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Relevant and Relatable: ‘American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time’ by Tracy K. Smith

American JournalAmerican Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (120 pages; Graywolf) delivers on its promise of introducing readers to some of our most important contemporary American poets, both well-known and emerging. Moreover, the writers featured in it are a reflection of the diversity of the United States, which is what one would hope for in a collection curated by the current U. S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In addition to featuring a racially diverse group of writers, there are poems by old and young, female and male, and straight and gay poets (although queerness is not a theme that is really explored in it, except in Terrance Hayes’ “At Pegasus”). Clearly, there is a wealth of perspective in this book, making one wonder whether a collection that attempts to appeal to such a broad audience might read as too general or watered down. This isn’t the case.

The poems in American Journal both celebrate and critique the American “way of life.” There are poignant portrayals of small-town and rural America (not to be confused with white America) in poems like Oliver de la Paz’s “In Defense of Small Towns” and Vievee Francis’ “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding,” as well as nods to urban America, such as in Major Jackson’s “Mighty Pawns,” a witty poem about a tough and brilliant kid from Philadelphia who “could beat/any man or woman in ten moves playing white.” There are also honest appraisals of our frequent complacency in the face of injustices meted out by our government in Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and in Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” which is something of an anti-poem that recounts in a nonlinear fashion the Abraham Lincoln-sanctioned execution of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe. Near the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier alerts readers:

You may like to know, I do not consider this to be a ‘creative piece.’

I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.

Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an ‘interesting’ read.

Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.

That said, I will begin.

You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

Other poems touch on other relevant social concerns: Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls” and Donika Kelly’s “Fourth Grade Autobiography” speak to our increasing societal awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse—an awakening facilitated by the #Me Too movement. One of my favorite poems in the book, Eve L. Ewing’s “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on Then,” is an intimate and recognizable portrayal of contemporary school life, but I can’t read it (especially its final lines) without thinking about recent school shootings.  The poem characterizes several members of this school community, painting an especially vivid portrait of a student named Javonte Stevens:

Sing of Javonte’s new glasses,

their black frames and golden hinges that glint in the sun,

and his new haircut, with two notched arrows shorn above his temples.

Another of the strongest poems in the book, Danez Smith’s “From summer, somewhere,” is a must-read about the police killings of black boys that is written from the perspective(s) of the dead boys. It’s a compact poem packed with power. Here is a couplet from the poem: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy.”

Elsewhere, universal themes such as familial strife, forgiveness, and death are addressed in poems, such as the highly memorable “Reverse Suicide” by Matt Rasmussen and “becoming a horse” by Ross Gay. In Gay’s poem, which manages to be both down to earth and spiritual—humbling, really—the speaker reflects:

But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know

the sorrow of horses . . .

Feel the small song in my chest

swell and my coat glisten and twitch.

Diverse as they are, the poems in American Journal flow into one another, mirroring the melding of experiences that makes us who we are as a nation. This fusion is partly a result of the poems being grouped into thematic sections. Often, poems on opposite pages, such as Rasmussen’s “Reverse Suicide” and Charles Wright’s “Charlottesville Nocturne,” or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” and Gay’s “becoming a horse,” address strikingly similar subject matter. It might also have been interesting to juxtapose poems that speak to each other in a different way—that also enact the tensions that are particular to a culture defined as much by similarity as by difference. For example, it might have created a pronounced tension to run Lia Purpura’s “Proximities,” which addresses police shootings, but from a perspective of privilege, next to Smith’s “From summer, somewhere.” As it is, they’re placed far from each other. While this may show the difference in the closeness to danger for each poem’s subject(s), this is a point that may be lost on readers.

Overall, American Journal serves as a strong overview of the poetry of our current moment. And in a time in which the only thing most of us seem to agree on is that we disagree—at a time when our nation is in what esteemed journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war”—it is refreshing to read a books that unifies our diverse perspectives.

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Queering Language: ‘Feeld’ by Jos Charles

FeeldA few days ago, I woke up half-dreaming in the made-up language of Jos Charles’s feeld (64 pages; Milkweed Editions), which is to say I landed softly. feeld –– which is currently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in poetry –– challenges the reader to engage with a singular, complex voice (“Chaucerian English [translated] into the digital twenty-first century,” as Fady Joudah notes on the book’s jacket), but one that is also accessible and refined. Throughout the book, which contains sixty short poems, it is evident Charles is a poet who values breath and space. Both aurally and visually, the white space enhances the content, giving the reader time to grasp the meaning of each poem, as well as nearly every line and word. It is a meticulous work; there is nothing rushed or careless in it.

This is not to say one can fully comprehend every layer of feeld: appropriately, Charles leaves plenty of room for interpretation as her wordplay produces a great deal of double entendre. What happens between the words, how words are fused or disjoined, and the sounds they produce—in short phrases, such as “where it tends” in the poem titled “V” and “re member” in “XXXIX”—are as important as the words themselves. In addition, as Stephanie Burt notes in a blurb, Charles’s latest work displays a predilection toward puns. Much of this is accomplished through words—such as “sirfase,” “queery,” and “dicke,” as well as “copse,” “cropse,” and “corpse”—that contain echoes of other words.

Yet the puns in feeld are more tragic than comic. feeld is earnest in the best sense. Since, as the speaker explains in “VII,” there are so many layers to being transgender (and to feeld), when the poems employ directness –– such as in “LIV,” when the speaker laments, “u who unforl me/ how many/ holes would blede/ befor/ u believ/ imma grl” –– it is to devastating effect and causes the reader to pay close attention.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading feeld is when we happen across these instances of candor. This occurs again in the final line of the poem “XI,” in which the speaker states, “thomas sayes trama lit is so hotte rite nowe.” At that moment, it is as though Charles had been stretching a rubber band until it was capable of singing a little, but then allows it to snap, producing a powerful resonance.

It’s clear feeld is a book about identity and trauma, but is Charles’s work political? And if she intends to achieve any political aims through feeld, does the prettiness of her writing style soften the impact too much?

The truth, perhaps, is that Charles is an astute poet who has mastered the restraint apparent in well-crafted books of poetry that might otherwise be dubbed (and therefore dismissed) as overly personal or “political”—or, as the speaker puts it in the final line of the poem “XI,” “trendy.”

There are references to political concerns like “masckulin econoymes,” “votes,” and “balots” sprinkled throughout the text, but feeld seems more of an appeal to change at the individual rather than policy level.

While all writers are concerned with language, feeld queers language in such a way that it raises questions about whether what we perceive someone to be is as important as what we call them—and, therefore, how we define their existence. feeld asks us to consider whether existence is in fact defined by naming—that is, by language.

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Burn It All Down: ‘Days of Awe’ by A.M. Homes

Days of AweA.M. Homes first made her mark on the literary scene with 1990’s The Safety of Objects, a dark and dynamic collection that established her as one of our foremost chroniclers of suburban dysfunction. Even more astonishing was the fact that Homes wrote most of the stories while still in graduate school. A movie adaptation followed in 2001, but its tacked-on ending––featuring the book’s assortment of characters all grinning warmly for the camera at a backyard barbecue–-felt disingenuous. Homes’s stories are rarely the kind where troubles can be resolved with group therapy sessions or summer cookouts; her method is much closer to the couple who set their house ablaze at the start of her novel Music For Torching: sometimes in order to free yourself from the trappings of modern life, you have to burn it all down.

Despite recent accolades, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, Homes’s output has become less frequent as of late, and perhaps hasn’t achieved quite the same impact as her earlier work. Thus, the time seems right for her latest story collection, Days of Awe (304 pages; Viking), as it presents a chance for readers new and old to check in with this prominent voice in transgressive literature. The book gathers from a wide range of material, opening with “Brother on a Sunday,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, and includes “The National Cage Bird Show,” the only story original to this book. Coincidentally, those are two of the strongest pieces in the collection.

“Brother on a Sunday” is a case study in the elements Homes does so well, from the crisp minimalism of her prose to her off-kilter depiction of suburban ennui. The story concerns a successful plastic surgeon named Tom and his wife’s vacation to the Hamptons with their wealthy friends, the impending arrival of the protagonist’s uncouth older brother serving as an ominous storm gathering over the weekend. Homes mines this material for both dark comedy––Tom’s friends are constantly backing him into corners at parties, asking for his medical opinion of their unsightly rashes or moles––and an unexpectedly poignant commentary on aging. Tom’s musings on the recent death of a friend prove doubly effective due to Homes’ measured tone:

“The men seem oblivious to the inevitability of aging, oblivious to the fact that they are no longer thirty, to the fact that they are not superheroes with special powers. He thinks of the night, a year ago, when they were all at a local restaurant and one of them went to grab something from the car. He ran across the road as though he glowed in the dark. But he didn’t. The driver of an oncoming car didn’t see him. He flew up and over it. And when someone came into the restaurant to call the police, Tom went out, not because he was thinking of his friend but because he was curious, always curious. Once outside, realizing what had happened, he ran to his friend and tried to help, but there was nothing to be done. The next day, driving by the spot, he saw one of his friend’s shoes––they had each bought a pair of the same kind the summer before––suspended from a tree.”

“The National Cage Bird Show” hones in on the unexpected friendship that develops between a troubled 13-year-old girl in New York and a U.S. soldier deployed in the Middle East. The two of them converse exclusively through a chat room for parakeet lovers, the transcript of which comprises the entirety of the story. This form allows Homes to examine both the harrowing, Hurt Locker-esque experience of soldiers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (“I am the local EOD, explosive ordinance disposal specialist, basically the Maytag Man for bombs. I’m good with my fingers. I can thread a needle in the dark. Anything with a detonator, I’m your man”) as well as the particular sadness of being a teenage girl: “Is it weird to say I just wish things could be the way they were? I wish I didn’t know that a dad could fall out of love with his family. Part of me refuses to believe it––does that make me a romantic?”

The combination of the two proves oddly touching, and maintains a sense of innocence for the duration of the story, despite Homes’s longstanding penchant for the taboo. The backdrop of a bird lovers’ chat room provides the story with a humorous grounding, but also underscores how the Internet has increasingly become the main outlet of personal connection for those, likes Homes’ characters, who identify as outsiders.

“A Prize For Every Player,” another standout from Days of Awe, originally appeared in a book of photographs by acclaimed Bay Area artist Bill Owens. Homes may feel a kinship with Owens, as his work similarly traces the lives of everyday Americans, capturing the candid moments in their kitchens or yards. The surreal “Player” follows a nuclear family on their weekly shopping trip, only this family has turned such consumerist ventures into their own little game show, with the husband and wife scanning the aisles with dual shopping carts in search of the best deals.

The absurdity reaches almost Kafka-esque levels once the family stumbles upon an infant left abandoned in the store (“Can I get it?” the daughter asks. “Can I, can I? It can be for my birthday and Christmas and everything else, too”) and later when the husband is nominated as a presidential candidate by the crowd in the electronics department. Though the story is a decade old, his impassioned speech brings to mind the populist rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent in Western politics:

“The point is, I remember America. I remember when politicians had a vision, a dream for the people of this country, and didn’t run their campaign based on a tax rebate if elected––essentially attempting to buy the vote. Are we that gullible that we thought George Bush’s three-hundred-dollar rebate would cover it? Think of what that vote cost, think of your retirement account, your health insurance, your mortgage, and your cost of living versus your salary. How much did you lose, and how much did you make?”

Not all of the stories in Days of Awe tap such a rich vein of social commentary­. “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” trace the trials and tribulations of the same well-to-do Southern California family, territory well-trod by Bret Easton Ellis in the Eighties. (“What kind of doctor wants a pregnant woman to lose weight?” “A Beverly Hills doctor” is a representative exchange.) But the book still frequently finds Homes at her best. Her fiction ushers our American landscape into a literary funhouse, commenting with acerbic wit and deft characterization on the distorted reflection that appears. Days of Awe is a reminder that we are lucky to have her singular talent.

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Noir of the Damned: ‘Hollywood Dead’ by Richard Kadrey

Hollywood DeadHollywood Dead (354 pages; Harper Voyager) is the tenth novel in Richard Kadrey’s bestselling urban fantasy/noir series featuring the half-human, half-angel James Stark, AKA Sandman Slim. Stark has made a career of fighting supernatural threats; first as a monster slayer in the gladiatorial arenas of Hell, and later against rebel angels, demons, and magicians willing to sell their souls in exchange for power. For a time, he even occupied the position of Lucifer himself. Stark is blunt, crude, and can heal from any injury, but this time around he might just stay dead.

In Hollywood Dead, Stark has been resurrected by a necromancer who works for a secret society of magicians called Wormwood, a group hellbent on—you guessed it—world domination. But before their plan can work, they need Stark to dispatch a splinter cell of their organization. There’s only one catch: Stark’s dead body is, well, lifeless. His healing powers are stunted, but if he can fight decomposition long enough to stop Wormwood’s rogue element, the magicians promise to restore him to life––real life. As Stark explains, “When you’re Hollywood dead, you can die a hundred times and still come back for the sequel.”

With a new, but extremely short, lease on life, Stark travels throughout Los Angeles, tracking the Wormwood defectors. He navigates the city’s dangerous supernatural underworld with his trademark cynical wit and magic spells referred to as “Hellion hoodoo.”

Kadrey’s world building is just as impressive here as in previous installments. Readers will enjoy returning to Stark’s favorite haunts: the punk tiki bar Bamboo House of Dolls, as well as Max Overdrive Video, which stocks movies captured from other realities. And let’s not forget Donut Universe. “If I have to die again,” as Stark says, “let it be in Donut Universe. Bury me in old-fashioneds and éclairs. Burn me in the parking lot and let me drift up to Valhalla on a wave of holy sugar and grease fumes.” Stark still maintains a penchant for “sin tax” items from Hell—cigarettes called Maledictions, and the underworld’s finest vintage, Aqua Reqia. These touches of detail gently enhance the novel’s mood, which balances seriousness with Kadrey’s brand of absurdity.

Hollywood Dead also presents a more reflective James Stark. His friends have moved on, and his former lover, Candy, is happy with a steady girlfriend, while Stark is painfully aware his presence could be a greater source of harm than celebration for those he once knew. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and as he fights rigor mortis, Stark is forced to rely on others—and duct tape—to stay alive long enough to save Los Angeles. He lives in a morally gray area, yet senses a cosmic responsibility. Is he human or an angel, hero or villain? Or can he be all of them at the same time?

Kadrey engages these questions with his trademark funny dialogue and ultra violence. Hollywood Dead reads like a grindhouse film on the page, and delivers exactly what the movie-poster themed book cover promises. (As Stark himself states, “In my bloody suit, I look like the maître d’ at a Texas Chainsaw cookout.”) Kadrey’s prose is fast, fun, and makes the novel’s pulpy concept shine.

New readers are missing out on nine great books if they start here, but relevant backstory is woven into the narrative without information dumps. Hollywood Dead is an entertaining read, and fans of the series will not be disappointed.

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No Escaping the Entanglements: ‘Certain American States’ by Catherine Lacey

Certain American StatesA self-described “not-widow” brings a newlywed couple to the grave of her ex-husband; a cartoonist with a massive trust fund tries to teach law students to watercolor as his marriage falls apart; a recent divorcee obsesses over whether his ex-wife’s latest fiction is about him. The characters in acclaimed novelist Catherine Lacey’s debut story collection, Certain American States (208 pages; FSG), grapple with grief and their own loneliness.

The collection is a deep dive into the human psyche, focusing on a memorable and flawed cast of narrators and their connections to others.  There’s an emotional richness to these stories as they deal with the recent end of long and meaningful relationships, whether due to death or divorce or simply the inevitable “airplanes of soon.”

After her husband’s abrupt passing, the narrator in “Please Take” leaves piles of his clothing on the steps to her apartment for passersby to carry away. A few days later, she makes her habitual trip to the park, a small routine that has taken on the importance of a “single nail somehow holding up the whole home,” and comes across a stranger wearing her husband’s blue shirt. During her ensuing conversation with the man, who is troubled by the fact that no one he’s ever known has died, the narrator tries to process her husband’s untimely death. Lacey weaves memory with introspection, and gives us a character trying to move forward from a traumatic event while wondering if she “worried it into being.”

The relationships dissected here are not all romantic in nature –– also present are long-reaching friendships, family ties, and brief interactions with strangers. What these connections have in common is their level of complexity.

The characters in Certain American States all have a strong sense of self and they often consciously perpetuate their own isolation. For Bridget in “Family Physics,” this includes holding her family at arm’s length and hoping for solitude: “…though I thought of cutting them out entirely, I had already learned the hard way, years ago, that such an extreme approach was more trouble than it was worth, like shaving your head––like any short hair cut—some kinds of obliteration required constant upkeep––so I let my relationship with them get overgrown and ragged.”

Lacey explores the dynamic nature of relationships over time, as characters face those who have played an important role in their lives. In “ur heck box,” the narrator grieves for her brother as she attempts to dissuade her mother from joining her in New York City; she’s struggling to reconcile her upbringing with her present self. All the while, she repeatedly encounters a deaf man named Maurice, who is desperately trying to tell her something but can only do so through messages misspelled to the point of incoherence.

Lacey’s prose is fluid, frequently employs long streaming sentences that extend for a paragraph or even a page. These sentences work as lush demonstrations of her characters’ mental states. One shorter example comes in “The Healing Center”:

“Everyone knows a heart is just responsible for filling a thing with blood, except it never fills love with blood because no one can do that because love comes when it wants and it leaves when it wants and it gets on an airplane and goes wherever it wants and no one can ever ask love not to do that, because that is part of the risk of love, the worthwhile risk of it, that it will leave if it feels like leaving and that is the cost of it and it is worth it, worth it, worth it.”

Certain American States is steeped in a devastating realism until its final story, “The Grand Claremont Hotel.” The initial premise is straightforward enough––while staying in a hotel on a business trip, the narrator finds out he has been fired from his job at the Company, and decides to inhabit Room 807 until he’s kicked out. When no employees eject him from the room, but rather offer him different rooms, the character moves progressively upward in the hotel, feeling as though he is “just passing through a series of spaces that had never been meant for [him].” The ensuing claustrophobia and disconnect from the world outside the hotel mirror the rest of the collection in tone, if not in plot.

Whether in the bustle of the cities or the empty quiet of Montana, Lacey shows there is no escaping the entanglements of one’s personal life or the complex relationship with the self. But there’s something more at work here. In the titular piece, Lacey writes that “the loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely.” While this may seem like a commentary on the vast expanse of flyover country, it reminds us that loneliness inhabits all of these stories’ settings. These stories seem to say that the state of being an American is itself one of loneliness, of isolation.

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The Grief of the Particular: ‘Be With’ by Forrest Gander

Be WithReading Forrest Gander’s work makes the reader feel as if she’s entering a world larger than her own, one with a broader vocabulary, richer imagery, and a deeper understanding of the relationships between the ordinary and the unknowable. Sometimes one is baffled, but more often feels stretched, welcomed into a cherished complexity.

On the cover of his newest book, Be With (92 pages; New Directions), the names of the title and author in severe san serif type are pinned between black lines and the absence of lines. It’s a perfect cover for a book that explores absence and presence, loss and the lingering echoes and shadows of an entwined life. Loss may be of a loved one, of opportunity squandered, of regret for a murderous political history, of an aging and failing parent. It has as many forms as language can express, and in some poems here, one language doesn’t seem enough, and the poems slip into Spanish. Of course, the book revolves around the loss of Gander’s wife, the poet C.D. Wright, but it does so in ways that delineate the nuances of grief, both particular and universal.

The first and longest section of the book focuses on this theme, followed by a short section of poems and prose poems about the loss of the poet’s mother to dementia. The final section, “Littoral Zone,” is harder to define. There are no pat answers here, but many probing, sensitive explorations. The poet is feeling his way through difficult territory.

Despite the book’s origin in a dark period, the poems are luminous and moving, largely because of lines like these, from “Beckoned”:

At which point my grief sounds ricocheted outside of language.

Something like a drifting swarm of bees…

At which point, coming to, I knew I’d pay the whole flag-pull fare.

At which point the driver turned and said it doesn’t need to be

your fault to break you.

The mixed diction here, between the first two lines with their dramatic, pitch-perfect exposition of inchoate grief and the image of the taxi flag coming down, the cabby’s plainspoken acknowledgement, do something mysterious and uplifting, which leads to:

At which point there was at least some possibility

some possibility, in which I didn’t believe, some possibility of being with her once more.

This journey from unspeakable pain to the shadow of a possibility of solace follows the strange logic of grief over time, and it does so with beauty, strangeness, and absolute control of the language that describes emotion that is out of control.

To read Gander’s work is to expand your knowledge of the natural world (helminth parasites, a vulture-bone flute, cockchafer, crocodile scute, lechuguilla). And because of his background in geology, the formations of the natural world appear and are named—trachyte hoodoos, Panther Laccolith, for example. These send us to search out their meaning, pushing the bounds of what we know and see and adding, as in the poem “Evaporación: A Border History,” a solidity to the surreal carnage: “Mexican corpses marooned/under desert sun…Both vaqueros/staked out naked, screaming on an ant hill.” The poem mixes Spanish and English, ending with the keening of the Spanish gerund, aullando, “howling.” It seems fitting, a gesture of solidarity with the “Depositions/of carnage.” Loss is both personal and political, our legacy of a troubled border.

In contrast, the book also has stretches of bald, no-fooling-around insights:

Addled by busyness, I crumpled my life and let it drop

* * *

…You can’t

set aside the jigger

of the present from

the steady pour of hours

* * *

“If you want

to throw in

some dirt,” the priest

addressed the widower

and his child generally

but did not

complete

the sentence.

* * *

Carrying

the rat of

affliction between

my teeth for

all to see. Just.

Try. To. Take. It.

From. Me.

The last two stanzas are from the long poem in the book, a varied series of short stanzas, two to a page for almost thirty pages, called “Tell Them No,” with an epigram from Clarice Lispector, “The essence of the thing is often in the flash.” Fittingly, these snippets are each like a moment illumined by flash. Some impressionistic, some straightforward, some more opaque, they act as a kind of litany, a mourner’s Kaddish of grief entwined with the daily work of going on living. Part of their power is the compression of language, the skillful selection and juxtaposition, the imagery. The combination creates a mesmerizing sense of moving forward through pain. It takes hold and won’t let go: “Intuition of the infinite.”

The poems that follow, in the “Ruth” section of the book, chronicle the implacable progression of aging. The mostly flat, almost reportorial passages are peppered with startling reflection: “And it won’t/get any better. Absolutely/nothing to look/forward to, she says/to whom/if not you?” Or the recognition of the blood tie, so familiar, so that looking at oneself “in the mirror I see/her face, her small/dark eyes.” The longer prose poem passages are filled with memory—the small, daily humiliations of dependency, love, and disgust— as the poet, awash in his own grief, reaches for acceptance, “akin to what a mother might feel for her child.” These moments are tender, but stripped of sentimentality, not flinching from the awkward, the unpleasant.

The final, short section of the book, “Littoral Zone,” consists of sets of three stanzas paired with black-and-white photographs by Michael Flomen, whose prints are made by placing photographic film in natural spaces over time. (You can get a better sense of them here: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/michael-flomen-michael-flomen-s-all-natural-photograms)

The first stanza is a reaction to the image, the second a series of questions about the image, and the third a remembered intimacy, now unmoored. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book lack the drama of the originals and make it hard to immediately connect the poems to the images. Once you make that connection, the form seems obvious. Even without that connection, the reader can be buoyed by the lush imagery, relishing phrases like “My salamandrine/longing stutter-caught/on your nocturnal gorges” and “breathbeats blazed into an invisible integument.”

This is a book, like Core Samples from the World, that opens a deeper way of seeing and being in the world, inviting us to go back to it again and again. The poet is alive, although “days to come will crack open without you,/dropping their yolk over places you’ve walked.” Judging from this book, Forrest Gander is making what he can of those days and the reader is the grateful observer of this process.

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Sisterhood Becomes Powerful: ‘The Only Girl’ by Robin Green

The Only GirlJournalist turned award-winning Sopranos screenwriter Robin Green adds a new credit to her illustrious career with the memoir, The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone (304 pages; Little, Brown and Company). In the book, she recalls how she became “paid, published, and praised” as a writer for the iconic music magazine Rolling Stone. Starting from her time studying English at Brown, where she was the editor of Brown’s literary journal and the Brown Daily Herald (and was the only girl to do so), Green hoped to land a job in the publishing industry. At 22, she moved to Manhattan and began secretarial work. During her lunch breaks in the city, she’d stare longingly at the suit-clad women who passed with briefcases in hand. In Green’s eyes, they had “glamorous and fulfilling jobs,” but in her heart she sensed that wasn’t the path for her, which induced self-loathing and disgust: “If I didn’t want that, then what the hell did I want?” She ultimately moved out to west to Berkeley and got hired at Rolling Stone, where she would develop her writer’s voice: “Showing a little of the arch and ironic tone.”

Green clearly still holds admiration for the people she worked with at Rolling Stone. In 1974, the magazine had a powerhouse editorial team, including women like Marianne Partridge as managing editor, Christine Doudna as her assistant copy-chief, and Sarah Lazin and Harriet Fier as fact-checkers — the “sisterhood had become powerful,” Green observes. Jon Landau (who eventually because Bruce Springsteen’s manager) credited them for improving his writing “by a factor of approximately fifty percent,” and Chris Hodenfield praised how they turned him “from a chaotic hog-slopper into something resembling a writer.” Green also fondly recalls several experiences with Hunter S. Thompson and heralds him for his writing. “Nobody was saying it better,” she states. She conveys the excitement she felt during the second night of the Rolling Stone editorial conference in Big Sur, when she was in the backseat of Thompson’s rented mustang with Annie Leibovitz riding shotgun. Thompson was making hairpin turns, driving with the headlights off on Route 1—and all of them were heavily intoxicated:

“It occurred to me that I seemed not to care. I felt alive. Immortal. Lucky to be in the car, living on the literal edge. This, I realize, was the point of Hunter. He didn’t just write that stuff; he lived it. And if we went crashing down that cliff on the Pacific Ocean, so be it. What better way to die?”

Green’s career in TV began with a phone call from John Falsey, who she knew from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Falsey was reminded of her talent after reading Green’s restaurant reviews in the LA Times. In 1986, Falsey and his playwright partner, Joshua Brand, created a show called A Year in the Life in the style of what became known as “prestige TV.” The show was a “subtle and realistic drama” similar to Hill Street Blues and its predecessors, and they wanted Green to write a script for it in two weeks. Although her first attempt failed to meet their standards, she was given a second chance. Green decided to take her own advice, harkening back to when she was a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and advised her students: “Copy a master. You probably won’t come close but you might at least have something that works.” Green found inspiration in John Updike, citing him as “an astute observer of suburban subtext,” and succeeded in her shot at re-writing the script.

Like many writers, Green also greatly admires Joan Didion and, as it turns out, the admiration goes both ways. In fact, Green once wrote a profile on Dennis Hopper for Rolling Stone that Didion enjoyed so much, she asked a friend to phone Green and let her know. Coincidentally, Green’s professional relationship with her husband, Mitch Burgess, is not unlike that of Joan Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. As Didion discusses in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, she and her husband were known to edit each other’s work intensively, so much so that it was often difficult to tell who contributed what. In Green’s case, she confessed to Jeffrey Brand that she had been “giving Mitch’s ideas as her own.” Subsequently, Brand brought Mitch on as a story-editor and minted Mitch and Green as a creative duo through a shared writing credit. This turned out to be a lucrative career for the pair, leading to several Emmys, Golden Globes, and Peabody’s for their work in shows such as Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, and their own creation, Blue Bloods.

Yet for all of Green’s numerous accolades, The Only Girl’s vigor comes from her blunt acknowledgment of the diffidence she faced early in her career. To follow her path to being paid, published, and praised amid many tribulations proves both a solace and great reward.

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A Most Unlikely Heroine: ‘The Story of H’ by Marina Perezagua

The Story of HMarina Perezagua’s masterfully written novel The Story of H (281 pages; Ecco/HarperCollins: translated by Valerie Miles) follows the agonizing lifelong journey of an unlikely heroine, H, an intersex woman mutilated in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing is a paradoxical catalyst in H’s life, giving her the freedom to pursue the surgeries she needs to become anatomically a woman; but with this comes the loss of her family, home, and most important to her identity, her ability to conceive a child. H faces ostracization after the bombing and her transition, and leaves Japan to travel the world in search of love, family, and an understanding of the atrocities experienced by survivors like herself.

When she moves to New York City, H meets the love of her life, Jim, a former prisoner of war. Over the course of their partnership she becomes obsessed with helping Jim reunite with his long lost Yoro, a Japanese girl who was left in his care and whom he loves like a daughter. The search takes them across the world, spans decades, and eventually drives H to commit murder. As she relays her life to readers and the police, H experiences the phenomenon of psychological pregnancy, which she occasionally acknowledges as a manifestation of her impossible wish to become a mother and her all encompassing love for Yoro and Jim.

Perezagua’s novel, which was published in Spanish in 2015 as Yoro, tells not just H’s story but the stories of other victims of Hiroshima, as well as that of the slave laborers who built the Burmese Railroad and mined uranium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the victims of the sexual abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers in the Congo so many years later. It is not written for the faint of heart. Perezagua disbars no details in elucidating readers to the terror experienced by people across continents and throughout history. The lesser-known traumas Perezagua revisits, in acknowledgement of the continued suffering caused by World War II, are repulsive, terrifying, but necessary the novel does not relish in these atrocities but rather uses them to demand culpability. In her note to the reader Perezagua describes most eloquently the importance of her work:

“Just as pieces of broken pottery can be put back together by covering their cracks with a varnish of gold dust, so could I both in my day-by-day life and in what I write try to protect the historical and aesthetic value of scars. When I see a wound, I admire it because there, and not in our unbroken flesh, do I find the nature of being human: its vulnerability, but also the enormous energy that it requires to pick up our pieces from the ground, reunite them, and be born again.”

While The Story of H reads as a confession of a murder it could more adequately be described as a fictitious memoir, peppered as it is with historical accounts, supplemental research, and anecdotes. Perezagua’s writing oscillates from pithy and fierce on one page—to swirlingly poetic the next. It is difficult to come up for air when reading the novel because H’s account is so unrelenting, her telling impassioned and coded, full of hidden meaning and etymology that necessitate a second read.

One of the most impressive examples of her mastery of craft is the way Perezagua fills H’s retelling of her journey with amusing narrative, balancing out the horrors we encounter. Also, H often will divertingly expound on an idea she has just happened upon, or a theory she is busy assembling. Her tangents range from painful revelations to fragmented bursts of clarity about herself and others:

“If exorbitant hospital bills left me homeless, I don’t think I’d ever wash up, I’d waltz my stench around all the public places. That’s why I never cover my nose. Of course the smell bothers me, but it’s not offensive, and above all, it opens my sensory canals to a new perception: that smell, whomever it’s coming from, is always the same; it’s a democratic smell. When we’re clean, we all smell different. But when we’re piss-stained and sweaty, we all smell the same. I don’t like our common odor very much, but it nonetheless offers an unusual and mentally satisfying experience. There are things that do make me sick, like seeing some lady hold her nose ostentatiously over a stupid smell. So yes, no question, if I didn’t have a home and lived on the street, I would let layers and layers of stench accumulate too, just to make sure I couldn’t be confused with all those people clutching their noses while kissing any old ass necessary to make the money to buy the perfumes that camouflage their spite.”

Reading Perezagua’s novel (and Valerie Miles hypnotic translation of it) means a traumatic re-visitation of the darker moments of human history, mirrored by H’s own pitfalls. Yet The Story of H is simultaneously a joyful and perceptive recollection of a long and complicated life. Perezagua set out to write a novel that explored the difficulties and triumphs of humanity, and in doing so she wote something equal parts disturbing, visceral, and enchanting.

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Dormant Secrets of a Sleepy Town: ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ by Jon McGregor

The Reservoir TapesIn his newest book, The Reservoir Tapes (167 pages; Catapult), British novelist Jon McGregor (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times) returns to the complex world of his acclaimed 2017 novel, Reservoir 13, which was set in a seemingly sleepy English village. McGregor further explores through this story collection the intricate lives within that community as they begin the agonizing search for Becky Shaw, a local girl gone missing. Told from the same fifteen distinct perspectives of Reservoir 13, McGregor’s stories give readers a candid view of the relationships and transgressions of these private townspeople.

The Reservoir Tapes began as a side project to Reservoir 13, appearing first on BBC Radio 4 as fifteen separate episodes. The “perspectives,” as they’re called, addressed the months leading up to Becky’s disappearance (in Reservoir 13, McGregor focused on the passage of time following that), exploring the tensions and fissures long present in the community, and offering readers more information about the characters while leaving the mystery as unresolved as at the end of the original story.

But The Reservoir Tapes also serves as an enjoyable read or listen (they’re available as podcasts on iTunes, BBC, and Audible) for those unfamiliar with McGregor’s novel. The imaginative and nuanced vignettes McGregor creates are less about the particulars of Becky Shaw’s unnerving disappearance and more concerned with the divergences in morality amongst the villagers.

The book begins with a one-sided transcript of an interview with Becky’s mother about her daughter’s disappearance. The introductory chapter is haunting and strained, as an unknown voice attempts to ask questions, peppered with apologies and words of comfort, in response to Charlotte’s unseen and redacted answers. The conversation generates as many doubts about the ensuing events as it attempts to answer.

While not as stylistically unnerving, the following chapters prove equally absorbing, as they follow each character through his or her outwardly mundane life only to reveal the sordid details of their families, marriages, and friendships. McGregor writes from the perspective of insecure teenagers and the unhappily married, creating distinct narratives articulating a pattern of similarly repressed concerns throughout the village as we’re transported to the kitchens and gardens where they spend their misty mornings contemplating their troubles. The vignettes are succinct and impressively subtle, wavering between a mix of reflective and tangential thoughts, offering brief but revealing portraits of the narrators as they see themselves. Occasionally they will deviate from their own self-absorption and off-handedly gossip about the other villagers, fostering the sense that we’re amid a close-knit community. By taking the story of Becky Shaw’s disappearance from its original long form to a more truncated prologue, McGregor has enriched his story that much more, making the mystery at its center that much more compelling.

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A Long Postponed Homecoming: ‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable BodySet in the wreckage of a devastating war for independence, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest novel examines the impacts of race, class, and gender in post-colonial Zimbabwe. This Mournable Body (296 pages; Graywolf Press) returns us to the story of Tambudzai, the protagonist of Dangarembga’s previous two novels –– the critically acclaimed Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not. The novel opens with Tambudzai barely getting by, living off the remains of her savings from an advertising job and desperately looking for accommodations. Her goal is to move out of the ragged youth hostel she’s stuck in (despite being past the hostel’s age limit).

Even with a college degree and the hope of opportunity following Zimbabwe’s newly achieved independence in 1980, Tambudzai struggles to scrape together a living in Harare. Eventually she finds lodging in the boarding house of a widow and work as a high school biology teacher, though none of this is in line with her personal ambitions. After various incidents, Tambudzai takes an opportunity from a former foe that lands her in the blossoming “eco-tourism” industry. Though Tambudzai’s professional ventures serve as an attempt to run away from her village origins, the inadvertent result of these experiences is a long postponed homecoming.

Tambudzai’s story is one of Sisyphean perseverance in the face of obstacle after obstacle. One imagines Tambudzai would be (justifiably) full of resentment: she quit her professional advertising job after her white colleagues constantly took credit for her work, her circumstance as a poor middle-aged black woman do her no favors, and her every success is narrowly achieved and difficult to maintain.

The resultant portrait of Tambudzai and, by extension, Zimbabwe proves both devastating and haunting. Dangarembga’s prose is viscerally arresting, and her scenes are often disturbing. In the first few pages, Dangarembga goes into graphic detail when Tambudzai finds herself part of a crowd harassing a woman (who turns out to be a hostel-mate) as her clothes are ripped off and she becomes the target of rocks and other “missiles”:

“The sight of your beautiful hostel mate fills you with an emptiness that hurts. You do not shrink back as one mind in your head wishes. Instead you obey the other, push forward. You want to see the shape of pain, to trace out its arteries and veins, to rip out the pattern of its capillaries from the body.”

Dangarembga writes in the second person, and though the reader is aligned with Tambudzai in this manner, it doesn’t always engender sympathy, given her harsh pragmatism and bitter nature. The novel is psychologically tense, and Tambudzai frequently faces dark and difficult choices. She is at times a victim of the culture of violence and at others a complicit perpetrator.

To that extent, she questions her own values and that of nascent Zimbabwe, which in late July held its first elections since 1987 without Robert Mugabe already serving as president. Dangarembga examines what it means to be a Zimbabwean, both the positive and the negative. The culture is one that emphasizes strength and tenacity, but the tough exterior also excuses and allows abuse. When Tambudzai sees her cousin’s emotional reaction to finding out that the teacher is hitting her child, she considers it evidence that Nyasha is no longer a true Zimbabwean woman. “Weeping alongside a first grader–even nearly doing so–is a nauseating act of ghastly femininity,” Dangarembga writes. “You have no desire to expend energy on sympathy for a minor matter of corporal punishment. Women in Zimbabwe are undaunted by such things.”

She searingly comments on the still-felt impacts of colonialism and capitalism on a country recovering from immense turmoil, where, though the war is over, injustice remains and prospects are bleak. Amid the ensuing disillusionment and hopelessness is Tambudzai’s single-minded quest for monetary success –– the idea that to be “somebody” requires leaving one’s heritage in favor of a more Westernized identity, and with that “the constant tension from not knowing whether or not you were as you were meant to be, the brutal fighting to answer affirmatively that question, and its damage.”
Ultimately, This Mournable Body is a reflection on the past, and how it can define us. Reckoning with horrific acts she’d rather push away, Tambudzai is caught in a struggle between the deep urge to forget and the stifling inability to do so. The eventual return to her home village will force her to decide what the value of one’s heritage truly is.

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Making Anguish Luminous: ‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

CruxJean Guerrero’s first memory is of her father opening the window of a plane and running his hand through a cloud, while giving her courage to do the same. She vividly remembers how airy and empty the cloud felt.

In Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir (320 pages; One World), Guerrero reveals there are still many things she doesn’t know about her father. She doesn’t know when, exactly, he began showing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. She doesn’t know if his conviction that the CIA was stalking him was entirely delusional, rooted in truth, or indicative of shamanic powers. “What I do know is this,” Guerrero writes with equal parts wonder and grimness, “in my first memory, Papi is making me hallucinate.”

Much like Guerrero’s lingering recollection of touching a cloud, Crux has a surreal, hallucinatory edge to it. Marco Antonio becomes to Guerrero what many emotionally (and oftentimes physically) absent and traumatized immigrant parents become to their children: abstract, mythologized, fundamentally unknowable. Throughout Guerrero’s life, Marco Antonio crossed borders between Mexico and America, between derangement and lucidity, between the mystical and the physical. In her search to understand—and perhaps secretly be more like—her charismatic and capable, yet crack-addicted, father, Guerrero crosses those borders with him. She must, for this compulsion is part of the damage he has done to her. Guerrero explains: “The daughter sees her single mother slaving away, weighed down by love and duties…The absent father’s magnetism lies, in part, in the contrast he represents. He is not tied down by anything.”

As a pimply faced, frizzy haired kid, Guerrero cast spells. (Once she successfully, though temporarily, made a classmate take interest in her.) As a beautiful and much more emotionally unstable student at the University of Southern California, she was so transformed by one Ecstasy-fueled night of raving she wrote a twenty-page manifesto on the drug’s potential to create empathy and peace on a macro and micro level. During her time at college, she also began research on covert CIA and Air Force projects, such as MKUltra and Active Denial System, drawing similarities between their remotely transmitted millimeter waves that inflict unbearable pain on civilians and her father’s “delusions.”

But it is in Mexico, to where Guerrero moves for a job with the Wall Street Journal, that she becomes most entangled with her father’s story. There, she nearly drowns at a beach, an incident rife with metaphorical resonances –– Guerrero frequently compares her father to the tumultuous ocean. One day the dam inside of her breaks: “The more I wept, the more I felt alive again. I was exorcising myself of the sea.” The sea and, finally, after three decades, her father.

Occasionally, Guerrero veers from the engagingly hallucinatory to the hysteric. Two years after her near drowning, Guerrero describes herself as a “ghost unaware of having died,” and her hands as “white, rotting appendages”; every dream she has is starkly recalled; she enters “Hell” on several occasions. When minute details are so charged, described with such intensity and drama, it becomes difficult to locate the “crux” of Crux—indeed, the title is used differently each time it appears.

It is easy, however, to forgive Guerrero—digging into our resilient immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ pasts is a tricky, nasty business. It can be difficult, shameful even, to look directly at their humiliations and failures, yet Guerrero bares it all. She describes a time in her father’s youth when his mother left him alone at home, crying, to go to the theatre with some family. Claustrophobic and still sobbing, Marco Antonio broke a window and sat on a bench outside of his house. Despite having always been uncommonly sensitive and expressive, “Marco stopped crying after that. He started sleepwalking. He remains a sleepwalker as I write this.” Later in Crux, Guerrero reveals how this episode (relatively harmless compared to the physical abuses her father suffered) may have contributed to his illness, citing an expert: “Laing argues that ‘schizoid’ symptoms develop in individuals who seek to eliminate in themselves natural impulses, such as a desire to be touched.” Though such a connection between trauma and repression is tenuous, many children of immigrants have seen how inescapable the past can be.

If Marco Antonio shows Guerrero the power of the past, her mother, Jeannette, shows her the power of re-interpreting it. The past is not static, and the present less so. One moment shines in her childhood, amid her father’s deterioration and reclusiveness: once Guerrero’s mother took her and her sister Michelle to buy ladybugs. When the ladybugs escaped in the car, the sisters were at first frightened then dissolved into laugher inside the storm of ladybugs. “From Mami and Michelle, I was learning the alchemy of interpretation. We could make our anguish luminous.”

Guerrero knows she has a choice in how she interprets her father, concluding, “I prefer to believe in shamans than in lunatics. It is the great gift of my Hispanic heritage.” Just as the constellation Crux has guided countless sailors, at the end of her memoir, Jean Guerrero chooses the option that, however improbably, guides her safely to shore.

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Discovering Warmth Among the Desolation: Bernardo Atxaga’s ‘Nevada Days’

9781555978105In Bernardo Atxaga’s autobiographical novel Nevada Days (352 pages; Graywolf Press), the gaudy emptiness of the Biggest Little City stands as an insufficient guard against the encroaching desolation surrounding it. Upon arriving in Reno, the acclaimed Basque author is struck by the suffocating silence of the place. Often enough, Reno appears just as much a ghost town as the actual ones Atxaga visits. To use the Daniel Sada metaphor he frequently invokes, the city appears as a stage-set version of the desert and, by extension, reality.

Nevada Days (which was first published in 2013, but now sees an English translation by Margaret Jull Costa this month) is a fictionalized account of Atxaga’s nine months from 2007 into 2008 as a writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada’s Center for Basque Studies. Written as a series of dated, journal-like entries, the novel intersperses lived moments, such as haunting excursions into the Nevada desert (“I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying.”), with meditations on memories from Atxaga’s homeland, so that Basque country feels as near as the alien landscape and culture in which he finds himself.

Though the harsh isolation of the desert will prove to be tempered by the genuine welcome he finds in Reno, danger looms large during Atxaga’s time there. He palpably conveys the sense of fear around him as a serial rapist continues to attack women near his home on College Drive, where he lives with his two daughters, and a college student next door, Brianna Denison, is kidnapped and murdered.

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