Monday, April 30, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Marianne Moore

Here's something you can't say of many Modernist poets: in 1968, Marianne Moore threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. (Take that, Skipwith Cannell!) I understand it was a big, sweeping curve that just nicked the outside of the plate, and that Mel Stottlemyre asked her for some pointers later that evening.

She also suggested the names Intelligent Whale and Utopian Turtletop to Ford Motor Company. They went with Edsel.

(Both of those stories sound like elaborate hoaxes. I sort of wish they were, and I'd thought of them.)

A fine article on Moore is here.

Here's a poem called "To A Giraffe":

If it is unpermissible, in fact fatal
to be personal and desirable

to be literal—detrimental as well
if the eye is not innocent—does it mean that

one can live only on top leaves that are small
reachable only by a beast that is tall?—

of which the giraffe is the best example—
the unconversational* animal.

When plagued by the psychological,
a creature can be unbearable

that could have been irresistible;
or to be exact, exceptional

since less conversational*
than some emotionally-tied-in-knots animal.

After all
consolations of the metaphysical
can be profound. In Homer, existence

is flawed; transcendence, conditional;
"the journey from sin to redemption, perpetual."

(Pardon the font change. It was the only way I could get the line breaks and spaces right.)

And this is "A Jelly-Fish":

Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.

I'll let Moore's work speak for itself. Honestly, I don't know what I could say that would be worthy.

* My thanks to the eagle-eyed and (I assume) Marianne Moore fancying J.C.P, who caught my mistaken transcription. I had had "unconventional" and "conventional" in place of "unconversational" and "conversational".

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Robert Hayden

It's the last day of National Poetry Month. I must admit I'm sad to see it go. I've been enjoying finding favorite poems and poets and sharing them.

I'll give you a few today. And use the comments fields to recommend your own. I'll drop them all in a final post.

I attended a lecture by A. Van Jordan (recent Guggenheim fellow, which I mentioned earlier) last July, and he introduced me to the work of Robert Hayden. Jordan discussed the poem "American Journal." Here's a selection, but you can follow the link on the title to read the entire thing:

here among them the americans this baffling
multi people extremes and variegations their
noise restlessness their almost frightening
energy how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations white black
red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live by which they
justify their cruelties to one another

and later:

america as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy an organism that changes even as i
examine it fact and fantasy never twice the
same so many variables

I like this voice he's using. There's a level at which this is a poem about the African-American experience. (Hayden was African-American, born in 1913 in Detroit, and started having his work collected in the '60s.) Hayden was given to depression, near-sighted, spent much of his life in books. He was an outsider, a member of no movement. So there's another level as well. The voice in the poem is his own: the observer, unaffiliated to any organized human endeavor. And unaffiliated as he is, he can see the cracks in the paint, and the whole of the painting, and report on both.

(We don't have a copy of his Collected Poems in right now, but we can get it. Call us to place an order at 1.800.335.READ or 206.634.3400. We do have some of his work in The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, though.)

Some Words from Nick: Masterworks from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq

28 April 07
Saturday morning

What the world needs now is for the greatest living authors to use clear, gorgeous language and the highest literary artistry to open the eyes of us Westerners to the realities of the worlds we’ve invaded.

Well, three powerhouse authors have stepped up to the plate.

Judging that Mohsid Hamid’s razor-sharp The Reluctant Fundamentalist is opening at No. 6 on The New York Times bestseller list gives the sense that maybe a few Americans out there are interested in outside opinions. It’s about a bright, cocky young Pakistani scholar who graduates from Princeton and lands a high-flying, cutthroat New York job just before 9/11 changes the world and his life.

This classy little thriller is an homage to one of literature’s unique masterpieces, Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like Camus, Hamid has his narrator speak directly to the reader, inviting him into a personal conversation which gets out of hand. And he’s not the only one echoing Camus these days.

Like Camus, Yasmina Khadra is an Algerian who’s gone to France to create his literary masterpieces. Like Camus, he’s politically and morally compassionate and fiercely objective, with an existential value on freedom from tyranny.

I’m 125 pages into Yasmina Khadra’s new one, a riveting, anxiety-inducing portrait of Iraq told by a kid from a remote Iraq village, The Sirens of Baghdad. Within those first pages, I’ve watched a gentle, emotional young guy forced to go through the trauma of driving an injured friend to the medical clinic past a military stop-point. I’ve been jolted through an all-too-common daily invasive house search, and forced to face the unpleasant, brutal reality of digging out neighbors from an explosion. Three not-too-unusual events. The narrator is just an ordinary young guy who’s not a resistance fighter, not a statistic, just roughed up a bit by the Americans, degraded a bit, nothing broken.

But now he’s been pushed over the edge, and I’m afraid to see where all this is leading. What delivers the final blow is a factor I would never have considered in a million years, a cultural chasm I didn’t even know existed. And it’s decisive, irreversible, and life-destroying.

Besides all that, the book’s got breathtaking writing. Set-ups so cleverly introduced you’re constantly surprised that you already know exactly what you need to know to understand a scene. His ability to disguise plot points and introduce them without a ripple has hit me later with an emotional wallop over and over.

I call the author Yasmina Khadra. That’s his wife’s name. His real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul. Since he was an officer in the Algerian military, his writings were subject to censorship, so he used her name to get his first novels printed and has kept it ever since. He now writes from France, just like his Algerian forebear, Albert Camus, to whom Khadra bears a growing resemblance.

Frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about the first Khadra book I read. I encountered his short novel, The Swallows Of Kabul, right on the tail of Khaled Hosseini’s history-making, David Lean-like production, The Kite Runner, and Khadra’s unpleasant little book has such an overwhelming downer ending that, well, I sorta hated it. I’ve come to respect it more later, with mixed feelings.

It was the second novel I read by Khadra that blew me out of the water. The Attack is about an Arab surgeon in Israel, a doctor so dedicated that when a man on the operating table spits in his face, he goes on operating. The novel begins when the good doctor is summoned to the hospital to find out that the wife he adores has been killed in a terrorist bombing. Horrible enough, but to make matters nightmarish: she was the terrorist.

How could the woman he loved have committed an act he abhors? You’ll want to go with this grieving man as he flings caution to the wind and goes recklessly in search of the answer he can’t live without knowing – what made his wife do this thing?
That would be riches enough, but there’s a long-awaited book about to hit the stores on May 22. We’ve been waiting years for this one. Everyone knows it’s going to be big, but no one dreamed it would be this good. How could the guy who wrote The Kite Runner do it again? Well, believe me, he has. He’s already proved the impossible once, that a novel about a friendship in Afghanistan could remain 130 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

Well, his second achievement, A Thousand Splendid Suns is every bit as powerful as his first. I’m telling you, once his plot gets hold of you, don’t read it in public. You’ll be humiliated. You gasp and make noises. It's like being tied to a runaway truck and dragged over some serious potholes and rocks. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it hurts. I came out of it battered, exhilarated, and crying. Hoo boy, this one really takes the gloves off.

With the detachment of Chekhov writing “Peasants” or “In the Ravine,” in a straightforward, simple style, objective and horrifying in his depiction of life’s simple brutalities, Hosseini takes you into the powerless, unpredictable world of two female characters, Mariam and Laila. Okay, I’m only a man, but these two characters seem so realistic to me, I can’t believe they were created by a male writer. There’s a tender little throwaway scene with a baby that seems like nothing a man would take the time to include, and it becomes a scene so powerful that no one can fail to mention it when discussing the book. The writing is driven, as was his earlier novel, by Hosseini’s passionate love of his country. His deep-hearted commitment to Afghanistan drives the story as much as his respect and admiration for the unsung heroism of the least heroic of characters, in this case, an illegitimate, uneducated woman like Mariam.

No first novel has a right to sell like Hosseini’s first novel. No second novel can possibly be as good as Hosseini’s second novel.

Hasn’t someone told Hosseini the rules?

So many good ones, so dang little time.

Speaking of time, it’s time to get back to The Sirens Of Baghdad. What a feeling to find myself in a master writer’s hands, in a remote Iraq village, far from any Western eyes, and to watch the smoke and fighting slowly coming closer and closer…

Friday, April 27, 2007

Nation Poetry Month Suggested Reading

Robert Pinsky offers a strong, spirited defense of difficult poetry here.

And Steve, a fellow shelver, recommends reading this poem by Paul Violi, "Appeal to the Grammarians".

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Brooks Haxton

In January I attended a lecture by Brooks Haxton. During the lecture, Brooks was thorough, intelligent, funny, but just a little distracted. That was because as he was lecturing, his son was competing in a poker tournament. And doing well. He ran off at the end of the lecture to check on his son's status.

Let's just say Dad had reason to be happy when the last flop fell.

This floors me: Brooks Haxton has a book that features a blurb by Eudora Welty. Seriously. The Eudora Welty. This Eudora Welty:

She said:

"The poems in Brooks Haxton's Traveling Company are extraordinary. I value their beauty and their strength, one by one, and their accumulating power to move their reader's own responding imagination. It is a pleasure to recommend this fine book."

Another writer who praised Haxton is Walker Percy. He said of the book Dominion:

"These are extraordinary poems, strikingly original, rich, comic, and beautiful in the use of language."

The authors of one of my favorite collections of short stories, and one of my favorite novels (last archived post on this page) both called Brooks Haxton's work extraordinary.

I think that this is the literary equivalent of having Samuel L. Jackson tell you he thinks you are a total bad-ass. And then having Bruce Lee concur.

This is a poem called "I Am" from Uproar: Antiphonies to Psalms:

And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God. Psalm 40

The fog I call the world is not a cloud of atoms
only, but a cloud of feelings, and ideas. I mind
my little bumps. I grieve. I think about non-being.
All I do is what my flesh can do, yet everything
my flesh can do feels strange. I am the swelling
of a salt sea onto an armature of chalk, the calm
of a tidal pool where brain cells live, the wind,
the lightning storm where thought flares into thought.
I taste damp sparks inside my tongue. If sayings
gather under the name of Faith, or Art, I let them
when they let me let them, and my mind clears.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Bill Holm

Here's another for today. Bill Holm is a Minnesota poet. I dig him. (Of the three books that come up when you search our stock, only Playing the Black Piano and Eccentric Islands are the Bill Holm being recommended here. The other Bill Holm is good, too.)

He writes confidently about music, art, life's tragedy and promise—and he can be pretty funny, too.

Here's the opening stanza of "Playing Hadyn for the Angel of Death":

The piano tells things to your hands
you never let yourself hear from others:
Calm down, do your work, laugh,
love reason more, your mask less.
God exists, though not as church said.
To understand this language, you must
sometimes patiently play the same
piece over and over for years, then
when you expect nothing, the music
lets go its wisdom.

And this from "My Old Friend AT&T Writes Me A Personal Letter":

"Dear Mr. Holm,
Post office box one-eighty-seven may
be a terrific place to live, but for you—
it's more than just a home.
It's also a place to do serious business..."
Dear Company,
How well you understand
my needs—my life—
how every night we light
tiny candles to dine
on a roast sparrow (nowhere
for leftovers, you know),
drink a small young burgundy
(no space here for a wine to grow
old and big) then lie down
on our narrow bed for a little love.

Both of these poems are in Playing the Black Piano.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Christian Hawkey

Here's another recommendation from Jacob, who wrote about Zbigniew Herbert earlier this month—and is the man who can do this.

The Book of Funnels
Christian Hawkey

"Mein Gott, nothing can be said less of The Book of Funnels than it set in me a new and profound hope in the future of contemporary poetry. Within you will find nothing of posturing, overwrought mechanics, or worse still, poems that turn a blind eye to language & metaphor which has been the bailiwick of contemporary poetry to date. Here, instead, is the work of a young poet that goes unabashedly & playfully into his phonetics & semantics to come out with a shining vicissitude."

Here are the opening lines of a poem called "Goya's Grotesquerie":

I don't know the story of his last days
but they ended, as always, in walls,

& what are "they" but so many palms
lining the dictator's long drive—

he's in the Yellow Room
smoothing his glass moustache,

he's sipping Lapsang souchong
& feeding a piece of cuttlebone

to a caged nightingale—tired bird.

Dog of the Week

We were very lucky to get a picture of Daisy, our dog of the week. Daisy is very busy. She has a job.

She works with Delta Society Pet Partners program as a therapy dog. So, she's clearly a very important dog.

But she took a moment to let me photograph her anyway. Thanks, Daisy. (And that's a very good sit, by the way.)

Good girl, Daisy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Stevie

I haven't done nearly enough recommending of women who write poetry this month. I apologize. Here's a quick plug for the great Stevie Smith.

I can't describe her any better than Clive James did, so I won't try: "Stevie Smith is a rare bird, a Maltese falcon. English literature in the modern age, crushed by the amount of official attention paid to it, needs her strangeness, the throwaway artistry that takes every trick, the technique there is no point in analyzing because you would have to go on analyzing it forever...When she is in form she can deconstruct literature in the only way that counts—by constructing something that feels as if it had just flown together, except you can't take it apart."

This is "Not Waving but Drowning":

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Go here to listen to her reading it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Calef Brown

A good thing to do with poetry is to start reader's young. I've been neglecting the youth readers this month, but here's a recommendation to correct that.

I shelved the Kids' Books section a while back, and came across the crazy, colorful paintings and poems of the wonderful Calef Brown. His illustrations have appeared all over: Harper's, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone—even Business Week.

His flat paintings compliment his clever little poems quite well. And his books are loads of fun. Buy one for the kids in your life.

Here's "Kansas City Octopus" from Polka-bats and Octopus Slacks:

Kansas City Octopus
is wearing fancy slacks.
just got 'em,
fifty bucks including tax.

Red corduroy
and boy-oh-boy,
they fit like apple pie.
Multi-pocket snazzy trousers
custom made for octipi.

Fantastic plastic stretch elastic
keeps 'em nice and tight.
Kansas City Octopus
is looking good tonight.

On his website, you can see some of the poem/illustration combinations. Enjoy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why should you shop at University Book Store?

We have the coolest Myspace friends. Dickens IMs us.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Campbell McGrath

I'm fond of the Italian writer Italo Calvino. I like his novels. I like his collections of short poetic prose pieces. Great stuff, all around.

When I read the first section of Campbell McGrath's Florida Poems, it reminded me of Calvino's Invisible Cities.

The section, called "Flora & Fauna." And then it seems to have a subtitle: "A City in the Clouds." The section is a suite of poems about a city in the clouds, a city with slaves, birds, and alligators. And people. And advertising. And Happy Meals one Sunday a month.

This is the first three stanzas of a poem called "The Last Days":

The last days of the city in the clouds were in many ways
like those that had gone before: each morning
the sun rose from beneath them
in a corona of atmospheric fire; each night
it slipped beneath the velvet omphalos of the horizon.

But as the raw and fragile tissue of the clouds
was sucked into the maw of the unresting pumps
not only did the outlying regions diminish
but the fundamental clouds of the city grew ever thinner,
and as they thinned they rose to a greater height,
and the cold wind of the jetstream assailed them
in their lattice dwellings built for gentler climes.

Things were lost: bottles, alarm clocks, cases of rifle shells

It's Campbell McGrath's imaginative power that draws me to him. It's his specificity of language that keeps me reading.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hiya, Hank!

Right down the street from us is the Henry Art Gallery. They have a blog as well.

(The Henry is one of the most interesting galleries in town, by the way. I've had some of my favorite favorite art-viewing hours in Seattle at the Henry.)

Hey, Elliott Bay!

Just wanted to say:

We're preparing for the 2008 Shelving Olympics in Hay-on-Wye. You?

(This is not me. I can no longer do that. Bad case of shelver's knee.)

I think I owe you another

I didn't post a poetry recommendation on April 2. That was a weekday. I was shelving. I should've at least brought something to your attention. Sorry.

Maybe I'll two next Monday.

Here's a little something else for today, though. A coworker, Karen, gave me this poem about Dylan Thomas by her mother, E. Kathleen England:

The Ballad of Dylan Thomas

In the druidical mists of South Wales
Was once spawned a genius wild
Who vowed he'd become a great writer
When he was still only a child.
It was of being Dylan Thomas that he died.

"I'd rather be a poet any day
And thrive on guile and beer," said he.
"If I act like a bard, poor and wicked,
Then that's what I surely shall be."

Though his writings made him quite famous
He was always searching for more.
Near the end he cared only for drinking;
The work he once loved, now a chore.
It was of being Dylan Thomas that he died.

One night in a room in the Chelsea Hotel
Dylan Thomas declared to a friend,
"I've just downed eighteen straight whiskies
And I fear they may well spell my end."

Caitlin, possessed of ten-thousand demons,
Smashed a cross and a statue of Mary.
Dylan swore he would die before he was forty;
Now at thirty-nine his remains she must bury,
For he had died of being Dylan Thomas.

Nowadays in the Chelsea it's rumored
A lady burns candles all of the time
To discourage the ghost in the hallway
Who whispers, "Room 205 is still mine."

And more often than not she burns incense
To fend off the mists rising round.
She says the room reeks of raw whiskey.
Though never a bottle she's found.
It was of being Dylan Thomas that he died.

(When Margaret Taylor, a friend and benefactor, learned of the death of Dylan Thomas she allegedly said: "He has died of being Dylan Thomas.")

Kathleen England is 83, and has lived with Parkinson's Disease for many years. She dreams of publishing, and is working on, a book of poetry. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, studied verse with Nelson Bentley for 12 quarters since 1985, and has been published in The Written Arts, Matrix, Spindrift, Quaint Canoe (where she received third place in the "cat poem" contest), Scarabogram, Art's Focus (second honorable mention in the Illustrated Poetry contest), and the Henry Art Gallery Art Writing Competition (second prize).

It is our pleasure to share this poem with you. My thanks to Kathleen and Karen for providing it.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Maurice Manning

(If you look closely at some of my recommendations, you'll detect a thread holding them together. Not all. But some.)

I saw Maurice Manning read a few of the poems from his new book Bucolics about a year ago, and I've been waiting to read them on my own ever since. And now I can.

There are 70 wonderful, small poems in Bucolics. They are in a single voice, a man who is addressing his creator. He calls the creator Boss. The poet Mark Jarman says of the poems: "In these marvelous addresses to the Almighty, Maurice Manning reminds us of our agrarian roots and that our best metaphors for the ineffable all spring from the soil. These psalms, powerful and hectoring, tautological and unique, are reminiscent of King David's. They are spellbinding."

They certainly are. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are a little sad. Often they have an image that is sublime, and a metaphysical implication that is stunning.

Here is "XLVII":

I put my face against
the horse's shoulder Boss
I breathed into the frost
so white upon his coat
I saw the patch I left
a darker spot as dark
as darkness gets I let
the horse cut through the field
the spot was looking out
an empty eye unblinking
unblinking Boss which one
of us was that supposed
to be O was it you
so steady Boss or was
that patch of empty me

Thursday, April 19, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Keats

I've spent a lot of time on contemporary poets. But let's not forget the poetry that has stood the test of time. Three cheers for John Keats. Here's a section from the lovely "Ode on Melancholy":

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of gloved peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

Go read the rest of it here. "Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips..." Now that is a line of poetry.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Albert Goldbarth

Again, I apologize for not putting up a National Poetry Month recommendation yesterday. Very, very busy. Two today.

(And, no. The links weren't a hint. Just links to a couple of really good poets. Here's another one, too: meet Van Jordan, new Guggenheim fellow.)

Today, I'd like to recommend the "wacky, talky, and fat poetry" of two-time National Book Critics Circle Award winner Albert Goldbarth.

Goldbarth works in many moods, can be antic and deadly serious, and his poems are unmistakably his own. There's a wonderful new collection called The Kitchen Sink that I covet.

Here's a poem called "Buchenwald:"

originally, the beech woods of that area.
They have a quiet grandeur, when we edit
historic associations out of them. Bole after bole:
a quiet and recurrent grandeur. There was a copse
not far from my childhood neighborhood, the sun among the trunks
like clear, sweet speech and punctuation. I also
think of these sluggish summer evenings lately near the highway
where the mill pollution veils the lowering light
in especially glorious drifts of smoky tangerine and deep, seared rose.
—How even appreciation
of beauty becomes a betrayal.

There's so much to admire in that poem: the colon in the title, the way it is a part of the piece, the first real word of the poem, but because it is a word so packed with weight, it sits above the rest. On the page, it is a cinder block, squashing the rest of the poem with its significance. We have the moment when the poem acknowledges itself as a work of poetry—"like clear, sweet speech and punctuation," because poetry is meant to be read aloud, but exists punctuated on a page. And then there are the "glorious drifts of smoky tangerine and deep, seared rose," that betray us.

Good stuff.

Dog of the Week

Dear readers, meet Moose. We dare you to resist him.

Good boy, Moose. That's a very good sit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation, Tomorrow!

Busy, busy, busy shelving. Promise to give you two recommendations tomorrow.

Until then, please enjoy Ron Silliman's blog or learn a little more about Eleanor Wilner.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: John Olson

How about another local? A close second to Russell Edson on my list of favorite prose poets is John Olson. He was once a Stranger Genius. (And probably still is, in their books...certainly is in mine.)

Here is a selection from a poem called "The Man Whose Eyes Clutched Cherubim," which appears in his book Free Stream Velocity:

...One is often confused by facial expression. It is vital to reveal eyes. All is eternal. Outside of our skulls the profusion of stars is an encore that churns above the steeples, repeating oblivion in waves of kelp and Florentine silks. Fossils and suns and fossil suns drop light in the rain during a perception of rubies. It is gratifying to paint a river. Puerto Rico cries out for lemons. Our chariots are pulled by clay hummingbirds whose throats obey the sepia of our convulsive sanctity. I have rubbed the hides of the buffalo until they slobbered like lightbulbs. Mustard laminates the meat. The traction of stars ingratiates infinity.

There it is, a torrent of images, odd juxtapositions. Bemusing in a small section like the one above. Confounding, even. But it accretes over a full poem, and becomes bright, shimmering beauty over an entire book. Love that John Olson.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: A Little More Brian Turner

Last night on KCTS (Seattle's PBS station), I watched one of the episodes of America at a Crossroads, and saw previously mentioned poet Brian Turner. Follow this link to see the page for the episode, which was called "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience."

You'll find two of Turner's poems there.

Monday, April 16, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Heather McHugh

What is there to say about UW's Heather McHugh that will really do her justice? She's flat out amazing. Pete Turchi does a fine job of describing all that is good about her here.

She has her own website.

She has poetry on that site just made for the web.

She was a National Book Award finalist.

She did a wonderful Katz Lecture that you can hear on the web.

Here is the end of the poem "What Poems Are For," which can be found in Hinge & Sign:

The poem
is for something,
and the world is small.

I'll give you that.

Friday, April 13, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Russell

Russell Edson is my favorite prose poet. He may also be my favorite poet poet.

His work is dream logic, fable, psychology, mischief, tragedy, comedy, violence, and love. They never fail to amuse and astonish me. They never fail to make me feel better.

The Believer published this fantastic look at his work. Read it to learn more about him.

This is a poem called "Super Monkey" from The Rooster's Wife:

He was creating a super monkey by grafting pieces of a dead parrot to a morhpined monkey.

When the monkey awoke he was covered with green feathers and had a beak. His first words were, Polly wants a cracker.

It's historic! No monkey will have ever said this before!

And so super monkey will be given all the crackers super monkey can eat, until super monkey sickens of crackers and says, Polly wants a banana. Which will be another historic quotable!

Then he'll begin work on superduper monkey who with proper grafting will be able to sing like a canary...

His poems tend to end with that ellipsis. (The Rooster's Wife has at least one that ends in a question mark.) I like the implications of that ellipsis. You reach the end of the poem, but not the end of the story. Instead, he provides readers with an opening.

Nation Poetry Month Shout-Out

Congratulations to poet Eric McHenry, associate editor at Columns Magazine, who has won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Dog of the Week

Meet Oscar. He's quite skittish, but was kind enough to let me photograph him and make him Dog of the Week.

Good boy, Oscar.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Sommer & Hacker

Jay, our head book buyer, offers two suggestions:

Piotr Sommer

"If you like Szymborska, Milosz, Zagajewski, or Zbigniew Herbert [Oh, and we do!], check out Piotr Sommer."

The great John Ashbery says: "Piotr Sommer is the great poet of 'everyday lonliness, contrary to your self, perhaps.' Like Frank O'Hara, whom he has translated into Polish, he is on the lookout for what he calls 'improper names'—the very ones that allow us to construe the unkempt and taciturn world that surrounds us."

Essays on Departure
Marilyn Hacker

"A fine overview of one of our finest poets."

The estimable Edmund White says: "Marilyn Hacker joins a miraculous facility with poetic forms (sonnets, ballades, sestinas) to a shockingly intense sensuality. Not unlike Baudelaire, you might say, and indeed like him, she shares a taste for excess, drink, Paris, women, crowds. 'Enivrez-vous!' Baudelaire ordered his readers. Marylin Hacker has taken his advice seriously."


I spent a long, lonely summer—early 20s, college, my roommate had moved to Corpus Christi, Texas to make sushi—temping as a test scorer and reading nothing but Kurt Vonnegut. Book after book after book. Somewhere around Sirens of Titan I realized I was having the best summer ever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: A Sonnet

Brad has sent us his favorite sonnet by Shakespeare. Enjoy:


1. In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
2. For they in thee a thousand errors note;
3. But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
4. Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
5. Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
6. Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
7. Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
8. To any sensual feast with thee alone:
9. But my five wits nor my five senses can
10. Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
11. Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
12. Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
13. Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
14. That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

And here's Wikipedia with some information about the form.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A run on poetry...

Yes, readers. There it is. The Poetry section at University Book Store.

As you can see, National Poetry Month has been such a huge success, we have sold out entirely. Not a single scrap of verse left in the store.

We have requested an emergency poetry air-drop from the U.S. Poetry Airforce, and hope within minutes to have the section restocked. In fact, by the time you read this update—which, as you know, will be sent down a series of tubes to the Internets, and then to your computer—it should have already arrived and I—the Shelver—will have alphabetized the entire thing. I may just move it to the east wall, though...under the windows...Ask a staff member to guide you to it.

You never know. You might be asking me.

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Two From Ed

Ed in Textbooks offers these suggestions:

The Prosody Handbook by Robert Beum and Karl Shapiro

"This is the book that changed how I read poetry. It is a clear, lively, and intelligent discussion of poetic technique and how technique affects the reader. Good to see it back in print."

Here's the opening to chapter 5, "The Line," that gives a little introductory information on...the mighty, marvelous LINE!

"Prose moves in units of sentences and paragraphs, poetry in LINES and line groups called STANZAS or sections. In prose, a sentence moves unbrokenly from margin ro margin down the page; no typographical break appears until the end of a paragraph. Poetry, on the other hand, shows regular breaks within its sentences. The first sentence of Paradise Lost is broken into sixteen lines, of ten syllables each. A singel line of verse that forms a complete sentence is rare."

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

"I love anthologies when I'm not sure what I want to read, or when I read, or when I need to branch out to find new voices. Milosz, a Nobel Laureate, drew together poems from many times and places in this collection, His comments on the poems were a pleasure to read, and gave me new insights into works I was already familiar with."

There's too much in this book to pull out a single favorite. Instead, I'll link to a site where you can listen to Milosz reading his work.

Thanks for the recommendation, Ed!

Monday, April 09, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: American Poets Project & Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series

Here's a recommendation from Brad, one of our used book buyers:

"There are some beautiful and inexpensive alternatives to poetry in paperback, for anyone looking to improve a personal library. Our selection of used books continues to grow, with some specially nice local titles recently arrived. And two series from respected publishers deserve special note. The Library of America project continues to produce excellent editions of standard American authors in their American Poets Project. Contemporary poets and scholars edit these books, one volume per poet. Beyond the standard Whitman etc., this series is great for some of it's less likely reissues like Emma Lazarus, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Edith Wharton! The books are handsomely designed by Chip Kidd. At twenty bucks a piece, these are a smart upgrade from one's ancient paperback Penguins.

"Also a favorite, the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series now has a long list of available titles. All are bound in sturdy little hardcovers with attractive designs, with dustjackets and ribbons. Poets included range from Auden to Wordsworth. My favorites are their themed anthologies, with volumes devoted to poems of the sea, zen, dogs, blues, war, friendship and on and on. At only $12.50 a book, these small treasures lend any shelf a very superior air indeed."

Here is a selection from John Greenleaf Whittier's classic poem "Snow-Bound":

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the wing├ęd snow:
And ere the early bed-time came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts

(I'm partial to "Snow-Bound" because one of my favorite Upper Michigan bookstores took its name from the poem.)

And here is something from Doggerel: Poems About Dogs. It's called "My Dog is Named for Elizabeth Bishop," and it's by Robyn Selman:

October. The first pricks of cold air in
the city morning. We walk, Liz and I,
up then down in the same uneven line.

Her ears as sharp as sharpened pencils,
she pulls me along her wayward travels.
She darts out headlong, paces ahead,

coming and going and leaving again,
the way shadows seem to meet the tops of heads,
dissolve and are newly elongated.

We like the early, early morning best.
Our view is, thankfully, how we left it.
Nothing has stirred yet, the news lies unread.

Except for the weather, it's all so still,
and no one is walking out of our world.

Friday, April 06, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Wislawa Szymborska

Lawrence Weschler (his friends call him Ren) was the writer who introduced me to Wislawa Szymborska with an essay in his book Vermeer in Bosnia. The Polish poet won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 and began her lecture:

"They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me."

How can you not love a person who opens a Nobel Prize lecture with a joke? Seriously?

Read the rest of it if you have a chance. It is self-deprecating, disarming, and fascinating. Others have used the Nobel stage to speak grandly, earnestly, politically. I have no problem with that approach. I just much prefer Szymborska's.

Here's a selection from "Maybe All This," the poem Weschler talks about in Vermeer:

Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we're experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it's more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph's needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

And here, the opening stanza to "The Joy of Writing":

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence—this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."

Dog of the Week

Well-behaved, friendly dogs are never turned away from our Ave store. We even have treats behind the Used Books counter.

So I've decided we should feature some of our favorite four-legged regulars with this new feature: Dog of the Week.

And who better to be the very first Dog of the Week than Harris? She's been a University Book Store fixture for as long as I can remember.

Good girl, Harris.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Here, Bullet

Anthony Swofford's Jarhead was an amazing book. If you haven't read it, do.

And when you've finished that powerful memoir of a man at war, follow it up with Brian Turner's poet equivalent Here, Bullet.

Turner served in the U.S. Army and spent time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Before that, he earned an MFA at the University of Oregon. Here, Bullet, a collection of poems about the war in Iraq, won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award. Deservedly.

Heck, save the Swofford. Read the Turner first.

Here's a selection from the titular poem:

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta"s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood...

It's powerful stuff, frank and fearless in its observations. Here's another bit from "In the Leupold Scope":

With a 40X60mm spotting scope
I traverse the Halabjah skyline,
scanning rooftops two thousand meters out
to find a woman in sparkling green, standing
among antennas and satellite dishes,
hanging laundry on an invisible line

The irony of that image is clear, but arresting all the same.

It's a fine book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Praise for Mr. Cogito

The Collected Poems 1956 - 1998
Zbigniew Herbert (Ecco 2007)

"Wam-Bam. Look out ladies and gentlemen, for it appears that one of the great poets of the twentieth century has landed on our shores, and if I'm not mistaken, it looks to be for good. Though he's had slim and piecemeal exposure over time on this side of the Atlantic, Ecco Press has gone ahead and presented the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in a translation that could float a boat and with a girth of work to sink, if not the self-same boat, a boat. What can recommend this poet? Well, if you have ever wondered what the intellectual rigor of the haute Modernists had looked like if those men of ash and dry bone had had the flagrant tenacity to find worth in the physical world, to approach history with the one-two whammy with the afore said intellect followed by an unadulterated visceral dig into emotions and ecstatics, then this is what we would have, in fact do have, in the shape of Mr. Herbert. It's been a while since I have come across a poet with so much fervor and control, acumen and ardor, both political and apolitical, heroic and hermetic; he's like those two opposing forces that hold up bridges, push and pull, tension and suspension. You know the forces that Jung use as an allegory for the archetype of the psyche? That's close to what Herbert has doen. If you've gotten all that can be had (bless your heart) from Eliot, Auden, Pound, Ashbery et. al. (bless their hearts), Mr. Herbert is the new blood in the veins. It's a goodly thick blood, a lasting one."


Thanks, Jacob. Here's a short selection from "Mr Cogito's Abyss":

At home it's always safe

but just over the threshold
when Mr Cogito goes out
on his morning stroll
he meets—the abyss

this is not the abyss of Pascal
this is not the abyss of Dostoevsky
this is an abyss
to Mr Cogito's size

fathomless days
fear-fraught days

And the first few lines from the prose poem "Armchairs":

Who ever thought a warm neck would become an armrest, or legs eager for flight and joy could stiffen into four simple stilts? Armchairs were once noble flower-eating creatures. However, they allowed themselves too easily to be domesticated and today they are the most wretched species of quadrupeds. They have lost all their stubbornness and courage.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Note From Nick

Our friend Nick DiMartino sent us this report from...his easy chair!

Finding the Good Ones

24 March 07
Saturday night

What am I doing in this armchair?

I should be at the bowling benefit for gay marriage equality, and instead I’m caught up in Javier Cercas’ exciting new novel, The Speed of Light (paperback original, $13.95), unable to put down this unexpected, unsettling and perceptive Spanish take on the Vietnam war.

The book is due out next month. It’s about a Spanish grad student who gets an assistant professor post at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he shares an office with a complex and embittered Vietnam vet. When his office mate disappears—and Rodney Falk is a fascinating guy—the unnamed narrator goes to the little town where Rodney lives with his Dad.

Well, now Part Two involves the Dad summoning the narrator back out to his house to tell him some dreadful tale of Vietnam—I’m expecting the worst. It’s really tense going. We’re about to find out why Rodney Falk is the way he is, and what we’ve already learned has been pretty heartbreaking. But fascinating! Narrated in this cool non-fiction style, utterly believable, blurring ever more the line between memoir and novel.

The only other book by Cercas in English translation is Soldiers of Salamis ($14.95), a similarly hyper-realistic recreation of a moment in wartime. In this case, it’s this classic unforgettable moment that the reader comes back to in the novel again and again: a fascist bad guy manages to escape from a mass execution at the end of the Spanish Civil War. A pursuing soldier finds him, locks eyes with him, holds him at gunpoint, and lets him live.

Out of this incident Cercas creates a fascinating fictional research project to make history surrender its secrets. Part One shows the author’s discovery of the incident and his research, with a little help from his girlfriend. Part Two is the biography of the fascist who walked away from the firing squad alive. Part Three is the author’s attempt to find the soldier who spared his life, in a search through all the nursing homes of France. It all turns into a subtle, smart meditation on war, memory, and fiction writing.

I haven’t finished Speed of Light, but I will never forget the ending of Soldiers of Salamis. Cercas is tough and unsentimental and a pleasure to read. It’s like no novel you’ve ever read before, and boy, does it have a cumulative effect at the end.

So it’s a hard act to follow, and this second book is every bit as good. And even more disturbing, because we’re not talking about the Spanish Civil War here, we’re talking about us, the American debacle seen by a non-American, a war in which almost sixty thousand soldiers died, most of them boys of twenty, and ten times more bombs were dropped than on all of Europe during the Second World War.

Enough blogging for one night—I want to get back to my book. Even though I'm nervous. I’m about to read about Rodney Falk’s encounter with Captain Vinh...

Happy National Poetry Month!

I almost forgot to wish you all a fine and festive National Poetry Month.

Hope it's gone well so far. Stop by The Shelf Life every couple of days for new poetry recommendations, as I have put out a call to the constant readers and expert booksellers here at University Book Store to ask about their favorite books of verse.

I'll get the ball rolling with the newest book by Dean Young Embryoyo. Here's a short selection from the poem "Clam Ode":

One attempts to be significant on a grand scale
in the knockdown battle of life
but settles.
It is clammy today, meaning wet and gray,
not having a hard, calciniferous shell.
I love the expression "happy as a clam,"
how it imparts bouyant emotion
to a rather, when you get down to it,
nonexpressive creature...

Young and his friend and fellow poet, Tony Hoagland (author of the fantastic What Narcissism Means to Me can be found chatting here.

Young is an impressive poet—bright and lively, very funny, mischevious—and he wears his cowboy shirts tucked in.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I'd rather be reading...

Here's an interesting coincidence. This weekend I was going through on of my favorite Best American Short Stories collections—the one Richard Ford edited 1990—and I read a story I hadn't read before. It's called "The Reverse Bug" and it's by Lore Segal. It was recommended by another writer who I like very much.

When I finished Segal's story I thought, "Not bad. Wonder if she has a collection?" I did a quick, poor internet search, and didn't see anything on this bio. So I didn't search further.

This morning I was walking by the new hardcover fiction display when I saw Shakespeare's Kitchen—a new interconnected short story collection by Lore Segal that includes "The Reverse Bug"!

Pretty weird, huh? My hypothesis: I have somehow acquired the power to turn my desires into reality! I am now concentrating on getting a literary agent and winning the lottery. Wish me luck.

Needless to say, if I wasn't shelving, I'd be reading Lore Segal's new book.

tell all your friends!