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Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 169 pgs
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The power of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine makes me wonder what the winner of the National Book Award could have written to outshine Rankine’s words in 2014.  In her collection of essays, poems, and vignettes, Rankine points: “‘The purpose of art,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.'” (page 115)  She took this to heart when writing this collection because she raises up those questions about race in America and brandishes them like a flag.  That is not to say that racism is something that is wholly owned by just white people or white police, but that it is perpetuated by the actions, behaviors, and assumptions both races make about one another.  What does it mean to be American? Does it mean as citizens we brush aside these issues and move forward? Does it mean that we must embrace all of this darkness into ourselves and find solutions that may not work for everyone? Or does it mean that we must take a more internal approach and remedy that which we do to perpetuate those wrongs around us?

from page 135:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

What is engaging about Rankine’s work is that she blurs the lines between the you, the I, the she, the he, to make it less clear cut who is being discriminated against and who is suffering. In this way she takes the time to juxtapose the traditional black victim of white racism formula with a less black-and-white distinction, and it’s done with purpose.

“In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief — code for being black in America — is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules.  Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context–” (page 30)

Lest you think this book is about racism only through the lens of the victim, it is not.  There a great deal to discuss about racism, its roots, its ignorance, and its pervasiveness in American society.  While many, if not all, the references are contemporary, they could have been pulled from many times throughout history.  Book clubs could discuss this collection of essays and poems for hours.  I cannot explain to you how deeply affected by the book I have been.  I will likely read and re-read this book many times.  I may even put it forth to my book club as a suggestion.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is essential reading for every American — young or old, black or white, Hispanic or Asian; it is the beginning of a dialogue that is desperately needed in this country where the presumption of ignorance or incivility is based upon a skin color rather than an individual’s actions and behaviors.  While discrimination against “other” continues, it is not merely one-sided, and until we are able to break down those walls to the truth of our humanity, discrimination and racism will always exist.

***Best of 2015 — not a contender, firmly on the list***

About the Author:

Claudia Rankine was born in Jamaica in 1963. She earned her B.A. in English from Williams College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf, 2004); PLOT (2001); The End of the Alphabet (1998); and Nothing in Nature is Private (1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize.

Rankine has edited numerous anthologies including American Women Poets in the Twenty-First Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan, 2002) and American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics (2007). Her plays include Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, commissioned by the Foundry Theatre and Existing Conditions, co-authored with Casey Llewellyn. She has also produced a number of videos in collaboration with John Lucas, including “Situation One.” A recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poetry, the National Endowments for the Arts, and the Lannan Foundation, she is currently the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College.  (Photo credit: John Lucas)

 

 

 

 

Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947

Source: Gift (Published by Graywolf Press)
Hardcover, 128 pages
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Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947 edited and introduced by Fred Marchant, which was our June book club selection, is a collection of mostly never before published poems by William Stafford while he worked with the Civilian Public Service (CPS) after becoming a conscientious objector of WWII.  While it is a collection of poems by a young poet working in camps on civil service projects who felt exiled within his own country for being a pacifist, these poems also represent a poet searching for his own voice and style.  There are variations in tone, punctuation, and capitalization, as well as a wide use of the em dash.

The Prisoner (page 26)

Touched the walls on every side again—
Obsessed with prowling thoughts of free live men.
He heard when guards had slammed the outer gates,
How suddenly like wool the silence waits.
Resigned, he sat and thought of all the dead.
"I'll soon wake up from life," the prisoner said.
                      c. Magnolia, Arkansas
                      [1942]

While Stafford was a conscientious objector, life in the camps was not easy going — it was hard work, and many might even characterize it as a punishment for those who objected to doing their soldierly duty.  While he seemed to know that he was a pacifist, he continued to struggle with what it meant to be a pacifist, and this struggle is evident in his poems.  Another running theme through the poems is a deep sense of loneliness, a being apart from the whole of society, and wondering how he fits into not just his pacifist society at the camps, but in the greater society outside of those camps.  In this internal struggle, Stafford writes about listening and observation and in many ways he takes these “passive” activities and makes them active inspection and cause for action.

From "Their voices were stilled..." (page 24)

Their voices were stilled across the land.
I sought them. I listened.
The only voices were war voices.
Where are the others? I asked, lonely
      in the lush desert.
One voice told me secretly:
We do not speak now, lest we be misunderstood.
We cannot speak without awaking the dragon of anger
      to more anger still.
That is why you are lonely.
You must learn stillness now.

I looked into his eyes, and they were a dragon's eyes,
      and I could not speak,
And we were as grains of sand huddled under the wind,
Awaiting to be molded, waiting to persuade with yielding
      the feet of the dragon.

                        Magnolia, Arkansas
                        May 1, 1942

Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947 edited and introduced by Fred Marchant explores the early writings of a national poetic icon, who stood behind his convictions even if it meant he was separated from society at large and required to work so hard it seemed like a punishment.  Stafford’s “deep listening,” as Marchant says, requires active participation on his part, he evokes pacifism in a way that will leave readers re-examining their own convictions where war is concerned.

***Disclosure, Fred Marchant is my former poetry professor from my Alma Mater.***

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club seemed to enjoy the poems, though there were a few members who found the poems in the end section rather odd compared to the others.  Once we got Skype going with the editor of the collected poems, several members were engaged in the conversation, poems were read aloud and discussed, and afterward, several said they would go back and re-read some of the poems now that they had more background on the poet and his experiences.  Having Fred Marchant join us engaged more of the members in conversation and reading of poems, and the background information seemed to help put the poems in perspective.  The poems were dated, so we could follow the historical time line, such as one poem written about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Members indicated they would be interested in another Skype session.

About the Editor:

Fred Marchant is an American poet, and Professor of English and Literature at Suffolk University. He is the director of both the Creative Writing program and The Poetry Center at Suffolk University. In 1970, he became one of the first officers of the US Marine Corps to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objectors in the Vietnam war.

38th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

21st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

Book 19 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

13th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

New European Poets edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer

Welcome to the 2nd day of the National Poetry Month Blog Tour!

I thought that as so much of National Poetry Month seems to focus on classic poets or contemporary U.S. poets, I would review an anthology of contemporary European poets and their poetry. I hope you’ll click the button below to visit with Laura at Book Snob as well.

Source: Public Library
Paperback,
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New European Poets edited and introduced by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer is an anthology of European poetry since 1970.  Each poet selected was translated and each poem has the language from which it was translated and the name of the translator below.  Unfortunately, this anthology does not include the poem in its original language, which some readers would prefer as it gives a visual comparison between the texts.  However, the collection does include the short biographies of the poets included, the translators — to which the anthology is dedicated — and the editors, which provides a great reference for finding more of these authors’ works.

Reading through the poems in this collection is like traveling the undulating and varying landscapes of Europe, with climbs through the mountains, sitting in lounges by the seaside, and hunting in the dark forests.  Many of these poems mirror those that are found in American contemporary poetry, but then there are others that are distinctly European in subject matter and style.  In the introduction, the authors talk about the dialogue between poets in American and those in Europe — how poetry informed each style on either side of the Atlantic.  However, that dialogue has mostly stopped, and the authors strive to rekindle that dialogue with this anthology, a real possibility as more reader-poets pick up this volume and begin leafing through it.

From Spain's Luis Garcia Montero's "Poetry"

"Poetry is useless, it serves only
to behead a king
or seduce a young woman." (page 13)

In fact, this collection serves to disprove this early statement in the poetry anthology. Poetry is more than political protest and seduction — it is a connection of the human spirit and an observation of the human condition.  Ranging from the irreverent in “Kiss My Corpse” by Gür Genç of Cyprus to the heartbreaking emptiness of “The Barren Woman” by O. Nimigean of Romania, these poems share a range of emotions that are universal but in a style that is fresh and inviting.

Each poem leaves the reader — more so an American reader — with a sense of understanding and awe and a new way of thinking not only about emotion, life, and living, but also of poetry itself.  New European Poets edited and introduced by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer is a collection that should be savored and returned to again and again over time.  Spend a day in one country or two, but visit them often and with an observant eye.

Book 4 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

 

 

14th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

 

 

 

5th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; these poems are from a number of different countries, but since the ones that most resonated with me were from Hungary, that’s the country I’m choosing for this one.

This is part of the 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon Blog Tour, click the button for more poetry:

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, published by Graywolf Press on 30 percent post-consumer wastepaper, is a collection sliced up into four parts, and it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  In the first section there are two parallels that Smith draws — the one between poet and astronomer searching for meaning in vastness and the parallels between the physical and spiritual world.  Like in “Cathedral Kitsch,” the narrator speaks of the gleam of gold in the church and wonders if God is there shining back on himself, but by the end of the poem, the narrator remarks on man’s stamp on the church and on faith.  “I feel/Man here.  The same wish/That named the planets.//Man with his shoes and tools,/His insistence to prove we exist/Just like God, in the large/And the small, the great//”

Some of the best lines come in “My God, It’s Full of Stars” where the narrator talks about God and the great unknown alongside the physical world in which she lives.  Rather than compare the two in pros and cons, the narrator takes a third path:

"Not letting up, the frenzy of being.  I want it to be
wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And scaled tight, so nothing escapes.  Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father" (page 10)

There is a sense of wide-eyed, childlike wonder about the world and the unknown space and world of God. Rather than shrink from either, the narrator embraces their possibilities and revels in the possibilities.  Part two speaks for itself and pays homage to a father lost and time with him too short.  The collection then gives way to more timely matters in the news from a young woman kept as a sex slave to her father in the basement of a home he shared with his wife to the Abu Ghraib prisoners who were savagely mistreated by soldiers under too much pressure.  In the final section of the collection, Smith opens up her verse at full throttle to explore the infinite energy and being of all in the universe and the pulse of that energy as it continues to churn.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith is well worth the prize it has won.  Her verse is well paced and masterful in how it draws parallels and leaves larger issues open ended for readers to think more about on their own.  She’s taken larger than life issues and honed in on them with a sharp eye, boiling them down to what really matters through personal accounts and a satiric remixing of facts from the news and more.  Definitely a collection for book clubs and to return to again and again when readers are feeling a bit enamored of the great unknowns.

About the Poet:

Tracy K. Smith was raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She studied at Harvard, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University.

This is the 24th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Stachan is a quiet novel that hits the heart, twisting it until tears pour from the reader’s eyes.  Beginning slowly with the main character awaking from a dream, the novel builds to a crescendo, followed by still powerful diminuendo of reflection.  Appanah and Stachan’s translation provide a sense of distance from the characters at first, but pull readers in through the magic of the dreams and the jungle, generating the sense of hollowness and fullness of love in tension.

Set in Mauritius, Raj is in his 70s and is looking back on his time as an abused child in a poor family and the one friend he made following a major disaster that struck his small village of Mapou, which forced his family to leave and live near the island’s Beau-Bassin prison.  Raj’s family is poor, but happy as his two other brothers — Anil and Vinod — look out for him, even though he is the middle brother.  He is the one chosen to attend school, which he gladly shares with his brothers when he returns home to share the chore of obtaining water from the well.

“. . . in the old days at Mapou we used to crouch down, eating our mangoes with both hands, with the juice trickling down our forearms, quickly catching it with our tongues.  In the old days at Mapou we ate the whole mango, the skin, the little, rather hard tip that had held it to the branch and we sucked the stone for a long, long time until it was rough and insipid, good only to throw on the fire.” (page 44)

The connection between the brothers is severed and Raj is forced to leave his home with his parents as his father begins working as a guard at the Beau-Bassin prison, where in 1940 Jews were exiled during WWII.  Raj is still a child by modern standards at age 9 when he discovers the true wrath of his father and the world around him.  His father is easily displeased, particularly when drunk, and he often beats his children after taking whatever displeasure he has out on his wife.  In many ways, this rage shapes the boy that Raj becomes — secretive and imaginative.  He spends afternoons in the jungle, hiding and observing, especially once he learns of the prison and the bad man his father says are imprisoned there. It is his father’s rage and beatings that send Raj to the hospital inside the prison to recover and where he meets David.

Much of Raj’s life after leaving Mapou has been empty, but meeting David awakens in him his childhood and renews feelings of brotherhood.  The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah and translated by Geoffrey Stachan is stunning in its double entendre as the story of the last brother Raj and his own last “brother” David.  Raj is a deeply complex character as he looks at the past, his regrets about the choices he made and promises he could not keep, and his hope that the future will learn about the past so as to maintain the memory of those who have been lost.

About the Author:

Nathacha Devi Pathareddy Appanah is a Mauritian-French author. She comes from a traditional Indian family.

She spent most of her teenage years in Mauritius and also worked as a journalist/columnist at Le Mauricien and Week-End Scope before emigrating to France.

Since 1998, Nathacha Appanah is well-known as an active writer. Her first book Les Rochers de Poudre d’Or (published by Éditions Gallimard) received the ” Prix du Livre RFO”. The book was based on the arrival of Indian immigrants in Mauritius.

She also wrote two other books Blue Bay Palace and La Noce d’Anna which also received some prizes for best book in some regional festivals in France.

***I read this because of Anna’s glowing review at Diary of an Eccentric.

This is my 35th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland

As part of the Graywolf Press — one of my favorite small presses that publishes poetry and fiction — Spotlight on Small Presses (click on the badge at the bottom of the post for the tour stops), I chose a poetry book to review, which I picked up at the 2010 Book Expo America.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland is his first collection of poems in 10 years, according to the Graywolf representative at the expo.  The collection features poems that call into question the realities of the modern world from our dating rituals to our trips to the mall food court.

In “Big Grab,” Hoagland suggests language is taking on meanings that are less than they are.  “The Big Grab,/so the concept of Big is quietly modified/to mean More Or Less Large, or Only Slightly/Less Big than Before.// Confucius said this would happen –/that language would be hijacked and twisted/”  (page 5).  This collection not only tackles the language changes our society faces and what those changes mean, but it also looks carefully at the world of celebrity in “Poor Britney Spears.”

Expensive Hotel (page 24)

When the middle-class black family in the carpeted hall
passes the immigrant housekeeper from Belize, oh
that is an interesting moment.  One pair of eyes is lowered.

That’s how you know you are part
of a master race — where someone
humbles themselves without even having to be asked.

And in the moment trembling
from the stress of its creation,
we feel the illness underneath our skin —

the unquenchable wish to be thought well of
wilting and dying a little
while trying to squeeze by

the cart piled high with fresh towels and sheets,
small bars of soap and bottles
of bright green shampoo,

which are provided for guests to steal.

Hoagland’s crisp language and vivid imagery is deftly weaved with philosophical and societal questions we all should be answering or at least asking.  Has modern society twisted our culture into something worthwhile or is it something that should be tossed in the trash as a bad experiment.  However, there are moments of humor and deep sarcasm throughout the volume that offset one another to make readers ponder what the poet really desires from the modern world.  Readers will come away from the collection with a new focus on examining society and their part in it –whether they decide to continue assimilating is up to them.  Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty is a thought-provoking collection that urges readers to be unique and to think outside the box.

This is my 9th book for the Clover Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge.

This is my 38th book for the 2010 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Full Moon Boat by Fred Marchant

Fred Marchant’s Full Moon Boat, published by Graywolf Press, is a poetry collection from my shelves that has been dipped into on many occasions.  The collection not only contains original poems by Marchant, a Suffolk University professor, but also translations of Vietnamese poets.  Many of these poems not only examine deep emotional turmoil through nature, but also the theme of war, particularly the Vietnam War.

“In 1970, Georgette, Harry’s war bride,
wrote to me on Okinawa, pleading that
I not leave the service as a conscientious
objector.  She said Jesus could not approve,”  (From “The Return,” page 3)

“From the steps of the pagoda where Thich Quang Duc
left to burn himself in Sai Gon, I took a photograph

which centered on a dragon boat
drifting on the Perfume River, framed by a full-leafed
banana tree.  An image of mourning.
Another photograph:  this one in front of the Marine insignia,

my right hand raised, joining.  I am flanked
by my parents, their eyes odd and empty too.
It was 1968, and none of us knew what we were doing. (from “Thirty Obligatory Bows,” page 28)

Unlike other poetry collections with a focus on the Vietnam War, Marchant’s collection zeroes in on the deep emotional states of families sending their sons overseas to war, ranging from pride to shame and even confusion.  In many ways the lines of these poems are deceiving in their simplicity, releasing their power only after the reader has read the lines aloud or for the second time.  In “A Reading During Time of War,” readers may miss the turning point in the poem on the first read through, but sense that something has changed in the last lines, prompting another read and the realization that the realities of war will always rear their ugly heads.

A Reading During Time of War (page 54)

It is the moment just before,
with no intent to punish,

a wish for all to be air
and scrubbed by rain,

filled with eagerness to learn
and be if not a child

then openhearted, at ease,
never to have heard

of the bending river
that stretches to the delta

where a bloated corpse
bumps softly,

snags on a tree stump
and, waterlogged,

rolls slowly, just below.

Additionally, these poems touch upon the beauty and emotional anchor deep within the chests of the Vietnamese.  In “Letter,” by Tran Dang Khoa and translated by Marchant with Nguyen Ba Chung, readers will find that Vietnamese families and soldiers had the same trepidations as American soldiers and their families.

“Mother, I may well fall in this war,
fall in the line of duty–as will so many others–
just like straw for the village thatch.
And one morning you may–as many others–
hold in your hand apiece of paper,
a flimsy little sheaf of paper
heavier than a thousand-pound bomb,
one that will destroy the years you have left.”   (from “Letter,” page 36)

Overall, Full Moon Boat by Fred Marchant examines the nuances of the human condition during times of crisis, including The Vietnam War, and heartbreaking decisions that soldiers and families make when conflicts begin or continue to rage even in strange lands.  Through translations of Vietnamese poems, Marchant explores the similarities between each side of the conflict in how they react and deal with war.  Other poems in the collection examine the dynamics of families through natural imagery.  Both beginning readers of poetry and those who have read other poetry collections will find Marchant’s comments on the human condition and how that condition is altered by war poignant and true.

About the Poet:

Fred Marchant is the author of Tipping Point, which won the Washington Prize in poetry. He is a professor of English and the director of creative writing at Suffolk University in Boston, and he is a teaching affiliate of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This is my 2nd book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

This is my 16th book for the contemporary poetry challenge.

This is my 4th book for the Clover Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge.

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Please also remember to check out the next stops on the National Poetry Month Blog Tour at Ooh Books and Estrella Azul.