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.”
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.
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).
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.
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)
- “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).
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.
- “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).
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.
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).
- “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…”