Attention Span 2012 | Dan Thomas-Glass
Marilynne Robinson | Gilead | Farrar | 2004
‘It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.’ It took me almost four years to read this book—my mother gave it to my siblings and me in the summer of 2008, when she was dying of stomach cancer. At the time I couldn’t face a book about a dying parent given by my dying parent; it was too much. But there’s a longer history to it: after my parents divorced in 1983, my ‘mom’s house’ was a Radical Christian Discipleship Community in West Berkeley, a kind of Xian commune. It was a place for war tax resisters and revolutionaries, a farm in the ghetto. I learned the lord’s prayer and listened to talk about Jesus over dinners at a huge table made from the floorboards of a gym. In my adolescence though I was drawn more to the intellectual Jewish tradition of my dad’s side of the family, reading my Marx and Zukofsky and Bernstein and Spiegelman. (Notice a gender bias in that list?) Anyway, I finally picked it up despite the weight it created in my stomach. This novel brought me so deeply and directly to the root of my mother’s love for the world, for a kind of Xianity that spoke to the parent and the optimist in me. Marilynne Robinson’s prose is spare, very visual, and full of warmth. It was a powerful and undeniable reading experience, one that shook me pretty good.
Brenda Hillman | Fortress | Wesleyan | 1989
I used to sit on that gym-floor table and stare out our second-story window, looking out at the chickens or barbed wire. Berkeley in the 80s was a place where people still believed in possibility, still believed that owning chickens might somehow impact all those barbed wire fences. But it was a sad kind of hope, a moment in between: before the horrors of the Reagan-Thatcher-Bush-Clinton-Bush (continuing) neoliberal era fully washed over everyone, with the taste of the revolutionary fervor of the late 60s still lingering on the tongues of the would-be world changers that were my parents and their communities. I came across this early book of Brenda Hillman’s at Moe’s Books in Berkeley this year, resonant of its own 80s and its own betweens: between marriages, before the formal inventiveness that defines her best-known books, after parenthood had come to reshape her life, still obsessed with the Northern California landscapes that define my own life experience. This book, a window into an earlier moment for a poet I have already read in depth, became a cornerstone of a turn to lyric approaches in my reading and thinking this year.
Joseph Massey | Areas of Fog | Shearsman | 2009
‘Northern’ California is a relative term, of course. Most of us Bay Areans think of ourselves as Northern, as opposed to the oversaturated and interstated Southern stretches of Los Angeles and San Diego; but like my cousin Andy, Joseph Massey lives in that upper third of the state that some of us forget isn’t actually part of Oregon. I first came across Massey courtesy of Ryan Murphy’s one-off press Fault Line, which put out a beautiful blue chapbook called Within Hours. That was in 2008 I think—the same year my mom died, and Sonia was born. The hush of Massey’s aesthetic here in that book, collected with others in Areas of Fog, was a balm to me then and now—another year in which we lost a parent (my wife’s stepfather David) and had a daughter (Alma) within a month of each other. Somehow Joseph Massey’s North feels appropriate to that depth of hurt and happy; it feels older, in addition to quieter—as though the timeline of trees were somehow the dominant marker up there. The scale of his line—so small as to barely register its weight—has been much remarked upon. I would only add that its courage, in its existing despite not having much evidence that it should, helped me believe that I could just write.
Megan Kaminski | Desiring Map | Coconut | 2012
In the years before I had children, and before I felt the ‘plummet’ from the German etymology of lead as I dragged my feet up the aisle at my mom’s memorial, before I was rooted back in the world by that plummeting, before I found myself needing to find new words and forms for those words to do service to that world, I was a graduate student at UC Davis among many talented poets, and we were all in the air of ideas. I had the pleasure of reading and reconnecting with two of those poets this year, Phoebe Wayne and Megan Kaminski, in Portland and Berkeley. All of us were more in the land—Phoebe, a painterly poet full of her natal Pacific Northwest, and Megan—whose poems have always leapt from place to place—had found the prairies in Kansas. Desiring Map is full of that land’s stillnesses, but still includes buzzing lines like ‘Summer starred night mints sleep new again,’ which has bounced around my head since I first heard it years back, resonant of the green of absinthe and airy possibilities of some long ago. A jet set’s excesses and the bleak horizontals of the mid-country clash to great effect, and in a manner reminiscent of Ange Mlinko’s first couple books Megan Kaminski revels in what bodies or landscapes we might inhabit if we gave away ‘all this information.’
Suzanne Stein | Tout Va Bien | Displaced | 2012
Thom Donovan | The Hole | Displaced | 2012
There is another kind of courage—a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, its core from the French for heart—the courage of standing naked in front of people, not as a line of poetry but as a poetics of the body. I think of the importance of the body in politics—my mother throwing pig blood on the statue of Columbus outside Coit Tower on Columbus Day 1980-something. Suzanne Stein’s Tout Va Bien and Thom Donovan’s The Hole, two Displaced titles that fuck with the notion of the book as such, each foreground the relationship between book and body, often with discomfiting results. What does it mean to read a book of emails about a book, emails written to but not by the author of the book, as in The Hole? Thom Donovan’s ‘community as practice,’ as Michael Cross put it once—in which reading becomes situated in the dailiness of lived experience that is or is not your own, in varying degrees. Or Suzanne Stein’s opening salvo, a transcription of a performance in which she explains her intention to transcribe the performance, which will consist of answering random questions from the audience. The iterative uhs and ums produce, in me at least, a kind of embodied nervousness—reading it, subvocalizing those tics of speech, I felt the experience of uncertainty—and possibility—that the performance insisted upon. That Tout Va Bien ‘sells’ for $0 at SPD is another facet of all of this—like Suzanne Stein’s now-defunct TAXT press, the book stands as a tiny bulwark against commodity logic as such, in which objects live a life of exchange and sociality in place of actual human bodies. I found both of these books—their belief in the body and the book as a site of resistance—to be incredibly moving.
erica lewis | murmur in the inventory | Shearsman | forthcoming 2013
Sometimes it gets hard to remember the musculature of childhood—the fierce vigor of the days, running place to place, pulling up onto beds or buildings head height or higher, jumping and rolling. Muscle is a funny word—comes from the Latin for mouse, because those early physicians thought the shape and movement of biceps in particular resembled field mice. In Middle English the word lacerte was used, from the Latin for lizard—these animals of our bodies, never more visible than in our children. I watch Sonia dancing, twirling. ‘She’s a dancing star / she loves to twirl all day’ she likes to sing, from Angelina Ballerina—though in her universe performance means that many sounds become ‘ah’s—so ‘star’ becomes ‘stah,’ like ‘sky’ becomes ‘ska’ in another favorite song. It makes me think of Green Day’s affected British accent in the early 90s—the way our language alters in song, in front of people, to mark its new social context. Often when Sonia dances I think I should record this, to remember it, for posterity, and I grab my iPhone to do just that. But as erica lewis notes in this beautiful book that I was lucky to read this year, that you all should read next year, everything is ‘at the edge of everything’ now—and so my recording becomes my emailing or Facebooking and suddenly I’m seeing that Joseph Massey is planning to leave Northern California or Dana Ward is sitting in a garden, performing some unearthly poem with birds and a cigarette. And what does a moment become? Sometimes I want to cry, at the splendor of these seconds that are spinning past my eyes, and I wonder how I could ever hold it all in my heart.
Lauren Levin | Nightwork | manuscript | 2012
At Tilden Park, at a picnic, Lauren Levin played with Sonia and we talked about what it means, what impact it has on your writing, to be a parent. We acknowledged the important gender difference—that the impact of children on writers/writing would not be the same on a woman as on a man, necessarily. Domestic and childrearing labor does not fall equally, even in our would-be-feminist cities. And yet she and I share certain things already—as non-academic poets, or poets with day jobs that are not about writing poetry, poetry and creative labor becomes the titular nightwork. (Lauren is part of the team documenting these presents of poet’s labor at The Poetic Labor Project.) I wonder about the relationship between creative and childrearing labor—it’s a relationship I obsess over, and sometimes I feel as though I only write my children anymore, and usually I am grateful for that. But Lauren Levin’s Nightwork is its own beast: a muscular collection of long poems that push and stretch against the confines of gender labor and language, seeking to sculpt their own authority. The long poem, as the form is explored here, creates its own topographies that I want to read as moonlit autonomous spaces in which we embrace our own weaknesses and hold them for strengths. ‘I have found pieces of you / in all of myself / and so I want to make the place I am / shot through with a glinting thread / eyes closed maybe,’ she writes, in the alienated night of our uncollected lives, but with an eye toward how community is like family and how we all might look toward birthing some new now, together. Her labor for, and faith in, connectedness, is one of the many reasons that I hold Lauren Levin and her writing in such high esteem.
Dana Ward | The Crisis of Infinite Worlds | Futurepoem | forthcoming 2013
Dana Ward | This Can’t Be Life | Edge | 2012
‘The connections felt / besieged or like a mask / for separation,’ and yet, in all of his beautiful, sincere work, Dana Ward refuses the separation—of culture, people, language, lives. He holds us in his heart in a way that I find overwhelming and inspirational—that does not resent the intrusion of one life or image of life into the other, but embraces them and is still so whole. It’s a glow that he has an editor too—working with him for my Beatjack project at Perfect Lovers, and then reading Yvette Nepper’s radiant chapbook from the press, confirmed that he extends that generosity of spirit in all directions. Someone somewhere said once that history will remember this as the Dana Ward era and more and more that seems to be true, and more and more I hope that person was right. On days when I feel the hollowness in time that is my mom’s absence and wish that I could sit on the edge of her bed and talk to her about how brilliantly hard it is to be a parent, I am so thankful for Dana Ward, that he has this one true obsession on his mind, ‘to demystify the world so as to / fortify its permanent enchantment.’ May it be so!
Lucy Alibar and Benh Zietlen | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Court13 Pictures | 2012
‘When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.’ There comes a time sometimes when something that is not a book of poems achieves everything that I hope for from a book of poems—an ability to connect the everyday mythologies of lived experience to those great catastrophes and narratives that define ‘our time,’ with genuine grace and love. I was in awe at this movie, for its range, from the scope of the day in the life of a child to the geological time of the planet, and for the depth of emotion it provoked in me, and in Kate. She’ll tell you—I am not a cryer at the movies, but I was weeping, weeping. ‘Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.’ I think that kind of bravery, that Hushpuppy reaches so desperately for, is what it means to try and create art, of which this movie was the highest sort, for me. That we all might not run is a worthy wish.
CA Conrad | ‘the only failure is no love’ | PennSound | Studio 111 Session, October 3, 2007 | http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/CAConrad.php
In a year of Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks and Birdy, a year of tUnE-yArDs and Fleet Foxes, the sound that hummed for the longest in my ears was CA Conrad’s sibilant and buzzing ending to this tiny poem: ‘his naked body quiets bomberrr enginesszzzz I am gliding frommmmm,’ if you’ll pardon the phonetic transcription. It’s actually a kind of almost glottal fry/humming sound that is somehow echoed on Frank Ocean’s ‘Songs for Women,’ now that I think about it. The hum quiets the frenetically optimistic opening to the poem (‘Wait for me! Wait for me! Plenty! Plenty!’), where CA Conrad manages to somehow make his singular voice into a chorus. Then that buzzing, the buzzing of unbridled beauty unflinchingly tethered at once to all our horrors. It’s the kind of flickering greatness and insistent joy that brings me back again and again to poetry and history, to my body and my children’s bodies, and to the world.
Dan Thomas-Glass lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Kate and their daughters Sonia and Alma. He is the author of The Great American Beatjack Volume I (Perfect Lovers Press), Kate & Sonia (in the months before our second daughter’s birth) (Little Red Leaves Textile Series), Seaming (Furniture Press), and 880 (Deep Oakland Editions). He edits With + Stand and various other projects. You can find links to this and that at