Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Three good books

A little while back I had the pleasure and honor of judging Grub Street's poetry book award (a prize for non-first books published by poets living outside of New England). The winners have been notified, so I finally get to tell you who won. Below are the blurbs I wrote for the winner, Frances McCue, and the two finalists. I really loved these books and I hope you'll go out and read them.

The Bled, by Frances McCue

An uncultivated wasteland; the hinterland behind a fertile populated area – the “bled” in which these poems take place is Marrakesh, where Frances McCue found great happiness and suffered crippling loss. While living in Morocco, the poet’s husband died unexpectedly, and The Bled is a brief and beautiful collection of elegiac love poems born of the event, poems about a mother and daughter suddenly missing their third: “‘If I had to pick one of you,’ my daughter says, / ‘I’d pick you.’ And that’s good, I guess, / because I’m the one she has left.” The Bled is moving and tragic, yes, but doesn’t rely on automatic pathos to impress – it is also wonderful poetry. McCue’s voice is sure and devoid of clich├ęs, her language deft, exact, and lovely, as when she describes the bled: “One could see the frozen, scalded acre, / flashed with heat and cold, the brick-chunked / rocks on the cusp of sand, the not-so-far Sahara. // We live here.” And the difficulty of reconciling memory with death: “Hands, your hands were your hands. / And the cheeks, they were your cheeks. / Still now, they are not. I press your hands, / wipe your cheek, set your skin in my palm. / It would rot away, it would not keep.” And the desire to follow, to have been the one (“Today, I go to the cemetery / and lie upon the grave. / When I tip my head back / it was as if I tipped your head back”), the complete identification with the dead (“Since your face is looking at the sky, / your eyes filming in, losing their sheen, / I don’t see. I don’t see”). McCue’s The Bled joins Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Tess Gallagher's Moon Crossing Bridge among fierce, gorgeous books about marriage and grief.

Skin, Inc., by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Someone is writing overtly and well about race in America, and it is Thomas Sayers Ellis. Though at turns rightfully angry and angering, Skin, Inc. is also very funny, very wise, and very restrained. By including bits of rejection notes, whether real, amalgamated or fictionalized, that deem the author’s work too political, or fault it for “explicitly addressing the subject of writing” and “the politics of the writing scene,” Ellis reminds us poetry is not a kind of decoration we apply to content, but the very shape of what we have to say. Ellis’s poetry is his subject, and for a black man (as for a woman), all politics are identity politics. These poems make one aware of how much is wasted in a typical line of poetry – each of Ellis’s lines is taut and torqued with meaning, meaning driven by sound and inseparable from sound: “I no longer write / white writing // yet white writing / won’t stop writing me.” See also “The Obama Hour”: “Finally, one of us is properly / positioned to run. By ‘us’ I mean Black, / by ‘positioned’ I mean White / and by ‘run’ I mean Race and its varied speeds of darkness…” For once, “relevance” in poetry doesn’t feel sanctimonious, it just feels like listening to someone who knows more of the story than you, and you want to hear him tell it. Skin, Inc. is poetry with a purpose and a point of view and all the music you could ask for: “Many of the images melt / while others appear to rumor, ghetto-fashion, into one another … I like it when range finder, breathing plastic / and messy rainbows collide.”

Ghost Fargo, by Paula Cisewski

In Paula Cisewski’s Fargo, every night is karaoke night and the past (a saltwater sea? a beet field?) is always in our midst, just beneath the surface like a pentimento showing through. The speaker of these wry poems is both searching for something and trying to escape, and though the ghost of an absent brother haunts their space, the poems eschew any melodrama (“Let’s not / train our grief to resemble a parlor trick”); what moves Ghost Fargo forward is not sadness but a kind of restless, melancholy wit with an endearingly awkward self-awareness, like a young woman starting to realize she’s attractive. Cisewski’s poetry is quick-moving and full of surprise, seeming always to learn what it wants to say at the same time as the reader: “No one admits when they’re dead. / It’s like hide and seek – / Like backwards hide and seek // Everybody’s ‘it.’ Nobody has to search / to keep discovering and / discovering what.” I delighted in the logic of the quirky, questioning mind behind this book:
Do I want to
illuminate the past

in a town that still calls
itself Fargo? What does

“illuminate the past” mean?
That an evergreen

triples for me? A flashlight?
If it means “memory,” we

might be screwed,
because memory is like

being enclosed in parentheses
wherein even the illuminated

trees are fake. Look, I’ve invented
a forest from one tree

and no one believes me. As if I speak
in imaginary trees! Dead trees!
In fact Paula Cisewski is easy to like and easy to believe.

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