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What We’re Reading: Citizen: An American Lyric

2014 November 20
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What We're Reading

citizen coverCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014)

To this reviewer, it seems like we’re having a bit of a cultural moment, confronting issues of racism and sexism on a national level. In the publishing industry, organizations like VIDA and Cave Canem are making space for diverse voices and calling on more privileged individuals to sit down and listen. This is a good thing for readers whose options are growing as well made and challenging books are brought to the fore.

Back in August I reviewed Jamaal May’s Hum and wrote a little bit about how our reading is almost always affected by the world around us. I finished reading May’s book when protests in Ferguson began and, shortly after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric the #Pointergate scandal hit and I found myself rereading Rankine’s words in light of yet another story with systemic racism at its core. I’m reading within this cultural moment, which has altered my reading list in profound ways.

Citizen contains a series of vignettes describing, in second person, various microaggressions—subtle, perhaps unintended, displays of power by white people toward people of color.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

So begins one such vignette. Another reads, in full:

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.

Rankine pulls news stories into these vignettes as well, referencing Don Imus, who notoriously insulted the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and men (boys in the case of the last two) like James Craig Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis whose tragic deaths were racially motivated.

This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently. As a white man, the experiences of people of color are and always will be beyond my abilities to understand. Rankine, however, provides a window into a world I have the privilege of knowing nothing about. Rankine puts the reader in the spotlight, making us see these stories anew, as a way to cast these aggressions from her body. It’s a tactic that is potentially triggering to someone who has experienced aggressions like this, but is a way to discomfort the comfortable.

Beyond the content, Citizen is formally compelling as well, though very much in the tradition of American letters, as the subtitle alludes to. Split into seven parts, the book has no table of contents and only a single section features titled pieces. This gives the effect of an extended and single work. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with its long, democratic lines, is a clear precursor, but Rankine’s work exists in the more contemporary space of lyric essay as well. Rankine uses outside text and images to illuminate and complicate, such as the recurring quote from Zora Neale Hurtson, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This text stands out most as a two-page reproduction of Glen Ligon’s rendering of the quote in black on a white background. Indeed, Hurston’s quote can be considered a sort of theses statement for the whole book.

In what is perhaps the most focused and clear section, Rankine describes another series of microaggressions, these against tennis star Serena Williams. With the passion of a fan, Rankine examines some of the more egregious offences against Williams:

The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Marina Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her semifinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Comentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening.


Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Notice that Serena’s detractors take form as a particular person, a shape for these events to exist in. This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page. The “form” is a way of focusing the reader’s attention on an event and asking the reader, as Rankine writes later in the book, “What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean?”

After reading Hum I asked if Poetry Can Save The World or, at the very least, ease your pain when the news of the world becomes too much. I ask both questions again now in the context of Citizen. Reading is an act of empathy, especially if the text you’re reading is in second person, as Citizen is. Can poetry like this save the world?


What We’re Reading: Underground

2014 August 14
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What We're ReadingundergroundUnderground: New and Selected Poems by Jim Moore (Graywolf Press, September 2, 2014)

Underground is a hefty book of poetry, both in size (275 pages) and imprint. These are poems mostly of daily life observations, poems that wind their way into your own daily life, causing you to see the woman at the bus stop you take every day, or the barista at your favorite coffee shop in a new, refreshed light. Underground is Moore’s first  retrospective collection of both selected and new poems, featuring poems from his previous seven books of poetry, as well as twenty new poems. Retrospective collections like this spanning a writer’s career are always daunting to me for reviews, as there is just so much to talk about. While I do my best to work through these poems, you’ll enjoy it more if you just buy the book once it publishes September 2.

I love Moore’s poetry because it’s so easy to enter his world with his simple yet profound language. He has a clear and confident voice that tremors with emotion when writing of politics or loss, while in another poem, casting an aura of delight around a daily moment. While reading through this glance at his life’s work thus far, I feel that he increasingly zeroes in on his subjects, his focus, his voice by his mid-career, and then his later and most recent work opens up again. This isn’t to say that they don’t have focus or voice, but rather, they have a light airiness about them, and often turn the eye back towards the reader. It’s interesting to see this trajectory and shift in atmosphere in Moore’s work throughout the years.

First section of poems from the 1975 book The New Body. This is work of a poet grounded in daily life observations, and writing in a direct, personal tone. A couple poems are for other writers, namely, Tom McGrath and Meridel LeSueur. His fresh use of language in a surprising fashion brings this section alive, which bubbles through in this first section of the poem “Music” for Meridel LeSueur:


The cold egg of the snow cracks open,
broadens into chunks of fog.
10 A.M. and the street corner is invisible.
I turn on the electric heater, listen to Casals,
watch the branches like thin asparagus stalks
shrouded and growing under water.
Something lives here bigger than my skin,
larger even than the old man Pablo bent over his bow,
the old man Pablo brushing his quick strokes on paper,
the old man Pablo writing his last poem from a hospital bed.

Moore also quickly shows us that he’s just as adept with long poems as he is with short poems, such as the poem “How to Close the Great Distance Between People”, quoted here in its entirety:

Do it over coffee,
like fish that appear to be talking,
but are really eating to stay alive.

In the next section, from 1988’s The Freedom of History, we see the poet with his brow furrowed a bit more. He takes on politics (the Iron Curtain in Prague in 1980), rape, terrorism, and world travel. In selections from The Long Experience of Love (1995), includes familial poems about the speaker’s mother, father, an imagined son, daughter, friends, and more intimate portraits of people. The sections move on, shifting slightly in tone or subject, bringing the reader along the trajectory of Moore’s writing. Later selections show Moore as more pondering, often asking questions, wondering aloud without necessarily filling in the answers. This pointed awareness brings us into his world, and in turn, we bring his world into our own life routines, his questions and pondering thoughts following us throughout our day.

The final section of new poems, title “Twenty Questions”, starts with those questions again, and in fact, the first and title poem turns us back to that awareness of the surrounding world:

Did I forget to look at the sky this morning
when I first woke up? Did I miss the willow tree?
The white gravel road that goes up from the cemetery,
but to where? And the abandoned house on the hill, did it get
even a moment? Did I notice the small clouds so slowly
moving away?

This section includes a sparser, less-definite Moore. If wisdom comes with age, then wisdom for Moore is all about asking yourself questions, and probing deeper, always deeper. The lines of his poem stretch out, taking up space, and not worrying about the increasing white space between the lines. The form of these poems is confident and clear, just like Moore’s tone.

Mark your calendars for September 11, 7:00 pm for Jim Moore’s publication launch celebration for Underground at the Loft Literary Center. I’ve marked mine!

What other career retrospectives have you read that have stuck with you? Is there a writer that you’ve noticed a large shift in their work over time?


What We’re Reading: The Virtues of Poetry

2014 June 19
by Timothy

What We're Reading

virtues of poetry cover

The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach (Graywolf Press, 2013)

I have to admit that I’ve been in a rut lately. I’ve been feeling distracted and drained as a reader and a bit blocked as a writer. That’s not quite right; I’ve had good ideas, but no focus to work them out on the page. There are myriad reasons for this and I’m doing what I can to address them, but I want to talk specifically about one tactic: reading books on craft.

I’ve struggled to read poetry over the last month, which is frustrating because reading helps me focus and often leads me to my desk to write. Trying to break out of this rut, I’ve turned to and found solace in short works that change the way I read poetry. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was the first such book I ever encountered in college, and I recently re-read A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver. I also love “Feeding the Mind” by Lewis Carrol and Graywolf PressThe Art Of… series. Also from Graywolf Press is a graceful collection of linked essays by James Longenbach called The Virtues of Poetry.

Longenbach tells us “the word virtue came to English from Latin, via Old French, and while it has acquired a moral valence, the word in its earliest uses gestured toward a magical or transcendental power [….]” Longenbach is interested in examining the magic beneath poems, looking closely at their inner workings to understand how they operate. Here Longenbach excels, providing surprising contrasting poems to examine in similar ways—Whitman and Louise Glück in “Infinitude,” Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, and T.S. Eliot in “Writing Badly.”

In “Less Than Everything” Longenbach tackles Pound’s radical compression by first presenting Herbert Giles “badly written,” tone-deaf translation of a Chinese poem. Pound adapted Giles’ poem into his own poem, “Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord,” compressing the piece into three-lines, and just eighteen words. Of Pound’s poem Longenbach writes, “If this translation does not sound to us like a mockery of Chinese poetry, it is because Pound invented the poetic idiom with which we now associate Chinese poetry[.]” This radical compression, Longenbach contends, “has in many ways determined the direction of poetry in our language for the past hundred years[.]”

What makes Longenbach a careful critic, however, is his willingness to complicate the conclusions he draws. Pound may have determined the direction of poetry in the last century, but Longenbach ends his chapter on compression by asking how “we recognize the work of lines that flirt with what we might otherwise call bad writing.” In other words, how can other techniques be blended with Pound’s compression to achieve other worthwhile effects in poems?

Of course, the conclusions Longenbach comes to in answering or attempting to answer these questions might not be to your taste. Indeed, I’ve found that reading texts on craft that aren’t to my taste is useful in bringing my own ideas about writing into sharper focus. Craft essays enter into a conversation about literature that can alter the way one reads a given text and offer thoughts on how an author created a piece. I look for several things when reading about craft, including things to argue against and new things to read. The Virtues of Poetry gives both, along with plenty of things to agree with as well.

I’ve struggled to read poetry over the last month or so, but Longenbach’s essays have given me dozens of ideas, several new authors to read, and a renewed excitement about poetry, both as a reader and a writer. I can’t think of higher praise for a book of essays than that.

Which brings me to a personal plea: What essays and books on craft have you found value in? The next time I find myself in a rut, where should I turn?


What We’re Reading: Summer Preview Round-Up

2014 May 29
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What We're ReadingWith summer waving its lilac blossoms and punchy-green budding branches at us, we’re getting ready for a summer of reading. The local Minnesota presses have enough to offer without me even needing to look further; but please, add to this list. If you have a book you’re looking forward to, tell us about it! To start this off, here’s a list of books I’m excited to read by the side of a lake, on the sun porch, or while enjoying a brewski.

the wish bookThe Wish Book by Alex Lemon (Poetry, Milkweed Editions)

I was floored by Lemon’s poetry collection Fancy Beasts, so can’t wait to dig into this romp of a book. If the cover art is indicative at all of the interior, this is going to be an absolute pleasure of the senses, and will be rife with his pop culture observations and striking approach.


The Search by Geoff Dyer (Novel, Graywolf Press)

You may have noticed my recent obsession with excellent literary crime fiction, which is why it’s no surprise that The Search has been added to my list. Publisher’s Weekly described the book as “A take on the detective / noir genre in the vein of Auster, Calvino, and Borges. . . . Dyer creates a series of puzzles, which are sure to send some back for a second read”. A fan of Calvino, I’m looking forward to getting lost in Dyer’s puzzling display of mystery and storytelling.

faces in the crowdFaces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Novel, Coffee House Press)

Layered novels captivate me with their patient story arches, the weaving of characters and time. I expect Faces in the Crowd to be no different. With three narrators struggling with voices and memories of the past, I’m excited to see how Luiselli brings their individual voices together for the overarching thread.


Thirty Rooms to Hide In by Luke Longstreet Sullivan (Memoir, U of M Press)

Six sons of a prominent Mayo Clinic surgeon watch their father go insane and turn to abuse in this dramatic family history. Families and their inner factions fascinate me, and hearing Sullivan’s account of his childhood is sure to capture my attention.

What are you looking forward to reading? Are you trying to catch up on things you’ve started, or are you ready to start something new?