Other than children’s books that I read to my daughters, most of my reading of late is for teaching or for helping edit Seneca Review. In terms of work that’s already been published, here’s what’s been occupying my attention quite recently:
Captivity by Laurie Sheck
In preparation to read A Monster’s Notes and Island of the Mad, the first two installments of Sheck’s still-in-progress trilogy, I decided to start with her poetry. Captivity is an exquisite, elegant study of the mind—its various movements, trajectories of thought, forms of mentation, and lyrical registers. Sheck seems to share a poetic kinship with Susan Howe (which is one of the biggest compliments I can think of giving)—not only because of their mutual interest in Dickinson (who supplies two of Captivity’s epigraphs) or in early American captivity narratives, such as Mary Rowlandson’s (one of several influences lending the book its title), but even more so because of their virtuosity in lyrical compression. While reading Captivity, my mind keeps returning to two of my favorite definitions of poetry—Howe’s: “[P]oems are the impossibility of plainness rendered in plainest form,” and Rebecca Lindenberg’s: “Poetry, how thought feels.”
The Criminal by Max Wolf Valerio
EOAGH is publishing some really important work. I loved kari edwards’ succubus in my pocket, so I decided to check out Valerio’s book. It’s my understanding that his 1983 chapbook with eg press, Animal Magnetism, was the first collection published in the U.S. by a trans poet. In four parts, The Criminal collects poems Valerio wrote in the 80’s and 90’s. You can see influences from the Beats and, especially as you get deeper into the book, Language poetry (Valerio studied with Ginsburg at Naropa and with Hejinian at The New School, after all). But despite these influences, I’d prefer not to compare Valerio’s work with anyone else’s. His poems are utterly, utterly original—raw and electrically charged, moving with great associative velocity in a realm “beyond / taboos,” where Valerio is capable of creating the most astonishing of juxtapositions.
Brass by Xhenet Aliu
I realize Brass is already getting a lot of high-profile attention these days, but it’s too damn good not to mention here. The novel alternates between two narrators: There’s Elsie, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, who is working at a crappy diner when we meet her, and 17 years later, there’s Lulu, Elsie’s daughter, who, from the perspective of the 17-year-old, is having an epically shitty day. If I were to call Brass a mother-and-daughter story, which it is, that might mislead you into thinking it’s sentimental. Far from it though! In fact, some of its chief, continual rewards are sardonic humor and caustic wit. And while the book explores one family’s complex strata, it’s every bit as much an investigation of the power of place and the intersection of class dynamics and ethnic identity. Aliu writes with the kind of voice you just can’t hear enough of. And despite the healthy doses of cynicism in this book, it’s also deeply moving. Days after I read the last page, the characters kept haunting me. They haunt me still.
Where the Tiny Things Are: Feathered Essays by Nicole Walker
This is one hell of a bingeable book! It’s comprised of “micro essays”—relatively short pieces focused on, as the title suggests, small things (Microscopium, Microbursts, Micromeasures, Microbiotics, etc.). For a book concerned with the micro, Walker’s essays sure do raise their share of big, weighty, urgent questions. This book often reminds me of the chapter in Calvino’s Six Memos on “Exactitude,” which Calvino uses not in the typical sense to indicate something like precision but, instead, to name something we don’t really have a word for. At several points he presents exactitude as the product of the tension between the infinitesimal and the infinite, showing how the incredibly minute and the vast lead into one another. Had Calvino read Where the Tiny Things Are and been asked what he meant by exactitude, he could have pointed to a number of Walker’s brilliant essays and said, “It’s this right here! This right here!”
House of Deer by Sasha Steensen
I spent three years in Ohio, where I tried and failed to connect with the place in which I lived. Had House of Deer been released, it probably would have aided me in my struggle. Steensen’s book explores the connections between land and family, as well as the tensions between the wild and the domestic, the rural and the urban, and the generative and the destructive. Building a complex thematic and conceptual web, this book works as much by contrast as it does by associative links. It’s a far more intricate work than I can do justice here, but some of the main strands can be teased out from just a few key terms. For instance, “deer,” beyond the obvious, connects to the concept of place, as the title riffs off of a 10th-century Gospel Book, The Book of Deer, that presumably originates from Deer, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (but also—by substituting “house” for “book,” Steensen draws an implicit comparison between the two). The first epigraph connects its earliest pronunciation to “tear,” but via contemporary homophony, we also get “dear” and the familial (Steensen later coins the compound “deerfamily”). And the term “heart” does similar work: “We were told the middle is where one wants to be, the heart and the heartland is right in the middle.” Steensen was born in the heartland, in Ohio, a little over twenty miles from the birthplace of Hart Crane, who has a prominent presence in the book (“…Hart &home…”). Of course, “hart” also means stag, so we come full circle. Anyway, you get the picture. There’s a lot more of this game to play, and House of Deer rewards generously for playing it. Also, “The Girl & the Deer” mythological sequence, which recasts a paradigmatic Zuni story, is worth the price of the book alone. You can bet I’ll be reading Gatherest soon.
I also have a pile of books on my desk that I’m going to dive into as soon as summer begins, the first five of which will probably be Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause; Catherine Taylor’s You, Me, and the Violence; Shira Dentz’s how do i net thee; Christine Marshall’s Match; and Timothy O’Keefe’s You Are the Phenomenology.
This October, Seneca Review Books (our new imprint of Hobart & William Smith Colleges Press) will be publishing Erica Trabold’s Five Plots, which John D’Agata selected as the winner of our inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, so I’ve reread Trabold’s book several times recently. Each time, I marvel at it; it’s stunning! I can’t wait to release her book to the public.