Reading List: July/August 2016

BY LINDSAY GARBUTT published at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2016/07/pm-reading-list-julyaugust-2016/
Arturo Herrera, from Books, 2012
Arturo-Herrera-Books-2012-500
The Reading List is a feature of Poetry magazine’s Editors’ Blog. This month contributors to the July/August 2016 issue share some books that held their interest.
Dan Bellm
The last great Russian novel has apparently been written by a Cuban, one best known for an excellent series of noir detective yarns set in Havana. Leonardo Padura’s El hombre que amaba a los perros (out in English as The Man Who Loved Dogs) is keeping me turning the pages this summer with three deftly interwoven plots, all centered in some way on revolutions gone awry: Leon Trotsky’s years of exile from Stalin’s Russia, and his desperate campaign from afar to take back the revolution he helped win; Ramón Mercader, Catalan communist and Trotsky’s eventual assassin, at the center of a darkening Spanish Civil War; and Iván, a sidelined writer living through the worst dog days of 1970s Cuba, who one day meets a dying old man out walking a pair of prize Russian borzois on a Havana beach: Mercader himself. This is a richly layered novel that’s teaching me a lot of history, and giving me more than a few chills as I contemplate some would-be totalitarians among us today.
I tend to read one novel at a time, but I read piles of poetry books at once. At the moment, among the work I’m reading with students this summer and fall, there are six on my table, each in its own ways “making it new,” offering up lushness of sound, shock-waves of metaphor, serious play, and windows onto other worlds: Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria, Danez Smith’s [Insert] Boy, Rick Barot’s Chord, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s Heaven. What a chorus they are, and I feel blessed.
Monika Cassel
I’m in the middle of a multi-stage move from Santa Fe to Portland, Oregon, and almost all of my books are now in boxes. I have, however, kept some essential books close for my summer reading.
During packing, I finished Maureen Corrigan’s scholarly and entertaining So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures. I had just finished teaching Gatsby for the seventh time and loved reflecting on my own journey with a book that I didn’t understand when I first read it in high school in 1988, but which I now love to read and teach.
On the poetry front, I am reading and rereading three compelling books. All three wrestle with history, family inheritance, displacement, and trauma in ways that resonate deeply with me and inform my work-in-progress on my German family’s WWII history: Rachel Mennies’s beautiful The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, which deals with the author’s Jewish family’s Holocaust experiences and her relationship to her faith; Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, which took my breath away; and a great new book by Lauren Camp, One Hundred Hungers – Lauren first read from her manuscript to my poetry class several years ago, and I’ve been eager to read it ever since.
To jumpstart my writing, I’m reading Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness and (in German) a set of essays by Durs Grünbein, another poet I translate (one essay, “Why Live Without Writing” was published in English in Poetry in 2010). And I’m delving again into the 1871 memoirs of my great-great-great grandmother, Luise Pogge, which were preserved in typescript form by a great-uncle in the GDR in the mid-1980s and were recently published by an academic press in Germany.
In August the move will be complete and, for the first time in eight years, I won’t be teaching high school full time. This means not only more writing but more reading time; I am looking forward to unpacking my boxes and digging in.
Joshua Corey
I am absorbing Reginald Gibbons’s new book, How Poems Think, in great grateful gulps. As a newly-fledged translator, I’m fascinated by his discussion of the metaphysics of languages and the ways in which English, with its massive and particularizing vocabulary, enables different modes of thinking and feeling than, say, the Platonic idealism expressed by French (he does single out Ponge, with his concern for the minute description of physical things, as something of an outlier). He’s even better on Russian poetry, spinning out a fascinating thesis on the “centrifugal” nature of rhyme in the work of Akhmatova, Pasternak, Ilya Kutik, and others. Gibbons cogently and generously confirms an intuition of Richard Hugo’s that I remember from my first encounter with The Triggering Town, namely that truth can be made to conform to music, and not necessarily the other way around.
Gibbons’s book is a bright star in the firmament of my current reading; I am also immersed in the pungent short stories of Leonard Michaels, rereading Great Expectations with astonishment (it’s so much better and stranger than I remembered), and reeling over Rachel Cusk’s astringent take on motherhood in A Life’s Work. It isn’t reading, per se, but I take great joy in Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce, a weekly podcast in which the Irish author and raconteur cheerfully deconstructs the entirety of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a paragraph at a time. Finally, I am wandering dazed through two recent books by Joseph Donahue, Dark Church and Red Flash on a Black Field. Donahue pursues a simultaneous visionary poetics; Dark Church is the latest installment in his Terra Lucida sequence, a form of sacred writing, while Red Flash is a more worldly and profane collection of poems touched by wit, indignation, and gnostic fire.
A.M. Juster
I have been translating two underappreciated poets this year: the sixth-century Latin satirist Maximianus and the fifteenth-century Middle Welsh “proto-feminist” Gwerful Mechain. The often misunderstood Maximianus combines wit, wordplay, and gender role reversal with somber meditations on topics such as meaning in Lucretian godlessness, aging, and the frustrations of desire. He also portrays the regrettably canonized Boethius as a pimp and provides haunting images of the final years of the Roman Empire. Mechain is an astonishing poet who has received a little attention only for a few of her musically marvelous bawdy poems; I have been working lately on her other poems, particularly her devoutly Christian poems.
Among contemporary poets I have mostly been reading the works of formally inventive women. I have been shamelessly picking apart the techniques of Kay Ryan to see what I can “borrow” or adapt for my own poetry. In June at the Frost Farm Poetry Conference I taught two amazing poems by A.E. Stallings. Any poet using metaphor would benefit from studying one of these poems, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Plant Willow Trees.” For enjoyment I have been rereading the winner of this year’s Poets’ Prize, The Small Blades Hurt by Erica Dawson, and recent books by Rhina Espaillat, Midge Goldberg, Melissa Balmain, and Deborah Warren.
I have also been returning regularly to Bill Coyle’s The God of This World to His Prophet and Alfred Nicol’s Elegy for Everyone.
Lisa Katz
In our environment of rampant, murderous racism of all types, not to mention political intransigence, is there any more pressing need than for expressions of human decency? My best and most recent reads are one sharp memoir and a book of verse, both translations, that fill this need.
There is a piquant lack of discretion in a brutally unsentimental memoir of a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust in her native Berlin (Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon, trans. from the German by Anthea Bell). Saved in Berlin? Simon was lodged in the apartments of working class Germans, most of them not opponents but rather nominal supporters of the Nazi regime; they had voted for Hitler. They took her in for economic reasons, for meager pay or as household help; or they were neighbors of people who took her in. Sometimes they were nice and sometimes they weren’t. Most important, sometimes her saviors knew she was Jewish and sometimes they guessed, but they did not denounce her. Simon is a terrific observer of character and quite a personality herself. One of the estimated 1,400-1,500 Jews who survived the Holocaust in the German capital, she remained in Berlin and became a university professor. Of course she was lucky but she also made her luck by approaching people in a way that apparently led them to respond decently. She writes vividly about an SS forced labor supervisor who wishes her well on her “way through these icy wastes” when she leaves the factory, and about her perhaps surprising liaisons with a Bulgarian and then a Dutch laborer. The book is a clear reminder that actions speak louder than professions of allegiance.
A themed book of poetry, when it works, is a real accomplishment. Such is Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights (trans. from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid). There is a thread running through the opening poems—a narrative of Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of love, sex, fertility, and war. It is a gossamer thread, not a heavy rope, and remains on the mind while reading the rest of the book, where many poems express the exile’s painful longings for Iraq, and a few consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which isn’t her own personal struggle.
The prelude to the title poem says that it, and presumably, the accompanying illustrations, are Ishtar’s works, which “she wrote on the gates” while being kidnapped and taken to the underworld. They “suggest that she wasn’t killed at once. Or perhaps these words drew her abductors’ attention away from thoughts of murder.” Like Marie Simon’s interactions with people in Nazi Germany, Ishtar’s communication with Others brought out their best natures for a short time, at least.
Emelihter Kihleng
The most recent novel I devoured was Sia Figiel’s Freelove. Like other Figiel fans, I had been patiently awaiting new work from the award-winning author of where we once belonged, a novel that changed my life. Many moons ago, when I first read where we once belonged, I felt as if I were holding up a mirror wherein I finally saw myself and other Pacific Islander women like me reflected. Freelove is also a coming-of-age story, one where the author delves deeper into a Samoan/Pacific Islander universe where all knowledge, indigenous and Western, is sacred. The main characters, Inosia and Ioage, remind us of the beauty of the mind, for without it, we can never be truly free, free to love ourselves and the world we live in.
On my summer reading list is Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island and Brandy Nālani McDougall’s Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature.
Karen Leeder
In the post-Brexit gloom I have been heartened again and again by Centres of Cataclysm (edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine), the anthology celebrating fifty years of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, founded by Ted Hughes in 1965. It brings together poets ancient and modern from all over the world and is organized thematically to allow all kinds of extraordinary meetings and conversations. It is not for nothing John Berger called MPT the fifth International, “anyone who wants to change the world and see it changed should join.” That sits by my bed alongside Anvil’s fantastic edition of Martinus Nijhof’s Awater, a kind of Dutch Wasteland, published in 1939 and praised by Eliot and Brodsky, but which had somehow completely passed me by. Like many people I am reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of another classic, Aeneid Book VI. Impossible to believe he is gone. An arresting voice of another kind is Karin Gottshall and her most recent collection, The River Won’t Hold You has me spellbound. Alice Oswald’s new collection due out next month is already pre-ordered for holidays.
Over the last month I’ve been rereading Don Paterson’s brilliant, infuriating, spellbinding Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which offers a rough and tumble but also searingly insightful way of approaching poetry criticism. Because my work involves poetry, prose is often a snatched indulgence. Algerian Kamel Douaud’s debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, brilliantly translated from the French by John Cullen, continues Camus’s existentialist classic L’etranger (The Outsider) and blew me away with its furious precision and absurd humor. I’ve bought multiple copies to give to friends. Quite different is the rich unfolding of poet Patrick McGuinness’s Other People’s Countries, his recent essay memoir. Revelation of the year, though, was Max Porter’s novella Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, which I read last week in its entirety on a train journey and shocked commuters by crying and laughing out loud in an entirely un-English way. A genre-bending homage to Ted Hughes’s Crow, but also a reckoning with parenthood, grief and mortality, it’s a linguistic rocket unlike anything I’ve ever read.
William Logan
I’m tidying up a book of essays on canonical poems, titled Shelley’s Wrinkled Lip, Smith’s Gigantic Leg: Reading the Margins of Poetry. I’ve had to dip back into books I used years ago, some of them profoundly odd, like William Rose Benét’s Fifty Poets: An American Auto-Anthology (1933). This isn’t, alas, an early homage to the influence of Detroit on poetic (or romantic) life, full of paeans to Chrysler and Packard. Instead, the “best fifty poets in America” (including Mr. Benét, by his own choice) pick shorter poems by which they’d like to be remembered. Eliot and Pound bowed out, the former with slightly unctuous politesse and the latter with the usual howls of contempt. Apart from the great moderns, all of whom Benét solicited, the “best fifty” is crowded with poets lucky to get a nose into anthologies now (Sandburg, Neihardt, Bynner, Ficke, Kreymborg, Teasdale, Fletcher, Wheelock). If you think our own anthologies will be more lasting, think again.
My sport reading for some years has languished quite happily in the western expansion, from the heyday of the trappers to the end of the Indian Wars. Among recent books, Charles Larpenteur’s Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri; Mary Loughborough’s My Cave Life in Vicksburg (a diary of the siege); and one I’m just starting, Isabella Bird’s Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. If you have a taste for travel writing, Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is a classic—droll, hilarious, full of detail that makes even the trivial and tedious memorable. Bird was one of the most sharp-minded writers of the day, the equal of Elizabeth Custer, the general’s widow, who wrote three extraordinary books on life as a soldier’s wife.
Valzhyna Mort
I’m finishing my writing residency at the Amy Clampitt house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and for half a year now my reading list, with some variations, has been a reflection of its generous bookshelves. I’ll mention Selected Poems of Jay Wright first. Published by Princeton University Press in the eighties, it’s hard to believe that this selection is under two hundred pages. There must be another two hundred of invisible pages packed somewhere there. Months after reading Jay Wright, his voice, with its syntax and affectations, still measures my days. I read Christopher Logue’s War Music along with a collection of British WWI poetry, Some Desperate Glory. Books on music: Romain Roland’s Essays on Music and Verdi’s biography from Vintage, I supplemented with recently published Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge. Three novels picked off Amy Clampitt’s shelves: Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Christa Wolf’s Medea. Three nonfiction books picked up and read during brief trips into the world: John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet, Marina Tsvetaeva’s Letter to the Amazon, and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. A poetry book that moved me greatly: Tales of Severed Head by a Moroccan poet Rachida Madani (thank you, Sandeep Parmar for this gift!). For over a month now I’ve been rereading essays, lectures, and interviews of a Russian poet Olga Sedakova. Some of these texts are available in English in a collection In Praise of Poetry, edited by Stephanie Sandler. Mostly recently, with summer, sea, and political insanity, I went through Cavafy’s Collected Poems. Now that I’m finished with Cavafy, I find myself, in the midst of summer, with Hamlet in one hand, and “The Book of Ruth” in the other.
André Naffis-Sahely
It took Robinson Jeffers only twenty-five years to evolve from national hero to national zero, all for daring to suggest, as Henry Wallace did, that the war-hungry machine spawned by the Second World War would unleash a century of fear—and as James Karman proves in Robinson Jeffers: Prophet and Poet, Jeffers is still a crucially relevant voice: “We have won two wars and a third is coming.” The Californian bard wrote in 1945: “This one – will not be so easy. We were at ease while the powers of the world were split into factions; we changed that. / We have enjoyed fine dreams; we have dreamed of unifying the world; we / are unifying it – against us.” After Jeffers, I rediscovered another old favorite thanks to Arturo Mantecón’s translation of The Sick Rose, a posthumous collection by Leopoldo María Panero. Much of my remaining poetry reading time has been taken up by debuts; having introduced me to Claudia Rankine’s work, my partner Zinzi also showed me a copy of Solmaz Sharif’s sharp-edged and appealingly cosmopolitan LOOK, while I was also very impressed with Adam O’Riordan’s In the Flesh, Malene Engelund’s The Wild Gods and John Clegg’s Holy Toledo! Easily my favorite work of nonfiction in a while, Hisham Matar’s The Return is the story of the author’s quest to find out what happened to his father Jaballa, a diplomat, once the latter was kidnapped from his Cairo apartment in 1990 and vanished by Qaddafi’s regime. Last but not least, Karen Van Dyck’s anthology, Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry documents the boom in Greek poetry since the Great Recession and the ensuing debt crisis. It packs a punch: take Thomas Ioannou’s “Honourable Compromise”:
Every twitch of your lips
Every grimace
Will be coordinated with public opinion
Your every word will beg for validation
From a broad
From an overwhelming majority
And if some conscience dissents
Unconvinced about your intentions
Don’t apologize
Are we judging intentions now?
The key thing is
That you avoided the worst
By agreeing to an eminently
Honourable compromise.
Miller Oberman
I just finished Niina Pollari’s wonderful translation of Finnish-language poet Tytti Heikkinen’s The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal, which is really something like a translation of a translation, perhaps in the Steinian “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” sense, since Heikkinen creates poems from what Pollari terms the “e-primordial ooze of the internet,” where “Even the Creator is acting like a teen, why did he go dallying / with copies of copies.” In addition to my slight luddite-leaning joy that poems made this way can and do have a tangible sense of self, while at the same time continuing to question its existence as a useful identifier, I should also say that they are beautiful, and the multiplicity of voices is incredibly moving in poems like “The rabbit was dead,” where the death of a rabbit (who seems to have been used for testing) is remarked upon by a pastor, funeral guests, a drunk, the mother rabbit, and an enduring “we,” who “saw / how the dead one rose.”
I’m almost finished with and seriously recommend Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie as a beach book, but only if you’re not ashamed to cry a little in public. This collection of (mostly/sort of science fiction) stories is riveting, and I love the way Liu writes about language and translation, often involving not only various earthly languages and cultures, but multiple planets and beings. He is somehow able to address translation within story as a meditation on memory, time, literacy, and matter itself in a way that feels utterly human, even when he’s writing about someone we would think of as a robot who has lived hundreds of years and has become a “pattern of energy” moving between stars, “her consciousness a ribbon across both time and space.” For Liu, science fiction conceits are brilliantly flexible, some acting as interesting details in a family narrative, while others are so astonishingly inventive that the story would be formless without them.
Todd Portnowitz
I’m reading, at last, sixteen years since I fell for a poem of his in the Black Warrior Review, Jamey Hecht’s Limousine, Midnight Blue. Each of the fifty sonnets reflects on a frame of the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s murder. I’m not much into “idea” books like this, but Hecht avoids all the pitfalls, which may have something to do with his healthy (i.e. distant) relationship to the poetry scene: he’s published no poetry since this collection, and from his website it looks like he’s become a psychoanalyst—I hope he’s hiding something.
Otherwise I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s poems, in an edition selected by John Crowe Ransom (Collier Books, 1966). A friend introduced me to his work with the great “The Convergence of the Twain,” though I’m more taken now by “Heiress and Architect.” For you will fade.
Listening to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money on audiobook, the ideal medium, I think, for good nonfiction.
No‘u Revilla
49 people killed, 53 wounded in Orlando.
More than 4,000 miles away in Hawaiʻi, I read Justin Torres’s “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club” out loud. I read like I’m praying, like I’m testifying. Like queer people of color across the United States are not desperate with the question…is the world on fire?
Audre Lorde tells us that poetry is illumination.
Illumination is not fire, so I reach for poetry by queer Pacific women.
Tagi Qolouvaki, of Fijian and Tongan descent, makes poems out of mud and worshipped women. Her work demonstrates how the choice between bodily survival and erotic fulfillment – a choice fraught with violence and discrimination for queer people of color – is no choice at all. I play her KTUH reading of “Black Love,” which she wrote in solidarity with Ferguson in 2014. In Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, she writes, “we will grow frangipani / with creamy yellow centres / papaya and blue taro.” Her sensuality continues in “lolomaloha: fruit for aiko” as she describes the Pacific Ocean as “our blue skin.”
Several years ago, Tagi showed me Samoan spoken word artist Terisa Siagatonu’s performance of “My Staying Out Story, also known as: The Ocean is Hella Gay.” The poem rejects the closet as the signifying space of disclosure, and coming out is not predicated on a false binary between rural and urban but instead embodied by the Pacific Ocean, which functions as an ancestral space of connectivity. By reminding other queer Pacific women that “there is no difference / Between loving the ocean / And becoming one,” the speaker effectively defies settler heteropatriarchy and its historical erasure of queer indigenous women.
I read Tagi and Terisa like I’m praying, like I’m testifying. Like “our blue skin” will never catch on fire.
Roger Sedarat
With a forthcoming book of tennis poetry, I’ve been revisiting literature on the subject. The first act of Shakespeare’s Henry V includes some of the best tennis trash talking in literary history, with King Henry threatening to turn “balls to gun stones” against a prince mocking his leadership. Rereading Nabokov’s great novel specifically for the scene when Humbert watches his Lolita playing tennis, I newly appreciate the lyricism in the description of his obsessive desire.
Library of America’s recently published String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis, which compiles Wallace’s exquisite writing on the sport in a single collection. Perhaps no author has done more justice to a supreme athlete than Wallace on Federer. It’s hard to write about tennis, as evidenced by the banal articles and even tweets I’ve started reading on a daily basis. To this end Wallace is a fiercely vulnerable critic in explaining how Tracy Austin’s horrible memoir broke his heart. Andre Agassi’s Open, ghostwritten by J.R. Moehringer, proves a necessary corrective. As both a player and fan, I got authentic inspiration (along with the perfect epigraph to my forthcoming collection) from this book.
Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner importantly reminds me how much tennis is about relationships, thanks especially to the writer’s astute observations of the game juxtaposed with the story of tragically losing his friend to drug addiction, while the multi-genre anthology Tennis and the Meaning of Life gives a needed variety of perspectives on what it means to play the sport. Joe Samuel Starnes’s novel Red Dirt refreshingly includes class struggles in pursuit of tennis greatness. Finally, Gerald Marzorati’s Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win. offers a compelling personal example of believing enough in life to persevere at it, following through till the end.
Richard Sieburth
Currently reading Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth—in which it emerges that Gould was an uncanny Doppelgänger of Ezra Pound. Also: Marina Tsvetaeva’s beautiful Letter to the Amazon—a mediation on lesbianism addressed to Natalie Barney. As for poetry: J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones, Rosmarie Waldrop’s Gap Gardening, and Stevie Smith’s All the Poems.
Robert Sullivan
I’ll start by recommending the Samoan New Zealand poet Tusiata Avia and her new collection Fale Aitu / Spirit House. She deals movingly with the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. Her poem dedicated to Izzeldin Abuelaish, “I cannot write a poem about Gaza,” takes a stand on very complex ground.
The Indian author Nayantara Sahgal’s The Political Imagination brings together essays on the nature of the personal and political in literature. She opposed the imposition of martial law by her cousin, Indira Gandhi, in the 1970s, and she continues to oppose the unfolding Hindu fundamentalism which has resulted in the deaths of a number of authors in India.
I have long admired the former New Zealand poet laureate Cilla McQueen’s writing. Her first collection, Homing In, is my favorite. It captures the light and the shorelines of our country. You can find out more about her work, and other New Zealand writers’ work, at The Academy of New Zealand Literature website, which has recently been launched, here.
Others I’d like to mention are Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a poetic achievement in constructing a novel around the zodiac and a diminishing spiral, and Patricia Grace’s significant Maori novel, Potiki, told from lives in a small village facing land developers.
The Hawaiian poet Brandy Nālani McDougall’s The Salt-Wind / Ka Makani Pa‘akai brings forth the struggle by indigenous Hawaiians for their native land. It is written throughout with aloha so there is humor and sadness, anger and love. On that Pacific note, I highly recommend the love poetry of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, who was the first Polynesian to have a collection of poems published in English. He has a new collected poems forthcoming from Victoria University Press in September.
Joshua Weiner
One book of poems that has me in its grip this summer is in field latin, by Lutz Seiler, translated from the German by Alexander Booth. Seiler (b. 1963) has emerged in the last 10 years as one of the distinctive voices, in both poetry and prose, from a kind of in-between generation that grew up in a divided Germany, then hit stride after the Mauerfall and reunification. He grew up in the East of the former DDR, and hails from Thuringia, the federal state known for its great forest as “the green heart of Germany.” This is famously Goethe-land as well, the eighteenth century cultural laboratory where Goethe cooked up the Romantic movement that Schiller later encouraged to shift to a Weimar classicism in the early nineteenth century: another important in-between time for Europe. And an all-important history in the backdrop to Seiler’s work, which, in this latest collection, reinvents the possibility of a nature poetry by stripping it of nostalgia and pastiche. There is no life in this landscape for second-hand comforts or received sentiments: “it’s the cold that / holds things hard in the eye”; “the archive / of a slippery tradition” where “existence silhouettes & old conventions” may extend themselves from the “nerve bundle” of a birch. For the Nature in Seiler’s Thuringia has been devastated by uranium mines and post-war industrial exploitation of the land. A childhood landscape in ruination, Seiler’s world in field latin is haunted by ghosts that speak dead languages and take the shape of parents, friends, family, and local characters, but also trees, soil, houses, fences:
the leaves all burnt, sand
still warm beneath the ashes, you
feel it now upon your hand: something
wants to flee & something to never leave. so
one goes all the way
out back, behind the house. one falls
onto the grass & looks around:
globe-illumination, earth-rotation
across neighbors’ balconies. one
time home & return
it glistens from the dog-chains. ‘my god
how the pine-tree tips are
suddenly red up top!’ & under the earth
lie the dead
& hold the ends of the roots in their mouths.
—Autumn
Seiler has masterful command of a subtle style (expertly carried over with cunning intuition by Booth), both skittish & firm in its diction and movement, tense and tensile in its branching extensions and jittery vertiginous drops. One could call it elliptical, but it’s more a kind of binocular vision, with one lens ground for cosmic focus and the other for a microscope. The voicing of such vision shifts from ecstatic to abject; the idiom is constantly sliding, smearing, merging to connect phenomena and feeling in work that opens a new approach in the ecological awareness currently driving poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. Lutz Seiler has effectively rewired the lyric for the twenty-first century, tuning the dial of the poetic to its lower frequencies, where the signal can pass through walls.
Some of Alexander Booth’s translations of Lutz Seiler can be found online, including Booth’s essay, “On Translating Lutz Seiler.”

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