Here in California, the quarter system runs longer into spring than the semester system, so the first two books I’m reading are the books I’m teaching. They’re both worth talking about, but I’m only supposed to talk about five titles, so I’ll just tell you the name of the first: The Affect Theory Reader from Duke University Press (where you can read about cruel optimism, threat, happy objects, and all the other shifting intensities of late-stage capitalism). The second is The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison (Mariner Books 2017). I want to draw attention to one particular essay, Wesley Morris’s “The Last Taboo,” which charts white people’s sexualization of the black male body in art, film, and violence, arguing the last on-screen taboo in a white-dominated field is the black penis. As a nonfiction teaching tool, I couldn’t ask more of an essay—criticism that doesn’t skimp on smarts for fear of alienating its reader, nor feint around its more graphic elements (particularly in its account of white violence done to black men in lynchings) for fear of fainting (white New York Times Magazine) readers. In fifteen pages, Morris covers a hundred years of white projections onto and punishments of the black male body, fifty years of the black male body in art, music, and pop culture (by black and white artists alike), and his own decades of life in this realm of under-recognized beauty. The essay jokes, the essay swoons, the essay holds our chin and directs our gaze to the violence that some of us readers remain complicit in, and the essay reminds us: “There is still something missing from our picture of black male sexuality, though, regardless of who’s looking: romance. We know black men can grind, but rarely do we see them love—“ While critics of BAE 2017 aptly note that it’s a bit of a one-note collection with journalistic essay after journalistic essay, Morris’s essay transcends its genre. Though indeed built for the Sunday magazine reader, Morris shifts easily between analyses that would be just at home in a dissertation and memoir-worthy anecdotes, between criticism (that never relies on snark or hyperbole but vulnerable, brilliant apprehension) and the sort of historical context we’d expect from a six-part-documentary. While Pulitzer-Prize-winning Morris may be a no-brainer for anthologizing, this essay strikes me a tougher ask than readers might at first realize—Morris needs New York Times Magazine readers to get beyond the pearl clutch, and even beyond the self-congratulatory pose of a readers who’ve stilled the instinct to clutch their pearls, so that these readers might actually look at a black penis and say, as the author once did, in all the youthful earnestness of a summer camp kid: “And it was beautiful.”
The second book I’m reading is also an anthology, but we can’t shout out this one enough: Troubling the Line: Trans & Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson (Nightboat Books 2013). A beautiful friend of mine—not even a poet!—sent me the anthology for my birthday, having read it, knowing I’d love it. The black-and-white photos that head each writer’s selections are a totally inspired inclusion. To be greeted by each poet’s face, welcoming, deflecting, challenging, holding my gaze astonishes me. I love an anthology that includes poetics statements. Bonus poems! The thinking in these is lucid, revolutionary, tender, and meaty. There are fifty-five poets—Oliver Bendorf, Stephanie Burt, Ching-In Chen, CA Conrad, Meg Day, HR Hegnauer, Dawn Lundy Martin, Stacey Waite, I want to list them all—across over five-hundred pages, making this a real desert-island contender. We should celebrate the editors and Nightboat for putting so much faith in the capacity of anthologies. Where many tensely try to contain their survey, Troubling the Line expands ever vaster and more inclusive, living by its politics and also by its lyrics. In 2007, when I was getting my PhD, one of my comprehensive exams focused on trans and genderqueer characters and texts. That included trans and genderqueer writers, but as we were dialing all the way back to Ovid, a hefty bulk of the texts were by cisgender authors (part of the problematic we designed the list to question). When I think about all the titles the past ten years have added, I could build a whole new list, and this anthology in particular would radically altered the terrain of that exam. Let me quote briefly from the editors’ inclusions, and then just take my word that 500+ pages of stellar poetry that imagines itself beyond binaries, out of fierce, complex, and gratifying “acts of being” await.
“May we know them may we know them may they see us.” —TC Tolbert
The voice wants to turn itself into a body.
It can’t, though it tries hard—
it brings you flowers to engender a meaningful
relationship. It makes you coffee in the morning.
Here, have a cup.
— Trace Peterson
The third book I’m reading is Josué Guébo’s Think of Lampedusa, translator Todd Fredson, introduction by John Keene (University of Nebraska Press 2017). Fredson also translated Guébo’s My country, tonight for Action Books. In Think of Lampedusa, prominent Ivorian poet Guébo turns his attention to the 2013 shipwreck that killed 366 Africans migrating to the Italian island along, Fredson tells us, “the most dangerous migrant route in the world.” As Keene notes, the book “eschews the documentary in its style and effects.” The speaker is both chorus and discreet individual: “which of the castaways speaks up?”. The scale zooms in, embodied “This geometry of the senses / is rewritten in the length of just one / of your eyelashes” and out, celestial “I’d demand that life itself explain / explain its proportions / Life would come and confess.” It knows the ocean contains the inequities of the present moment “The oil spill would advance / eating whole pieces of white bread” and of every moment that came before “And the art of antiquity / would rise toward us from the bottom of the ship / Blasphemous infections / salacious little songs.” This book isn’t a newsreel, but that which ghosts the newsreel. I’m reading it slowly as it elicits the amount of anxiety and heartache it should. I might argue that this isn’t the eschewing of documentary so much as the taking to task of what we keep insisting documentary should be—that stripped down, distanced recitation. This is a document of the interior, and a document on drowning. “We’d be five sheets of seaweed / there in the anger of one apocalyptic night.”
Fourth, I’m reading Ginger Ko’s new Bloof Books chapbook, hand-stamped and hand-bound, Ghosts, Models, Visions. In these poems, Ko dilates a keyhole on a sci-fi epic where automatons begin to replace us in the necessary drudge of late-stage capitalism. And as the automatons go about our business, we become not freer so much as more deeply sunk in our melancholy: “When / your own body / is meaningless, when / you sit at home / on soft furniture / because your / automaton sits / at work every hour / of the day, suddenly / you begin to love / all the bodies.” Obsessed with and skeptical of labor, reproduction, the labor of reproduction, the ethics of bringing life into this world, and the spooky not-yet of the speaker-that-will-be once they are born, these poems don’t, to paraphrase, snap cleanly, but twist apart as the fibers hold. Imperious in degradation, unflinching against the tide of sensory detail, willing to split vulnerable skin to tell the new truths:
But who are you
really? Who wound
you up at birth?
Who wound up
one does not want
to belong with
“I had been careless. I had neglected to pray to God to save us from a gypsum mine in Siberia.” A year ago my friend Lily Hoang who writes beautiful essays (go read one now, I’m reading some!) asked me if I might also want to write an essay about exile. I gathered up all the books I wanted to read for this project—all the fairy tales, all the the theory texts. One was missing. In fifth grade, during my Holocaust-story phase, common to even secular Jewish kids like me (and which my own eldest child has since gone through), I read Esther Hautzig’s autobiographical account of her childhood The Endless Steppe (Harper Trophy 1968). Esther’s reaction to being shipped from Poland with her family to Siberia—her magical thinking notion that the right prayer or stepping out of the house on the right foot on the right day might’ve saved her family, preserved them in their comfortable and loving home in Poland—had echoed in me as person and writer, and had been re-echoing louder since the 2016 election through our conviction that we could’ve not just through foresight, but through superstition, have prevented a catastrophe larger than ourselves. I found a gently used copy of this mid-grade children’s book that had skated my consciousness for the last thirty years. Around that time, my eldest turned in her final report for sixth-grade language arts: life in the camps. She argued that children’s books about the Holocaust “numbed the information,” and that she wanted to use adult sources. “You might like this,” I said, and handed over the Hautzig. Chapter 4 opens “Gypsum, it turned out, was a grayish-white powder dug out of a desolate land by people in despair.” Esther also reminds us that personhood (relieving, galvanizing, vexing, and painful to its subject) persists in those who become the objects of dehumanizing acts of war. Chapter 20 opens “A young girl’s heart is indestructible. Perpetually hungry and cold, in the land of exile, I fell in love for the first time.” We can compare those work camps of Siberia’s endless steppes to contemporary Gaza as readily as we might compare the brutal anti-semitism that uproots Esther’s family to that brewing in our own nation even as I type. We might compare Esther’s existential dilemma to our own as political subjects—knowing ourselves to be full complex people even as an eroding democracy declares us otherwise. Esther and her family face death, yes, and it’s harrowing. They also face the struggle to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are a people whose fate only appeared to be in their own hands when it was in the state’s interest to allow them to believe that. There is no epilogue to this tale. Maybe that’s the numbed information. Esther narrates “The years out there on the steppe had come to an end, our exile was over.” But even a young reader will hear the unspoken assurance that one is never immune to exile.
I’m cheating and adding a sixth (or seventh). I’m also reading, slowly, savoring it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. VanderMeer has become one of our most valuable contemporary nature writers, even as (or precisely because) his natures are speculative things from alternate dimensions or (highly likely, imo) (not-too) distant futures. Borne shares with China Miéville’s Embassytown a desire to examine language as it burgeons in an organism with more senses than the human five we’re willing to recognize. In each case, perhaps an argument that humans have more senses than we’re letting on and language could, if loosed, lead us to them. It shares with Emma Donoghue’s Room an investment in hyperbolizing the starkest, most demanding moments of parenting—those wherein we must choose between ourselves and our children, while our children desperately need us to choose both. In this case, the child is a scavenged, fast-growing, potentially autodidactic bit of rogue biotech. This club has everything: a terrifying bear-lord and his back-up dancers, the mermaid most likely to give you nightmares, a magician in a decrepit planetarium, minnows that get you drunk, nautiluses that keep you alive, diagnostic worms, a moldering city, company lichen, bioengineered murder-children, and memory.