How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn (2013 University of California Press)

My dear philosopher friend Ada Jaarsma has been urging me to read this book for a while. I opened it with the start of the summer and have gratefully fallen in deep. Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn immerses himself in a community of Quichua speaking people, the Runa of Ávila, who inhabit and are intimately connected to the Amazonian forest of Ecuador. Here he starts to see animals and plants as having selves. The apex of interaction between them and humans is what he refers to as an “anthropology beyond the human.” In the epilogue, he writes:

Thinking with images…throughout this book…be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic…and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is…also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. (222)

I feel as though what Kohn is learning how to do here is not unlike the way I feel poetry thinks through and opens me to something else, something mysterious, something Other, if I can allow it. I’m reminded of a quote from Charles Simic that I’ve long loved: “One writes because one has been touched by the yearning for and the despair of ever touching the Other.”

The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine by Joseph Tafur, MD (2017)

In this beautiful book, Dr. Joseph Tafur tells his story of training to become both a Western doctor as well as a vegitalista, a shaman, in the Amazon jungle of Peru. He weaves together both personal anecdote with the latest research on neurobiology. With surgical acuity, this book cuts to the heart of how various ailments—whether physical (like chronic pain, psoriasis, migraines, and Crohn’s disease) or emotional (like PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction)—take root at the level of spirit. So much here strikes me as poetic, as pasajeros are led during ceremony toward healing through songs and visions, and then work to integrate insights received from the master plant teacher ayahuasca.

I Love Artists: New & Selected Poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (2006 University of California Press)

I came late to the poems of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, but, now that I know of them, in the past year or so I’ve found myself returning again and again. I experience the tracking of another’s consciousness that, at moments, oddly feels like my own. External circumstances become interior encounters and vice versa. This movement is not only the mode of the writing, but often the subject. The magic of these poems is in observing just how Berssenbrugge manages to weave such ordinary, but fundamental human experiences into words. In the title poem “I Love Artists,” for example, at one point a cat walks across the room. Yet, as I read the poem, I feel as if I’m inside an experiment in quantum mechanics or phenomenology:

I realize my seeing is influenced by him, for example, when we change form and become light reaching into corners of the room.

Even now, we’re slipping into shadows of possessions that day by day absorb our energy

. . . .

There’s space in a cat walking across the room, like pages in a flip-book.

The gaps create a reservoir in which I diffuse my embarrassment at emotion for animals.

In Bressenbrugge’s poems, my desire to “understand” is circumvented, in the same way that I don’t feel such a need to “understand” a piece of music or a painting. Rather, I am animated by the experiences her poems generate. They make me curious about her mind, as well as my own. What next? Where to now? So this is what this feels like. There is a kind of radical presence her poems open in me. I feel I am learning something rare by reading this poet’s work and only wish I’d begun earlier.

Gates & Fields by Jennifer Firestone (2017 Belladonna*)

From its stark cover, its toothy feel in my hands, to opening to its dedication page (to four people all deceased within two years of one another), on to Emily Dickison’s line: “The Carriage held but just Ourselves—” and next Firestone’s words quoted below, this book lifts me up into its carriage:

They are telling her it’s time to go
The carriage set upon the snow
To go to go they wail so the white snow
Falls onto the white snow
The lantern dims
The wheel the window the light of the eye
The horse the carriage the lantern alit
Goodbye—they are leaving

I want to go with them. I am lulled into this book’s beauty through the sounds and the sparse images that drive it. Curiosity unfolds easily a sensation of revelation:

They say memories and the wind blows ____ They say memories
and the wind blows ____ Can they recall its sound

When I step away from the book, I find myself wondering how work that deals with grief can be so lovely, so natural. But then this question seems to answer itself; as in Dickinson’s poems, death is not the end. Grief is one way to mark this. Firestone writes in the author’s notes:

Because I could not stop for death.
Because the carriage was a vehicle for grief that wouldn’t move despite
life passing.

There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza (2016 Civil Coping Mechanisms)

This past semester in my Studies in American Poetry course, I taught poems from There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. My students and I had an especially rich conversation about the poem “The Moon Is Trans:”

The moon is trans.

From this moment forward, the moon is trans.

You don’t get to write about the moon anymore unless you use her correct pronouns.

Its beginning is clear and direct. Then, something strange begins to happen. The poem pushes beyond such social and everyday language regarding gender, and veers into the cosmic and the mythic. Astronauts are expected to “bow down before” the moon and a comparison between “Scientists” who “theorize the moon was once a part of the earth that broke off” precedes the observation that “Eve came from Adam’s rib / Etc.” Further, my students were especially interested in the lines: “We should be talking about the ways that blood / is similar to the part of outer space between the earth and the moon / but we’re busy drawing it instead.” We teased out the implications of these lines. We’re all connected to one another in the same way that we all have blood running through our veins, regardless of our gender; the “space between” us actually joins us. The moon’s association with a menstrual cycle deepens the significance of the moon being trans as a play on the idea that the moon is always “female.” Finally, we discussed the danger in being preoccupied by “drawing blood” instead of seeing how we are connected.

I’m compelled by the intimacy of Espinoza’s voice; it’s both brave and vulnerable. I’d like to think that it goes without saying that such a voice is necessary. She writes of struggles related to being trans, especially transmisogyny. I am writing this essay only days after Josie Berrios was killed; she’s the thirteenth trans person and eleventh trans woman of color to be murdered this year. In 2016, twenty-seven trans people were killed, most of them women of color. So, I was happy with how smartly and positively my students responded to Espinoza’s poems. Beneath the intimacy that is at first simple, direct, and explicit, are layers, but without any sense of artifice or disingenuousness. I find this earnest, raw honesty crucial, vital, life-saving. Espinoza writes in “Poem (Let Us Live)”:

How long can I keep tricking you
into thinking what I’m doing
is poetry
and not me begging you
to let us live?

A few of the poetry books on my coffee table that I’m excited to read in the next few weeks are Of Mongrelitude by Julian Talamantez Brolaski, recombinant by Ching-In Chen, LETTERRS by Orlando White, and No Dictionary of a Living Tongue by Duriel E. Harris.