As a reader, I’m quite the dabbler — a bite of this washed down with that — and so the length of the list below is due in large part to my putzing pace. Whenever I try to spur myself along, though, I’m reminded of the old bookshop keeper in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast who chided a many-volume-clutching Papa: “Don’t read too fast!”
Here’s what I have read recently, have been reading, or am hoping to crack open soon:
Lots of classic fairy tales to my three-and-a-half year old son at bedtime. Lately he likes “Jack and the Beanstalk” (I probably read this tale once a week) whose young environmentally unconcerned protagonist seems to me quintessentially American: Into whose yard (life!) does the chopped-down beanstalk fall? Since now he’s got the golden egg-laying hen, does this question (disaster!) worry Jack at all?
There’s so much strong poetry being published these days that it’s difficult to mention just a few collections, but here are some newly released titles I’ve encountered in the past several months. Chekhov said that for a description of the natural world to be truly useful in literature, the landscape must become a character itself, and be as well-drawn as any human figure in the work. The books below, which cover collectively cover a fairly wide range of aesthetic territory, are written by poets who put Chekhov’s dictum brilliantly to work.
Circadian, Joanna Klink.
A Thief of Strings, Donald Revell.
Some Heaven, Todd Davis.
At the Drive-In Volcano, Amiee Nezhukumatathil.
As Is, James Galvin (galleys).
Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson (translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born): Told in the voice of Trond Sander, a seventy-ish-year-old man in self-imposed exile in Norway’s deep woods, this remarkable novel immersed me in its deceptively spare prose and masterfully woven narrative threads. A meditative/ contemplative book with plot (if such a combination is possible), Out Stealing Horses is best read slowly, aloud if possible, and with ample time set aside to mourn — not necessarily the story, but that there are no more pages left to turn — after finishing.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones. Late, as usual, coming to this debut novel, which won the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Dubbed by many critics “instantly canonical” (a label which will probably frighten more readers than it attracts), the novel tells the story of Henry Townsed, an African-American farmer and former slave who is mentored by William Robbins, Manchester County (VA)’s most powerful figure. Though epic and historical in scope, everything about this incredible book is original.
Li: Dynamic Form in Nature (Wooden Books, 2003), David Wade. Wade is an architect who has spent years studying the “extraordinary families of surface patterns that nature throws up at every scale.” A sister science to Feng Shui, the study of these shapes was known in ancient China as Li. Compelling illustrations of nature’s dynamic designs — wave patterns, leaf designs, vermiculated markings — and brief but detailed explications of the forms make this small book a great companion in the woods.
Rocky Mountain Natural History (Raven Editions, 2003), Daniel Matthews. A field guide for those who go afield in fear of guides, this 656-page tome is by turns hilarious, stern, ominous, playful, instructive, instructed, and is more linguistically alive (“Sphagnum species specialize”) than any member of the field guide family I’ve ever encountered.
Real Sofistukashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, Tony Hoagland. Winner of the Mark Twain Award from The Poetry Foundation for humor in poetry, Hoagland opens this provocative collection of essays with a piece that likens the charkas of kundalini yoga to specific energy centers in various poetic approaches, and closes with a piece called “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People.” In between these bookends, the acclaimed poet is equally perceptive, irreverent, dead-on, boisterous, and what any reader leery of Poetry (with a capital P) is likely looking for in criticism.
Breaking the Alabaster Jar, Li-Young Lee: A collection of interviews with the cosmically-charged poet Lee. In each of these interviews, there occurs a moment when Lee simply blows away/baffles/befuddles/knocks-into-the-stratosphere his interviewer with an answer, such as: “Sacred reality is the saturation of presence in the world. Wind and trees and clouds and people and rocks and animals are all saturated with presence….I think that the saturated condition is the sacred condition. There has always been only one subject — being.” This book is evidence of an incredible mind and soul at work in the outer reaches, and guaranteed to knock the reader off his/her rocker.
Complete Poetry and Letters, John Keats. Sustenance. And to accompany:
John Keats, W.Jackson Bate. Bate, winner of the Pulitzer for this biography, cheated to write this book because he was actually Keats’ shadow in a previous incarnation — or so it seems. The inspiring and daunting spirit of Keats is made palpable in this 700-page volume, which renders the details of Keats’ brief life so meticulously that it seems Bate knew even Keats’ facial expression when the poet penned: “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party.”
Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, Eric Nisenson. A thorough and moving informal biography of Coltrane that details the virtuoso saxophonist’s intertwined artistic and spiritual quests. At the root of Coltrane’s determined efforts to constantly expand his musical repertoire (even if it meant losing his audience) was his belief that artistic growth equaled spiritual growth, and thus a continued “efficient mastery” of music he had already succeeded with meant risking spiritual stagnancy. Such a scenario was simply not acceptable to one of the most gifted musicians of his generation, who said: “You can improve as a player by improving as a human being.”
Chris Dombrowski’s first book of poems, By Cold Water, was published in spring 2009. His lives in Missoula, Montana, and received a writing fellowship from the Ucross Foundation. His poems that have appeared in Orion include “Possible Psalm” in May/June 2009 and Kana in March/April 2008.