Surely you’ve seen what’s been happening with Graywolf Press. You must have. If you’re paying attention you’ve noticed what’s been happening with them this year. It’s not just that Leslie Jamison’s amazing The Empathy Exams was a NYTimes bestseller, though that was a big, big deal (and the book remains among the year’s deepest glories, as good a book of essays as you’re likely to even know how to hope for, and one that casts and interesting light on your [mine, anyway] older favorite books of essays [hard not to read Didion or Sontag or Hitchens or hell even Wallace differently on reading Jamison]).
But then there’s been this fall, and it’s been—well, you’ve seen. You must have seen. There’s been Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, which I didn’t even get or read but you can still find it making splashes across all sorts of places. No, the thing that’s happened this fall in terms of books has been that Graywolf has released Matthea Harvey’s If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?, and they’ve released Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and they’ve released the might Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Innoculation, and I at least can’t think of the last time three books have, together, so aptly and sadly and with difficult beauty have perimetered a time (This must happen to everyone, right? How the art you’re into helps demarcate months or seasons sometimes? How last fall, September 2013, because Breaking Bad was finishing, there was this weird charge, at least for me, how the show meddled around my days as well? Maybe it’s just me but I doubt it: I still remember 4/30/96 as the day on which a new Dave Matthews Band, new Bob Mould?, and new Paul Westerberg CD were all released, and Steve and I were there, midnight at Cheapo or wherever, and I know he remembers too).
Anyway: Graywolf. These books. You need these books. Everyone needs these books
There’s all sorts of reasons you need these books though ultimately all the reasons reduce to because they’re amazing+will make your life better. First—finally—we get some more Matthea Harvey, whose Modern Life and Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub…are all so great but too far in the rearview: I at least have needed her stuff more now, have needed that for awhile, and If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? is so good I feel like I’ll be sated for a good while. Maybe you saw Handler’s take on it, or you saw it pop up in some other place—chances seem good this was one of those books of poetry that actually got something of a toe-hold. Regardless: you should check this book. Yes, certainly: there’s full-color art, from cut-outs of mermaids with oddly shaped tails (best one: scissors) at book’s start, and there are pictures of tiny things frozen in ice, men and chairs and the like, and that section immediately follows “The Glass Factory” which features things heated to 1000 degrees and the pairing of the sections will just simply make you feel more than you’ve likely felt for awhile while reading poetry, and there’s the enrapturing “Telettrofono” section at the end in which there’s textile art accompanying the poems. There are, also, just poems, with titles, often with accompanying visual art (book’s best poem: “There’s a String Attached to Everything” which starts “The puppet snob is born by being dropped from above.” Other fantastic starts include “My Octopus Orphan” with “thinks his suction cups are radios” and “The Tired Mermaid” which goes: “The Tired Mermaid wishes for once her horoscope would just read: hungover today, stay in bed.”). The thing however about all these things is that they are not, at all, filigree, not streamer-ish add-ons aimed merely at decorating. What Harvey does that no poet’s doing that I know of is starting wherever. It sounds so dumb to even say it. She just begins. When’s the last time you read a poem that starts “They were lonely. I was alone. / Out of those two sentences, // I made myself a home.” That’s the start of “Woman Lives in House Made if People,” and, sure, the Dickinsony echo’s nice, but just look at the confidence of her builds: she just makes poems, she starts them and pushes them into existence. This sounds so silly to try to articulate, but it’s so magnificent, what she’s doing: there’s little that it feels Harvey’s trying to do or make or lead the reader to; the poems just feel there, present, unfussy in their strange splendor. Here’s what I mean: “Game For Anything” starts on p. 100, and it’s brief (“A plane-shaped silence flies / overhead.” it begins), 19 lines, and on p.101 there’s a picture of a miniature TV with a screen of clouds, and then, on 103, there’s a poem that doesn’t have a title—there’s a picture at page’s top, something that looks like a bird moving, and the poem beneath it starts “The sun was dim then done, but after months of treatments, the animals did begin to glow.” So: is that poem part of “Game For Anything”? Is it its own poem with a visual title? Biggest: does it matter?
The great gift Harvey’s offering—aside from, as ever, tremendous poetry obsessed with reaching out, with deep strangeness, with trying to understand the mechanics of our inner and outer enmeshings—is that she dethrones poetry from the weird realm of things meaning and symbolizing to poems just being. I’m not sure how to wave my arms big enough to make clear how monumental this ability, this accomplishment, actually is. It’s a beguiling, beautiful book that speaks not to your head or your heart but to your personhood, your actual walking-around-on-a-gray-monday self. It’s just a stunner.
But that’s not even everything, because of course after the Harvey there came Eula Biss’ On Immunity, a book just as gloriously written as her first (also Graywolf) collection Notes From No Man’s Land, but a book which felt pressing and urgent even months ago but now, as Ebola spreads and we recognize the fragility of structural, population-level health, feels even more crucial. The book’s central consideration is Biss’ experience becoming a mother and confronting all the questions and concerns about vaccinating her son, and of course the book’s not just the obvious and continually necessary get your vaccinations and ignore the largely proven-incorrect anti-vaccination folks; no, beautifully, Biss actually engages with the idea of vaccination, which idea is (duh) monumentally fraught: how do we help protect our kids, ourselves? How do we adjudicate the varieties of risk? And the writing, good lord: Biss is so patient and probing and holy-hell smart you feel like the thing’s shining on you, giving you something like an intellectual burn as you read. Further, too: she makes and draws connections that will astonish you. Here’s what I mean—this from page 157: “The more vulnerable we feel, sadly, the more small-minded we become. In the fall of 2009, at the height of the H1N1 flu pandemic, a group of researchers began testing their hypothesis that people who feel protected from disease might also be protected from feeling prejudice. The study looked at two groups of people, one vaccinated against the fly and the other not vaccinated. After both groups were asked to read an article exaggerating the threat posed by the flu, the vaccinated people expressed less prejudice against immigrants than the unvaccinated people.” I mean, come on: what are you reading that offers you such startling insight with such grace? What On Immunity is doing is waging an incredibly smart, incredibly calm, incredibly humane (that passage on 157 is on that section’s penultimate page, and here’s how Biss closes the section on 158: “I have doubts that we can vaccinate away our prejudices, or wash our hands of them…But I still believe there are reasons to vaccinate that transcend medicine.” Regardless of your stance on vaccination, certainly you can at least admit that that’s among the most level-headedly honest statements made in the whole history of the battle) campaign not just rah-rahing vaccinations, but rah-rahing thought, deep consideration. Which, of course, is among the real glories of her book: the excitement’s from the thinking as much as the writing or the subject matter.
And then there’s Rankine’s devastating, almost infinitely sad(-dening) Citizen: An American Lyric. Look at that cover and keep your throat from catching. I don’t know how to write about this book. I’m a white man and by the accident of my birth I’ve lucked away from a life of hatred and pain and anger I literally can’t fathom (I can imagine it, as can any of us who’ve been paying any attention at all over the last two years as Mike Brown was murdered, as Trayvon Martin was murdered, as John Crawford was fucking killed for holding a toy gun at his side in a Wal-Mart in Ohio, as hundreds of other black bodies have been destroyed). Rankine in Citizen is dauntingly effective in addressing, in this her latest “American Lyric,” how this is about black bodies. She writes “And you are not the guy and still you fit / the description because there is only one guy / who is always the guy fitting the description,” (from “Stop-and-Frisk”). She writes “And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.” That nowhere: that’s everywhere in Citizen, that’s (seemingly) everywhere in American life—the nowhere of any location to which we might head, black and white Americans, to try to stop fearing and hating each other. It seems an awfully tall order, to even think of ways we might address or build a bridge toward fixing this toxicity, and while Rankine’s not overtly making some claim for *how* this is to be done, she is, with Citizen, offering a devastating meditation on where we are, and while the book is somehow beautifully gutting (one hesitates to mention beauty at all given the subject matter), it’s impossible not to feel a shock of sorrow that we’re still in such a place, as a country, that Rankine and others need to keep writing, keep addressing it.
Again: all three of those are Graywolf titles, and notice there’s no mention of D. A. Powell’s Repast, which gathers his first three (glorious) books of poetry into one, and it doesn’t mention the great Jeffrey Renard Allen, or Kevin Barry, or the Art Of series which is just mind-blowingly good, or any of the other whalloping titles Graywolf crams into each calendar year. What I’m trying to say is that there’s no one better than Graywolf right now, but, dig: they’ve been doing this for years. If you’re not devouring the bulk of their offerings, you’re missing out on not just some of the best books published, but books that, to my mind, track and articulate and consider the human experience better than any other press’s catalog. They are doing the almost-impossible, in any industry: they’re batting almost a thousand, connecting every time. Pay attention. Look at them go. Long live Graywolf.