Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Full Disclosure: None. New poet to me. Review copy purchased with help from supporters on Patreon. Just a wee heads up that the book and the review discuss domestic violence and implied sexual abuse.

Review: There’s a wonderful podcast and interview with Vuong on LateNightLibrary where Vuong argues that all of a poet’s subject matter should be in service of the questions the poet wants to explore; the most important part of the process, then, is having a clear idea of what those questions are. In the most general sense, the poems in Night Sky… are concerned with how the past informs and shapes the present, how one moment irrevocably changes the next; while it’s possible make a rudimentary catalogue of ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘war’, ‘love/sex’, ‘America’ poems, the collection is way more interested in how these categories overlap or intersect. As Christopher Soto points out in a review in Lambda Literary, Vuong repeats the same building-block images – ‘moon, sun, mouth, lips, teeth, body, time … fire, burn, black, bright … kneeling, kissing, hair’ – across a multitude of poems, giving the impression that, despite a great variety of tone, form, or narrative perspective, the whole book is cut from the same cloth. A cynic might suggest this is an indulgence of the poet’s writing tics, but it feels purposeful: the first and last poems in the book feature the narrator on their knees, the former in an act of voyeurism (‘I watched, through the keyhole, not / the man showering, but the rain // falling through him’), the latter in an act of apparently humdrum, loveless sex (‘my knees / scraping hardwood, / another man leaving / into my throat’). Elsewhere in the collection, kneeling figures appear with notable regularity, in postures of surrender, prayer, love, or in one memorable image, saving a beached dolphin. I think the book’s vocabulary behaves in the same way as its themes – the reader is given a followable thread that allows us to see the same image or person or thing from different angles, challenges us to read again what seemed to be wholly comprehensible. Above all else, I think, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book that refuses to accept simplified formulations of complicated ideas; the act of allowing a person to mean multiple things at once seems synonymous with the book’s conception of love.

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More on that later, maybe, as to focus too much on the book’s theoretical framework would be to misrepresent a lush, visceral, human book of poetry. The collection features several poems about or in the voice of the poet’s father; it is clear from these pieces that he is capable of committing horrific acts of violence, not least towards his own family. Vuong, however, does not paint him as a pure and irredeemable monster: in the poem ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he ‘kneels to gather the wet refugee / into his arms’; in ‘Always & Forever’, he leaves his son a handgun, for ‘when you need me most’ – the poem regards this gesture with remarkable ambiguity, managing to convey both its intended warmth and its chilling, estranging effect without explicitly passing judgement either way. The poem notes how ‘His thumb, / still damp from the shudder between mother’s / thighs, kept circling the mole above my brow’. I don’t think this is a lurid detail for shock value; I think this is consistent with Vuong’s strategy of seeing multiple motivations in action simultaneously, or his depiction of his father as someone who does not draw, or at least enact, clear distinctions between sex, violence and familial love. Vuong writes with a narrative efficiency many short story writers would sell a kidney for. In ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’ the poet witnesses his father ‘pressing a shank to another man’s throat’, strongly identifying with his victim:

‘Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
& blue – beg to remain clear
& blue?’

Later, there is ‘a boy kneeling / in a house with every door kicked open / to summer’, with ‘A knife touching / Your finger lodged inside the throat’. The rendering of the scene –  which for want of more detail seems to imply the poet being physically threatened by his father – is characteristic of Vuong’s style. Simply spelling out the act of violence might fix it in realistic space far too neatly; giving the reader just enough detail to piece the scene together themselves (particularly in light of information supplied in other poems) allows or requires a more engaged kind of meaning-creation on the part of the reader. It also permits disbelief or wilful ignorance; the active decision to believe your own senses, to acknowledge what is certainly present in the text, is itself a hugely uncomfortable, perhaps even painful experience. Vuong articulates the silences and elisions that trauma occasions to powerful effect.

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The act of witness seems a vital cog in the book’s engine, the poet as a keeper of memories and stories both personal and historical, including several pieces in which Vuong watches his parents or speaks in their voices. What’s remarkable about many of these early pieces is how seamlessly Vuong sidelines the observational self; the poems’ narratives are given central focus, and whatever impressions the reader gets about the real-life poet are fleeting, and only substantiated much later in the book. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ sets the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 against another obliquely written scene of (probably) an American officer and a young Vietnamese woman, (or girl, given the recurring image of ‘Milkflower petals […] like pieces of a girl’s dress’):

‘He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
She opens.’

In ‘Headfirst’, the poet’s mother  asserts:

‘When they ask you
where you’re from,
tell them your name
was fleshed from the toothless mouth
of a war-woman.
That you were not born
but crawled, headfirst –
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
the body is a blade that sharpens
by cutting.’

Late in the collection, in the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’, Vuong notes:

‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.

Yikes.’

Although, as the latter poem’s title suggests, this is one thought among many, and an uncharacteristically blunt one at that, these lines make one of the book’s latent ideas explicit, that each of what could be considered its central ‘themes’ are deeply connected. The murderous masculinity-cult of 1968’s John Wayne-in-Vietnam movie The Green Berets (‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’) feeds into the power dynamics between the nameless American and Vietnamese characters in ‘Aubade with Burning City’. The suffering brought upon Vietnamese women informs their conception of the body as ‘a blade that sharpens / by cutting’; implicitly, it dulls by not cutting, it becomes less of a weapon the less it is used as a weapon (maybe it’s no accident that literal knives appear in the hand of the poet’s father throughout the book). The poet’s renderings of love are haunted by this idea, the physical body given primacy over the emotional states it inhabits; in ‘Eurydice’, the speaker self-rebukes, ‘Silly me. I thought love was real / and the body imaginary’. In ‘Because it’s Summer’:

‘the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror’

while ‘Notebook Fragments’ has a scene with a ‘high school English teacher’: ‘I could eat you he said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles’; ‘A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.’ The undercurrent of each of these poems is similar to Claudia Rankine’s rendering of the present-self and the historical-self suddenly and disastrously meeting; these actions by the English teacher might be benevolently meaningless from his perspective, but for Vuong the entire sexual encounter is tainted by historical significance:

‘I kissed it [the teacher’s scrotum]

lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade
before hurling it into the night’s mouth.’

It’s worth noting that the book references dissident political poets such as Nguyễn Chí Thiện and Edmond Jabès, and blends into its lyrics a kind of compassionate resistance, insisting on love in the face of violence. Where love is not set upon by historical forces, it is threatened by the toxic mores of contemporary America. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is written entirely in footnotes, as reference numbers hover on a blank page, in the voice of a gay man murdered in Dallas. A poem whose content borders on the downright halcyon:

‘& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

through my hair – my hair a wildfire’

is titled ‘Homewrecker’. There are precious few moments in Night Sky… in which uncomplicatedly positive moments of love emerge unscathed.

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After all of this, the book’s penultimate poem is ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, taken from fellow Copper Canyon poet Roger Reeves’ poem ‘Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves’ which itself is taken from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Katy’, written in the voice of a six-year-old who says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara’. That the poem has already passed through several hands is part of its meaning, the perhaps never-ending process of learning to love someone whose culture has decided should not be loved. The poem itself does not have a logical narrative progression, and is more akin to ‘Notebook Fragments’ than the book’s other accounts of (imaginative) memory. It places more significance on individual turns of phrase:

‘Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.’

‘The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls’

‘Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake –
& mistake these walls
for skin.’

That the poem’s closing image is a combination of writing-room and body feels like a culmination of the book’s intent. That a book that spends so long detailing suffering and loss should have at its climactic moment such an image of defiant persistence is a little extraordinary.

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Vuong’s palette is rich and sensuous, and, as Soto’s list of motifs implies, his poetic vocabulary often leans towards the personal/confessional/generally sincere. Whether you can tolerate occasional stumbles into political heavy-handedness (‘Of Thee I Sing’ is written in the voice of Jackie Onassis and maybe lands too heavily on its closing ‘American dreams’),or metaphors that don’t quite stick the landing (e.g. ‘my hand, filled with blood thin / as a widow’s tears’ from ‘Thanksgiving 2006’), will very much colour your enjoyment of the collection. The flipside is that when these poems do get their calibrations right, as in ‘Anaphora as Coping Mechanism’ or ‘Queen Under The Hill’, they are heartwrenching, all heightened realities and emotional devastation. That said, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is not a tragedy-memoir, and it would be a mistake to equate emotional turmoil with aesthetic achievement. The book’s argument against racial, sexual and gender inequality is at the heart of its poetic project, from its insistence that ‘Yes, you have a country’, its acknowledgement that ‘from men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, / I learned to praise’, to, in ‘Ode to Masturbation’, ‘sometimes / your hand / is all you have / to hold / yourself to this / world’. Given the book’s stakes, it may well be that heartfelt sincerity is the only viable option, a very real survival strategy or coping mechanism.

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Okay, tinfoil hat time and then we’ll call it a day. I think Night Sky With Exit Wounds might owe as much to musical composition as poetry. There are so many recurring themes and leitmotifs that a musical kind of attention to patterned meaning seems to be meaningfully rewarded. (I might well have reached the saturation point for exegesis and am projecting hugely, but the book seems to bear this theory out.) To show you what I mean, take the shifting meaning of the eponymous ‘exit wounds’. They appear in several poems, each instance slightly modified from the one before: its first appearance is in ‘Always & Forever’, a literal gun held by Vuong which makes him ‘wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning’. Second, it informs an entire poem, ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’, in which a series of tableaux from the Vietnam War impact on the poet’s self-conception, Vuong finally ‘lower[ing] myself between the sights’. In the excellent ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’, the stars are ‘the exit wounds / of every / misfired word’. Finally, in ‘Logophobia’, ‘I drill the ink / into a period. / The deepest hole, / where the bullet, / after piercing / my father’s back, / has come / to rest’. In a book so full of guns, bullets, wounds and generally being violently passed through, that the final word on the matter (indeed, where the matter rests) should be in a moment in which bullet and word are synonymous, seems significant. To say what, exactly, would probably put too fine a point on it, and I’m sure you’ll have ideas of your own; my main point here is that the book seems to encourage this awareness of repeated significant phrases or images (try it with kneeling figures, maybe, or what the book sets on fire), interconnected verbal patterns that mirror the interconnectedness of the book’s themes.

Tl;dr: In any case, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a bit of a special book, and the folks at Jonathan Cape have pulled off a tidy bit of business by signing him up. Highly recommended.

Further reading:

Interview and discussion on Late Night Library Podcast

Michiko Kakutani – review in the New York Times

Stephan Delbos – review in Body Literature

Christopher Soto – review in Lambda Literary

Jeff Nguyen – review in The Rumpus

Interview with Vuong (in Vietnamese) with Vien Dong Daily

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