The weather is hinting at autumn here in Minnesota…we’ve had a slew of cooler temperature days with fall-colored skies. While I’m still a little in denial about the end of summer, I’m not-so-secretly looking forward to my favorite season. Fall is the season where I cut back on my social butterfly schedule, and take deep joy in staying home in sweatpants with my cat and a book. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to reading this fall.
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, September)
You’ll see a review soon of this gem. It’s one that I’ve already read multiple times since receiving the review copy. My love of Ada Limón is well documented (previous review here), and Bright Dead Things only makes me fall deeper in love with her writing. The poems examine the human heart through loss of a close loved one, moving from New York City to Kentucky, and love. It’s contemplative, proud, and heartaching, all wrapped up in Limón’s delectable command of language.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, September)
There’s already a lot of buzz about this book; folks are saying Luiselli pulls you into the weird world of the main character, Highway, and his collection of famous teeth. Both Luiselli and Highway are master storytellers, creating a space that is unlike any other, and hard to shake once you’ve entered.
The Walls by Matthew Henriksen (Black Ocean, Fall 2015)
I enjoyed Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun collection (brief review here), and am looking forward to this upcoming collection. His poems teem with honesty and imagistic wonder, both of which I gravitate towards. I haven’t heard much about this collection at all, which makes me all the more curious to see what Henriksen comes up with.
Cat is Art Spelled Wrong by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz (Coffee House Press, September)
Speaking of cats, I went to the CatVidFest recently, a participant of this internet-age phenomena of YouTube, cat humor, and community. Coffee House Press is devoted to exploring our contemporary world, and this collection of essays from 14 different writers will get you thinking about our society and it’s identity.
What books are you eagerly anticipating this fall?
Are you an industrious bookworm looking for something to do in your spare time? A critical reader looking for a home? A literary-type looking for a way to get involved in the literary community? We’re looking for you!
We’re looking for two or three Editorial Contributors to join our team of masterful book reviewers. (Please note: Hazel & Wren is an all-volunteer organization, so these are unpaid positions. We pay in hugs, beer, books, and good karma.)
For more details on the positions and how to apply, go here. You have until September 1st to apply!
Ramón Casas, After the Ball, 1895. Oil on canvas. Museo de la Abadía de Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain.
Lynn Skordal, The Singer, Not the Song, from the Chair Series. Paper collage. www.lynnskordal.paspartout.com
Rodney Smith, Collin with Magnifying Glass, Alberta, Canada, 2004. Photograph. www.rodneysmith.com
Blood Work by Matthew Siegel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015)
Matthew Siegel’s debut (and winner of the 2015 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry), Blood Work, is a collection of raw, personal and beautiful poems. Siegel writes clear and sparingly about illness, love, home, and the way a person begins to adapt as they learn who they are after being diagnosed with a chronic disease.
The book includes candid poems about the pain and unpredictability that is Crohn’s disease. My mother has Crohn’s, a disease she has described as random and restrictive. In fact, it was that personal connection that drew me to this book. I understand the mechanics and symptoms of the disease, but I can never entirely understand her experience. I was curious to see the disease through a poet’s lens. Indeed, Siegel’s poems are at their best when he’s able to adeptly crystallize the sensation of physical pain into words. The poem “In the Bathroom” is an extraordinary example of poetry about such a delicate and personal illness:
My hands grip my knees.
I’ll wash them and wash them
I lean into my body like a needle,
like a losing argument.
I cannot look at my living blood
in this tiny world where I am
more alone than being born,
more alone than dying.
Perhaps it was Siegel’s intention, or perhaps it is my personal connection to the disease, but many of these poems left me feeling like somewhat of a voyeur. It was a subtle sense; however, and a testament to how wonderfully written these poems are.
A difficult skill to master is the fusion of humor with tragedy, but Siegel nails it in an adept and surprising way. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book was “Matthew You’re Leaving Again So Soon.” The poem is essentially a list of items that the speaker’s mother wants him to take as he is leaving her home. The poem is perfectly comic in a way that moved me to (not at all comic) tears:
please take these pens I have all these pens
for you all with caps on them
take this umbrella this sweater these socks
they’re ankle length like you like them
and soup take this soup I froze four batches
in Tupperware four batches of broth and chicken
they will keep you healthy my son
my liver take my liver to help clean your blood
I’ll fly to you I’ll come to you tomorrow
you used to cling to my ankle and I would
drag you across the floor please
pack me in your suitcase take me with you
The “blood” in the book’s title seems to refer to family as much as it refers to actual blood or illness, as the theme resurfaces frequently. The obviously beloved mother figure is grieving a failing/failed marriage, and her grief, carried through the book, is heartbreaking and palpable. While the poems about Crohn’s are beautiful, they don’t always feel as deeply emotional as the poems about family. In particular, the poems about the mother feel less refined and more raw, and they are beautiful. In “The Girl Downstairs is Crying,” Siegel writes,
The girl downstairs is crying and no
this is not about my mother, not at all
The girl downstairs is crying
and I hear the echo of my mother’s small room
miles away in New York, remember
how I heard her through my thickest sheets
Tonight I listen from my bed,
as if the girl’s cries are a radio show in a language
I understand but cannot speak. Though
I fall asleep to the sound of a stranger’s sobbing
Perhaps the core issue in this book is the speaker’s changing and nebulous relationship with his concept of home. In many ways, our bodies are our first homes. Crohn’s is considered an autoimmune disorder in which the body essentially attacks healthy cells in its own digestive system. If we are to consider our bodies as our original and most important home, what does it do to our sense of self when this home begins to inexplicably and randomly fail?
Containment as a concept runs congruent with the concept of home in many of these poems. This sense of seeking an understanding of home seems to be intertwined with the sense of needing to be contained. As the speaker’s sense of self has been altered by a diagnosis with Crohn’s, so has his sense of place in the physical word. When your own body stops containing you, how can you rely on other people, places, or buildings to do so? In the poem titled “Blood Work,” he writes:
She lets me play with my filled tubes. Can you feel
how warm they are? That’s how warm you are inside
and I nod, think about condoms, tissues,
all the things that contain us but cannot.
The concept of containment is visited again in the poem, “[Sometimes I Don’t Know if I’m Having a Feeling]”:
Everything is different sometimes.
Sometimes there is no hand on my shoulder —
but my room, my apartment, my body are containers
and I am thusly contained. How easy to forget
the obvious. The walls, blankets, sunlight, your love.
The closing poem in the book, titled “Rain,” reads:
I am always halfway
to becoming ok with this.
But I can eat sweet dates,
steer a car with one knee.
I can look out my window and see grass
glowing green in rain and streetlight —
so many bright beads of water.
Despite the heavy subject matter — the emotion, pain, and restlessness — that the book wrestles with, this closing poem is indicative of the sense of hope and love that also permeates this phenomenal debut. I look forward to reading further collections by Siegel.
Have you ever chosen a book because you had a personal connection with the subject matter? How did your personal experience color the way you felt about the book?
This week feels like a surreal sort of week. Let’s focus, though, on making our subjects a bit more youthful. And zoomorphic. Yep, that sounds surreal enough to me.
Anonymous, Untitled. Postcard circa 1900-1920, from the collection of James Birch. Published in Babylon: Surreal Babies, by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2010.
Anne Siems, Shelter, 2013. Oil on panel. www.annesiems.com
Jane Long, Underneath, from Dancing with Costică series. Digital photomontage. www.janelong.photomerchant.net