The Vision

The prodigious richness of the imaginative material has so over-taxed the poet’s formative powers that nothing is self-explanatory and every verse adds to the reader’s need of an interpretation…

It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterlands of man’s mind–that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness…

Is it a vision of other worlds, or of the obscuration of the spirit, or of the beginning of things before the age of man, or of the unborn generations of the future? We cannot say that it is any or none of these…

We are astonished, taken aback, confused, put on our guard or even disgusted–and we demand commentaries and explanations. We are reminded in nothing of everyday, human life, but rather of dreams, nighttime fears and the dark recesses of the mind that we sometimes sense with misgiving…

…the material of the visionary creator shows certain traits that we find in the fantasies of the insane.

…the vision is a genuine, primordial experience, regardless of what reason-mongers may say. The vision is not something derived or secondary, and it is not a symptom of something else. It is true symbolic expression–that is, the expression of something existent in its own right, but imperfectly known.

What if there were some living force whose sphere of action lies beyond our world of every day? Are there human needs that are dangerous and unavoidable? Is there something more purposeful than electrons? Do we delude ourselves in thinking that we possess and command our own souls? And is that which science calls the “psyche” not merely a question-mark arbitrarily confined within the skull, but rather a door that opens upon the human world from a world beyond, now and again allowing strange and unseizable potencies to act upon man and to remove him, as if upon the wings of the night, from the level of common humanity to that of a more than personal vocation? …

It is not alone the creator of this kind of art who is in touch with the nightside of life, but the seers, prophets, leaders and enlighteners also…

The poet knows that a purposiveness out-reaching human ends is the life-giving secret for man; he has a presentiment of incomprehensible happenings in the pleroma. In short, he sees something of that psychic world that strikes terror into the savage and barbarian.

–C.J. Jung, from Modern Man in Search of a Soul. These are the bits in which he attempts to define “the vision,” which is so unspeakable and defies language. He describes it as essentially terrifying. Filtered through poetry, we can manage some proximity to it. Writers he defines as visionary: Goethe, Dante, Blake, Melville, Nietzche. The Shepherd of Hermas (what?) Rider Haggard (who? to look into). It makes me think of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. “Every angel is terrifying…” The lovers distracting each other from the vision, the lone tree on the hill regarded every day.

POETRY that passed through 2014

Poetry always gets the shaft in book lists,* maybe because of the way we read it. Or at least the way I read it: A book calls to me from a shelf, I read some poems from it, and it lives on my bedside table for a couple of weeks. I read a poem from it before bedtime or at the breakfast table for a while, I put the back on the shelf. (At any given time, there are a handful of poetry books on the shelf I haven’t read.) Newer poems and poets I tend read online, or in journals. 

Poetry is a different substance, physically, than fiction. I don’t have a sense of having completed a book of poetry in the way I do a novel. Rather, the poems are always burning, existing somewhere, even if I’m not looking at them. It’s harder to track this reading over time, poems come in and out as I need them. I’m easily overwhelmed by poetry if I try to read it systematically, which is why it’s hard for me to keep up with the many excellent books published every year.

That being said, here’s a selection of poetry books that spent time next to my bed. Without much commentary, but ordered by the ones that gave me what I needed most at the time:

Noose and Hook (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010) by Lynn Emanuel


The poetry book I most needed this year. Sometimes poems open up for you and sometimes they remain closed. These were open for me. Here’s a good one.

Waterworn (Fly by Night Press, 1995) by Star Black.


Phenomenal, dazzling sonnets. Here’s one.

Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2000) by Fanny Howe.


The Fanny Howe book I return to most often. Poem sequences full of mystery, like private prayers.

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Transtromer (trans. Robin Fulton) (New Directions, 2006).


A stillness, a relief of silence surrounds much of his work. 

Ariel: the Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath (Harper Perennial, 2005 edition, original 1963).


This is the version her daughter put together, restoring Plath’s original order. I read it back to front (a frenzy of bees!) this time around.

Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992) by Anne Carson.


I was excited to find this little book, which was published before she got big, and is excerpted in the more widely available collection Plainwater. I picked this up at a  poetry-only bookstore in Boulder, CO called Innisfree.

Black Series by Laurie Sheck (Knopf, 2001)


Words that remained: Ash, unfastening, gauzy.

Tres by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions, trans. by Laura Healy 2011, original 1993)


Bilingual edition. Prose poem sequences.

Meat Heart (Publishing Genius Press, 2012) by Melissa Broder


Caustic, searching, dirty.

My Dead (Octopus, 2013) by Amy Lawless


The inside speaking.

Take It (Wave Books, 2009) by Joshua Beckman


Funny, wandering, untitled.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual (Penguin Books, 2014) by Patricia Lockwood.


Probably the poetry book that made the biggest splash last year. I picked it up after reading that long New York Times Magazine feature.

Some Trees (1956) by John Ashbery 


His first book, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize.

Poetry journals online that I read: Coconut, BOMB Magazine’s First ProofSink Review,  and Sixth Finch. I also sought out poems by Mary Ruefle online after reading her book of essays.

* This was originally posted as an addendum to my book list, but I realized poetry should be given its due.

The 2014 Book List, Part I

In 2014, I read 20 fiction & non-fiction books. Here’s the tail-end of the list, ranked in order of my own most subjective preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or stayed with me long after I read it, or made me feel something, or all of the above. (This also includes an addendum on poetry and the books I abandoned.)

16. Like Life (1990) – Lorrie Moore (Vintage)


Lorrie Moore is usually categorized as a funny writer, and she is. But she is consistently devastating, too. Nobody talks about that. I had read this book in 2007 and it depressed the hell out of me then. This time I couldn’t get through some of the stories, she takes the pain so far. “The Jewish Hunter” is my favorite, maybe because some genuine human connection actually takes place (although it’s not lasting).

17. Laughable Loves (1969, 1974 in English) – Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial)


It’s not worth getting offended over Kundera’s attitudes towards women as his books are almost quaint time capsules of a certain attitude, at this point. In that spirit, I enjoyed these stories, pretending I was a roué Czech doctor for a little while. He’s also deft in depicting the ways a corrupt Communist state infiltrates all parts of life.

18. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books. Bought at Human Relations bookstore in Bushwick)


I think this could have worked as a long essay, especially if you’ve read the revelatory Omnivore’s Dilemma. I read this early in the year and can’t remember too much about it, actually, but maybe this is because so much of Pollan’s thinking has permeated our language around food choices and politics (“Eat food, mostly plants,” etc.).

19. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) – Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial. Received as a gift, sold it to a used bookstore)


A non-fiction account of how Kingsolver and her family moved to a farm in Virginia to live the true locavore lifestyle, growing or raising all of their own food, or procuring it from a 100-mile (I think?) radius. It gave me a new appreciation for the knowledge and work small-farm farmers do.  The book is at its best when she gets deep into the details of farm life, for example, about the mating lives of turkeys. I was less interested when she wrote as an advocate and called on the reader to take similar actions (for example, get a second freezer in order to eat local throughout the winter), particularly as I am already fairly educated about the environmental and political issues surrounding food production and distribution, and am doing the best I can. At those times it came off as preachy or defensive. Also, I just can’t take on feeling guilty for eating bananas at this point at my life.

20. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (Vintage)


I love Julian Barnes (especially Flaubert’s Parrot), but I didn’t like the narrator in this story, who kept insisting on his ordinariness, a conceit that seems played out. I think it was a device here, Barnes emphasized the protagonist’s cluelessness in order to keep twisting the plot, in a clever way. Ultimately, it felt to me like the book was about its own cleverness and didn’t convince me on an emotional level. 


I Love Dick – Chris Kraus (1997) 

I was really ready to love this book, I was excited when I bought it. I liked everything about it in theory – the loose form, the fact that it deals with issues of sexuality, gender, open relationships, feminism from a personal perspective – but I don’t know what happened. It didn’t hold my interest. Maybe because Kraus is so obsessively internal, letters about letters. I got claustrophobic. I even tried twice with it.

Z a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2014) by Therese Anne Fowler

I couldn’t get past page 3. Not at all how I would imagine Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice. This is like the Hollywood version, or the version made for a docile book club.

Et après… par Guillaume Musso

Picked this up in an attempt to keep up my French. And actually, it made me feel good about my French because I could tell it was badly written! (Schlocky, clichéd.) Also, it takes place in New York! If I’m going to read a book in French I don’t want to be back in NYC

from “The Subway Platform”

And the people all around me, how many hadn’t
at some time or another curled up in their beds with the shades drawn
not knowing hot to feel the forwardness, or any trace
of joy? Wing of sorrow, wing of grief,
I could feel it brushing my cheek, gray bird
I lived with, always it was so quiet on its tether.

Laurie Sheck, from her poem in the book Black Series (2001)

The poem reflex

The part of us that reads poetry is a reflex part. Men read poetry with their reflexes the same as women do—they put themselves in your trust, they put their bodies in your hands, you tap the right place and the leg kicks. Or the pupils dilate. Or the hackles rise, and something flies out of you on a flock of little red nerves. To feel power shift out of your body is uncomfortable. It makes you feel that it was never yours to begin with. That’s the whole point; that’s the subject here; and maybe what we are seeing is that it is more difficult for men—to recognize that they’re in someone else’s hands, to recognize that they’re at someone else’s mercy, when the author’s touch feels different, when the poems are these poems.

Patricia Lockwood, in this interview, responding to a question about male readers being made uncomfortable by her work… A great definition of what it means to be a reader of poems.

I don’t long, I don’t die, I don’t await
the departure of those I love. As the origin
of a particular plant is sussed, so too
animals, people, their cities, and smaller things.
When you wonder on what I have become,
be just. No more great songs of satisfaction,
no more wailing upon the hill to the hillside.
Be kind, for trust is not addition and addition
is not acceptance and acceptance is not humility.
Simply put, we are a failed and ruined people
incapable of even silence. We are equal to nothing.
The earth given to us, we have lost even that.
Big eaters of America, I join you in your parade.
Let us be watched and let us be spoken of.
For today fascination is gone and even vanity
is undervalued. I have often misunderstood destiny.
I will misunderstand it no more.

Joshua Beckman, from the book Take It (Wave Books, 2009)

This poem sort of begins with “Simply…” for me, am unsure about what to do with the first half, although I see that it’s necessary…. The second half is fantastic.

Birthdays :(

I think there’s an edge of humor to the pathos in this poem by Fernando Pessoa… When the idea of birthdays becomes sad… 


Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I was happy and no one was dead.
In the old house even my birthday was a centuries-old tradition,
And everyone’s joy, mine included, was as sure as any religion

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I enjoyed the good health of understanding nothing.
Of being intelligent in my family’s eyes,
And of not having the hopes that others had for me.
When I began to have hopes, I no longer knew how to hope.
When I began to look at life, it had lost all meaning for me.

Yes, that person I knew as me,
That person with a heart and family,
That person of quasi-rural evenings spent all together,
That person who was a boy they loved,
That person–my God!–whom only today I realize I was…
How faraway! …
(Not even an echo…)
When they used to celebrate my birthday!

The person I am today is like the damp in the hall at the back of the house
That makes the walls mildew…
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears)–
What I am today is their having sold the house,
It’s all of them having died,
It’s I having survived myself like a spent match.

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday…
Ah, how I love, like a person, those days!
How my soul physically longs to return there,
Via a metaphysical and carnal journey,
In a duality of me to me…
To eat the past like the bread of hunger, with no time for butter between the teeth!

I see it all again, so vivid it blinds me to what’s here…
The table with extra place settings, fancier china, more glasses,
The sideboard full of sweets and fruits, and other things in the shadow of the lower shelf.
Elderly aunts, different cousins, and all for my sake,
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday.

Stop it, heart!
Don’t think! Leave thinking to the head!
O my God, my God, my God!
I no longer have birthdays.
I endure.
My days add up.
I’ll be old when I’m old.
That’s all.
If only I’d filched the goddamn past and brought it away in my pocket!

When they used to celebrate my birthday!

13 June 1930

Fernando Pessoa writing under the pseudonym Àlvaro de Campos, “the jaded sensationist”. Translation by the brilliant Richard Zenith.

Gift from immigrant taxi driver to Marianne Moore

Wariness is essential where an inaccurate word could give an impression more exact than could be given by a verifiably accurate term. One is rewarded for knowing the way and compelling a resistful un-English-speaking taxi-driver to take it when he says upon arrival–dumfounded and gratified–“Ah, we did not suffer any lights.”

–Marianne Moore, in her little essay “Subject, Predicate, Object”

What else to call it

Dazzled speechless–an alchemist without implements–one thinks of poetry as divine fire, a perquisite of the gods. When under the spell of admiration or gratitude, I have hazarded a line, it never occurred to me that anyone might think I imagined myself a poet. As said previously, if what I write is called poetry it is because there is no other category in which to put it.

Marianne Moore, in her little essay “Subject, Predicate, Object”. Vocab note: “perquisite” means “a tip, gratuity”.

Combine with charmed words certain rhythms, and the mind is helplessly haunted.

Marianne Moore, from her little essay “Subject, Predicate, Object”