25 September 2013

read and recommended: Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

I've been trying to read more, which is to say making time to read more, because finding time to read more will never, in fact, happen. But also, if I've read something and loved it, it feels wrong not to share it. I often do that on Twitter, but that's not like really digging into a work and pointing out why it's loved. Here's one. I intend more to follow.

Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

First, a note on the press: I love BOA Editions. They make beautiful, interesting books that are written by artists I like a lot. They also run a few contests, so if you write, check them out.

So, this poetry collection. I discovered Girmay's work through the Tuesday Poem blog because friend and BOA poet Sean Thomas Dougherty shared it on Facebook near the end of August.

The Tuesday Poem & work Sean posted was "For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Green Dress & Said."

And before I even looked at the poem I wanted to look at it because Patrick Rosal was mentioned. Rosal read at an AWP off-site reading I was at with Drunken Boat one year, and I teach his essay "Improvisations: Everything I Know About Pianos" every chance I get. (He also wrote an essay about kettlebells that I absolutely need to re-read, especially as we're approaching a new Olympic year.)

And then I read Aracelis Girmay's poem and I bought the book before the sun set on the thought because the poem is so vibrant, so much of everything I want to see everywhere: color and joy and snap.

That poem did not prepare me one whit for this collection. "For Patrick Rosal..." is, even, in my memory of the book (completed five days ago), an outlier. What remains with me from the collection as a whole is mortality. I don't mean to suggest that the book is depressing, but there's a feeling of the grave about it, exploratorily so, investigatively so. I've never read a poetry collection like it.

Girmay opens with earth, closing the first poem, the title poem, with this:
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt's the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.
The feeling lingers, soft and tender but curiously (appropriately) cool; so many of the poems work as memento mori of one kind or another, but seldom do anything so expected as outright mourning (and where maybe the poems do mourn, like in "Abuelo, Mi Muerto," they're also celebratory; they're finely detailed; they're so sharp I can't think of feeling sad). Instead, the focus is on "[t]he kingdom of touching; / the touches of the disappearing, things."

That's what Girmay does, over and over: she shows us the rich points of overlap, overlap of life and death, the skin of lovers, the place one is and the place one is going and the place one has been. History and representation. The image of the swan and its fading away.

There are a number of portrait poems in the collection, too, some proclaimed self-portraits, some identified as portraits of others, but they all approach their subject obliquely, or as though done from one fragment of a fractured mirror--they don't seek the whole, but instead capture the particular with startling precision. "Portrait of the Woman as a Skein" does this by lines, each a new revelation of possibility. The poem's address to the second person, always seemingly a new conception (not a new person, a new idea of the same person), is a constant re-engagement:
Sometimes, it is true, you are like Lake Sovetskaya.
Buried underneath an arctic ice sheet:
                                   (                    ).
Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it is not.

There are poems in this collection about large tragedies and small, and again, that constant feeling of grave dust on the pages (dry, honest dirt, dirt we have to admire and respect), but nothing in this collection hit me like "Praise Song for the Donkey."

At first, I thought of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" and his treatise on his cat, Jeoffry. And that's a little odd--Smart's poem is so mannered in its eighteenth century way--but it's a list of things that charm me about an animal, written by someone who notices because he cherishes. But that's what Girmay poem does: it notices because the poet cherishes:
Praise the Mohawk roof
of the donkey's good and gray head, praise
its dangerous mane hollering out.
There is no way not to love this donkey with that mane. There is no way not to grieve this donkey because this donkey, like nearly everything else in Girmay's collection, knows death. That the poem is written after a real event--a bombing in Gaza in 2009--gives it context, yes, but it's the donkey that becomes real here at line one, all fresh, bristled words, and it's because of the donkey my heart breaks because Aracelis Girmay makes the reader know the donkey. And how can I keep from grieving the donkey once I know her? 

How can I keep from celebrating these poems, now that I know them?

12 September 2013

Geno best.


08 September 2013

long walks

I've taken some longish walks lately, and the photos turned out all right. Because it's officially September, that also means I've entered official mourning for summer, but the scenery's lovely and I'm trying to focus on that instead of how spine-crushingly depressing I find fall to be. 
Aspens on Casper Mountain, showing the frightful start of autumnal leaf-gilding

The view from Casper Mountain's Bridle Trail
 I've written about the Bridle Trail before. My general not-in-Casper-ness this summer has made it so that I didn't get into the near-daily traversing of it, but I made a point to go on the second day of classes, after I was done for the day. It's so very different in the afternoon--and it's functionally different, too: while I was away, the trail was re-done so the ascent/descent are actually in different places, and the surface of the trail has changed. (The sandy/rock-peppered parts have expanded and deepened, which makes it a bad choice for me to run on it, as I tend to trip on the relatively flat parts.) But the view, the sunlight, the Wyoming blue--that's always perfect.

On Labor Day weekend, we went to Denver to collect my parents and brother, who visited for the week, and we made a very brief stop at Rocky Mountain National Park, taking a six-mile round-trip hike to Jewel Lake. That's the source of the rest of these.

This chipmunk--just scritching away, a foot from my shoe.
Another tree, turning its colors.

Just before Mill Lake, Longs Peak in the distance.
(I want there to be an apostrophe in there, but it seems there isn't one.)
It was in the mid-nineties here in Wyoming for the entire week my family visited, and today, it's only been about eighty. The rest of the week, the temperature is predicted to hover in the seventies. Fall is falling, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.

What I can do is keep busy. My intention has been, with the start of the semester, to start the next novel, and I worked on it the first two mornings. But the old book is still in readers' hands, still waiting a bit, and I'm still tweaking it in my head. Those characters are still absolutely omnipresent. So I'm going to try, instead, to finish up some old business. I have essay bits hanging around, a few short stories that need a good hatchet-job. I spent a big chunk of today cleaning out my office so I have a place to work again. (While my family visited, it became the room where I threw everything I didn't have a place for, everything I usually put on the edge of the upstairs sofa or piled in my papasan chair.)

Every end-of-summer, I end up writing a post a lot like this--this is the academic's New Year. But the last year wasn't like all of my other old years, so this one feels a bit different because of all of my time away. I wouldn't trade my travel this summer for anything (and to be perfectly honest, I wish it were still going because obviously), but it changed the rhythm of the summer on me.

I bought more new music this year than I've done since the middle-school days of the Columbia Record Club, and a lot of it is, even by my own standards, a little ridiculous. (For perspective, my favorite band that isn't The Clash has an album called Polka's Not Dead, and I admit to curating a love of peculiar music.) But this year, I bought things I heard on the radio (Canadian radio, out of Vancouver & Ottawa, but still). I bought things I should have heard twenty years ago but didn't because the nineties didn't actually get to my hometown until I graduated and went to college. (I also bought t.A.T.u.'s greatest hits album. I bet you didn't even know they had a greatest hits album. But they do, twenty songs, and I can sing all of it now, so, so badly.) It turns out I will forgive music almost anything if it takes me to a narrative place, and that's a chicken and egg: does everything I listen to now become narrative--important to my characters or illustrative of something in my writing or amusing to my characters who have opinions about every.damn.thing.--because that's what I'm thinking about ninety-seven percent of the time? I'm guessing that's the truth, and I absolutely don't mind. I will listen to all of that Imagine Dragons album with ears that I'm apparently sharing.

And that's been fun.

So this is me, trying again with autumn, to do what I did with some of that music: shut up. Sink in. See where it takes me.

...and hockey starts soon. So there's that.