By Sophie Zhu and Jonah Ruddock
After a stressful school year, many of us will have time to wind down this summer. Here are six poetry books we recommend reading during break!
Obit by Victoria Chang
“What if the boss of God is rain and the only way to speak to rain is to open your mouth to the sky and drown?”
Obit dissects the tradition of the obituary—a commemoration of a being, or a person, or, as Chang suggests, a grief? Can grief be grieved? Can grief be written a farewell? Following the deaths of her parents, Chang finds herself omnipresent in the absurdity of grief: its relapse, its bodies, its crumbling wound. “I think of all the places I hid as a child. All the times I have silenced someone by covering their mouth with mine.” Obit consists of a collection of prose poems, each an obituary, dedicated to an article of her grieving process, including herself, hands, blame, form, civility, and her father’s pants. “Their mouths opened like time.” Every line punctures the mundanity of language as she, in her fog of mourning’s many mornings, reinterprets the typical of American life. Chang toys with the duality of language and the standard symbols. “The way our sadness is plural, but grief is singular.” A game of hangman as a reversal of grief. An apple. Slippers and antlers. “There must be some way of drawing a picture so that it doesn’t become an elegy.” Flirting with the ley edges of language, grief, and the axiomatic of life, Obit paints a breath-taking image of sorrow.
“But the plane ride to Hawaii is five hours long. This time gap can never be overcome. The difference is called grieving.”
(The best poetry collection I have ever read. Incredibly written.)
Valuing by Christopher Kondrich
“This body, which is not / a body. This representation, which is all / there is. I have a choice in the matter. / To touch you, I choose my hands.”
Valuing sets the abstract into the concrete, questioning the intangible of life. What strings value with trust, permanence with skin? Unlike most poetry collections, which are constructed at a fixed timestamp or in wake of a specific tragedy, Kondrich’s work is an entire universe devoted to themes such as faith, presence, and fragility. “From the fire, which is accomplice / to the vulnerable part of space.” He refines this artistic interpretation of philosophy by reimagining 19th-century paintings, e.g. Fight with Cudgels and Saturn Devouring His Son. “The dark has the tendency to do what light does, / to offset its subject, give it a voice / to emerge from as if that voice were landscape.” Throughout, Kondrich’s deftness with language is what keeps his imagery arresting and intact. Nothing as a thing; verbs describing adjectives. “I should speak you into being.” Human knowledge is limited to the concrete and the real, and is detached from the precision of our bodies, the intention of the dark, the philosophical behind the most simple of what we know—sleep, touch, eating. Valuing articulates these questions under a fresh perspective, making us, like children, once again, skeptics of anything beyond and below. “You cannot sneak through your life.”
Eye Level by Jenny Xie
“The present tense gets close, but doesn’t enter me.”
What differentiates the eye and the I? Xie rebuilds the perception of the self from the most rudimentary concepts. Eye Level presents its poems in terse sentences that are seemingly disjoint and ragged, yet it only exemplifies the shifts between how visceral Xie describes a bowl of noodles to how startlingly fabulous she describes melancholia. “What points the finger? / All of my eye’s mistakes. / And what were they? / Level.” The collection grows from the concrete motorbikes and street life, where Xie ornaments her experiences as an Asian-American with questions of human entities, like desire and hunger. “Wanting falls around me. Heavy garment.” It voyages us to the far and the near—Vietnam, New York, then her shadow, then body. Eventually, it becomes a meditation of the cautious boundaries between the tangible and intangible, eluding the label of any fixed place. No home. No sight. Just an unmoored self. Each poem a question wrapped tightly, but not enough to suffocate. Xie skillfully uses colors, imagery, the five senses, etc. to find each of her poems caught between two entities of life, if not out of breath. “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.”
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
“The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is an invention of the hearing.”
What is a man, a woman, a child? “A quiet between two bombardments.” In a time of war, the townspeople of Vasenka find protest and solace by feigning deafness. After the murder of a deaf child by occupying soldiers, it becomes their only defense. Sonya and Alfonso teach sign language in the square. Momma Galya and her puppeteers lead a violent resistance. The town watches, souring in their grief and lashing out against each other. Kaminsky paints a picture of the mundane aspects of life amid violence, of dentist’s appointments and Anushka’s pajamas, and how every shred of normalcy could end by the whim of a soldier. “I am your boy / drowning in this country, who doesn’t know / the word for drowning / and yells / I am diving for the last time!” he writes. Told with rage, helplessness, and love, Deaf Republic is a powerful book about survival and what happens when survival becomes unattainable.
Starsdown by Jasper Bernes
“One likes to lick the blood from a map. / One likes to think of himself as a pill on the tongue of God.”
Starsdown is a hurricane in a back alleyway. Set in the mirage of a futuristic Los Angeles, it is a visceral and intellectual book of cyberpunk poetry. Bernes writes sometimes in prose, sometimes in lists, sometimes in fragmented code, sometimes in stanzas. He dedicates thirty pages to the journey of Henry Halflife, an eccentric alcoholic, perhaps a god and perhaps long-dead, who composes his poems on blank checks and cashes them in to live while caught up in an endless game of chess with the city itself. The world is the same, but this time we are seeing it from the pavement, looking up through a sheet of broken glass. The people are the same, but the architecture surrounding them is continually spinning and refocusing. “No it’s not the new yes; yes I promise to not remember; no that’s not civilization, it’s performance; it’s not something you can know.” Full of ensnaring phrases and vivid, fleeting characters, this is a book that refuses to be forgotten or fully understood.
I Know Your Kind by William Brewer
“Have you ever even felt / like you’re going to not die / forever? It’s terrifying.”
Told through halfway house diaries and withdrawal dreams, this book is a devastating and beautiful account of the opioid epidemic. The speaker lives in all angles of the wound: he writes a letter to his son, calls after his brother, becomes his brother, recovers and relapses, becomes both the dead and the living left behind. Set in a landscape of a “needle / dry-humping an old / stab spot” and “teeth red and penny-sweet,” the speaker narrates as if watching himself from afar, desensitized. Death is a routine. Violence is as constant as the paint on the walls. Despite the dark reality of the topic, Brewer’s skill with language saves the book from becoming relentlessly depressing. “Imagine that, the fist window,” he writes. “All that light bursting in. / No wind. And the world, / finally at a distance. / A thing to be looked at, / not felt.” Brewer writes about the mythological and the primitive, about all the time-sick moments clattering together inside a place or a person. He’s captured a worldwide problem by zeroing in on one town. He’s fit a canyon of emotions in one room, focused on the details inside the details, and presented them on the tip of a needle.