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What We’re Reading: Stranger

2016 March 24
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by Wren

What We're ReadingstrangerStranger: Poems by Adam Clay (Milkweed 2016)

This is not a collection of poems that I lapped up with extreme pleasure; however, it’s one that I felt mentally challenged by, in a positive way. Clay is a poet that examines everyday life. He picks objects, looks at them, but more so, he looks around them. Clay delves into all the possible corners around “the thing” for thought, for meaning, for a pathway to the next mundane moment of life. There is an apt press quote on the back cover from Cate Marvin that says “refusing to placate or console his reader, Clay proves himself one of our most challenging and brilliant poets.” Clay challenges us, he might not play nice, but he does make our synapses fire a little brighter.

The poem “Even a Straight Line Must Curve to Shape the World” further explains Clay’s approach to poetry, especially in this excerpt:

[…] My mind
in these moments wants
to string a thread from here
to there in such a way that you
would think it had always
been there.


No matter how hard I try,
I find myself returning back
to a logical way of organizing
everything, and I wonder
if I could recognize
madness in its current
river of form? A day on loan
can still be a type of day, the way
the light declines moment by moment,
and we witness the sky moving
away from the earth, a wreath of light
like a vision, like a weariness so divine.

As the reader, I found myself wanting to string threads between lines and poems to understand exactly what Clay was trying to say. Of the objects he chooses to focus on: a couch, damaged plaster, ink spot on a wall. But, that got tiresome, and so I took Clay’s advice and let the threads go to let his pondering wash over me.

Clay creates space with his poems. He clears the way, widening the horizon. He doesn’t necessarily define the horizon; he thinks on it. Space to think. He does this not only with his examination of the minutiae of daily life, but also with his prose. His voice is matter of fact, logical, easy to read even if it isn’t easy to follow his theoretical tangents. His word choice doesn’t often veer into the lyrical side of poetry; rather it stays mostly based in plain language. But there are moments, like at the end of the poem above, that startle you with their airy beauty.

He also creates space within the content of the poems. Many lines reference an absence, a carving, whether it be space in the earth, or metaphorical space in relationships. These are neat carvings of space, that match his tidy use of couplets especially, and other concise, clean formal patterns. He may paint an abstract image for us, but he ties us to some notion of logic with his constrained lines. The lengths of the poems vary; some are short and taut, while other stretch on for pages, looping back on themes and questions.

At the root of these poems there is an unsettled loneliness, an unquenchable desire for thought, and a constant battle with boredom. One of my favorites from the collection, “Sounds of an Emptying House”, shows Clay at his finest. It’s one of the long poems that loops back on themes. The themes present here echo those that are present throughout the entire collection: the passing of time, shifting of relationships, forgiveness, memory, and the emptying of physical space (in this case, it’s tied to an act of closure).

After finishing this collection, I felt I knew more about our speaker when we started, although I couldn’t place a finger on the precise moment of understanding. It’s like Clay says in the poem,”Start This Record Over”:

I’d like to make a map not of the land
but of the path I took to arrive in this place,

a map with no idealized purpose,
a map of a thousand airless pines.

We are left with a map of our speaker’s brain, relationships, physical space, and everyday life. And while we may not have specific locations to point at and say, “There, now I understand,” we have still put in the miles with his thoughts and feel somehow connected through a destination-less map.

What other poets defy meaning with their work, and instead, create space for thought?

What We’re Reading: Beautiful Zero

2016 February 18
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What We're Readingbeautiful zeroBeautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby (Milkweed Editions 2015)

This is a collection of poems that satisfied my cognitive, physical, and emotional hunger. Willoughby is master of brainy poetry, making difficult or surprising cognitive leaps with a unforgivably straight-forward tone. This is Willoughby’s first book, and was the 2015 winner of Milkweed’s Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. I am ever so grateful that these poems have been published as a unit.

Willoughby is an advertising copywriter, and this makes sense when viewing her poetry. There aren’t any unnecessary words, and each phrase packs a powerfully specific image. Time is not wasted in these poems. She writes glittering compact lines, tightly wound to unleash with maximum force.

I call this poetry brainy, as scientific elements such as rhizomes, bacteria, and the hippocampus all surface in Willoughby’s lines. But it’s more than that; other lines allude to “the hunt,” a primal instinct that seeps into and combines with scientific reason, along with a smattering of pop culture influences. All of this creates a forcefield of ripe imagery to talk through complex, emotionally hefty subjects such as love, pain, and vulnerability.

Right away, Willoughby sets the landscape that she intends to traverse with this collection, with the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away”. An excerpt:

Time: sunset. I am having a clearly defined feeling.
You are lost in immaculate self-regard.
Those diaphanous spores are copulating.
You are giving me disco lessons.
Dance fast and lead with your ass.
Without fear, my body would come apart.
Look at me go.

This poem’s title and following lines capture perhaps the most significant resurfacing theme for this book—Willoughby brings the reader in close in one line, then pushes them back in the next. The power of this intimacy given and forcefully taken away creates a complex relationship between speaker and reader.

This push-and-pull relationship is paralleled by Willoughby’s use of dark humor throughout. Humor sprinkles darker statements with surprise, such as in “Wisconsin Space Odyssey”: “The sky turns the color / of morning glories just before they / die and on the runway, planes / relax like ladies at a day spa.” These moments mix effortlessly with darker, dangerous images.

Another theme that surfaces in that first poem is fire, as an expression of the danger of (too much?) emotion. It’s echoed again in other poems, such as “The Properties of Women are the Properties of Life” with the line “Yes, we wrestle our feelings into flammable capes.” And later in a poem that is a statement about the U.S. called “Country on Fire”: “Living in this country is like finding / the weapon that solves the crime. No one claps, / but the wait is over. Blaze on, Florida, blaze on.” These fiery feelings attack subjects such as war, mental health, female strength.

The middle section is a series of poems called “Kaiser Variations,” taking place in Kaiser Permanente hospital. We start to see the speaker’s roots in trauma, mental health, complex marriage/love, the scientific approach to emotions, and the careful handling of said emotions, such as in “Kaiser Vaiations 3”:

[…] Big or small,
emotions were cocaine and I craved a billion while
poor Vivian got defeated by a group hug.
Counselor said: The speaking is easy but the feeling
is hard. I was stuck in the throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. […]

It’s good that these poems come in the middle section, heavy and essential to this collection’s arc as they are. As the reader, we feel what the speaker feels; drawn into the vortex of the emotions laid raw at our feet with that second section especially, then the need to distance ourselves from it. We resurface again in the third and final section with more confident poems, and a sense of re-building something, such as in “The Sun is Still a Part of Me”:

[…] My phone is close
to solving the mystery of why
I don’t answer the phone.
I am so busy. I am practicing
my new hobby of watching me
becoming someone else. There is
so much violence in reconstruction.
Each minute is grisly, but I have
to participate. I am building
what I cannot break.

There is constant destruction in recreation, and this final segement of poems grapples with that.

After digesting this collection, I keep coming back to a line in the poem, “It is Not Entirely My Fault,” where Willoughby writes “There is nothing less original than a sentence.”  Yet throughout Beautiful Zero, she proves this statement wrong with every sentence she writes. The contradiction and simultaneity of multiple truths is the heart of this book, and the reason I can’t shake these poems from my brain.

What other poets capture all of your senses, and cling to them after reading?


What We’re Reading: Bright Dead Things

2015 October 8
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What We're Readingbright dead thingsBright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, Sept 2015)

Apparently today is National Poetry Day. While every day is poetry day for me, what better way to celebrate the nationally acknowledged day than with one of my absolute favorite poets: Ada Limón. I first fell in love with Ada Limón with her third collection of poems in 2010, Sharks in the Rivers (and reviewed it here). Those poems settled into my bones with a force, and I took on fan-girl status. Fan girl flames were flared when I heard of the publication of this new collection. Suffice to say, this Limón fan girl was not disappointed.

I’ve already read Bright Dead Things through at least four times, and it’s a collection that I know I’ll keep coming back to. Again, these poems settle into the body with a permanence. Limón’s voice in this collection carries some bitterness, dry humor, and a lot of bite. Soft moments are sprinkled in a little more rarely than the other moments, but enough to give us a resting place before Limón jerks us along to the next scene.

There are four sections in the book. Here is what I took from these sections: the first is fight and defiance and animalistic. Second chronicles a slow, inevitable death, a mother figure’s sickness and eventual passing. The third is about love, and the (sometimes reluctant) surprise of it. The fourth is a reconciliation of it all. Changing geography also plays a role throughout, with ghosts of New York and California haunting her on a move to rural Kentucky. A final theme I want to mention is the act of aging, and the reconciliation of past, current, and future selves.

The opening poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl”, starts the book off with a, well, swagger, to use one of the words from the poem itself. An excerpt:

I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.

This heart is always present, always out there. I love the brave vulnerability of Limón’s writing; everything is out there for us to see, judge, and swallow along with her. She also manages to harness complexity of life and people and death, but also speak these complexities in a transparent tongue. Her language isn’t out to prove something; it’s out to explore, on an elemental level.

The second section is rife with anger and grief. The main subject is the speaker’s mother figure (I think her step-mother? It can be hard to keep track.), who becomes terminally ill, and the poet moves in to take care of her in her final days. This isn’t a sweet reflection on death. This is a painful, raw, anger-filled reflection on the ugliness of death. Yet, Limón knows how to deliver this pain in a way that we can absorb it; sandwiching the grief with moments of pause and dry humor. For example, the poem “The Quiet Machine” rolls us gracefully and smoothly through humor, contemplation, more humor, then, bam, fiery heartache:

I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. […] There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock. […] There’s shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there’s the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works.

“In the Country of Resurrection”, the last poem of this section, starts with a violent mercy killing of an already dying possum on the road. Yet, while the majority of the poem focuses on this death, the last few lines give us a little hope.

But that was last night. This morning
the sun is coming alive in the kitchen.

You’ve gone to get us gas station coffee
and there is so much life all over the place.

It’s a small gesture, but a gesture nonetheless, to face a new day with a tentative hope, a way to move on from death.

Section 3 is about love, perhaps an unexpected love. The act of aging, and finding love almost surprises the poet, as she looks back at the shadow of her younger self, to her current self. She’s reconciling with both of those selves. While the poem “During the Impossible Age of Everyone” is from the first section, it captures the essence of love, and the new discomfort of it, in the closing lines:


There is a slow tractor traffic hollering outside,
and I’d like not to be traffic, but the window shaking,
Your shoes are piled up with mine, and the heat
comes on, makes a simple noise, a dog-yawn.
People have done this before, but not us.

The final section, as I said, feels like a reconciliation of all the previous sections together in a new sense of being. This section opens up, take a higher, forward-looking perspective on life after this bloody transformation. The opening poem “Adaptation” says it all: “[…] Still, how the great middle / ticker marched on, and from all its four chambers / to all its forgiveness, unlocked the sternum’s / door, reversed and reshaped until it was a new / bright carnal species, more accustomed to grief, / and ecstatic at the sight of you.”

Limón says on this National Book Award page, that “When I was writing Bright Dead Things, I was constantly trying to push myself to say what was true—and sometimes unnerving—for me. […] I’d go for walks or drives and ask, “What are you scared of?” and when I found the answer, I’d find the poem.”

And also: “Finding a language for joy was intensely hard. It was easier to go into the pitch-black caves, to plummet into the colder, harder core of the self, than to risk admitting that there is pleasure in this life, that being alive in and of itself is an ecstatic thing.” It’s this vulnerability that pulled at my gut when reading these poems. She looks fear in the eye, and on the next page, she lets herself experience joy (even if it’s often tinged with sadness). In fact, it’s that juxtaposition, the closeness of dark and light, that makes the other more clear.

What other poets juxtapose light and dark, always on the edge of vulnerability?


What We’re Reading: Fall Book Preview

2015 August 27
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What We're ReadingThe 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.

brightdeadthingsBright 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 wrongCat 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?