Recently, I visited New York City to attend a tribute for Lucie Brock-Broido, a poet who, like many of the finest, died too young. So I reread Lucie’s last book, Still, Illusion, which was her best. One of the functions of poetry, and of the poet, is to heal us from the damages of experience; I think Lucie’s poems are often about healing from the damages we inflict upon the earth and its inhabitants. Animal rights was one of Lucie’s passions. As far back as ancient times, animals have been used to represent and critique our human behavior. I think Lucie was part animal. Certainly, she was feral. She believed that in a prior life she had been a lynx, a small lynx. And in this life, she was an ailurophile—or lover of cats. In her poems, there is always the lingering possibility of death. I suspect that Lucie understood from an early age that, as humans, we are finite. In the English language, there is no other poet doing what Lucie did. The Oxford English Dictionary was her Bible, and Lucie refreshed the English language with her radiantly original poems. This summer, I visited her grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts several times, and a thick coat of grass already sparkles over her. I find it almost unbearable to absorb her loss. Sometimes, to keep her alive, I repeat a list of words with her name embedded in them: hallucination, elucidate, Lucifern, pellucid. I loved her poems and cannot believe there will be no more. —Henri Cole
I am often seduced into taking up Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams) by Artemidorus when I am looking for a source of authority. I am moved by the supreme confidence expressed in his introduction to his treatise. He writes, “… for those who look to prophecy for advice but who are all at sea because they are unable to find accurate information on this subject, and who run the risk of despising it and shrinking from it, I wish to provide a treatment that will cure them instead of confusing them.” Artemidorus lived in the second century A.D., in a time that Edward Gibbon described as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” Many, many years ago, when I first discovered this glossy black book, I was also at work reading Freud and was likewise fascinated by Freud’s bold assumption of authority—even as he might profess, as he did in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that his ideas were sometimes far-fetched speculation and that he wanted only to see where they led. —Diane Williams
Some of my favorite poems in Monica Ferrell’s new collection, You Darling Thing, are from the point of view of animals: a pony dying of snakebite, a tiger hunted down and shot. That connection between the animal world and our own—a connection that feels more tenuous every minute—yields profound revelations about human beings, and especially about sex. Ferrell’s subversive poems take one creature’s power over another and magic it into something else: “a vanishing point, a door/ He had used me so completely I was seen through.” —Nell Freudenberger
A book I keep returning to is Catherine Barnett’s new book of poems, Human Hours. It is in part about a body navigating a city; it is also about a mind attempting to navigate both what it means to be here on earth and what it means to be at all. The most intriguing thread in the book is a series scattered throughout, each part called “Accursed Questions.” These are a sort of extended prose poem or an existential meditation or a lyric essay … or does the genre matter? The series is ostensibly the result of a doctor’s advice: “spend four minutes a day asking questions about whatever matters most to me.” And sometimes that’s exactly what we get, questions like:
Are sex and death the only rafts out of here?
Where did we think we were going?
Sometimes there’s an anecdote made of statements that surround a question, the answer to which hovers somewhere off the page:
My son is sleeping on the couch with all the lights on. Nothing bad can happen.
How long does it take? he says in his sleep.
Ultimately, I think Barnett is getting at the humanness of questioning, the way in which the act of questioning speaks to the longing inside each of us. “More than any other speech act, a question creates an other,” whom we’re programmed to desire—in the name of what? Wholeness? Is there such a thing? The result is a book that champions the human spirit of inquiry, and argues that inquiry is an impulse toward communion with a community, even as it also suggests that the same community is the very context within which we come to understand our loneliness, which is both the answer to and the relentless riddle of our inner lives. —Carl Phillips
My dear friend, the great writer David Wong Louie, died on September 19 this year, after a long battle with throat cancer. His first book of brilliant stories, Pangs of Love, will be reissued by University of Washington Press in 2019. I believe that it is one of the best story collections published in the late twentieth century. It’s an Asian American classic. —Marilyn Chin
I have two tweets and a short story, and yes, they are connected. They are us. I am them.
The first is a tweet of Joan Didion photoshopped behind a Blink Fitness reception desk, and needs almost no words. No one is offended. No one decries sexism. It is so anti-Twitter that it is nearly miraculous in its existence. The arc of the American novelist is a funny thing. This image dares to bend the arc away from its usual ends—alcoholism, divorce, university professorships, student/teacher marriage (and/or divorce)—toward something robotic and commercial. Filling but empty, it is like a rainbow on a candy wrapper: joy.
The other tweet is of a boy’s letter to his mother, arguing all the reasons he should be allowed to play his video game. So much to unpack! The boy is black, and it speaks to a plea for innocence that the black community has for its young men. Sure, but he is funny as hell, and echoes those same pleas back to his mother in such a unique way: high five.
Lastly, I’ve been inspired by a short story by Rebecca Roanhorse, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.” It is a critique of cultural appropriation—the annexation of one’s life for the profit of others—both as it is committed by force and surrendered willingly, all at once, in the context of race in America: brilliant.
All of these items are about the intersection of art, humor, commerce, and the leaps we all take when grasping at them for reasons we don’t dare consider for too long. —Venita Blackburn
Be With, Forrest Gander
Blackacre, Monica Youn
Only as the Day Is Long, Dorianne Laux
Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Magdalene, Marie Howe
The Animal Too Big to Kill, Shane McCrae
Orphic Paris, Henri Cole
Extra Hidden Life Among the Days, Brenda Hillman
Ordinary Beast, Nicole Sealey
Wonder Cabinet, David Barber
Digest, Gregory Pardlo
Human Hours, Catherine Barnett
The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson
Break the Glass, Jean Valentine
House of Fact, House of Ruin, Tom Sleigh
Trophic Cascade, Camille Dungy
Kingdom, Joseph Millar
Things As It Is, Chase Twichell
ShallCross, C. D. Wright