It’s officially summer here on the eastern shore of Maryland; it’s close to 90 degrees and too hot to do anything outside so all I want to do is rotate brief naps with periods of productive reading, and that’s exactly what I do. During the rest of the year, I find it difficult to focus on much more than pleasure reading because my brain space is simply not capable of retaining anything other than what I’m teaching or things that inform the work I’m currently doing in the Center or in the classroom. I also have the bad habit of reading like a graduate student, only mining others’ work enough to get a sense of what the author is up to and then move on.
In the summer, though (I am lucky enough to have June and July off), I am free to dedicate that brain space to my own consumption and production. Often that consumption and production has a lot to do with what I will do in the Center and in the classroom, but I also get to dedicate a lot of time to writing and reading poetry with the kind of mindfulness I feel like I can’t give it during the academic year. I often delay even making coffee before I grab the book beside my bedside table and get to work, neglecting to move until my bladder or stomach start to remind me to get up.
Here are a few of the books I’ve already started, and what I’ve learned so far. I hope more complete “reviews” will appear up here upon completion. If you think of it, leave a comment for other suggestions that might resonate alongside these works and my intentions for reading them!
There will be more, and there will be some pleasure reading, that’s for sure. But these are my primary intentions for the summer, because they will be of some use as I’m producing work of my own. I find it helpful to read with that kind of intention, to read with a purpose. I try to teach my students this. I ask them what they are looking for, and to trace their obsessions through the texts as we go. What is the arc? How are these things connected?
More to come.
Well, this is exciting. Thanks to Daniel Casey, editor over at Gently Read Literature, for giving me the opportunity to review a book I love, Joe Hall‘s Pigafetta is My Wife. He aptly titled my review: “All Voyages are Destructive” and I like it. Go check out the whole issue — read about Carl Adamshick’s Curses and Wishes (via Lisa Wells) and Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance (via Megan Kaminski, a Phoebe contributor, I might add) and many more! Also, if you haven’t, please read Joe’s book. You deserve some destruction.
These stories are at once startling and beautiful. The world(s) of these stories is/are weathered… the characters face trying emotional and physical battering, and the weather itself behaves as a character, a deliverer of conflict, or as the element in the stories that interrupts, brings forward, gives resistance. These stories remind me of Don DeLillo at his best — though I think Ryan Call exceeds DeLillo’s talent… the language here is just so excessively beautiful. My heart breaks over and over again in the reading, and yet my lips hurt a bit from also smiling. A beautiful collection!
Nelson’s meditation takes place through 240 poetic prose pieces (some feel like prose poems, most feel like a mixed essay/journal/response), what she calls “propositions”. The range of blue swells out from a general obsession with the color to the figurative feeling of the same name, to historical and philosophical implications for color and our experience of it. As with her poetic non-fiction project about an aunt who had been killed before she was born, Jane: A Murder, Nelson reaches out to other texts and contexts to increase her understanding, to work through the thing at the center of her focus, inserting herself in the conversation (as any good academic does).
In the first instance, she tells us how to read the project: ”Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession… It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.)”
The project is indeed quite personal — as always there is no distinguishing between Nelson and the “I” in her work. It is born from her and despite the literary turn of the text the self remains contained, and, in fact, the text depends on it. I feel her working through emotions deliberately, as if bouncing them off of all of this other material will help define or describe the indescribable, what feels inaccessible. There is plenty about the pursuit that is acknowledged as futile — that the color (or this meditation) does not necessarily increase wisdom or offer change, it accumulates clarity, a sense of things… and Nelson’s gone to every corner for that sense.
Here are some moments that resonated for me:
You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world…. But you still wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.
17. But what goes on in you when you talk about color as if it were a cure, when you have not yet stated your disease.
54. Long before either wave or particle, some (Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus) thought that our eyes emitted some kind of substance that illuminated, or “felt,” what we saw.
Loneliness is solitude with a problem.
75. Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.
It is tempting to derive some kind of maturity narrative here: eventually we sober up and grow out of our rash love of intensity…. But my love for blue had never felt to me like a maturing, or a refinement, or a settling. For the fact is that one can maintain a chromophilic recklessness well into adulthood. Joan Mitchell, for one, customarily chose her pigments for their intensity rather than their durability–a choice that, as many painters know, can in time bring one’s painting into a sorry state of decay. (Is writing spared this phenomenon?)
I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share. Besides, it must be admitted that if blue is anything on this earth, it is abundant.
For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it.
Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober… But now that they have been shuffled around countles times–now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river–how could either of us tell the difference?
Often [writing all day] feels more like balancing two sides of an equation–occasionally satisfying, but essentially a hard and passing rain. It, too, kills the time.
229. I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.
Rob McLennan has Susan Tichy up for his 12 or 20 questions blog … she got 19, lucky woman. For one such questions he asks, and she responds:
6 – Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am interested in collage as a practice that draws its material from the environment, from which its material identity never entirely separates. This alters the claims of imagination away from individual creation toward acts of perception and collection, but not away from the idea of individual experience. Beyond found text, collage composition is a way of thinking, retaining respect for the thingness of things as well as the thingness of words-as-sounds. Abstraction is an essential act of mind, but I want it to take place the same way it takes place in experience—not in the diction of the poem, which remains concrete, but in perception as it crosses the great or small distances between phrases, images, sounds. I link this to Taoist ideas of the ten-thousand-things, whose ever-moving relationships constitute and reveal the essential un-thingness of reality.
Tichy’s recent collection, Gallowglass (the term “gallowglass” is the Anglicized form of the Gaelic gal-óglac, a foreign soldier or mercenary, as she informs us in the book’s notes) is evidence that her understanding of collage is felt so securely that it is justly embodied in the work. I say this in contrast to many poets for whom I feel the thought and theory behind the work is either unhelpful because it is misplaced or skewed in the work itself, or that the thought and theory’s brilliance far exceeds the poems themselves. Tichy’s language combinations are at once lyric and sterile, emotional and instructional. The poems radiate polyphonic language from an undetermined number of sources/voices but the point is not chaos, but necessity. Perception has an origin, but is not singular. The priority we might otherwise place on the individual voice (especially where personal material involved) is insufficient.
The poems radiate the possibility that in the midst of trauma, war, personal suffering, and history an assemblage is the only accurate means of finding understanding. The fact that much of the collection is ordered in ghazals is apt. The couplets are meant to be discrete units, individual worlds that feel whole and complete until you consider them in conjunction with the other world sitting right next to it. These individual worlds feel tense in the way that things without slack are tense — secure but not safe.
In Tichy’s collection, the personal is but one point of access to a complex network of language/thinking. We sense origins so that Tichy’s collage is a form of repeating, a mantra-making, note-taking as a metapoetics of capture, a capture that may, perhaps, always remain tense. As the collection ends, “This is the image of pause / This is the image of step.”