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Jorie Graham

by Weston Cutter

            Jorie Graham’s From The New World has been hanging around me for the last while, hitting me up for the readerly equivalent of a thousand or so bucks of attention: you don’t dip into Graham as you do other poets, or I don’t, anyway (you can, obviously—it’s just text, black on white—but for me the return on investment re her work increases dramatically with quiet attention. That’s a long way of saying: there are few punchy, pitchy bits you leave one of her poems with; mostly you feel held against or under a beautiful water, and—unlike water—the longer you’re under/against, the bigger the oh on release). Plus also: I’ve read all her stuff, and part of my reluctance to dance into the book had to do with what the TOC hipped me to: my favorite of her books, 2002’s Never, is radically underrepresented (six of the poems in From The New World are from Never; Materialism‘s got six as well, so, I guess, someone else can write the mournful lament about that book’s shortchanging), a problem I didn’t even want to much contend with.

I’ve written elsewhere about the glories of Never, and my anxiety about its lack, or anyway thin showing in this new Selected (her first, Dream of the Unified Field, hit in ’95), is that it’s one of the most glorious and somehow beautifully desperate books I’ve ever read. It hit at a specific moment for me: I had doubts about if contemporary poetry was even bothering to attempt to Really Connect in intellectual/emotional/moral ways, as, say, Stevens or Eliot or Frost or Bishop or Dickinson had, and Never offered the till-then (and still-now) biggest yes re that question. It’s terribly, achingly, shatteringly about connection (there’s a sidebar here available, re Graham’s biography, and how Swarm [itself represented by seven poems in New World] and Never, released in 2000 and 2002, repectively, were [presumably] composed at the time of the dissolution of Graham’s marriage to James Galvin and her marraige to Peter Sacks, and the fact that Swarm is among the murkiest documents in American literature [one could/should open it at random and count the number of words that are not bracketed, broken-off, typographically whispered, it feels] while Never is so hungrily revving for Connect, Touch, Share…anyway, that aspect exists, however one wants to slot it). Never is also, I think, among the least fussy of Graham’s books: one needs know nothing, not myths or artists or theorists, nobody: it’s a natural book. It’s messed-with, in lineation, but one needs no extra context to apprehend the poems.

What’s interesting, though, about Graham—as with any Great writer—is that she’s offering multitudes to each of us, all the time. What I read Graham for was this linguistic and self-based experiment—what Dan Chiasson in his unbelievably great review of The New World called her “brilliantly dissected subjectivity”—which I thought culminated in Never: that book read as if she were reaching clearly, deliberately out, to rattle the reader’s conception of how poetry could connect reader+writer, what it could ask of both of us in that shared moment of/momentous context. But of course she was doing other stuff, in Never and before—was talking about myths and paintings, about religion and literature, about America and nature, and nature, and nature—and for all the folks who like me read her to get some connective charge in certain terms, plenty others I’m sure were getting other stuff. And there was, always, plenty: Graham’s maybe intimidating for how much she puts in, her willingness to idea-check anyone, her ongoing comfort with writing from and in and toward what she called a Big Hunger: she’s never written poetry that functioned like New Yorker cartoons, sweet things that dissolved the minute the page flipped, and her stuff, at its gnarliest, is never ever (I don’t think anyway) opaque or idea-checking for points or some such: she wants to hit big, to be as specific as she can, to touch on Big Ideas, and (I believe) she does, and, in doing so, she goes anywhere: read the Notes of any of her books for a lesson in audacity.

And so now there’s From The New World, a book spanning almost forty years of writing, and what’s clear is that Graham’s had any number of Projects/Agendas/Obsessions in her work (if you dislike thinking like that, fuck off: any artist will, through her work, make clear—if the work’s looked at in a swath—what she’s centrally focused on, preoccupied by, and to pretend otherwise is so dumb I here apologize for even bringing it up, but I’ve got a kneejerk thing re: using any of those terms since it seems my age-bracket is intimidated by acknowledging such obviousness). The Project/Agenda/Obsession of hers I like and first fell for, the one I think best articulated in Never? The one about subjectivity? That’s simply one of many threads through her work, and it’s not at all the central thread in her work—at least the central thread as it’s articulated in *this* selection of poems from all the books (which selection, automatically, radically cleaves the scope of the books themselves [meaning there are several possible Selecteds to create from Graham’s oevre, each of which would paint a revised scene re: what she’s been Doing]). This is not at all a criticism, at all: it’s an attempt to note that the poems on offer here work together—beautifully, one quickens to add—to paint a picture of a poet who’s been for four decades fixated on questions about the world itself and living in it, about drawing some connective thread through the astonishing balances of existence. And, as Sea Change and Overlord and Never and to some degree PLACE make clear—along with the four new poems included in From The New World (poems I, unlike Chiasson, don’t find to be some of her best: the one he quotes, to end his article, is incredible, but those prior read, to me, scratchy, missing)—Graham’s emphatically a nature writer.

Which, of course, she’s always been: you see it now, here, echoing back to even Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, her first collection: where the earlier Selected begins with that early greatness “The Way Things Work”—a poem I cannot read as anything other than a poem about connecting, thinking-into-feeling-into-living—From the New World begins with “Tennessee June,” a poem with similarities to “Work” but, instead of being accretive and trying to connect, “Tennessee” ends on “the spirit breaks from you and you remain,” which is compelling and gorgeous, but is decidedly different from the feeling offered by “The way things work / is that eventually / something catches.” Those are radically different dramas, with I’d argue wholly different stakes: the emphasis in “Tennessee” seems on where the act of existing remains once the spirit’s broken “from you,” and the emphasis in “Work” is on the catching, on the moment in which existence grinds gears with some other to breathe or enact living.

Of course, the selections from *all* Graham’s books are different, Selected to Selected. Not for nothing, the more recent books—Sea Change and Overland and PLACE—are exceptionally well-represented in From the New World, and there’s a way this reads that almost feels as if the glory of the now-early-middle-career books (Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm and Never) was a blip, some detour. In other words: if you fell hard for Graham based on the poems you read in The Dream of the Unified Field, you might find a different poet on these pages. I, anyway, have.

Again: this is not a problem. But the central drama of Graham’s poetry has now, with From the New World, been firmly grounded as a consideration of humans’ place in the world, how we interact with the world, and what we do to the world—and, ultimately, the peril we’ve put the world in, through our actions and ideas. Something about responsibility. This is a radically, radically different drama than the one you’d be forgiven for believing was the central one operating in Graham’s work up till now: if you know Graham’s work, you know that her Overlord and Sea Change—and certainly to a degree Never, though not as overtly—are engaged fairly directly with climate change, with the havoc humans have wrought on the planet. Sea Change and Overlord, for me, were the first misses in her long career: neither book finally ever cohered for me, not deeply, and I could never find or feel the pressure I’d once come for. What From The New World does, however, is recast all the poetry (or, actually, not really recast, but more re-jigger so that the stuff that’s already there is specifically highlighted) so that the questions of cost and humanity-in-relationship-to-the-environment is paramount. This is not a bad thing, but it is a *different* thing than what you may have understood to be happening in Graham’s poetry if your entrance was—like mine—through her work up until the early ’00s.

So: this is, for me, a weird book. It’s endlessly beautiful: I dare you to read any early or late or in-between stuff—”Reading Plato” or “Lapse” or “Dusk Shore Prayer”—without succumbing to the whallop there on offer. Dig it: nobody writes such Hugeness as Graham. Nobody. I’ve read for hours and days and months and years. Nobody has, in any way, tried to include/engage-with/tackle this much. Not even close. And so if you’re just finding your way to Graham, please, by all means: get From the New World, and allow the enrapturing to do it’s thing. If you’re however interested in a longer strand of American poetry—one that’s trying to wrestle with the most deeply gnarly questions of being and thinking and feeling—again, that subjectivity Chiasson notes so well—go ahead and get New World, but also, please, get The Dream of the Unified Field, and then read all the rest of her work. Maybe this is just a too-long way of saying: the selected poems of ANY poet this good is bound to be complicated, because in doing the so-muchness they’re engaged in, any fractioned presentation of their work precludes the oomph available through the totality of the work.

The point of this review—consideration, really—is simply to note that the Jorie Graham poetry you’re reading in From The New World is a rearranged approximation of one of contemporary poetry’s Greatest Writers, and please just know that the environmental focus one can’t help but notice in this collection is, I’d argue, simply one thread of the larger amazement she’s been now braiding for forty years (and, clearly, I believe another thread—the thing about connecting, self, and subjectivity—is more something, I can’t say what), and while it’s great, I can’t help, as a huge admirer of other facets of her work, but note that the other threads are equally monumental and transcendant. Anyway. If Graham doesn’t win a Nobel eventually, we should all be sad: she’s gunning for a glory so rare it’s not even aimed for by most practicing writers. Finally, the point of all of this is just this: Read Jorie Graham. Everything past that immutable fact is so distant as to be dismissable.

Manguso’s Diary Dialogue

by Kati Heng

9781555977030ONGOINGNESS: THE END OF A DIARY by Sarah Manguso

At the time this book/essay was released, Sarah Manguso’s diary contained about a million words. To write a book about her diary, she determined she would either have to include it all – events cannot be separated, cannot be brought out of the blue with no foreshadowing or follow-up – or none of it. At 95 pages long, obviously, she left it out entirely. And so becomes maybe the first personal autobiography about a diary that includes not one piece of the journal itself.

It’s a quick read I finished in an hour, many of those 95 pages not even halfway filling the page. Whatever. Manguso has no need to prove herself worthy of writing some mammoth book; she instead knows how much of the time, fewer words can be so much more poignant.

Manguso starts by explaining her writing habits. Much like any young girl, her first diaries were gifts, left empty save the drawings printed in each corner. Sometime in her teens, it just flipped. She began to write compulsively, multiple times during the day. There was (is?) something inside her that never wanted to forget a moment, and if her memory couldn’t contain it all, she hoped her diary could.

The fascinating thing about measuring history through a diary, as Manguso finds, is what, looking back, was worthy of note that day and what was omitted. The things that foreshadow future events are so often not noted, not written down, maybe even, not consciously acknowledge. The stuff that does make it in, that does seem so important in the moment, is often left at that day, never to be of importance again. It’s a fascinating thought – what happened today that seemed inconsequential that will mean all the difference in a week, a year?

Manguso often catches herself reflecting on her diary, wondering why she continues it even today. If she doesn’t capture every moment and every angle of every moment, what’s the point of catching any at all? “And then I think I don’t need to write anything down ever again,” she writes. “Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.”

After becoming pregnant and giving birth to her first child, Manguso both finds frustration and relief from her diary. She hates what people call “pregnancy brain,” the way it seems she can’t remember events of the day as sharply as she could before. Early on after the baby comes home, her tiredness reducing her days to a set schedule of feeding, diaper changing, holding, she realizes her own mortality, as many new parents do. And so begins a renewed need for the diary, a capsule to hold together the person she was even after she passes.

I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s an eloquent diary entry about a decades long record of a woman’s life. It’s written with passion and anguish, frustration with and love for her own work. It’s incredible.

Who would ever cheat on an astronaut, geez…

by Kati Heng

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I WILL LOVE YOU FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE: BREAKUP STORIES by Michael Czyzniejewski

The title-inspiration story (actually called “Opal Forever”) starts with two kids in love, Opal and Griffin, who decide to get tattoos commemorating their passion. Opal opts for a simple, ambiguous “GO” on the inside of her ankle; Griffin goes all out and gets “Opal Forever” inside a heart etched proudly on his forearm. Of course, they break up, Griffin realizing it’s over as Opal and her new lesbian lover adopt a dog together. So, with an arm that promises to love Opal for the rest of his life, the man decides to re-enter the dating pool, only seeking another woman named Opal. Griffin’s luck gets stuck thanks to coming on too strong, straight up telling every woman on dating sites in America, Virgin Islands, Guam, and soon Canada that he will promise to love them for the rest of his life, showing photographs of the tattoo to prove his seriousness.

I’m a firm believer that most short story collections get ground alone on the irony. An author can start with boring characters doing predictable things and as long as there is an ironic twist at the end, readers will buy in. Not that I’m knocking the formula – pretty sure my obsession with watching “Tales of the Crypt” reruns proves I am fine with irony – it’s just that after a bunch of short story collections in a row, a girl begins to want a little more than irony at the end. And so, what Michael Czyzniejewski (hereafter referred to as Czy. because holy 15-letter name, Batman), brings to his collection isn’t just the ironic end (not that many of his stories don’t contain that anyway), but actually interesting characters, beginnings and middles.

Take the story “Space,” for instance, which opens with the line “When Miller’s wife went up to space, he set out to cheat on her.” WHAT? So simple and direct, telling you exactly the characters and motives, yet, what the hell is gonna go on in this story?? We can deduct that 1) Miller’s wife is either and astronaut or this is the future, both of which make me want to keep reading; and 2) despite what seems like would be an ideal domestic situation (in my mind, being married to a freakin’ astronaut), Miller’s got a beef about the whole thing. Maybe he never loved her. Maybe she’s going to be in space for the rest of her life. Whatever the case, we’re going to keep reading at this point.

Other interesting set-ups, just for me to throw out a few that are introduced in the very first paragraphs: 1) (god, this opening line again) “My sister once saw Meyrl Streep naked in a public shower (“All Out”); 2) A drunk guy sits and watches burglars break into his house (“Shelf Life”); 3) “Instead of getting married, I insist that Julian and I rig an election” (“Instead of Getting Married”); 4) A couple discovers both one partner’s allergy to shellfish and a mystical portal all in one night. What, what, WHAT? Seriously, not a moment of boredom in the whole collection.

Although this a collection of breakup stories, (which Czy. adorable dedicates to “Karen, who didn’t inspire a single word of this book”), my personal favorites are the ones where the stories expand themselves beyond simply Lover 1 and Lover 2. Like the story “Bullfighting,” in which a newly widowed mother falls in love with her son’s new imaginary (?) friend. Or the tale of “When the Heroes Came to Town,” unsuspectedly, to an previously peaceful town with little attacks from giant monsters before the heroes showed up (suspicious?), only, it seems to win the hearts of the town’s more-beautiful-than-average women.

Oh, jeez, what else to note? A good portion of the stories aren’t written in traditional narrative, keeping things fresh. There’s a story of a professor’s messy family tree, complicated after impregnating his research assistant, told completely through the form of an outline; there’s a tale of lovers facing the famed biblical plagues of Egypt plague by plague; there’s stories told so shortly, they themselves are almost poetry.

Seriuosly though, read THIS, if only to find out why that guy would ever cheat on an astronaut wife. Who would ever cheat on an astronaut anyway…

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90s Kids are so Disgruntled, I Hear

by Kati Heng

9780374140342           Asali Solomon’s DISGRUNTLED

Asali Solomon’s latest novel, Disgruntled, is a fascinating, fast-reading story of an outcast coming into her own. From an early age, the story’s star Kenya Curtis knows she’s different than the other little black girls in her class. It’s not just her name, the nationalism and African-roots connotations attached, not just the fact she celebrates Kwanza and can’t sit on Santa’s lap, or even the fact her father, who tells her to call him “Baba,” tells her to hold her hand inches away from her chest and just mouth the words as the other kids in her class recite the pledge of allegiance.

So much of what sets 8-year-old Kenya apart, it seems, stems from gatherings her parents host and attend with their friends, strong, black radical meetings focused on everything from celebrating the gifts of “the Creator” and organizing protests about events happening in South Africa.

Things change, though, as Kenya’s mother breaks off into more female-focused activism, attending readings of Audre Lorde and bringing the ideas home, while at the same time, her father begins to form his own ideals, bringing home another member of their activist group who has become pregnant with his child, thinking the four of them will become a natural family. Unsurprisingly, this is the last straw, and her parent’s fragile marriage ends that night.

From there, Kenya’s life is torn between her parent’s separate lives, rapidly growing in opposite directions. Her mother craves a normal life, totally different from everything they practiced before, moving Kenya to the suburbs of Philadelphia, into a wealthy, whiter school. Kenya’s father, gone to jail after an accident (more on this later), sends her parables of his life, making her question whether or not the comfortable life she and her mother have been leading is making her turn her back on her true self.

Kenya grows coming into her own amid all the different influences of her diverse set of late 80s/early 90s characters, classmates and friends, including Commodore, a young man whom Kenya has known since childhood, remembering him from the radical meetings in their parent’s living rooms, a man both frustrated and entranced by white girls, and Oliver, a wannabe punk musician, who, while black, wears a swastika on his leather jacket and plays in a band he calls Niggerpunk, arguing his nihilistic ways of life with anyone who dares to question him.

The story excels as the characters grow – I was all in for descriptions of Kenya’s friends, especially the rebellious Oliver, and her middle-school friend, Devi, who yearns desperately to share her pain with someone. It catches, though, on this incident that happens on the night Kenya’s parents break up. Spoiler, a little (it’s in like the first 100 pages, so sue me): Kenya goes to bed that night, the next thing we read, she and her parents are driving frantically to the hospital, her mother bleeding from her eyes. I thought I missed something, went back, and realized I hadn’t, the story had just jumped. A little bit later, we’re told Kenya was sleepwalking (?, since we’ve seen no sign of this before), and grabbed her dad’s gun and shot her mother in the eye (?, because this is just strange). It’s one of the major points of motion in the book, yet it’s glossed over and not really explained in a very off-putting way. Later, I guess, it’s explained better, but for about 200 pages, there’s just a hazy knowledge that Kenya did this and no real reason / resolution why.

Ultimately though? I can get over the unexplained shooting, and I did, simply because I was so intrigued by these characters, even the blank slate Kenya can sometimes be. Read it, meet these people, and let the ideas linger.

Entering Ducornet’s Deep Zoo

by Kati Heng

Rikki Ducornet’s THE DEEP ZOO: ESSAYS

9781566893763    I’d love to see the world through Rikki Ducornet’s eyes, if only for a day. If only for an hour. If it’s anything like her newest collection of essays, The Deep Zoo, it’s an entirely magical, kaleidoscopic view.

Even though the essays where written over journals, magazines and years, there’s a constant thread running through them all, the idea of that “deep zoo,” something Ducornet’s sees as the very essential pieces of an artist’s creative output; the themes they get stuck on and contemplate for life. The colors and emotions that stay present when you take away all the outer shapes and images of an artist’s work. The yearning present in a story’s conflict when you erase the circumstances. The mood and tones underlying every song on an artist’s LP.

In Ducornet’s eyes, everyone’s Deep Zoo is different. Based on this book, one can assume her own zoo holds the following: Animals, struggling through the world, dying naturally and beautifully. Ancient gods sharing their gifts, chief among them, Eros, god of love. Fairy tales, passed down through generations not because of their appealing lore, but their unapologetic truths.

Ducornet’s essays move all over the place, always trying to find the Deep Zoos of her subjects. And these folks themselves are fascinating. There are artists Margie McDonald, an experimental sculpture who creates a sea filled with creatures out of wires, aluminum, whatever she gets her hands on, and Linda Okazaki, whose paintings come alive with symbolism of animals as lovers (it should be little surprise that Ducornet herself is a painter, her understanding of art leaping across genres and materials).

There are discussions of literature. Ducornet calls on everyone from Kathryn Davis to Kant to measure the images she sees written on the pages of people such as Omensetter’s Luck, a novel published in the 1960s and lauded as a classic, or Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Obviously, the literature she finds fit to discuss in this collection finds no bounds.

There are looks into film – even the screen not too small or immature a platform for Ducornet’s concerning eye. Lost highway is scrutinized in comparison to Lynch’s other works and in comparison to myths of the Evil Eye.

But best of all are Ducornet’s look into mythology, the legends of Eros and of fairytales, and tied to this, her looks into her own work. Here we see her at her most vulnerable, trying to piece out the themes of her own work that she believes may yet endure, the aspects of her words and her earth she wishes the audience not soon forget.

A piece from one of the essays, “The Practice of Obscurity,” shows exactly the way Ducornet’s mind melts things together: “For if Eve broke the rules, her other intention was to keep a garden. And if the apple is one she bakes into a pie, it is also the one that poisons Snow White and renders her comatose.”

Prepare to be smitten with allusion upon allusion upon illusion.

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