Books and Music

I’m not sure why books and music are in the same category. It made sense at the time, I guess.

Australian singer and artist Marie Craven is one of my favorite makers of poetry videos, so I was flattered and pleased last month when she surprised me with a video based on one of the first poems in Ice Mountain:

Watch on Vimeo.

She used some of my own still photos for a slideshow-style video with the text in subtitles and an instrumental track by Josh Woodward. It all hangs together rather well, I think. Then today she released another video based on the book:

Watch on Vimeo.

This time, she collaborated with her composer friend Paul Dementio to turn my words into a song, and built the video around it using stock footage. Here’s the text:

7 March

paper birch trees can only bend
so far before they break
under the weight of freezing rain

rhododendron leaves
tough as old scrolls are stripped
by starving deer

but some always resprout from the roots
having who knows how many
lifetimes of practice

It’s always such an honor to have one’s words incorporated into other artists’ work. Thanks, Marie and Paul!

Visit Phoenicia Publishing for more about the book, and to order.

Belgian artist and musician Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon is one of the most original makers of videopoetry (AKA poetry film) in the world, and when he offered to make a book trailer for Ice Mountain, I was thrilled. However, I think you’ll agree that the video he produced is much more than a mere trailer — it’s an original creation in its own right. I supplied most of the footage, but the choice of what to use and how to mix it was all his. He asked me to record a montage of lines and stanzas from the book, which he let me pick, then chose additional lines to display as text-on-screen. The music, which he composed first (and asked me to comment on before finalizing) guided the composition of the video.

Ice Mountain: An Elegy is due out on January 25. If you missed my earlier post, here’s the back-story. And if you’d like a further sample of the contents, I’ve posted a section at DaveBonta.com. (I still feel faintly ridiculous typing that URL!)

Ice Mountain coverIce Mountain by Dave Bonta
132 pgs, 6″ x 9″, paperback, publication date January 25, 2016
Pre-order at $13.50 (reg. $14.95)

10% of all proceeds will benefit local and regional conservation efforts in central Pennsylvania.

Holiday Note: We don’t expect to be able to ship books until mid- to late January, but if you’d like to give this book as a gift, we’ll send you a file with a printable card of the book cover to give the recipient.

Some text from the book’s page at Phoenicia Publishing, where you can order if you have a mind to. Want to read a selection before you make up your mind? Here you go. And if a printed card doesn’t seem quite enough to constitute a Christmas present, you could combine it with one of the already-published books from Phoenicia Publishing as long as you’re quick about it.

But you all know how much I favor web publication. Why pursue publication of a print book at all in this digital age? Well, as you probably gathered from Wednesday’s crowd-sourced list of poetry books, many of us poetry lovers still fetishize dead-tree media. In my case, that’s not an affection that extends to magazines, which are essentially disposable and should all be electronic in my opinion. But a good book is something designed to be kept forever — and barring fire, flood, insects, and high-acid paper, books can survive almost indefinitely if properly cared for. Not only that, a printed book is highly portable and hard to beat technologically for random access to content and general ease of user interface.

And let’s face it, digital-only publication fuels a certain reductionist mindset. A book is much more than just its textual content. When Beth Adams asked me last spring if I might have a manuscript she could look at, it came at a very opportune time: I had just finished a complete re-write of a collection of poems originally published here as a poetic diary from January to May 2014. After a further month of editing, I sent it off and was thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it, because Beth is a true artist and a gifted designer of print publications, and I knew she’d be able to add real value to the collection — to make it something that even people who don’t normally buy new books of poetry might want to own. (And frankly, because of the local content, including the use of a local toponym for the title, Ice Mountain will likely sell some copies outside the usual poetry circles.)

So the book isn’t just mine anymore; it’s Beth’s, too. I am always willing to meet an audience part-way, and I didn’t think it really compromised the purity of my vision too much to break up the text with original linocut illustrations when Beth offered that as a possibility. “Sure! Why not use linocuts as dividers between months?” I said. And a couple of weeks later, she produced this lovely linocut of a wood frog to show me the sort of thing she had in mind.

Then one of the two people I asked to read the manuscript and consider writing some promotional copy for it, the environmental activist Laura Jackson, wondered why I couldn’t turn the afterword into a foreword, and Beth agreed that this would make the book more user-friendly, so again I thought, why the heck not? My own preference to read the poems in a book on their own first is certainly not everyone’s, and besides, it has never bothered me to have to skip a foreword, preface or introduction in order to do so.

facing down a porcupine
A free and frank exchange of views

The compromise went both ways. Beth has agreed to let me keep my standard Creative Commons license for all my text, though her illustrations and the book as a product will remain under standard copyright protection. This will allow anyone to translate or remix poems into music, film, dance, etc., which I see as a net gain for the poems even if the interpretations aren’t to my personal liking. It is, among other things, free distribution. But more than that, poetry,  like code, wants to be free — free as in speech, not as in beer.

Which brings up economic considerations. There will be a digital version of the book, but don’t assume that’s going to provide a super low-cost option for those too cheap to buy the print version. Beth has poured many, many hours into this project, and it’s not fair to expect her to just donate her time to the cause. I bring this up because I think it encapsulates the peculiar situation of poetry under capitalism: on the one hand, sales of poetry books continue to decline, and virtually no one is able to make a living from it. On the other hand, giant corporations like Levi’s, Volvo, and HSBC love to incorporate poetry into advertising, precisely because (as I wrote in an essay at Moving Poems Magazine) they crave the authenticity of something that is seen as so completely outside the marketplace. Meanwhile, among da yoot, I’m told that poetry has more caché than ever. Go figure.

If poetry in Anglo-American culture every becomes as popular as it is in, say, Arabic countries, the whole dynamic will change. But I think we’re safe from such a scenario for at least another generation. We’re also not seeing the wholesale replacement of print books by digital, something that’s been predicted many times but has yet to happen. What’s more likely, I fear, is that as attention spans continue to shrink and fracture, fewer and fewer people will read books in any form, and only poets who are able to make the transition to audio or video will have a chance at being heard. But even then, I’m sure there will be a small market for beautifully made books, just as the small number of vinyl records that are still produced these days are more lust-worthy than ever.

the porcupine treeAnd what about the trees? Paper really doesn’t need to be make from tree pulp at all, of course. But I want to say a few words about the tree that inspired Beth’s linocut for the cover of Ice Mountain, which she titled “Porcupine Tree.” It’s an ancient, ridge-top chestnut oak that stands just over the property line with one of our neighbors. A series of porcupines have denned in it over the years, and their regular snacking on its twigs during winter months gave it a semi-pollarded appearance. Beth knew of my fondness for porcupines — I kind of identify with them as largely solitary, prickly, toothy tree-huggers — and I assume that influenced her choice of cover art, together with the tree’s mournful appearance, so fitting for a book-length elegy to winter.

The porcupine tree now looks even more mournful. It was close to death when the neighbor did some logging around it three years ago, exposing it to the full force of the winds. In October, it had its rendezvous with death when a storm brought powerful gusts through the area in the wake of torrential rains. Our neighbor Paula was driving down the hollow at the time, and her truck’s windshield was smashed by a falling limb, while my brother Mark’s car was nearly blown off the highway. And up on the ridgetop, the entire crown of the porcupine tree snapped off.

hollow oak with all its limbs snapped offOr so I am guessing. I hadn’t been over there for a while, so I just discovered the damage the other day. Regardless of how or when it happened, though, this tree has gone the way of most of its species: succumbing to bole-snap rather than a full uprooting, which means that it will probably have several more decades of service to wildlife, as a den tree as well as a food source. (My beetle-collecting brother Steve once told me that rotting oaks are the best, most nutritious food for larvae and thus support more biodiversity than any other group of trees on the mountain, especially when you factor in all the mast crops they produce while still alive.)

But it may or may not continue to be a den for porcupines. Since I wrote the poems that became Ice Mountain in 2014, the number of porcupines on the mountain has continued to decline, and we’re assuming that’s related to the fact that one of their few natural predators, the large weasel relatives known as fishers, are becoming ever more common. Two of our hunter friends saw fishers from their tree stands earlier this month, in fact, and my mother saw fisher tracks and scat at the Far Field — 100 yards away from the porcupine tree.

This is probably good news for the trees, though at a low population level I don’t think porcupines cause any more damage than any other natural disturbance, including high winds. I’m not saying I won’t still write elegies about porcupines — indeed, a dead one appears in Ice Mountain — but my sorrow won’t rise to the level of my despair at the anthropogenic extinction crisis, or global warming. Or the political direction of this country, which I think would be better served by a porcupine as president than the soon-to-be huckster-in-chief. But that probably goes without saying.

Don’t you kind of hate those year-end “best of” lists that magazines love to compile? They always seem more about positioning the authors as Serious Culture Critics who are hip to what’s fashionable rather than showcasing potentially over-looked works that they sincerely enjoy. And sure, Luisa Igloria and I could’ve set ourselves up as judges to pick a Top 10 list from among our personal favorites, but I thought it would be more fun to throw it open to poetry lovers at large and ask (here and on Facebook) for mini reviews of your single favorite poetry book from the past year: a new book, an old book, a book in whatever language.

The responses have been wonderfully varied and interesting, and Lord help me I want to read (or in a few cases, re-read) every one of these books right now! I’m presenting them in the order they came in. I haven’t numbered them, lest that imply some sort of ranking, but there are 28 books in all.

*

Paradise Lost original coverParadise Lost by John Milton (Samuel Simmons, 1667). I nominate it (short answer) because of the rhythm and concision of the text, but also (long answer) because I read it in a book club with people much smarter than myself, including my daughter. (None of us “believers” — but that maybe made it better.) It reads aloud like Creation itself. We only had two meetings for the book, but they were the best of conversations.
Steven Arnerich

*

cover of "Of This World"The single book that’s been among the rotating 10 bedside books of mine — probably for two or three years now — has been Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems, from Copper Canyon (2008). Just can’t get enough of it. I came late to Stroud, and this is the first & only book of his I know. It’s hard to generalize about Stroud’s virtues, not just because this book collects decades of work, but also because he’s a master of many forms, themes, and tones. He can do a tight lyric in the mode of the classical Chinese masters, and he can stretch out in longer sequences. I love that he doesn’t either hide or particularly flaunt his erudition. He keeps his eye on the things of this world at all times (I guess you could call him a nature poet), but the things of his world definitely include his wide reading in literature. Anyway, his poems are consistently smart, sharply observant, and gorgeous. One of the few books I’ve bought based on a blurb — in this case a rave from the late Jim Harrison (“I don’t recall when a poet unknown to me has struck me so deeply.”)
David Graham

*

cover of Luminous SpacesOlav H. Hauge’s Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals (White Pine Press, 2016). Why? Because he can see into things in a way that few can. The poems are terrific and journal entries are special.

Tom Montag

*

cover of Teaching My Mother How to Give BirthTeaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark, 2011) by Warsan Shire. I think this is really only chapbook-length. This is just a superb little book by a London–based Somali poet. These words of hers have already been often quoted:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Though her experience is particularly hers, her truth is all women, and this is what will make her work last. Beautiful, dangerous, and syntactically diverse, her poems enthrall me, something that I am finding rare these days. “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Susan Elbe

*

cover of The RiverI’d like to recommend The River by Irish poet Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2016). It’s a wonderful collection of accessible, musical poems that illuminate daily life. I was lucky enough to meet Jane at the Los Gatos-Listowel Writers Week, held in Los Gatos, California (where I live) in October of this year. Jane’s poems are full of rain, fishermen, farmers and flowers; they seem innocent at first, but pull you into a deeply affecting, emotional undertow. I love lines like “Piebald and skewbald” from “Broken” and “I have known storms that buffer and batter the heart. / I chose a hard bed, bare boards, a bulwark” from “Enclosed.”

This is a book of poems you could give to almost anyone, including people who insist that they don’t like poetry. I return to my copy again and again.
Erica Goss

*

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, 2015) is full of set-down-the-book-because-you-are-weeping poems. Reading it is to be intimate with the extent to which life — joy, loss, etc. — transforms us every minute. Reading this book is to be stung. There is pain. Specifically, the electrical, intense sort of pain. A physical sensation. It’ll give you goosebumps long after the initial zap, and you’ll be glad for the experience. There’s so much beauty in it.
Carolee Bennett

*

Rabbit Rabbit coverThe best poetry book I read this year would have to be Rabbit Rabbit by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, 2016). I was blown away by the poet’s superb control of language, how she used the surreal to illuminate the world. It is saved from perfection by virtue of hitting the same note every time — but what a note. Though I am a comically slow reader of poetry, I swallowed this whole.

She’s new to me, and I’m now a fan.
Ivy Alvarez

*

Seam coverSeam by Tarfia Faizullah (Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). It’s a beautifully wrought collection that weaves together history and personal narrative with tender attention to craft and form.
Christine Swint

*

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press, 2016).

Beautiful. Raw. Gutting. Luminous.
LouAnn Shepard Muhm

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cover of Saint Aldhelm's RiddlesI’m picking the most unusual (for us, in our day) book of poems I reviewed this year. Here’s the opening of my review, “Riddled with Light,” from a recent issue of First Things: “The riddle of Samson’s strength, the riddle of the eagle’s way with the sky and the ship’s way with the sea, the riddles in royal dreams of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, the riddle of things hidden since the world began, the riddle of a temple that can be destroyed and yet rebuilt in three days: riddling runs like a seam of gold through the rock of the Old and New Testaments. The mystery and praise of Creation and sub-creation that we find in the books of the Bible emerge again as bright knowledge in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (University of Toronto Press, 2015), poems of the seventh-century Aldhelm, noble and bishop and poet and saint. Translated by poet A. M. Juster from Aldhelm’s Aenigmata, these poems suggest that all things possess a mystery. Salamander and raven, candle and cauldron find their secret wonders revealed in riddle.”
Marly Youmans

*

Death Tractates coverOf the many excellent poetry books I read this year the standout was Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates (Wesleyan, 1992). The title makes it sound like some kind of plodding, ancient tome — and it is suffused with grief — but Hillman puts suffering off to the side to ask questions about existence. It’s gorgeous.

The poems convey death’s mystery, and treat the deceased as if she were still present, only separated a little, and unreachable. The dead woman is often referred to as a bride and she is nowhere and everywhere. The poems aren’t filled with tears or wailing, but with questions and careful wondering. Here’s the start of “Seated Bride”:

She had died without warning in early spring.
Which seemed right.
Now that which was far off could become intimate.

I said to the guides, let’s stand
very close to the mystery
and see how far she’s gone…

One of the best poems is “Much Hurrying,” which begins:

—So much hurrying right after a death:
as if a bride were waiting!

Crocuses sliced themselves out
with their penknives. Everything well made
seemed dead to them: Camelias. Their butcher-
paper pink. The well-made poems

seemed dead to you …

Sarah Sloat

*

To The House of the Sun coverThe best poetry book I read this year was To the House of the Sun (S4N Books, 2015), Tim Miller’s epic poem about the travels of an Irish-born Georgian seeking revenge against his own father during the Civil War. Miller contacted me back in the spring because he found me online and thought I might like his work. He was right: To the House of the Sun is a sprawling, strange, deeply moving poem inspired by the the world’s great religious texts and definitely in conversation with them. It’s a difficult, harrowing, inspiring, incantatory book, and I’ve never read anything like it.
Jeff Sypeck

*

De Willekeur coverThe book that got to me the most over the last few ye​ars was De Willekeur by Jan Lauwereyns (De Bezige Bij, 2012). It’s a bundle of death and happiness, adversity and cruelty, the paradoxical aspects of human life, which sometimes produce ironic discoveries. But more than the subject it’s the poetic adventure in which Jan Lauwereyns takes us in this particular book full of alternation: pieces of prose (on a seventeenth-century pornographer, for example), epic pieces of text, simple poems, a senile sonnet. The randomness is itself a poetic tsunami that drags you in. It’s poetry about the miserable, great humanity.

In my view Jan Lauereyns is the most exciting writer/poet that we have in Belgium. And he’s an inspiration to me. I created several videos for his poems and his latest novel led me to make an entire EP based on certain lines from the book.
—Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon

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A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon - New (Soma)ticsA Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics by CA Conrad (Wave Books, 2012). I liked the structure, somatic exercises (none of which I have tried at home) followed by the poems they generate. I liked the urgency of the voice moving between rage and laughter. I just like CA Conrad’s wildness, the feeling that he will say anything that needs saying.
Martha McCollough

*

The Country Gambler coverThe Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman, 2016). First collection from a UK-based American poet who writes a lot in strict form, both rhymed and unrhymed, and with such skill that it melds entirely with content: sublime, brief evocations of nature, relationships, mood and emotions. A scholar and translator of Horace, her favourite form is Sapphics (see first poem in sample at link).
Jean Morris

*

cover of Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse StoryEvery Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story by Donna Vorreyer (Sundress Publications, 2016). This tightly themed full-length collection chronicles a relationship that starts out rocky and seems to have more passion than promise. By itself, that topic might have kept this book in the “seen it before” category, but then a sharp twist pushes the stakes much higher and the collection morphs into something else, a meditation on the indelible but fallible nature of memory and how it bleeds into everything that comes after. Vorreyer’s lean, elegant verse takes occasional leaps into prose poems and hybrid forms, a welcome change of pace, but the book is anchored by her tight, pared-down poems that pay close attention to line length and visuals while wielding powerful language stripped of all but the essentials. This is a book to read in one gulp and then savor again in small pieces.
Amy Miller

*

cover of Jane Kenyon's Collected PoemsThe Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press, 2007) I’d known “Let Evening Come” and “Otherwise” for a long time but after reading “Let Evening Come” to a women’s group struggling with the election aftermath I decided to dive into the corpus of her work. Two features fascinate me — the similarities in our life paths. Born in 1947. Dealing with severe sadness on and off. The simple work of a gardener to clear the garden and compost. And then, the relationship between titles and subject matter in her poems. I’ve been covering up the titles before I read a poem to guess what she titled it. Every poem takes some sort of twist down to the final lines that surprises me.
Tricia Knoll

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cover of The Book of QuestionsThe best book of poetry I read this year was The Book of Questions, Volume I, by Edmond Jabès, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Wesleyan, 1991). In a 1989 LRB review of several books by or about Samuel Beckett, Patrick Parrinder wrote:

…[I.A.] Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

The Book of Questions in its entirety passes Richards’s “sincerity” test more definitively than any book of poetry I’ve read in the past decade or so.
—Kuahine Makalapua

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Four Reincarnations coverMax Ritvo, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I don’t read as widely in new poetry as I ought, probably, but this book seems head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read this year. Ritvo’s poetry is a bit like Ocean Vuong’s in that it’s incredibly emotional, vivid, difficult to read simply because of its horrible intensity. But his language is amazingly restrained, precise, almost ordinary. And yet he manages to convey very surreal and strange images through this plain language. It’s the work of a very accomplished writer with an unusually vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor. Someone I am happy to have inhabiting my mind for an hour at a time.

I do however have to ask myself the uncomfortable question of whether I’d be taking this book as seriously if he hadn’t just died at the age of 25. And the awkward answer is no. I didn’t even hear about Ritvo until the day he died, and everyone who mentions him talks about his early death, so there is no question that his terribly shortened life has amplified the reach of his poetry, as awful as that sounds. I think he knew this, and his writing addresses his terminal illness head on, without pity or melodrama. It doesn’t make it any less awkward for us, his readers, though.

I will be reading and rereading this book for some time, I think.
Dylan Tweney

*

Reasons (not) to Dance coverMy favorite poetry read this year was yet another re-read of the poetry chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance by José Angel Araguz (FutureCycle Press, 2015). Other layers of meaning seem to keep unfolding from each poem every time I read through them, each a three-way hybrid of parable, koan, and poem.
Laura L. Kaminski

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cover of bindweed & crow poisonbindweed & crow poison: small poems of stray girls, fierce women by Robin Turner (Porkbelly Press, 2016) reminded me how much I love chapbooks. I’ve been reading mostly full-length collections (some quite wonderful), but I single this one out because it’s the only chap I read this year and it reminded me how much I love these one-sitting collections, so easily reread. I had the pleasure of publishing two of these poems at Gnarled Oak (and nominating one — “bindweed” — for a Pushcart) in 2015, and it was nice to reread them in the context of this beautiful little book. The poems in this collection come mostly from the family of erasure, remix, collage and found poems. They are short and wonderfully open, letting the reader catch glimpses of the stray girls and fierce women of the title. They remind me how much can be said with just the right few words. I will probably reread it a time or two in the coming weeks.
James Brush

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Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude coverAmong the best poetry books I read throughout 2016 (and which I will continue to use in the poetry workshops that I teach, either in part or whole) is Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pitt Poetry Series, January 2015). I will return to this book again and again because it reminds me that we should not have to apologize for poetry: for making poetry, for wanting to write poetry, share poetry, read poetry, make poetry out of everyday experience, eat poetry, pluck poems like fruit from a fig tree growing in the middle of the city. And we should not be ashamed to say thank you, to be grateful as we sit in the mud of all of it: for “what do you think/ this singing and shuddering is,/ what this screaming and reaching and dancing/ and crying is, other than loving/ what every second goes away?” The book won several major poetry awards, including the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize.
Luisa A. Igloria

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The Halo coverI read C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016) earlier this year, and I thought it was stunning. It’s the narrative of a young man who has been in a horrible car accident, a young man discovering his sexuality, a young man who finds wings growing out of his body. All of these are true, and the metaphor keeps slipping so that we’re never such what is metaphorical of what. The physicality and music of this book are extraordinary.
Ed Madden

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cover of The Whole Field Still Moving Inside ItThe best book of poetry I read this past year (other than the ones I published!) was Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It (The Word Works, 2014). The poems, ostensibly about farming and farm life, are of course — as Heaney showed us so convincingly — about life itself, in all its beauty, bewilderment, and violence. I was impressed by Bashaw’s use of language, and deeply moved by her ability to describe but not over-explain, because so much of what she talks about defies explanation or even analysis. She leaves things as they are, but also leaves a great deal of room for the reader. Barshaw grew up on small farms in New England and upstate New York, but graduated from the Eastman School of Music and worked for 12 years in Germany as a professional bass-trombonist — so it’s probably no surprise that her poems resonated with me. She’s young and her work has won a bunch of prizes but that doesn’t matter to me; I certainly wish I had published this first book of hers myself and hope to meet the poet someday so I can tell her.
Beth Adams

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The Black Flower coverI keep re-reading The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated by Claire Sullivan (Phoneme Media, 2015), puzzling over a seamless blend of the wild and the domestic, the real and the surreal; wondering at the understated, even casual assimilation of astonishment; and greatly admiring the fractal-like completeness of the smallest fragments. In a year when indigenous people throughout the hemisphere have mobilized and joined forces like never before in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, poetry such as Toledo’s stands as a reminder of just how diverse and vital literary traditions are in the Americas. (Not to mention ancient: Zapotec culture and writing go back at least 2500 years.) Here’s a bit of an untitled poem:

Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth
a tender leaf sleeps upon my eyelids.
My shadow walks the four paths
content, my skin shivers with ants.
A garden is my house
and the firefly on my back makes me translucent.

—Dave Bonta

*

Bodymap coverReading poetry is one of my guilty pleasures. I tend to wander by the poetry section in the local bookstore (Literati) around each payday, and if I miss the bus and have to walk to the bus, well, life has FORCED me to walk past the poetry books, right? Recently (meaning months to years), I’ve been asking the bookstore over and over to stock more diverse poets. I was finding classics, and new books by academically acclaimed poets, and poetry books I’d already read, but was longing for the poems and voices of people of color, women, from other countries, people who are poor, or ill, or disabled, or immigrants, or… well, you get the idea. Diversity. I’d had a tough year, had lost several dear friends, friends who were diverse, so very diverse. I wanted poems that reverberated with experiences that stretched views and minds and hearts.

Then one day I stumbled upon Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Mawenzi House, 2015). I felt the electricity shiver through it even before I bought the book. I couldn’t buy it fast enough, and that was just based on the back cover blurb: “Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha sings a queer disabled femme-of-colour love song filled with hard femme poetics.” Oh, yeah, baby, that’s what I need. The book itself did not disappoint. I read it luxuriously, in strict order, as if it was a story and each poem depended on the poems before. I read about terrible, terrible fatigue, and people who get it and don’t judge you for it. I read about growing up poor and colored and with so many cultures around you it becomes confusing to others when you are just being you. I read about hard life, hard sex, “alternative” sex, and vibrators for pain relief. I read about going to the hospital with friends who are afraid. I read about rape, best friends, moving from one country to another. I read about people who look at you, and you know they are afraid of you because you are ‘different,’ whatever that means.

I carried the book with me everywhere for months. I showed poems to people on the bus, in choir rehearsal, at orchestra concerts. I shoved it in their faces, scrambling through the pages, and saying, “Here! Read this! And this one! Isn’t it AMAZING?” I am not quoting from the poems because they are too powerful and too real to section, and squeeze the juice from them. These are poems to read greedily, and carefully. Stuff your mouth and mind full of them, and let the juice run down your chin. Then read another one, peeling it carefully, removing every shred of bitter white, and marveling at the glorious architecture of how each word glistens inside.

I cried, and laughed, and gasped reading this book. I went back and read who commented on the book, who wrote the “Praise for…” sections, and I bought books by all of them. This was a book that opened to me a mature world of poetry like the one I fell in love with as a teenager, when I discovered “Mountain Moving Day” and “Beginning with O” and “Queen of Swords.” This is woman’s poetry that opens a window on lives rarely witnessed in our culture, powerful poetry, poetry for the excluded and marginalized, poetry for those who want or need to bear witness, to understand, to peep inside a life that is unfamiliar in print but oh so very familiar in the lives of my friends and neighbors. I love this book of poetry in a way I haven’t loved a poetry book in many years. I cannot praise it enough.
PF Anderson

*

If I Go Missing coverMy pick for the book of my year is Octavio Quintanilla’s debut collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014).

The poetry sings true and the matter matters.
Katherine Durham Oldmixon

*

Highway Sky by James Brush (Coyote Mercury Press, 2016). It reads like a road movie, and there are film references in it. Diverse poetic forms give a range of rhythmic experiences, like musical variation. The poems evoke nostalgia for a wilder freer time, a time of wrestling demons and coming to a new understanding of life. The tone is serious, at times confessional, and also at times humorous, at others uplifting: many shades as the narrative progresses. Themes of history in the American landscapes traversed are a strong thread in the collection. I love the pared back writing style, which is also somehow rich with detail.

My disclosure of interest in this collection is firstly that I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on the manuscript prior to its publication. I was later also involved in a musical piece and video incorporating one of the poems, ‘God Bless Johnny Cash’. This was possible because James has licensed the whole of ‘Highway Sky’ on a Creative Commons remix license, though he also gave his permission when I contacted him by email. He and I are friends over the net.
Marie Craven
[Click through to the book’s webpage to watch all the videos and listen to the music based on its poems. —Dave]

What was the best book of poetry you read this year, and what did you like about it? I’d like to do a crowd-sourced list here at Via Negativa, in lieu of the more typical kind of end-of-year lists where the editors choose everything themselves. It doesn’t have to be a book published this year, or a book you’ve never read before, just a book that you read in its entirety this year and found exceptional. You don’t have to be a poet yourself; anyone who loves poetry and regularly reads it for pleasure is welcome to take part. Please EMAIL ME (bontasaurus at yahoo dot com) with “Best poetry book” or something similar in the subject line.

The fine print: You can write anything from a few words to a short paragraph extolling the book. Only one book, please—no ties! It can be a book of any length (including chapbooks/pamphlets), with single or multiple authors, up to and including anthologies. Translations are fine, as are books in languages other than English. If you include the full title and author’s name I can probably find a link on the publisher’s website, or elsewhere if it’s out of print. But if you have a blog or website that you’d like me to link to, please include that URL in your email. Let’s make the deadline Thursday the 15th.

So I’m looking for the perfect epigram for an almost-complete book of poetry, because yay epigrams! I’ve been reading lots of favorite poets and coming up mostly dry — only a couple of quotes that might work, by which I mean it would be impossible to justify their use. Because with epigrams, it’s either a perfect fit or you don’t use it.

After a couple of days of searching, I remembered Emily Dickinson. I said to myself, I will open the complete poems at random and find the perfect quote. It was 11:30 at night, so I couldn’t go retrieve my copy of the R. W. Franklin edition from my parents’ house, but this morning I got Mom to give it back, and without any special ritual, prayer or preparation, I opened the book at random. Now, keep in mind that this is a hardcover book with a sewn binding, so it does pretty much open at random despite how many times it’s been read. And would you believe it? The very first poem my eyes lit upon was indeed the perfect epigram for my book. If and when I get it published, you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m sure those of you with a more skeptical cast of mind are probably suspicious right now, but I swear to Darwin this is true. One possible explanation that occurred to me afterwards is that maybe it’s not so unlikely statistically speaking: maybe there are a number of Dickinson’s poems might work as epigrams for this collection, given a certain overlap of subject-mater and her unique skill with pithy, gnomic lines. So I spent the next ten minutes flipping through Franklin and seeing if there were any other quotes that might work. Didn’t find a one.

It is the case, however, that I’m a credulous sort — and a poet besides — so you can take all this with a grain of salt if you like. For example, I’m too superstitious to say much more about the manuscript, or even supply the Dickinson poem I found for an epigram, at this stage. (Later on, don’t worry: you will hear PLENTY about it, I promise.) But for once, here is what I am NOT guilty of this time:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

This entry is part 15 of 34 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Where shall we go
where death does not exist?
But should I live weeping because of this?
May your heart find its way:
here no one will live forever.
Even the princes die,
people are reduced to ashes.
May your heart find its way:
here no one will live forever.
(translated by Miguel Léon-Portilla with Grace Lobanov)

¿Can nelpa tonyazque
canon aya micohua?
¿Ica nichoca?
Moyoliol xi melacuahuacan:
ayac nican nemiz.
Tel ca tepilhuan omicoaco,
netlatiloc.
Moyoliol xi melacuahuacan:
ayac nican nemiz.

Thanks to Colombian student filmmaker Felipe Meneses for this terrific, bilingual poetry film that allows us to hear the poem in the original Classical Nahautl while reading the Spanish translation. Fortunately I have an English translation to hand from the essential anthology Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, by Miguel Léon-Portilla, the former director of the Institute of Historical Research of the National University of Mexico and an expert on pre-Columbian philosophy and literature.

Mexican 100-peso note featuring Nezahualcoyotl

Nezahaulcoyotl of Texcoco (1402-1472) was the epitome of the philosopher-king, and the Mexican 100-peso note includes not only his supposed likeness, but also, in tiny type, a translation of four lines of poetry attributed to him:

Amo el canto del zenzontle
Pájaro de cuatrocientas voces,
Amo el color del jade
Y el enervante perfume de las flores,
Pero más amo a mi hermano, el hombre.

I love the song of the mockingbird,
Bird of four hundred voices,
I love the color of the jadestone
And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man.

Thus the Wikipedia. Spanish translations of Nezahaulcoyotl’s poetry are reprinted in a number of places on the web, but for versions in English, as well as a good biography, get the Léon-Portilla book. There are also some translations by John Curl at his website and in this useful, if somewhat crudely produced, bilingual video:

For further reading of Nahautl literature, I highly recommend A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs, edited by T.J. Knab and translated by Thelma D. Sullivan. Sullivan, an anthropologist, was “the finest translator of Nahuatl in this [20th] century,” according to Knab—an opinion shared by Dennis Tedlock, an anthropologist specializing in poetics who has authored the most authoritative English translation of the Popul Vuh to date.

I don’t post book reviews the way I used to, and I feel more than a little guilty about that. But here at any rate is an annotated list of my top reads of 2014. (Note that most of them weren’t actually published in 2014. I have no desire ever to become one of those people who tries to read all the fashionable books.) In no particular order:

  1. Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Randall Couch (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Mistral doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s pigeonholes and neither do the women of these astonishing persona poems, translated into English for the first time in their entirety.

    Under a tree, I was only
    washing the journeys from my feet
    with my shadow for a road
    and dust for a skirt.
    —”The Fugitive Woman”

  2. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books, 2012). My favorite (OK, only) art history read of the year. It’s a definitive look at the marginal art of medieval manuscripts (and analogous carvings on cloisters and cathedrals) that manages to be readable and thought-provoking as well. If you liked Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, you’ll love this. Camille leads the reader step by step into a very different way of thinking, one in many ways more alien to the modern European or American worldview than (say) the 5th century BCE writings of Zhuangzi.

    Rather than being freaks in our sense, these images are conceived as products of the terrifyingly promiscuous medieval imagination. For imagination was not only understood to be a cognitive faculty lodged in the front of the brain, nearest the eyes and thus closest linked to vision, but a force that could actually create forms. As the thirteenth-century Polish scholar Witelo argued, imagination, being an intermediary between mind and matter, allowed demons to couple with human beings, since what was perceived in the phantasia was, in some cases, real. It was for this reason that pregnant women were urged not to look at monkeys or even to think of monstrous things, lest their imaginations impregnate their offspring with hideous forms.

  3. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Hackett, 2009). And speaking of Zhuangzi… I’ve long been an advocate of A.C. Graham’s translation, but Will Buckingham recommended this newer translation and he’s right: the scholarship and philosophical acuity raise the bar for all future translations of classic Daoist texts. Zhuangzi is a touchstone text for me, so getting acquainted with a new translation as authoritative and ground-breaking as this is an ongoing process. I’m never actually done reading Zhuangzi, just pausing to let it sink in for a while.

    Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world—and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it—and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?

    “Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely] beings—is either of us in a position to classify or evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”

    Carpenter Shi awoke and told his dream to his apprentice. The apprentice said, “If it’s trying to be useless, what’s it doing with a shrine around it?”

  4. Ancilla: Poems by Erin Murphy (Lamar University Press, 2014). Erin Murphy is currently my favorite central Pennsylvania poet. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, except that the area boasts such gifted and accomplished poets as Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, Ron Mohring, Marjorie Maddox, Todd Davis, Robin Becker, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Steven Sherill and Gabriel Welsch. Ancilla is a collection of portraits, both in the first and third person, of historical figures both famous and obscure, with a decidedly subversive and feminist slant. I was delighted to discover after I bought a copy at a reading that it contains a number of erasure poems, all very well done — and impossible to reproduce accurately here, as they are printed with all the white space from the erased portions intact. But let me share one of them in prose form, at least. Here’s “Jane Austen’s Letters to Sister Cassandra, Abridged”:

    January 1796
    I was nice. I behaved. But love was cut-up silk gloves and old paper hats. Regret is a vessel, not a spinning-wheel. The wind proved to be my future, delivered it to me with a sigh. I flirt with tears. I write.

  5. Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus, selected and translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago Books, 2013). Whenever I visit a new place, I like to buy at least one book of poetry written there. This is what I bought on my trip to Belgium last summer. Our host Marc Neys mentioned that he liked Hugo Claus’ plays better than his poetry, but the plays must be terrific, because the poetry is pretty damn amazing. I can’t believe: a) that I never heard of Hugo Claus before, and b) that he never won a Nobel prize. Clearly one of the premier figures in post-war European literature. This is not a bilingual edition, and at 245 pages it’s closer to a “collected” than a “selected” poems (not that the publisher uses either term).

    Flat is my white,
    As white as a fish of stone.
    I have been razed to the skin.
    My population purged.

    She has become someone else. Strange to my eye,
    The one who lived in the scruff of my neck.
    —”A Woman”

  6. Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain by Francis Pryor (Harper Perennial, 2008). Originally published in 2001, this is the first of a trilogy of popular archaeology books by Britain’s most prominent Bronze Age archaeologist, Francis Pryor, continuing with Britain B.C. and Britain A.D., which are both also marvelous (and spawned documentaries of the same titles that you can watch on YouTube—which is how I found out about Pryor in the first place). Pryor is not just a great interpreter of archaeological evidence, he’s also a gifted writer. It’s not surprising that he’s now turned his attention to the writing of detective fiction, for Seahenge too unfolds like a mystery (as so many archaeological discoveries tend to do).

    It is entirely possible that the Holme circle was never about human life and death at all. It could have been a shrine—possibly built by a family that identified with oak trees—to the trees themselves.

  7. The Hangman’s Lament: Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee (Green Integer, 2003). Nordbrandt was perhaps my favorite discovery of the year; I liked these poems so much, I immediately ordered everything else in English I could find. But this book remained my favorite of the lot, in part because it fits so comfortably into the hand (love those Green Integer editions).

    And the beams fall into place in the floor
    where someone will go to take his first shaky steps
    or dance to the sounds of a flute carved from the same tree
    when the wood’s time is about to end
    and a cold wind blows over thistles, stones, and broken ground.
    —”The Forester’s Dream”

  8. Two Faint Lines in the Violet by Lissa Kiernan (Negative Capability Press, 2014). Powerful, searing poems that among other issues grapple with one that’s bound to become even more topical in the years ahead: the effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. Kiernan’s first full-length book displays a virtuosic range of tones and forms, from the ironic “Recipe for Yellowcake” to the elegiac “Icarus Blues.” There’s a father who comes out as gay, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter… this may not be the American nuclear family we think we know, but it’s certainly one that deserves to enter our cultural vocabulary.

    You stood calm as an untroubled tree,
    rigid as the spine of an unopened book—listening to me
    listening to your slurred, impenetrable breathing.
    —”At the Door”

  9. Feral by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2014). I don’t have it at hand to quote from because I passed it on to a friend—not because I wanted to get rid of it, but because people who care about wild nature need to read it! The book has two different subtitles. The British edition, which I read, is subtitled “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” while the American edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is subtitled “Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life.” Either way, it’s a terrific book: a first-person account of the author’s quest for wildness and wild experiences in his native Britain, interwoven with an impassioned yet scientific (and extensively documented) brief for rewilding. George Monbiot is best known as a political columnist for the Guardian, but he studied biology at university and started off as an environmental reporter, and it’s obvious he’s a nature nerd and outdoorsman from way back. But more than anyone else I’ve read on wildlands conservation, including Dave Foreman, Monbiot takes a nuanced approach to the problems of balancing human needs with the preservation of the natural world. He tackles head-on some of the elitist attitudes that have plagued preservationist arguments in the past, and presents rewilding as—among other things—something we need to do for our own mental health. The book is also a great introduction to nature in the British Isles, cutting through a lot of the crap peddled by more mainstream British conservationists who try to ignore the fact that the islands were once covered in temperate rainforest, and that vast landscapes have been “sheepwrecked,” as Monbiot memorably terms it. American readers will be shocked at just how backward farming interests in Britain can be, blocking even the most innocuous species reintroductions and ecological restoration attempts and fighting to preserve a tamed and diminished landscape at all costs. But the book ends on a positive note, reminding us of how quickly marine ecosystems, for example, can recover if we can only find the political will to protect some areas from total exploitation.
  10. Approaching Ice: Poems by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea, 2010). As with Murphy’s Ancilla, a lot of research went into this book, which for Elizabeth Bradfield involved a certain amount of travel as a naturalist, as well, for the subject of her book is polar exploration, and how to write convincingly about that without multiple visits to the Arctic and Antarctic? Also as with Ancilla, I bought the book after a reading, which I wrote about at Moving Poems since Bradfield concluded with a multimedia segment.

    Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
    with certainty that something watched and loved us.
    That the very air was miraculous and ours.
    That all we had to do was show up.

    The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
    The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
    And they longed for everything they did not have.
    And they came home and longed again.
    —”Why They Went”

I can’t let the subject of books read in 2014 slip away without reminding everyone that Via Negativa’s own Luisa A. Igloria published not one, but two collections of poetry this year: Night Willow from Phoenicia Publishing and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser from Utah State University Press (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, selected by Mark Doty).

I used to think I had something in common with the coffee-shop crowd, but now I’m coming to realize that my true place, if I have one, is at the public library. You know, that odd refuge from consumerism where you can’t buy things, only borrow them. Where people come to read or doze rather than to see and be seen and get wired on expensive, caffeinated beverages. I may not borrow many books — largely because public libraries aren’t very well stocked with the kind of obscure things I read — but I like knowing that the place is run by free-speech radicals who make an effort to welcome everybody, even those who cart their spare clothes around in shopping bags.

The library is full of my kind of weirdos: people who read books. You could say that about people at the local Barnes & Noble, too, but here in the library it’s quiet in a way few other public spaces can ever be, and I’m sure that freaks out people who require constant stimulation. Also, from what I’ve seen, the crowd at B&N and other bookstores skews toward the upwardly mobile. As for coffee shops, I’ve noticed they tend to cater to distinct segments of the population: businessmen in one, Christian conservatives in another, liberals and leftists in a third. In the public library, by contrast, you can meet almost anyone — but in an introvert-friendly atmosphere that discourages much beyond friendly nods and murmured greetings.

I suppose in part because of where I grew up and went to school, I’ve always been pretty comfortable among people with whom I have little in common, and I’ve been surprised by the extent to which Americans have retreated into tribal enclaves, afraid to rub shoulders with “Rethuglicans” or “Dumbocrats.” Me? I’m a little wary of going out in public at all, to be honest, knowing that 65 percent of Americans support drone warfare, 51.8 percent believe that shopping constitutes a form of therapy, and 74 percent believe a better place awaits them when they die.

But my sense of alienation retreats a bit when I read (at the library) that 57 percent of American adults also apparently still read books for pleasure, and about 50 percent visit a library or bookmobile at least once a year. Then again, if libraries weren’t popular, those who advocate their elimination probably wouldn’t work so hard to cut off their funding. Along with national parks and Social Security (also both threatened by privatization schemes), they are one of the last great bastions of democratic socialism in this country.

That said, my caffeine levels have dropped to a dangerous low. And the ragged looking man (worse even than me) on the other side of the Quiet Zone has really begun to snore.