Poetry Books: October Edition

I’m going to start with my favorite and go from there because lately, the books I’ve read have been, “a swing and a miss.”

The Essential Etheridge Knight

My favorite book, by leaps and bounds over hills, and mountains, to grandmother’s house, and landscapes that people must ride Alpaca to get to their destination, is The Essential Etheridge Knight by Etheridge Knight.  Etheridge Knight wrote most of this collection from a jail cell covered in wall markings and pictures of “black faces.”  I love this poet because he pushes the boundary of what a poem should be, of how many cuss words you can fit into a line, or a stanza, of what it means to be “a prisoner.”  I think the US has the idea of prisoners, or “bad people who are in jail” as bad people who are uneducated, or people who didn’t amount to anything, or who are “at-risk” youth who go from cradle, to steel cell bars.  And Etheridge Knight  breaks all the molds for this idea.  He’s a black poet, in jail, and “feeling fucked up,” (which is one of my favorite poems from this collection).  While I don’t think he looks particularly like a robber with his mustache and turtle frames, I think he had more than a prison mentality.

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When I was applying to graduate school (Vanderbilt) a lot of the applicants, or currently enrolled students had worked in jails, teaching creative writing workshops.   I think this is one of the most perfect places for poetry.  When I discussed M.S. Merwin yesterday with my associates, it was said that his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Shadow of Sirius, wasn’t tortured enough.  Which leads me to my previous comment, don’t prisoners have something to write about? Have they not been tortured?  I guess I can’t assume that every person in jail wants to write poetry, or that every person in jail deserves to write poetry, but I think it’s a place where grief-writing in poetry can happen.  Or, something that can be productive while in jail.  (Amanda Knox learned Italian and Etheridge Knight turned to poetry).

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Another thing I love about Etheridge Knight is that he inspired me to write a poem to him while I was reading aloud his book on my brother’s back porch.  A woman in the apartment complex beyond the fenced in yard was sweeping and singing something jazzy and it sparked inside me to write about her, and write about I, and my relationship to Etheridge (which is of the reader, narrating another’s voice).  But more importantly, he’s another people’s poet.  While Joseph Millar is the man’s poet, who makes you want to carry a hammer and a nap-sack to the mines, Knight is the black poet (or a black poet) speaking for the jazz in his voice, the jazz of a culture.  I liked how I could still relate rather than write him off like a few of my relatives did.

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His book came in the mail and one of my family members immediately asked me why I’m reading this book; “It’s dirty, it’s druggy, it’s a middle-aged, black man’s book.”  It’s poetry, that’s why I’m reading it.  It’s poetry, and it’s necessary in every square inch of a community even in the feces bucket of a claustrophobic jail cell.  

Here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • “By example we must show the way so plain/that our children can go neither right/nor left but straight to freedom.” – No Moon Floods the Memory of that Night (Etheridge Knight)
  • “All I want now is my woman back/so my soul can sing” – Feeling Fucked-Up (Etheridge Knight)
  • “For Black poets belong to Black people. Are/the flutes of Black Lovers. Are/the organs of Black sorrows./Are the trumpets of Black Warriors/Let all Black Poets die as trumpets,/And be buried in the dust of marching feet?” – For Black Poets who Think of Suicide (Etheridge Knight)
  • “Be Black like/your woman/her painted fact floating/above you/her hands sliding/under the sheets/to take yours/be black like/your momma sitting in a quiet corner/praying to a white/Jesus to save her Black boy?” – Another Poem for Me (Etheridge Knight)
  • “Do not listen to the lies of old men/who fear your power/who preach that you were “born in sin”/a flower is moral by it’s own flowering.” – Circling the Daughter (Etheridge Knight)
Here are links where you can read Etheridge Knight:

Gary Young Poem: This photo was not taken by myself, but by some nice, poetry reader on flickr.

The second book on my list of (to-reads for the poetry lover, or the people killing poetry who say you’re not supposed to understand it) is Gary Young’s, No Other Life: Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had.  What’s ironic about this book is the fact that Gary Young’s son, Jake actually works with me on a poetry project.
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Anyway,  I think Gary Young is the prominent prose poet at the moment.  This is a rather large poetry book, maybe the largest I’ve read this year and so it literally took me months to finish.  On the way to Chautauqua Institution my quirky, and sixteen-year-old-voiced friend Holly was reading it to me to calm my nerves through early morning traffic.  Buffalo is a town of Native American reservations, a world wonder, hot pizza and fields.  It’s almost like driving through North Carolina and yet, Gary Young’s poetry would completely calm me.  It was the anti-noise pollution.  I think what’s calming about Gary’s poems is that even when they’re disaster-ridden, there’s a sense of peace winding throughout.  I copied a lot of lines from this collection – he has stand out lines, and then stand-out prose, and rarely, but still there, the poem that is nothing, that anyone could write, just your average Joe walking down the block to his car parked two streets away.  I like that though, it’s a good mix of your neighbor next door, and the man who has poetry flowering from his chest.
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Here are a few of my favorite lines:
  • “There is an emptiness so great, not even the suffering of others can fill it” (76).
  • “Death is a hand-me-down, but we bear our own luck blindly into the world, and grow old with it, and die, or die young.”
  • “The repertoire of solitude is huge” (126).
  • “And I tell a story, about a girl I knew, because grief is an echo that calls me, and it’s wrong but it’s all I can do” (112).
  • “You can die of happiness, I’ve seen it, I could die tonight, and be carried away” (141).
Here are a few Gary Young poems:
I encourage you to read this book (especially and under these conditions: out-loud in the car, if you have children, if you love someone and have let them go (everyone), if you like prose poetry and not that jagged-line shit (I don’t think it’s shit, but you might).
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Alex Lemon's, Mosquito

Dear Alex Lemon,
You’re pretty hot.  I wanted really badly to like your poetry because you’re quite good looking, especially that picture of you standing in front of a sculpture in China.  Usually, I’m not really into the snuff-of-goatee thing, but this time around, I think it looks handsome on you.  I’m frequently not interested in Asian men either, for reasons I am unsure.  I believe it’s because when I was under five, my mother always pointed out cute blonde-haired-blue-eyed boys to me so I grew up heavily interested in that, rather than drugs or something foreign.
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Did you really have a brain tumor?  Was it rotting the inside of your head like a bad apple core, and if so, is that why you always wear hats in your google photos?
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I plan to read your other books just so I can understand what you were trying to say in the first.  Sincerely, Cassie (your newest, white-girl-never-visited-Asian-countries, fan).
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I think the thing I most love about this book is its closeness with the human body.  It’s like a Magic School Bus episode where we literally go in through the mouth, down the esophagus and explore the membranes, neurons and cells inside our own physical self.  I never wanted to be that close to my body, or that close to my body cut open, but it makes you examine yourself, and  your existence as something other than a soul of thoughts.  You are first and foremost, and to the people who meet you and shake your hand, a body, with a look and a style of clothing you’ve hung on skin.  I often forget this in myself;  that I am merely just skin on muscle, on bone, on nubs.  I am a million pieces of a whole.  I am a walking, breathing creature, and yes, while I believe in the idea that my body holds this incarnated soul – given to me by an almighty figure, I still am and will be, while I’m on this earth, a physical cape of skin.
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Alex Lemon as per mentioned above.

Now that I’ve got that out.  Here is my synopsis…Alex Lemon is a good poet who had a tumor and therefore wrote about the experience after doing a few books of Chinese translation.  He’s talented and most of his poems go somewhere.  I don’t know if he wanted to give the effect of being on heavy morphine when reading some of his poems, but that’s how it comes off occasionally.  Okay, a little more than occasionally.  I was frequently lost throughout this collection, but some of his rather disturbing lines or lines that walked into the cave of my brain and echoed throughout have stuck with me and so I can’t say that he’s not good, and not worth it.

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Here are a few of my favorite lines:
  • “City of fence-rust, streetlights bulling for life/lopsided with fog, what must passengers think staring/ downward” (30).
  • “What named me, the moth pleads, banging jazz/from lightbulbs” (27).
  • “Even in purgatory you wear earrings.” (Because what else would you do, right)?
  • “I live by fortune cookies, blizzards and scars” (After).
  • “Read books where fat words lumber the page” (Swallowing the Scalpel, 19).
Here are some fun-filled links for Alex Lemon:
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Interior with Sudden Joy by Dorothea Tanning

The last book I recommend is Interior with Sudden Joy.  This isn’t because it’s bad by any means, it’s only because it got excellent reviews by anyone who’s anyone, and thus was forced into the hands of unsuspecting victims to further the notion that poetry is not to be understood.  It’s by Brenda Shaughnessy (which I believe is an exciting Irish name) and is titled after a painting (which is interesting in and of itself).  Because my review is nonetheless going to be strange and confusing, please see other reviews below that may be more your cup of darjeeling tea.

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Interior with Sudden Joy is a woman’s book.  It mixes the social displacement of finding oneself, with the erotic tendencies not usually written about at all (unless you’re Erica Jong).  It’s a book of upper level, deep-thinking, ex-boyfriend poems, in my humble opinion.  The sound play, word choice, and precision of line breaks and wording is fantastic – it makes the rhythm come alive when you read out-loud.  It might even make you sweat, or lick your lips, or feel clammy hands resting against the paper pages.  However, sound play is not everything in poetry.  Understanding, knowing, grasping, connecting; these are all just as important.  A lot of times, my problem with Shaughnessy, was her lack of connection to her reader.  I’m totally for poems that avoid, or ignore the reader all together by taking out the “you” or just by writing in narrative style that doesn’t connect, but these poems, I believe, are meant to connect and do not adequately do their job.
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It’s a dark collection, which you all know I’m into, by now, but it wasn’t dark enough.  It was on the edge of something radical, and something that feeds on you in the dark to make your chest tingle with goose bumps, but the thing doesn’t actually reach you.  I just wanted more… is what I’m trying to say.  The shadows in the darkness weren’t enough, I need Bloody Mary to climb out of the mirror and clasp her cold hands to my wrist.  At the same time, it was a darker version of sex than I’m used to reading.  Usually a sex scene is between two people you’ve been cheering on for the entirety of the novel, or two people who are committing adulterous behavior and yet you find yourself still rooting for them, or totally against them.  You hardly see the woman’s perspective of sexually experimenting, or commentary on the sexual situations between women, their physicality and their emotional distance or closeness.
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Brenda Shaughnessy.

I wanted to like you Brenda, but I just can’t yet. It may come later.  And why, oh why, is it the expectation of Asian Women poets to be sexual?  Why do they fill that stereotype and then get rewarded for it every time?  It’s as if the US Nation believes that because Asian women are “restrained” within their own society, or any women who are on unequal rights in their nations, that they then have to be sexual warriors, and vixens.  I hate that, personally.  But that’s just my personal opinion, and maybe Shaughnessy wasn’t playing on this at all to get good reviews.  She’s actually from Ireland, or is Irish and so her “look” probably has nothing to do with her poetry, just a side note.  Maybe I’m just tired of hearing my cousin, Todd talk about his fascination with Asian woman…(and man I’m all over the Asian community today…I’m sorry if you’re offended, I’m totally not trying to be racist in any way).

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Here are a few of my favorite lines:
  • “Once more, you lie with me, smelling/of almonds, as the poisoned do” (21).
  • “Fingering: Arms disarmed and explaining themselves” (28).
  • “the uncomfortable position of telling the truth/like the lotus, can’t be held long.”
  • “perfection is the campsite for those who have stopped halfway” (16).
  • “The most inscrutable beautiful names in this world/always do sound like diseases./It is because they are engorged…”
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Here are links to other creative endeavors:

3 thoughts on “Poetry Books: October Edition

  1. Michael Ann says:

    Hi Cassie. I know nothing about poetry. I am always upfront about that. But I want to, so therefore I am reading all this. Some of the other blogs I read, review poetry or sometimes the blogger will write a bit of poetry. I don’t know what it is and why I don’t get it. I’m a deep thinker! Oh well. Your reviews here were quite interesting and deep and made me want to check out these guys. Just for fun. Just to say I’m trying to understand poetry :-)

    • Cassie says:

      Michael Ann, most of the poets I review are totally understandable. Is recommend reading Marie Howe, Dorianne Laux, Ruth Stone, Ted Kooser, Carolyn Forche or Sharon Olds in the beginning. Most of those are women so its an easy connection and all write in plain language that is really easy to understand. Plus, a lot of their books can be found on amazon or used bookstores. Let me know how you like them!

  2. Bea Mannes says:

    If there is an odd book, old book, or a book lost in space, you will surely find it, read it, and usually enjoy it. Thank goodness for that! There are alot of writers out there who somehow get lost in it all. I am so glad you find their work.
    As always, your reviews are enlightening and fun.

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