet Marie Howe.
I hesitate to even write a review of this collection of poems, because my words will undoubtedly fail me. I don’t have the right things to say about how deeply these poems affected me, but I will try.
Howe published What the Living Do in 1998. In many ways, it figures as an elegy for her beloved brother John, who died of AIDS complications in 1989. In several poems, John is her comforter and hero, amid a ghastly childhood in a large Catholic family. In subtle, terrifying lines, Howe reveals that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Between her powerless mother, who does nothing to stop her husband’s attacks against their daughter, and her abusive and frankly evil father, Howe only has John to turn to. “The Attic” is the utterly gut-wrenching poem of sorrow and devotion that recounts her brother’s offer of simultaneously brave and inactive protection.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so heartbreaking.
But Howe never paints herself as a victim. She does not take pity on herself and she does not ask you to, either. These are strong, honest poems about the difficulties of everyday life and the horrors of our own memories. These poems are freely and breathlessly genuine in their accounts of daily living. The title poem is one that I’ve included here before, and it’s worth the weight of its lines in gold. These lines from “Watching Television” were so humbling to me, to think about the silly and yet heavy things we do to each other in relationships:
I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days
we haven’t spoken.
We argued about one thing, but really it was another.
I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street
and the walk that leads to the front door of this building,
white, unbroken by footprints.
Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.
Howe writes without flowery words or obscure allusions. She is not trying to hide anything from you, to keep you guessing, as so many other poets do. She writes about miscommunication and dogs, about dropping a bag of groceries, about finding your face in the mirror. It’s our daily bread. It is life, gently and thoroughly rendered. And you will see it differently after having read this book.