My plan was to post about the books of poems I purchased over the course of 2014. It’s been a productive year, for me, for writing—even when it hasn’t been. The writing itself has improved, I believe, & those particular books have contributed greatly to that progress.
I’ve gotten one good true piece of advice on my poems in my life; it came in 1996, when Jim Galvin told me that all I needed was to be more fearless. It’s an easy calculation, given that my poems—at the time—were made of glass. Now, I sense they are more like a screen on a window or a door: more oxygen, more visibility, but still latched & part of a wooden frame.
And still, they could always be more fearless. It’s my vision quest.
My plan was to list the 2014 poetry books I’d purchased or read this year—or even bought/read books-from-any-year, because if I’d sought something out during the last twelve months, I must’ve needed it, so it’s more attached to this year than any other. As a reader/consumer, I am not always on it. I rely on friends, Twitter, other people’s lists, lit journals, teachers, & sometimes dumb luck to figure out who I should be reading & what just came out haven’t you gotten it yet? This year’s My List is last year’s Your List, & so on. I’m so 1996, is what I mean.
We are fortified by lists. They sit like bags of almonds on our kitchen counter, sustaining us when we ingest them, but also when we simply see them there, waiting for us, healthful, affirming, for when we become hungry again. A list is a plan, & even the planless are emboldened by secretly keeping a plan or two in their back pocket like an unused credit card.
As a side note: I’m likely at the point where I need to procure another bookshelf. I hunt for certain bookshelves the way some people might browse used bookstores. I don’t always know what I’m looking for until I find it, & I love the hunt. On more than one occasion, even, I’ve had the dream of opening some sort of store/bar/reading-performance space/what-have-you where I would only sell different, wonderful bookshelves. It’s not completely absurd, really. I mean, there are stores in strip malls nearby with names like “Batteries, etc.” and stores that only sell lamps. They seem to succeed(?). But, of course, no one who dreams of having a business like that has any business actually doing it. If you love bookshelves, then buy them, fill them; you have to love selling things to love selling bookshelves.
I should probably put the list here. Once you promise a list, even people who don’t believe in lists get impatient, flush with an acute desire to scan/verify/dismantle/dismiss/add/subtract. Visualize & name the divide between you & them. Just get on with it already! I need to check my answers!
Again, these are not necessarily (& actually, not often) sources released in 2014, but simply ones I turned to this year. I’m not hyperlinking to any stores; I’m going to LYGTFY instead. And they’re not all books of poems, or even books at all. But they consumed me, as I consumed them:
Stay, Illusion: Poems, Lucie Brock-Broido. LBB has been a water well for me since 1995, when my friend, the poet Jane Yeh, told me about her first & second books: A Hunger, & the stunning evergreen that is The Master Letters. I adore her writing. Adore. I also admire that her books arrive like courses of a meal, but served over decades. Her first book was published in 1988, her second in 1995. The third didn’t arrive until 2005, & Stay, Illusion came out in late 2013. I feel a kinship to this kind of long-distance. I’m a terribly slow writer. Someday, perhaps—like LBB—I will instead be a terrifically slow writer. (Bonus for waiting these eight years: Stay, Illusion is an *immense* collection. So many poems.)
The Ninjas, Jane Yeh. The aforementioned Jane Yeh. No one has a poetic wit or grace or stealth like Jane. She is in my assassin’s club, always. Every poem I write, my secret wish is to have her approval. Plus, a poem starring a Roomba is like coming home to your favorite person cooking you your favorite meal. I want to do this book’s dishes, is what I’m saying.
Sorrow Arrow, Emily Kendal Frey. Bone Map, Sara Eliza Johnson. I am not putting these two women’s books together because they are like one another, necessarily, but I did read through them at about the same time. They are also both actually 2014 books, by two poets from a younger writing-generation than me, & whose work I find delightful, weird, risky in certain ways, familiar in others, & examples to me of how people are putting books together these days. I feel a kinship here, as well. A feeling in the gut. Some common genetics. Both Frey & Johnson give me comfort that a voice can be strong & sculpted & bold & haunted & hunted, all at once.
Black Aperture, Matt Rasmussen. I keep coming back to Rasmussen’s collection, which won the 2013 Whitman award, & was also an NBA finalist. The book of poems I’m currently writing deals with a particular close suicide, & I’ve been keeping company with others (like Beth Bachmann’s Temper, & Allison Benis White’s Small Porcelain Head) that poke at the hives of particular deaths—in Rasmussen’s case, the suicide of his brother; in White’s, the suicide of a friend; & in Bachmann’s, the murder of her sister. I love it when a book is a collection of poems, but also a kind of map to a place the cartographer has not yet even visited, necessarily. When it feels like a premonition coming through, even when it’s talking about the past. A spell.
Render/An Apocalypse, Rebecca Gayle Howell. Again, this book was not released in 2014, & part of what I love about it is that it feels like it’s always existed, on a farmhouse shelf somewhere. This is the book you find when you’re visiting someone, & you’re sitting in their parlor, & they go off into the kitchen to fetch you a bourbon, & they’re taking a little while for some reason, & so you poke around their bookshelves & pull this one off, & it makes that silky sound as you slide it loose from the books on either side like a secret, & as you start reading it you know you’re going to shoplift it right into your bag before the owner comes back & hands you that bourbon, & you take the bourbon & the fire of that first sip is its own smirk, & puts a permanent slow burn in your lungs, a field of crickets, unseeable in the dark, in the way you love.
The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka. This book is a conversation of which anyone who reads it is lucky to be within earshot. It should both be made into a film, & never be ruined by someone making it into a film.
The Light the Dead See, & also You, both by Frank Stanford. There are few finer turns of phrase to describe the version of melancholy that ripples through the poems I’m drawn to (others as well as my own) than Keats’ “half in love with easeful death.” I’m re-reading Stanford these days. I first encountered his work when studying with C.D. Wright at Iowa in the mid-90s. She lent me books of his, & their story was too entrancing to ignore. He reminds me a bit of Larry Levis, who also died too young, & whose poems also sat perched on a grave, even before he died. Stanford knows something. I don’t want to romanticize suicide here, but there’s a seductive exploration in his poems, an edge—sometimes the bank of a creek, sometimes a roadside, sometimes the far side of a bed you’re in with a lover. But it’s still an edge. Because they are so entwined, & because they both write about the South, I’ve also been re-reading C.D. alongside Stanford. She knows things, too. (Deepstep Come Shining & One With Others, if you’re curious.)
There were many other stunning collections & poets embroidered into my year, but this post is getting superlong & I have yet to mention a few other things I really need to get to. (Grand & Arsenal, Kerri Webster; Incarnadine, Mary Szybist—Mary, the beloved; King Me, Roger Reeves; Letters to a Stranger, Thomas James; If I Should Say I Have Hope, Lynn Melnick, just to name a few. Also, fiction & non-: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (LOVED. All the pages. All the descriptions. All the imperfections.); The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson; a second read of Rachel Kushner’s stunning The Flamethrowers; finally got to Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey; & swooned for Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost. I also invested in a first edition/first printing of Didion’s The White Album.)
Here is where the list abruptly turns down an unmarked country road. More & more, I am interested in collaboration & mixing media. I have this new, intense longing to create something in partnership with someone else—another writer, or a photographer, or a musician. I feel as though my poems in & of themselves are well in the collage family, a narrative of overlapping circles, a braid instead of a line. I feel so dazzled by the popular portions of life, like television, music, photography—& as such, the list continues briefly down this winding, tree-lined path:
Are We There, Sharon Van Etten. I once described this album to a friend as—hopefully as compliment—if Mazzy Star were a bar band. I don’t listen to music whilst writing, but in a way I do, asynchronously, so my feeling is that I’ve been writing to this album a lot this year. I mean, this, c’mon:
(Fun fact: she is on the record label started by an old friend of mine from college.)
Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch. TILDA. I’ve written on here about this one before.
The Leftovers, HBO. I don’t really have words for this show quite yet. It took my lungs away, & transplanted some ghost-lungs in their place. You don’t even know. *I* don’t even know, but I’ve got a hint, & sometimes that’s better than knowing. It hurts the way looking at your own old photos hurts, but you keep pulling them out like loose teeth.
Transparent, Amazon Prime TV. Jill Soloway is a demi-goddess, which is better than being a goddess, because: part-human, part-wow. Everyone in this is perfect—I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the way a constellation of casting can create such a wonder. If I could mind-control you all, I would program you to watch this program.
Not The Affair, but the Fiona Apple song that opens The Affair, Showtime.
As best tweeted by TV critic Emily Nussbaum:
I’ll close there, because this year has been a wonder for me, & because I’m going to go fix myself a bourbon now. I didn’t set out to make this comprehensive or even useful, but I felt a kind of compulsion to get something down—which is generally my grander philosophy as it is, so: aces. As I type this, I’m half in love with the neighborhood church bells that are ringing again—sometimes too faint for me to detect what song they’re chiming, but they echo down to my house always enough to know they’re there—& the train rumbles down the tracks that divide my neighborhood (Belmont) from the Downtown Mall & I am just as half in love with that low ache of its wheels on the rails. If characters form a constellation on a beloved show, then lists mark the stars that give a certain shape to our year, but allow us to reimagine its angles whenever we bother to look up. Or maybe it’s that they help us remember that there is an up at which to send our gaze.
Cheers & xo.