2019 Reading Round-Up: Poetry Interlude

I am not so systematic about poetry, either reading or writing about it. But I don’t want to exclude poetry from my list, so below a few highlights from last year in no particular order.

Exciting discovery of the year:

Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 by Heather McHugh (Wesleyan University Press, 1994)

My first encounter with McHugh. I immediately connected with this book of her selected work, which is such a rare and amazing thing with a book of poems. Here are a bunch at the Poetry Foundation site.

Origin: Bruised Apple Bookstore in Peekskill, NY, an old school huge used book and record store in a cozy spot.

On the mysteries of the feminine:

Isn’t Forever by Amy Key (Bloodaxe Books, 2018)

Playful and varied with form. Unapologetically feminine, melancholy, charming, lush poems by young British poet Amy Key. Read a few here.

Origin: Lent to me by my poet friend Lydia Unsworth (thank you, Lydia!), and then I purchased a copy of my own directly from Amy via Twitter!

For comforting long poems:

Like That by Matthew Yeager (Forklift Books, 2016)

I was missing my friend Matt, and reading his book again was a nice substitute for hanging out. These are funny, American, soulful, exuberant, ambitious. Poems by Matt here.

Origin: Gift from the poet.

Short & dark poems:

Dark Hour by Nadia de Vries (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018)

Poems like a shot of espresso. Epigrammatic & ironic. Published by an enterprising UK-based press.

Origin: A swap with the lovely Amsterdam-based author.

Unexpected tropical, cheeky haikus:

On Some HispanoLuso Miniaturists by Mark Faunlagui (1913 Press, 2018)

Aware of sensual pleasures – food, sexual attraction, the new sensations of travel – but understated.

Origin: A gift from my generous publisher, 1913 Press.

Language equivalent of a spiritual retreat:

The Lyrics by Fanny Howe (Graywolf Press, 2011)

With some undivided attention, Fanny Howe’s poems will deliver you to a contemplative state. She is a pilgrim, wanderer, seer.

Origin: Purchased somewhere in NYC many years ago.


It took me this long to learn that the Brits call chapbooks “pamphlets,” which sounds a bit flimsy to my ears (I think of a pamphlet on preventing STDs), but who knows, maybe in a few years it will be rolling of my tongue like “queue” for line and “lift” for elevator do know, to my embarrassment…

These were all chapbooks that came in to my orbit last year, all by poet friends residing in the Netherlands:

Say cucumber by Lucia Dove (Broken Sleep Books)
I Have Not Led a Serious Life by Lydia Unsworth (above/ground press)
Grief Is the Only Thing That Flies by Laura Wetherington (Bateau Press)


I complain about the New York Times marginalizing poetry in their books coverage (e.g., they mention only 1-2 poetry books in their 100 Notable Books of the year feature), but I realized I sort of do that myself. I don’t recommend poetry books much to friends (unless they ask) and I don’t keep up with the constant flood of new books as well as I do with fiction and non-fiction. But probably for different reasons than the New York Times doesn’t recommend or keep up. 

There’s the fact that bookstores generally don’t keep a stock of contemporary poetry – you usually have to make a conscious effort to order and buy new volumes (and there are so many I’m behind on ordering, I’m genuinely sorry, poets!) I also find writing about poetry incredibly difficult, because of the demands I make on it. And there is, too, I must confess, the sad desire to limit my exposure because people feel so free and happy to disparage poetry and poets (and I’ve faced this down for years). It’s like we’re members of some marginalized religion, and I only want to talk to the initiated about it, not put my appreciation on display on the internet.

Anyhow, that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of poetry in my life. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will do and I dig through piles of poetry books trying to find something I can’t define until I’ve found it. There were lots of poems in my sphere in 2018, but not systematically cover-to-cover via books. However, in the interest of giving poets and poetry some of their due, here are a few poetry books that got me through 2018, linked directly for purchase!

Certain Manoeuvres by Lydia Unsworth (Knives Forks Spoons Press, 2018)


This prose poem collection is by my now-friend, but let it be known that I swooned at Lydia’s writing before I met her. Playful, at times acidic, philosophical, linked prose poetry pieces. Questions of what it means to travel, to migrate, to be in a self in body, to be a stranger, to be a city-dweller… Just some really good sentences and paragraphs, too.

Forged by Fanny Howe (The Post Apollo Press, 1999)


I have lots of books by Fanny Howe, and I’m often drawn back to this little one, I think partly because it’s little, it feels good to hold. Fanny Howe’s work contains that paradoxical mystery-plus-fulfillment I need from poetry. Faith that this is still possible with language. A short line will suddenly shine out with clarity and meaning where it didn’t before. They’re like prayers, incantantions, or that language-based thought before it slips off into the ether.

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (W.W. Norton, 1978)


Adrienne Rich is the poet we need in this time, right now. Her poems are the opposite of provincial, they’re global in scope; poems that wrestle with gender, with power dynamics, with being a woman in history and in the world; poems that don’t let anyone off easily. And she’s been here this whole time, you dummies! In this collection, I kept coming back to “Hunger” and “Paula Becker to Clara Westoff.” I’m angry that the Harold Bloom-influenced literary snobbery kept me away from her for so long. (In his stint as the editor of the “Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997,”, he refused to include anything from the 1996 volume selected by Rich, because of her political engagement.) Fuck off, Harold Bloom.

The Question


Why didn’t you just stay home?
         Once you were a carrier of both child and soul
         But when you became a self
                  You bundled them up
         And took them out of the city limits.
You lacked the capacity for carrying so much.

Still, you wanted to rebuild your village
          Out of the pieces that shine and remind you
How safe and happy you were on its park benches
On days of no school.
          Why did you leave your native country
          To become a different kind of being:
          A realist
Who can recognize and classify the pieces of the lost.
          To be the only one!

It’s true they sparkle as they vanish
And finding them lets you know you are credible,
          At home in the world.

Fanny Howe, excerpt from the poem “The Question,” from her book The Lyrics

An acerbic, difficult poem. Why did you leave childhood? Why did you go to the city to participate in its plunder?

April 11 Poem

I don’t want to be a creature who says
the wrong thing when someone’s pet is dying.
Condemned to a life of big feet, misshaping
high-heeled pumps. That’s not what Michelangelo
was after. When that soft duo ate the fruit of knowledge,
we got stuck despairing at an unplucked nipple hair
and stopping and fumbling to put on a condom.
Who wants that? A creature who mumbles and
slumps, who writes in clichés, who laughs at the wrong
spot, can’t understand post-modern theory,
forgets names, doesn’t photograph well, tries and fails,
what sort of creature is this?

April 8 Poem

Berlin, 1945

“The rubble women” was how they referred to
the ones who cleared the remains of the city
after the war. It seemed like heavy work for
women, but there weren’t many young men
left around. The daily pay was about the cost
of a pack of cigarettes. They saved the bricks
that remained whole to resell. The corpse of
the city. Before the  cranes, the rebuilding,
someone had to clean it up, someone had to
do it. Hair under handkerchiefs, they don’t seem
unhappy, in black-and-white, despite the stench
and the hard labor, and the ravaged capital, but
anything is better than the bombs falling.

April 4 Poem

Today more than 60 people were gassed to death by their government.
I don’t know how else to put it. At least 10 of them children.
I didn’t want to hear about it either.
I wanted to pack slowly, choose my favorite things to wear on the trip
(dresses because it’s spring), read about the occult and
Alistair Crowley, but the knowledge is like a chemical reaction 
between two elements: it can’t be undone.

April 3 Poem

Greek Demons

On the ferry from Naxos to Piraeus port, we met an Orthodox 
nun, with beads and wimple in the wind. She admired the 
sketches we had made on the island. When she saw the
drawings of the ancient gods, she said, Those are demons

Apollo and Zeus and Demeter. Her demonization reinstated 
their existence, some 2,600 later, far more than the textbooks
of the average Athenian teenagers, drinking iced coffee and
tuning into the buzz of economic crisis around them. 

(The Ancient Greek word “daimon”  is translated  as “god,”
“divine,” “power,” and “fate.”) She then proudly showed 
us, on her primitive cell phone, pictures of her own drawings, 
cartoon characters of squat girls with pigtails and bows and 

goggly eyes. She bemoaned that the church hierarchy forbid 
her using comics to teach children about their faith. Then she 
said we must get married under the Church and have many
babies. In the early Roman Empire, “like pagans, Christians 

still saw the gods and their power, and by an easy shift of
opinion they turned these pagan daimones into malevolent 
‘demons’, the troupe of Satan. Far into the Byzantine period 
Christians eyed their cities’ old  pagan statuary as a seat of 
the demons’ presence. It was no longer beautiful, it was infested.”

Poetry interlude

There’s usually poetry lying around my bed, but not read systematically. These are the key poetry books that passed through 2015, presented without much commentary, listed with what I most needed at the top.

Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, ed. J.M Coetzee (Princeton University Press, 2005)

Fantastic collection of 20th century Dutch poetry, dual-language edition. (I couldn’t have named a single Dutch poet before this.) Sybren Polet’s anti-war “Self-Repeating Poem” was a stand-out.

La parti pris des choses (Gallimard, first published 1942) – Francis Ponge

Prose poems I always return to. The role of THINGS in our life, imagination. I especially love “Notes on a Shell”.

Nest (Kelsey Street Press, 2003) – Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Prose fragments, like listening to someone thinking out loud.

Ghosts! (Spuyten Duyvil, 2011) – Martine Bellen

An example of why I need poetry, although (or because) I don’t understand it. The pursuit of mystery.

Black Life (Wave Books, 2010) – Dorothea Lasky

Dottie Lasky is a witch/seer of the 21st century. (I aspire to this sort of witchdom.)

Lunar Shatters by Melissa Broder

I came into the world a young man
Then I broke me off
Still the sea and clouds are Pegasus colors
My heart is Pegasus colors but to get there I must go back
Back to the time before I was a woman
Before I broke me off to make a flattened lap
And placed thereon a young man
Where I myself could have dangled
And how I begged him enter there
My broken young man parts
And how I let the mystery collapse
With rugged young man puncture
And how I begged him turn me Pegasus colors
And please to put a sunset there
And gone forever was my feeling snake
And in its place dark letters
And me the softest of all
And me so skinless I could no longer be naked
And me I had to de-banshee
And me I dressed myself
I made a poison suit
I darned it out of myths
Some of the myths were beautiful
Some turned ugly in the making
The myth of the slender girl
The myth of the fat one
The myth of rescue
The myth of young men
The myth of the hair in their eyes
The myth of how beauty would save them
The myth of me and who I must become
The myth of what I am not
And the horses who are no myth
How they do not need to turn Pegasus
They are winged in their un-myth
They holy up the ground
I must holy up the ground
I sanctify the ground and say fuck it
I say fuck it in a way that does not invite death
I say fuck it and fall down no new holes
And I ride an unwinged horse
And I unbecome myself
And I strip my poison suit
And wear my crown of fuck its

Appeared in Poetry magazine, December 2014