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In This Valley of Dying Stars by Tracy K. Smith
It’s been an exhilarating week for me, reading quickly and deeply, and then finding the words to record the flurry of emotions unleashed by each successive voice. And recording these reflections has been a matter of speaking into an invisible space that has felt reassuringly companionable. If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for being here to listen and, on occasion, answer back. I want to nod quickly to each of the poets whose work has surprised and inspired me so far this past week: Ross Gay, Traci Brimhall, Jericho Brown, Jacqueline Jones LaMon and Craig Morgan Teicher. I haven’t said so explicitly, so I will now: if you haven’t already, you really must go out and get your hands on these books. And here’s one more to add to your wish-list: Tina Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers, due out from Four Way Books this October. It’s no secret that Tina is one of my oldest and dearest friends, one of my first and best readers, a long-time companion in the craft. For that reason, a part of me fears that anything I say about her book—any of the superlatives I want to hurl into cyberspace—will be greeted with a dram of skepticism. Years ago, when we were linked in The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, a blogger snarked “Smith and Chang’s mutual admiration also runs to taking each other’s author photos.” Blah blah blah. Caveat lector: if you are going to be bothered by me loving a book written by someone I love in real life, well, let us part ways now while things between us remain sweet. Of Gods & Strangers is written in cinemascope. It is large-scale, epic, sifting through the embers and emblems of outlived eras, and carrying what it finds back toward the future we are in the process of cementing into place. When I try to think about what this ambitious collection (a whopping 112 pages long) is about, the first word that comes to mind is time. In Chang’s cosmology, time is the vehicle we ride, something built to serve our human habit of going. In “Sex Gospels,” written in seven sections and chronicling the drama of a romantic relationship—the ways that lovers live out a history, igniting and consuming one another—time is a train: I’ve watched the train move in me. 35 years through New York, Pittsburgh, Maryland, DC, Taiwan, India, Tunisia. I’ll arrive home by evening, breathing through my one good heart. Invisible bandits stand by the tracks ready to take what we value most. ……………………………………………………………………… ……………………The train doesn’t remember the stops it passed. Only minds the wind and that it must exceed it. But time is also sentient, a character in the human drama. At another moment in “Sex Gospels,” time rests passively “on its side like a dog.” In “Praise,” written for Haiti in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, history (another of time’s many faces,) becomes a source of stark truth for a nation in...
Posted Jun 11, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
Into the Woods by Tracy K. Smith
Years ago, one of my professors spent the first half hour of our first class of the term reading us Italo Calvino’s version of an Italian folktale called “The Parrot,” about a merchant who must depart for a journey, leaving his daughter home alone for several days. Worried for his daughter’s safety, the merchant gives her strict instructions to admit no one during his absence, and purchases a parrot to entertain and keep her company until he returns. The parrot tells the girl a long story, and in so doing successfully foils the attempts of a wicked king to steal her away. Upon the merchant’s return, the parrot reveals his true identity—that of a handsome prince. It was an unusual way to conduct a class, given that we were graduate students, but listening, we fell into the spellbound silence of children being read to before bed. I loved the story so much that I read it years later to one of my own first writing classes. I even read it to my daughter in utero, which one might argue was really, perhaps, a matter of reading it again to myself. It’s not just nostalgia that makes folk tales and fables so powerfully delightful. I think they speak to a place in us that is very similar to where poems reach us. That spot that is nourished by a different kind of sense—one that often confounds (or acts as an antidote to) the day-to-day nature of things. Such stories remind us of a large, strange order to which even we—in our post-post modern moment—are subject. But, in the wake of the "Arab Spring," and on the heels of how many political implosions (think Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich…), it is beginning to feel less and less far-fetched to imagine that every story in the world is part fable, swarming with portentous animals, fickle gods, and wicked, wicked children. This is all a wind-up for what I’ve been reading lately: Cradle Book, a collection of short poetic stories and fables by Craig Morgan Teicher. Cradle Book is incredibly rich and incredibly slim, incongruously small considering all it contains. To quote Tiecher’s story, “The Red Cipher,” it is “[l]ike those unusual houses that are much bigger inside than their exteriors suggest," as if each tale opens up a kind of hall of mirrors, something flickering into the distance in such a way as to suggest a path. Teicher’s prose hits home in a way that is similar to aphorism. There’s a wisdom that feels wholly original and yet familiar on an ur-level. Reading, I was continually struck with the feeling of having stepped into a happy reunion with something I probably, perhaps, once, without realizing it, knew. Here’s a little collage of moments that seem to encapsulate what I’m talking about: There is a last thing for every moment, said the last sage. Each thing does nothing more than await its turn to be last, said the sage that came after him....
Posted Jun 10, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
Calling into the Silence [by Tracy K. Smith]
To be embarrassingly honest, I was a little frightened to actually sit down with Last Seen, by Jacqueline Jones LaMon. It’s a collection about African American children who have gone missing, and I worried that the mother in me would not be able to take it. I spent a moment in crisis after glancing one of the titles in Section Two: “For My Husband, Who Took Our Daughter to the Park So I Could Get Some Rest, Then Fell Asleep and Awakened to an Empty Stroller.” But how often do I find myself talking about the importance of risk in writing, the value of writing into one’s own fears and unrest? And shouldn’t the corollary to that commitment have something to do with reading what puts us on edge, listening to what we are afraid to hear? I read the book this morning while my daughter sat in the bed beside me watching Sesame Street on my computer. Every now and then my hand reached out to touch her small foot—a gesture of gratitude and something more. These poems were making me feel the quietly pervasive absence of wholeness in the world, the same world she is learning to navigate and will one day race, unmediated, to greet. When that time comes, she will be as prepared as anyone can be—I’ll see to it. But what will she, like every single one of the rest of us, lose in the exchange? Last Seen is not a book that slams or shocks you. It does nothing gratuitous with facts, is not trying to make you shut up and hear what you have been refusing to hear. It is not journalistic, waving a microphone in somebody’s face. It is not angry or agitated, waving picket signs or petitions. It whispers. It is a book that pushes a reader’s thoughts inward toward the small human truths we as watchers of the nightly news or scanners of milk cartons or shakers of heads don’t make much time to consider. Not distant statistical truths, but our own private ones, painful and unuttered. I think the book achieves this very special, very difficult balance, by beginning with what feels like a look at a self, or selves. The first section, “Polygraph: The Control Questions,” contains a sequence of poems with titles like “Who are you and whom do you love?,” “How will you begin?” and “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?” The poems such questions trigger are private, with a speaker who reflects on specific moments from what feels like an ordinary life: a party her parents threw the night before she was born, a prank phone call made in response to a childish dare, DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn at dawn. But in each of these poems is a discernible loss. Her father’s colleague died suddenly at the party. The prank call caused a family brief but heart-wrenching grief. Morning brings with it a palpable if unnamed heartache. See, LaMon seems to be...
Posted Jun 8, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
On Community [by Tracy K. Smith]
Today, I’m thinking about community. The people who constitute home for us. The ones who keep us from getting lost, losing track of where we are going or who we are in the process of becoming. The ones we watch sometimes in silence, proud and inspired by what their hands and heads and hearts have managed to do. Perhaps community is such an important part of my world view because I am a writer, which means that I have chosen to devote a great portion of my energy to an extremely solitary act. I crave the solitude it takes to get words onto a page, but when I come up for air, I crave faces, voices, laughter, human warmth. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this, but I say it now because having access to a community of people who warm and teach and astound me is something for which I am powerfully grateful. One of those people is Jericho Brown. I love him fiercely, and I’m pretty sure he loves me just as hard back. I remember deciding upon the final order for the poems in my book Duende while Jericho and I were on the phone. Some third thing seemed to be there on the line with us, helping me to move the pages around on my floor, telling us what that book would come to look like. And when I was trying to make sense of what was going on among the poems that would become Life on Mars, Jericho told me “Tracy, don’t you get it? This is your God book.” Jericho’s first book, Please, appeared in 2008, and what a gift it was to see all of those poems—poems I’d read and coveted and critiqued and come, by sheer adoration, to feel were somehow part of me, too—bound together and breathing on their own, familiar and new, like a miracle. Now, Jericho has sent me the newest version of his new manuscript. I won’t tell you the title; that’s for him to do in his own time. But I have gotten his permission to talk here about some of the poems that have already been published. For clarity’s sake, I’ll stick mostly to the poems that I can link to online. And now is probably as good a time as any to shift from calling him “Jericho” to referring to him as “Brown.” Brown’s voice astounds me at every turn, first and foremost because of how quickly and deftly it’s able to change registers, to move from a pitch-perfect articulation of living language—language that struts or limps, shimmies or stands stock-still sucking its teeth and staring you down—to a high-lyric that sounds quite nearly holy. “Odd Jobs” is one of the poems that speaks, for the most part, like a person you’ve met somewhere before: I spent what light Saturday sent sweating And learned to cuss cutting grass for women Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell The damned difference between their mowed Lawns and their...
Posted Jun 7, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
The Church of Poetry
Sometimes I think that poetry is a kind of church. The church I’ve been looking for all my life, where nobody tries to sleuth out whether you’ve been sinning all week, and where the sermon comes from every direction, surprising you at every turn. Where you feel your skin bristling with delight because of the imagination and the courage and the genuine belief in something unspeakably holy. All week long, day and night, poetry’s congregants are listening to something that comes from inside and above, from behind and beneath, from the great distances we don’t yet know how to name. They lean into lit screens tapping out prayer after prayer, and the rapture in that act is prayer’s answer. The gospel is vast and grows constantly. The books whisper to one another. When poets confess, it goes like this: I remember. I wish. I fear. I love. I have lost. I will lose. I am alive. I hunger. I don’t know. Like any religion, the church of poetry is a finite metaphor. But it comes to mind because today I’ve been reading Rookery, by Traci Brimhall, and I’m struck by the devotion, the ecstasy, the kinds of belief, and the deep, inspired knowing in this book. I also love Brimhall’s vocabulary, her rich real nouns and the metaphors they work together to build: rutabaga…rough with dirt, beau soleil oysters like gnarled music boxes, silverfish, My father’s heart is a jar of nails, death’s wet dress, A mouse bruxes behind the baseboards, a stain/on snow like blood in a dancer’s shoe. The book is divided into three sections, each ushered in by a definition of the word rookery. Quickly, in what appears to be an effortless descent into its true meaning, each of these three definitions turns to narrative, opening up the imagined spaces through which Brimhall’s poems will wander. “1. (n) A colony of rooks,” begins: Or ravens. Or crows. Related to the passerine order of birds. Family Corvidae. Kin to magpies and jays. Hatchlings fall onto bricks, and a woman buries them beneath the crocuses. She wonders why her husband doesn’t come home. Why his fingers curl into questions. Why his hips are as brief and hard as June thunder— And suddenly we are inside of a life. The first section brings a brutal lyrical honesty to the description of romantic betrayal. I think that the poems in this section, about a topic so familiar it could easily dip into something more like gossip, are so consistently successful because they refuse to dwell on the surfaces of events. Instead, they move constantly toward meaning, toward images with implicit weight, toward the realm of answers—not just the answers to questions like “why?” or “what was it like?” but the ones we choke on constantly, privately, alone in the face of the sublime, of all that is bigger than ourselves and or kind. “Aubade with a Broken Neck” is an example of what I mean here. And Brimhall is generous, moves...
Posted Jun 6, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
Going There [by Tracy K. Smith]
Last night I watched Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” A friend had urged me to see it because she sensed a strong affinity between what it is reaching and yearning toward and the questions and metaphors running through my most recent book: God, death, the beyond, the within, birth, the need to believe in some kind of order— some underlying current and the idea that it is carrying us toward a meaningful purpose or end. The film is broad and beautiful and vague, lyrical and oneiric, longing and angry and forgiving. And it allows its narrative to live within powerful gestures. Images of the universe find gorgeous echoes in those taken at the human, cellular level. Sea life hovers and sways, intercut with dreamy hallucinations of a family afloat and adrift. At one point, a dinosaur hurries across a stream to stomp its foot on another, feebler dinosaur’s head. The dead and the living that grieve them traipse across wide wetlands to encounter one another briefly. The flaws in the film also manage to say something about ambition, belief in the first person “I,” about the will and the need to know and the limits of our ability to do either. Why am I starting this first blog entry here? I guess because I found myself enlarged by Malick’s undertaking in a way that feels similar to what a book of poems can do when I find the time and space to sit down and let it. And this week-long visiting “bloggership” seems like as good a pretext as any to find that kind of time and space and to track it somewhat. I’d like to reflect on a book a day, with no particular agenda and no endgame other than to answer back to some of the voices sitting on my shelf waiting (in some cases, for quite some time) to be picked up and heard. I started my day today by reading Ross Gay’s Bringing the Shovel Down, and this is some of what happened: As a poet, Gay is so nimble, so honest, so able to sing sweetly, so alive with love and wonder, that when he turns his gaze toward all the dark doings we live with and by, he takes on an amazing kind of authority. He can tell me anything and I trust it. More than that, I feel it viscerally even as my mind steps, word by word, into the logic Gay’s statements mete out. I guess what I’m describing is one version of the romance that unfolds between a poet and reader. And in the best of cases, it’s not merely a matter of pleasure, but of dancing toward the pitch of urgency and truth alive in the poet’s lines. Gay’s truth is so brutal and necessary. We ache, he reminds us, for who and what we have become. And we hurt ourselves, one another, the world, the future constantly. These poems speak to America (“Honeybunny, for you, I’ve got a mouthful/of...
Posted Jun 5, 2011 at
The Best American Poetry
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