(This piece originally appeared in January 2016 in Drunken Boat’s blog.)
- Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, Wave Books, 2009
I had just finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, when I could not resist returning to Bluets, an earlier book of hers, which remains so far my favorite. Within the slender spine of Bluets are 240 numbered propositions connected (sometimes directly, sometimes not) with Nelson’s love affair with the color blue. Here are snippets of natural science, philosophy, religion, psychology, history, personal life, and more woven together by Nelson’s plucky intelligence.
The writing is audacious, deft, sweet, and harsh—and Nelson is learnèd. During the 95-page lifespan of the book, I learned a great deal about blue. Did you know any of this: that the first blue dyes came from a single mine in Afghanistan? that in 1789, Horace Bénédict de Saussure invented a cyanometer to measure the blue of the sky? that the male bowerbird not only creates a nest made entirely of blue objects but also uses a twig paint-brush to paint the finished product blue with the dyes of blue fruits? that Gertrude Stein worried about “hurt colors”?
If, like me, you are a sucker for books on color, from proposition 1 onward (“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” p. 1), Bluets will not let you stop.
2. M Train, by Patti Smith, Knopf, 2015
I must have been around 19 or 20 when I saw Patti Smith perform in a small club on Long Island. Who would have thought that forty years later I would be reading a memoir about her later years (and that it would be published by Knopf)? When I bought M Train, I thought it would be a sequel of sorts to Just Kids, Smith’s beautifully written and carefully constructed elegy for Robert Mapplethorpe and their youth. Not so. The writing of M Train is discovered while the book is being written, and the act of writing itself—the fits and starts, the trances and moments of malaise—are part of the language and pacing of the book. M Train catches Smith in her mid-sixties, at a time when her life is peopled by many presences who are no longer around: her husband Fred (Sonic) Smith, her brother Todd, her parents, and many of her literary heroes.
Once I got used to the dreamy, meandering drift of the book, I was struck by just how eccentric Smith really is—and I found myself admiring her for just that—being and remaining an oddball. Rock star status aside, Smith is above all a reader and writer. When she finds herself bored and without reading material on a plane, she conjures up the cover of her childhood edition of Ariel. She recalls: “Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart” (p.197). She is an avid detective-show watcher and likens her beloved detectives to poets. She makes pilgrimages to the gravesites of her writer heroes, including Rimbaud, Genet, Plath, and Mishima. She uses a Polaroid camera. She is a member of the Continental Drift Club—an obscure group devoted to a scientist who pioneered the theory of Continental Drift. And by the end of this memoir, she is also the proud owner of a ramshackle bungalow in the Rockaways—one of the few structures left standing after Hurricane Sandy.
What happened to the growly boy-girl from South Jersey, with the shaggy, dark hair wearing a loose white shirt and tie? She survived. She writes: “How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen” (p.251).
3. On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems, poems by Edith Södergran, translated by Malena Mörling and Jonas Ellerström, Marick, 2012
I first came across Edith Södergran’s poems in The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden, and then I found this beautifully translated sampling from each of her four books. Södergran, a poet born in St. Petersburg, Russia, who died at the age of 31 of tuberculosis, was writing and publishing her own wild, original, and, I’d say, feminist brand of poetry from 1916 until her death in 1923. It is exciting to encounter daring lines like these from a young woman in the early twentieth century:
“I am not a woman. I am neuter.” (“Vierge Moderne,” p. 19)
“I am not tame.
I have weighed tameness in my eagle claws and know it well.
Oh eagle, what sweetness in your wings’ flight.” (“Decision,” p. 61)
“I want to be unabashed—
that’s why I don’t care about noble styles,
I just roll up my sleeves.
The dough of the poem rises—
Oh what sorrow—
not to be able to bake cathedrals”
(“Expectation,” p. 67)
4. Corridors, by Saskia Hamilton, Graywolf, 2014
Saskia Hamilton said in an interview that she would like readers to “dream over” the poems in Corridors. From the opening poem onward, the book held me in its sway, and it continues to do so upon rereading. The initial poem, “Night-Jar,” sets the tone. A moth-eating gray-brown bird (akin to the whippoorwill) is both seeking and being sought, and is gone but also near: “Near us,/but where, it’s gone: past the rides.” Like the photograph on the book’s cover of a vaporous street void of people, these poems often have a bereft, mist-shrouded quality. They feel outside of time, at times, though they acknowledge the power and the fleetingness of the past.
At the center of the book is a poem dedicated to a child who has died.
“When the collie saw the child
break from the crowd,
he gave chase, and since they were both
they left this world.
We were then made of,
affronted by—silence. (“On the Ground,” p.39)
Hamilton’s work is like no one else’s. The poems often seem to be held in hammock-like suspension, full of the natural kingdom; they frequently contain a subtle eroticism and self-swallowing wryness. One of my favorites is called “Zweigen”: Awakening before a wall of books, the speaker says:
calmed everything in the room, even
their contents, even me, woken
by the cold and thrill, and still
they said, like the Dutch verb for falling
silent that English has no accommodation for
in the attics and rafters of its intimacies.” (p.46)
As in a 17th century Dutch painting of an interior, such poems emit a radiant stillness.
5. Shirt in Heaven, by Jean Valentine, Copper Canyon, 2015
When my godson was young and we went to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, he would insist on waiting until the end of our visit before looking at the huge dinosaur at the center of the room. I feel a bit that way when a new book by Jean Valentine arrives: I want to save it for a special time at the end of the day when I’m by myself, preferably tucked in bed. Valentine’s poems, which rarely disappoint, speak so directly and mysteriously to me (and I’m sure to many others) that I feel in direct communication with her when I’m deep in her words. Her language has an uncanny mixture of delicacy and strength, as when she refers to the Luna moth’s wings as the
I in my hunger wrote.” (“Luna Moth,” p.5)
Shirt in Heaven journeys even deeper into aging womanhood, loss, and childhood than her previous books. Many of the poems are remembrances for poets, artists, and friends: Rich, Celan, Tsvetaeva, the Mandelstams, and those who are not named. Many cast a backward glance over an entire lifetime:
“there’s nothing when you’re young and clare
but love and nowhere for it
for it to go . . .
Then the bony aloneness
forty years &/forty years”
Some of the poems speak from a place between death and being reborn. Some recall childhood drawings and well-known works of art (e.g., by Bellini, Rembrandt, and Cornell). Let me end with one of those, her direct address to Rembrandt:
“From the first time I saw you, when I was young,
you held me in your own understanding exhaustion.” (“Self-Portrait, Rembrandt, 1658,” p.63)