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Poetry!

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ALRIGHT! So poetry is a genre I’ve had very little experience with, but I’ve enjoyed the collected works of Emily Dickens and plenty of one-offs recently, so have been slowly pulled into its orbit. This year I’d like to make a concerted effort to explore poetry more fully. I’m not going to set myself a specific goal or challenge or anything, but here’s a list I’ve been compiling for a while of poetry that interests me. I think I’ll start with something akin to a novel-in-verse, as narrative poetry is the kind that’s been most compelling to me thus far, and then dabble!

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dante’s Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The World Doesn’t End, by Charles Simic

The War Poems, by Wilfred Owen

The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Ariel, by Sylvia Plath

The Collected Poems, by Langston Hughes

The Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché

The Moon is Always Female, by Marge Piercy

The Fact of a Doorframe, by Adrienne Rich

The Great Fires, by Jack Gilbert

Map of the Lost, by Miriam Sagan

The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, by Pablo Neruda

A Village Life, by Louise Glück

Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes

The Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney

Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith

Voices, by Lucille Clifton

Breaking Poems, by Suheir Hammed

Citizen, by Aaron Shurin

Smith Blue, by Camille T. Dungy

Pretty Tilt, by Carrie Murphy

As I’ve said though, I’ve had very little exposure to poetry and so I don’t really know where to start. This list is incomplete and only a rough jumping-off point. Now that I’m looking at it all typed out, I realize that it’s made up almost entirely of works by European and American poets, which is unsatisfactory. Clearly, I need to do some more pointed research, and will be updating this list as I go. General recommendations are greatly appreciated, and specific ones for poets from non-Western countries are even more so!

Do you have a favorite poet? Collection? Single work? Let me know!

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Written by Emily Jane

January 13, 2013 at 1:15 am

Posted in Poetry

Catching Up, Part 3

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I’m back! Here’s what I read while I was out of town:

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, The Group follows the lives of eight women who graduate from Vassar in 1933 through the next ten years of their lives. These privileged women strongly identify themselves as part of a set based on their shared school experience and their educational status, which reads as a bit outdated. However, their experiences with, and conversations about sexuality, birth control, family problems, and workplace discrimination kept the book relevant and engaging. It was this, and a focus on long-lasting but malleable friendships, which drew me in. McCarthy writes in a meandering way and moves so easily from one character to another that the shift between them is almost imperceptible, and that didn’t hurt either. Her style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s in Mrs. Dalloway which–of course–is a high compliment.

Full disclosure: I know Miriam Sagan personally, and thank her very much for sending me a copy of this book. I don’t plan to let that sway my “review” at all, but thought it right to mention it. I don’t read a lot of poetry–I should read more though, because often when I do I end up enjoying it more than expected. This collection brings together the poetry of three friends sharing their experiences of love and loss, some of which overlap, and all of which are fairly accessible to non (or rare) poetry types like me. The natural overlap of experience is perhaps the most interesting outcome of this project since it allows for a plurality of perspectives toward singular events. My favorite part, though, was the evocative imagery of my first home, the Southwest, which is a near-constant setting for these poems. I also liked how, through their poetry, you could feel the real-life bonds that exist between the authors and see how the major events of their individual lives have informed their friendships. I hadn’t realized it before, but this book shares much of what I enjoyed most about The Group! A cathartic read.

In 1939, the French ship La Amistad sailed from Havana toward Puerto Principe, Cuba, with 56 African slaves on board. The slaves freed themselves from their restraints, mutinied, and were captured off the coast of Long Island. Questions about rightful ownership of both the ship and the people onboard fed a long-winded Supreme Court case, the resolution of which had a crucial impact on both international politics and the institution of slavery in the United States. For many New Englanders, this was their first interaction with Africans unmediated by the institution of slavery. It took them lengthy investigations and more than one translator to determine exactly where in Africa they had come from, and to hear their telling of the events aboard the Amistad, but immediately they were of widespread interest; people would come from afar to gawk at them in prison, where they were held until their freedom was finally granted in 1841, and abolitionists were quick to adopt their case. These events were widely publicized at the time, and are still quite fascinating. Unfortunately, this book was pretty boring. It’s brevity is one of the few things it has going for it. Intriguing history, but mediocre book. Too bad.

Set in early nineteenth century Andalucia, this short novel is a warning against the corruption of authority represented by the corregidor (insufficiently translated as administrator, or mayor) and symbolized by his three-cornered hat. This figure takes an interest in the local beauty, Frasquita, who is married to the miller don Eugenio. Frasquita and her husband decide to play a prank on the corregidor, but when don Eugenio begins to suspect his wife of running too far with the joke and succumbing to the corregidor’s sexual advances, he tries to one-up them by impersonating el corregidor and bedding his wife. The persistent idea that political corruption/and or gain, or “manliness”, or whatever,  comes at the expense of women “belonging” to other men is annoying to me, and totally at play here. But I couldn’t help enjoying the humorous aspects of the story, which were many. And in the end, though each wife is fooled by the silly behavior of their husbands, they are not made fools of in the way their husbands are. In fact, they gain the benefit of each other’s friendship–so I guess that evens things out. This tale would not be out of place as one of those stories within a story that happen in Don Quixote, and so I liked it.

Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Marez, a young boy from Guadelupe, New Mexico, whose life is forever altered when the curandera (healer) Ultima comes to live with his family during the second world war. He feels pulled toward two conflicting futures; one in which he honors his mother and her side of his family by becoming a priest and a settled farmer, and one in which he follows the wild, nomadic footsteps of his father’s restless dreams. He also struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the injustice he sees around him, and his existential struggles are made much more difficult when Ultima is accused of witchcraft by others in his community and people around him start dying. Though he learns wonderful things from Ultima, in the end only he can unlock the secrets to his destiny and forge his own spiritual path. Anaya is a masterful storyteller. This book was required reading for me in middle school, clouded by fond but vague, disjointed memory. It more than stood the test of time and was only improved by a second, more seasoned reading, and highly recommend it. I’ve just found out that Bless Me, Ultima is acutally part of a trilogy, and can’t wait to track down the other two books in the series.

And that’s that! Finally, I can get back to writing about books immediately (er, or at least shortly) after completing them. Welcome to summer, everyone.

Catching Up, Part 2

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In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde 🙂

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation 🙂 I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

Catching Up: The Women of Brewster Place, War Dances, and The Manticore

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I’m going to do a few quick write-ups of the last few books I read in 2010. I’m eager to get them out of the way so that I can write about one of my new favorite books, and the first completed in the new year: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins! An excellent start to the reading year, for sure. But, first, a quick look back…

We’ll start with The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor. The Women of Brewster Place is a collection of related short stories, all of which center one or two of the women living in Brewster Place, a low-income housing complex in the city. Many of them have come from the south, and struggle with poverty, relationships, violence, love, and family. I found the stories compelling, and I liked the way that some characters would appear and re-appear in others’ stories. The community felt very real to me, and it was interesting to see how each of the women interacted with it and with each other. But the themes of pain and loss were intense, and by the time they culminated in the final story–which was really disturbing–I felt a bit bogged down by it all. These stories did a good job, I thought, of highlighting issues that disproportionally affect African American women. Unfortunately, the tone of each was very similar, and the lack of differentiation left me feeling lukewarm about the book.

Next up is War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I took a course in Native American Lit for a semester in high school, where I remember reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and liking it immensely. War Dances, though, didn’t do it for me. Throughout the short stories and poems in this collection, most of which deal with father-son relationships, I caught glimpses of the kinds of insights I’d been expecting from Alexie about Indian identity and masculinity, and some about US pop culture that I hadn’t been expecting but found funny. But, though I liked aspects of many of the pieces in War Dances, I found that I didn’t really like any of the stories or poems all that much as a whole, and even less as a collection. Something about them felt a little trite and unfinished. I’m more than willing to give Alexie another chance, based on the first collection I read and his good reputation, but certainly not on the merit of this book alone.

Finally, we get to The Manticore, by Robertson Davies, one of my new favorite authors! The Manticore is the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, following Fifth Business. In this book, Davey Staunton is seeking therapy after the mysterious death of his father. Throughout the course of his treatment, he must not only come to terms with the true nature of his relationship with his father, but he must also gain a better understanding of the roles played by other key friends and family members in the course of his life’s narrative. It is only once he discovers these characters’ almost philosophical reason for being in his life, or the impact they’ve had on his subconscious, that he may come to feel he has any control over what happens to him. The story is told almost completely through his therapy sessions with Jungian psychoanalyst Joanna Von Haller. Though the book itself might “work” without having read the first in the trilogy, the strange format really only makes sense as the second in a series, I think. I didn’t find Davey nearly as interesting as Dunstan Ramsay, the protagonist of Fifth Business, and was much more interested in his doctor, Joanna. Sadly, we don’t learn much about her or her story in The Manticore. However, Davies has this uncanny ability to write about the most mundane events as if they are the world’s most complex mysteries which, in a way, perhaps they are. The Manticore definitely held my interest in the series, and I’m eager to get to the final book in the trilogy, World of Wonders!

And that about wraps it up, I think. Whew!

Quite Early One Morning, by Dylan Thomas

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I don’t think that Quite Early One Morning is a book I would normally choose for myself, but I was craving more short stories and Dylan Thomas is one of my boyfriend’s favorite authors, so that made me curious about him. I don’t know that I’d call the pieces in this book “short stories”, exactly; they are like short stories, memories, essays, and poetry all at once. Most of the pieces included in the book were well known in Thomas’ time, the 40’s and early 50’s, because they were read and broadcast over the radio in both the UK and the US. And they are beautiful.

The book is comprised of two distinct sections: the first is made up of autobiographical meanderings through Thomas’s childhood in Wales. The docks, the towns, the people–all described just perfectly and magically, with rumbling, spitting language– that I really felt I had a sense of the place. Thomas’s writing is strongly imbued with its own rhythm, and I was tempted to read aloud to feel the physicality and movement of his words. I didn’t at the time because I read most of it on an airplane and didn’t want to cause any disturbance, but I might go back at some point and try it.

The second part contains some of Thomas’s thoughts about older Welsh poets and their literary contributions. Though I wasn’t quite as interested in this part as I was in the first, Dylan Thomas’ writing kept me happy and engaged.

I would love to track down some recordings of his radio broadcasts so that I could hear these pieces read in his own voice. Though it certainly shines through the written word, I imagine there’s no real substitute for hearing it aloud.

If you’d like, you can read the title story (incidentally, my favorite in this collection) here, to give you an idea of his work. Enjoy!

Written by Emily Jane

December 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm