This month, our Issue 14 contributors are reading works that examine the seams of time, from the construction of a fleeting impression, to the scaffolding of a historical drama. Whether it be a poem read from a pulpit or a paperback fished serendipitously from a pile of freebies, these recommendations celebrate literature’s ability to break through temporal boundaries.
I first encountered Tusiata Avia’s work at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia just after she published her first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Her mocking voice, sometimes full of mimicry, sometimes searingly sarcastic, often aims at neocolonialism and globalization. Samoan/Palagi, Avia’s mother is descended from the Europeans who first colonized New Zealand and her father, a stunt man, was among the first wave of Samoan immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s. For seven years before Avia’s second book arrived—Bloodclot, about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who leaves the underworld to wander the earth as a half-caste girl—she traveled from Siberia to Sudan and read or performed her work in places like Moscow, Jerusalem and Vienna. Last year Avia was poet-in-residence with Simon Armitage at the International Poetry Studies Institute in Australia. This year Wild Dogs Under My Skin was adapted as a theater event for six women and received rave reviews. The recipient of a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency, the Ursula Bethel Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury, a residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in Christchurch, she won the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Truly an international poet with an indigenous Pacifika frame of reference, in Fale Aitu | Spirit House, Avia writes with a visceral, political, spare and passionate authority of someone who has seen the world.
It’s possible to call a river an organ of speech. It has a mouth, and a source, and down the length of its body the sounds it makes go through physical transformations, changing the tones of its voice.
British poet Alice Oswald begins her book-length poem Dart by asserting this comparison between the poet’s voice and the river’s. She asserts that the people living along the Dart who lend their speech to the book’s personas function as “life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters—linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea… These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”
This note gives just a glimpse of the complex labor of translation behind this work—one that surpasses the conventional personification of natural forms. Oswald, who spent two years recording the conversations of people who live and work on the Dart, set out to transform the voice of the river into English through the way its familiars talk.
Kerrin McCadden’s poignant debut collection of poetry, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, is filled with composed wisdom for how to cope with separation in general, and divorce in particular. The collection won the New Issues Poetry Prize in 2014, and McCadden’s poetry has appeared widely in Best American Poetry 2012,American Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.
Wendy S. Walter’s Troy, Michigan chronicles municipal and personal history in this elliptically elegant collection of sonnets. This book swivels gracefully through eras in the city of the title, alluding to its mythic namesake while divulging the narrator’s observations on industry, race, and the tug of the natural world. Walters spent 15 years of her childhood in Troy, which is in close proximity of Lake Huron and Lake Erie; her father worked for General Motors.
Most of us have been damaged or done damage to someone we love. Perhaps we fell into an affair, abused alcohol or drugs, or turned our backs on commitment. Who has not awakened at three a.m. to find the grinning demon of shame at the foot of the bed? If we are honest, we acknowledge our fears and dependencies, discern our selfishness and jealousies.If we are lucky, we forgive and find some sort of redemption, hopefully without spending too many nights with our mouths to a half-empty bottle of bourbon. In Memphis poet Heather Dobbins’ first full-length collection of poetry, In the Low Houses, published this year by Aldrich Press, there is a bottle of bourbon. Also marriage, infidelity, and death. There are graves, literal and metaphorical, and if, as T.S. Eliot suggested, our only superiority to the past is that we can contain it and be enlarged by it, there is something good growing in Tennessee.
I’ll be honest: when The Common asked me to review Ros Barber’s new book, The Marlowe Papers, I was leery. Novels-in-verse aren’t really my thing. Reading the back cover blurbs, I became even more skeptical: a novel in iambic pentameter (rhymed and blank verse) from the point of view of the English poet, playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), whom conspiracy theorists claim was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays? The book claims Marlowe’s death, in a bar-fight before the Church of England could charge him with heresy, was staged to let him escape England. And while in hiding, he ghost-wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.
What the hell? I expected an overwrought, creepy fan-fiction piece in archaic diction and clumsy meter. After reading a few pages, I realized I owed Ms Barber an apology. This is a damn fine book.
Begin with the cover of Dragon Logic: double Garamond italic ampersands. Inverted they propose elegant dragons against a green hide background. “TWO dragons,” Stephanie Strickland writes in the eponymous poem, “keep a pearl/in the air untouched/if yes then no if no then yes.” Their “dragon logic” insists that the reader consider sets that consist of themselves, a common problem in questions of reflexivity where the self of the self-reference is a human self. This proposition enlarges the idea of the juggling proposed by John Keats’ concept of negative capability—“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Throughout her impressive body of work, which includes three collections of poetry and a memoir, Jane Satterfield explores the roles of place and gender in human identity. Born in England and raised in America, she probes what it means to reconcile the legacies of intertwined lineages. Satterfield complicates her inquiry into cultural inheritance by emphasizing female experience. In her first poetry book, Shepherdess with an Automatic, she described her youthful adventures during the 1980s; “going to clubs” in “boots with zip-laces to accelerate the kill” (in contrast to1950s housewives “decked out” like “living dolls”). Her Familiars, Satterfield’s most recent collection, takes us further back in time, to the 1970s. We glimpse her as a girl scout, part of a “troop of girls kitted out in jumpers, cable knee socks, & small green berets,” living “blissful on suburban streets” while “choppers stuttered over Saigon.” Both books, as well as her second poetry collection Assignation at Vanishing Point, combine coming-of-age material with adulthood examinations of love, sex, child rearing, historical influence, and literary ambition. In Her Familiars, Satterfield widens her range of subject matter, tones, and aesthetic approaches, mining the territory between domestic and public life in striking new ways.