Attention Span 2012 | Benjamin Friedlander
Matthew Cooperman | Still | Counterpath | 2011
This year I began reading Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations. In one of them, Landor has Michelangelo say, “In our days, poetry is a vehicle which does not carry much within it, but is top-heavy with what is corded on.” Cooperman’s Still yields a retort: “Counterpoint: never the vessel for what’s inside, it’s tidings of thought and who’s drinking with you.” Which sums Landor’s appeal as well as Cooperman’s own, since the play of voices (or really, pronouncements) in Landor’s prose owes all to its ease and flow, a conviviality of form. Cooperman, for his part, has mastered the secret of the list poem—a cording on of things that drift by. His details are keepsakes, not provisions. There’s no stopping to unpack along the way—interiority is a given, but for ballast alone. Meanwhile, the movement forward is incessant, and speedy when needed, even when the vessel grows top-heavy.
Aris Fioretos, trans. Tomas Tranaeus | Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography | Stanford | 2012
Because of her Nobel Prize—and Holocaust connection—Sachs’s first Schocken collection, O the Chimneys, was the only book of poetry in our house when I was growing up, which means I came to her in the order of most readers before 1980: prior to Paul Celan. Since the order of reading is a chemical process, transformative and irreversible, I count myself lucky for finding Sachs first, undimmed by comparison, and then Celan in light of her. That said, my knowledge of Sachs remained pretty thin over the years. This thick description, produced by the editor of the four-volume Werke (which slipped into print in 2011), gives us a poet celebrated and forgotten before we really learned—by way of Celan—how to read her.
Lawrence P. Jackson | The Indignant Generation: A Narrative of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 | Princeton | 2011
As it happens, two of the poets most important to me—Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks—belong to the generation in question, or began there, so I was overjoyed to find a book so rich and readable on those years, which literary histories generally pass over as mere interval. And certainly the Harlem Renaissance and Black Power eras are more exciting. They’re also more copiously understood and documented—or were. I hope Jackson’s sequels and prequels are under contract.
Henry James | William Wetmore Story and His Friends | Grove | 1957, original edition 1904
Written for money, with much complaining, and little respect for its subject, the Storys, whose children urged on the task, this lapidary account of expatriate life in Italy is far more enjoyable—and more peculiar—than its neglect ever led me to expect. If I’d expected anything: I was hunting down a reference and couldn’t stop. The fretful syntax is typical of late James, but how strange, if not comical, to find it in the service of so pedestrian a genre: the two-volume Victorian “Memoir,” told through letters and diaries, with brief stretches of narrative to carry things forward when the documents tucker out. As a rule, these books have an honorable plainness, setting forth the facts to speak for themselves. But how could such an approach do for James? Investing discretion—that most sociable of virtues—with an antisocial charge, he dulls the shock to a stimulating burr, brushing us with the velvet he draped around his kind.
Paul Legault | The Emily Dickinson Reader | McSweeney’s | 2012
Every Emily Dickinson poem reduced to a single line. These are often wisecracks, material for the back of a class (zombies, really?), but the rest has an acuteness that puts scholarship to shame. And the whole has a destructive ambition worthy of its subject—though Dickinson’s ambition was of course trained higher. But she too relied on the reductio ad absurdum, and she too was given to wisecracks (some of which, drum roll, are now recited in class).
Haki R. Madhubuti | YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life | Third World | 2005
The segregation of taste that our warped institutions promote, with our unthinking help, has kept me for too long from appreciating Madhubuti’s importance. Which is all the more revealing—and mortifying—when I recall my high school enthusiasm for Don L. Lee, as Madhubuti was known before 1975. This book is very much Lee’s story, a tale that rivals Iceberg Slim or Michael Gold in its pulp power. And that would be enough! But it’s also Madhubiti’s tale, which means the story is told with a wisdom pulp only achieves in the hands of a Dostoevsky or Richard Wright—shaped with a gentleness all Madhubuti’s own.
Denise Riley | Time Lived, Without Its Flow | Capsule Editions | 2012
My childhood was a study in parental mourning, with methodical care preferred to expressions of grief, analysis to elegy, perhaps because the quickening of the mind was how grief was let go, temporarily—interest forgetting its struggle with depression. I wouldn’t presume to say the same is true of Riley, only that this remarkable book (not a memoir; a record of interest in one aspect of mourning, its temporality) sustains its care so methodically, grief itself is moved; not to tears, but a clearer perspective.
Lisa Robertson | Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, the Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias | BookThug | 2012
The dependence of sense on the senses has never been more evident to me than in these essays, which let loose the mind in a world of color and perfume, texture and sound, a world so dizzying, only words can comprehend it unstunned. Making comprehension itself a sensual experience, interrupted now and again by a pang: how dull my own words feel in comparison.
George Saintsbury | A History of English Prosody: From the Twelfth Century to the Present Day | 3 vols. | Macmillan | 1906
Marianne Moore gave Saintsbury two places in her ideal library, as many as Coleridge, more than Plato. So why not, I thought, and requested these volumes from storage. Soon enough, the need to mark passages overcame me, and I acquired a set of my own: age-softened library discards, which I can’t take to bed on account of their smell. How pristine, in contrast, the prose. Bright and liquid as a stream, bubbling over the pebbles of opinion. Which do make for a slippery footing. Better, perhaps, to reach down and take away a charm, cutting one’s own path through the history of verse. Returning, of course, when thirsty.
Gertrude Stein, ed. Logan Esdale | Ida A Novel | Yale | 2012
Stein’s fictions are her flyover states, with Ida my preferred hub. This “workshop edition” (a corrected text with drafts, letters, related pieces, and reviews) took me out of the terminal, into the city. A destination after all!
Rachel Zolf | Neighbour Procedure | Coach House | 2010
There is a madness in thinking the problem of Israel and Palestine can be thought through or sorted out, a philosophical conundrum or puzzle of language; and there’s a despair in thinking that reason has lost its right, leaving all to violence. In Neighbour Procedure, Zolf chooses madness, but yields to despair her suspicion that reason never had a right—only a discourse of ruins, monuments and counter-monuments to hope.