Sixteen books for 2016

16 books for 2016

1. Radioland by Lesley Wheeler
I read Wheeler’s blog and she’s so damn smart (she’s an American academic, poet, and a previous Fulbright fellow). This is her most recent collection of poetry.

2. The Pale North by Hamish Clayton
The premise of this book about books is irresistible. It couldn’t get more meta unless a Hamish Clayton impersonator came to my house and read it to me.

3. Lost and Gone Away by Lynn Jenner
A four-part hybrid of memoir, essays, prose poems and poetry, proving that Jenner can do anything. I can’t wait to read this book.

4. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
I have a pathological attraction to McEwan’s narcissistic, middle aged, intellectual protagonists. I’ll be falling in love all over again.

16 for 2016

5. Otherwise by John Dennison
This is on everyone’s ‘best poetry collections’ list for 2015. If I don’t read it I can’t participate in book launch trash talk (Greg O’Brien used the word ‘rapture’ to describe the book so my expectations are high). Good on Dennison for also publishing in the UK.

6. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
I listen to the podcast RadioLab who often featured Oliver Sacks. What a kind and curious man. When he died I thought the least I could do was to read one of his books and this ‘collection of clinical tales from the far borderlands of neurological and human experience’ is a classic.

7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My favourite novel is The Road. I’ve been afraid to read more McCarthy in case it’s not as good, but people keep on assuring me it will be.

8. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
I remember first encountering Ondaatje in a workshop reading packet. The poem we read was about the circus and it had the most exquisite line break. I am still thinking about it six years later. I found this book in an op shop.

9. Bernadette Hall’s books, all of them, in order
This is a bit of a cheat, but I’ve spent years finding all of her poetry collections and now it’s time to read them. BH forever.

16 books for 2016

10. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Emily Perkins raved about this book on Twitter. Also: women, war, and sex.

11. Sea Change by Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham’s poetry is like a force of nature. This is her 11th collection of poems and while it’s had mixed reviews, I’m still intimidated by this book.

12. An Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Probably one of the most loved and influential collections of contemporary poetry. The other poets will vote me off the island if I don’t read it soon.

13. Information is Beautiful by David McCandless
My mum gave me a book voucher last birthday and this is what I bought. If only all communication were conceived so beautifully.

16 books for 2016

14. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
I’ll admit the cover made me pick it off a friend’s shelf, but I’ve heard it’s astonishing.

15. The Invisible Mile by David Coventry
Shining prose, by everyone’s account. More importantly, it’s about sport in a way that’s not ironic!

16. What Light Can Do by Robert Hass
I read a few essays from this collection during my doctorate, but didn’t have time to read the whole thing. Hass will always be my favourite writer, and his essays break me to bits.

Tuesday Poem: ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

‘A Story About the Body’ must be one of Hass’s most famous poems. I read it as part of a creative writing reader long before I bought his collections. It comes from Human Wishes (1989), Hass’ third collection, and a collection which has the most apt title for poetry. I think critic Dob Bogen most accurately describes the collection when he says it ‘captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.’ So many of these poems are concerned with loss, transience, and with the process of seeing something disappear; even in this poem the young man’s ‘radiance’ withers from his chest. In Human Wishes Hass really gets into longer lines, and an entire section is dedicated to prose poems. I can’t get enough of them–they so completely inhabit and create a world.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The Beginning of September’ by Robert Hass

The Beginning of September

I
The child is looking in the mirror.
His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump.
He is practicing sadness.

II
He didn’t think she ought to
and she thought she should.

III
In the summer
peaches the color of sunrise

In the fall
plums the color of dusk

IV
Each thing moves its own way
in the wind. Bamboo flickers,
the plum tree waves, and the loquat
is shaken.

V
The dangers are everywhere. Auxiliary verbs, fishbones, a fine carelessness. No one really likes the odor of geraniums, not the woman who dreams of sunlight and is always late for work nor the man who would be happy in altered circumstances. Words are abstract, but words are abstract is a dance, car crash, heart’s delight. It’s the design dumb hunger has upon the world. Nothing is severed on hot mornings when the deer nibble flower heads in a simmer of bay leaves. Somewhere in the summer dusk is the sound of children setting the table. That is mastery: spoon, knife, folded napkin, fork; glasses all around. The place for the plate is wholly imagined. Mother sits here and Father sits there and this is your place and this is mine. A good story compels you like sexual hunger but the pace is more leisurely. And there are always melons.

VI
little mother
little dragonfly quickness of summer mornings
this is a prayer
this is the body dressed in its own warmth
at the change of seasons

VII
There are not always melons
There are always stories

VIII
Chester found a dozen copies of his first novel in a used bookstore and took them to the counter. The owner said, “You can’t have them all,” so Chester kept five. The owner said, “That’ll be a hundred and twelve dollars.” Chester said, “What?” and the guy said, “They’re first editions, Mac, twenty bucks apiece.” And so Chester said, “Why are you charging me a hundred and twelve dollars?” The guy said, “Three of them are autographed.” Chester said, “Look, I wrote this book.” The guy said, “All right, a hundred. I won’t charge you for the autographs.”

IX
The insides of peaches
are the color of sunrise

The outsides of plums
are the color of dusk

X
Here are some things to pray to in San Francisco: the bay, the mountain, the goddess of the city; remembering, forgetting, sudden pleasure, loss; sunrise and sunset; salt; the tutelary gods of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Basque, French, Italian, and Mexican cooking; the solitude of coffeehouses and museums; the virgin, mother, and widow moons; hilliness, vistas; John McLaren; Saint Francis; the Mother of Sorrows; the rhythm of any life still whole through three generations; wine, especially zinfandel because from that Hungarian vine-slip came first a native wine not resinous and sugar-heavy; the sourdough mother, yeast and beginning; all fish and fisherman at the turning of the tide; the turning of the tide; eelgrass, oldest inhabitant; fog; seagulls; Joseph Worcester; plum blossoms; warm days in January . . .

XI
She thought it was a good idea.
He had his doubts.

XII
ripe blackberries

XIII
She said: reside, reside
and he said, gored heart
She said: sunlight, cypress
he said, idiot children
nibbling arsenic in flaking paint
she said: a small pool of semen
translucent on my belly
he said maybe he said
maybe

XIV
the sayings of my grandmother:
they’re the kind of people
who let blackberries rot on the vine

XV
The child approaches the mirror very fast
then stops
and watches himself
gravely.

XVI
So summer gives over –
white to the color of straw
dove gray to slate blue
burnishings
a little rain
a little light on the water

I’ve spent the last four years studying American poet, Robert Hass. Over the next month I’m going to post some of my favourite Hass poems. This poem is from his collection, Praise (Ecco, 1979). There is a great recording of Hass reading this poem to an audience in Rotterdam.

For more tuesday poems check out the hub.

On finishing my thesis

Today I finished my thesis: Nature, Fidelity, and the Poetry of Robert Hass. It is comprised of:

41971 words of criticism on Robert Hass and ecocriticism.
12394 words of poetry.
Four years, four weeks, and one day.
Many tears.

When my father returned to the US university where he did his PhD, he went to the library to see how many people had checked out his thesis. In just over thirty years there had been three. Since my thesis is probably going to have a similar audience (although the poems have been published in journals and I hope two will make it into my second collection), I want to blog my acknowledgments. A thesis is not a solo effort, and without these people – especially Bryan and Jack – I could not have finished.

Here you go.

Foremost, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my supervisors, Dr Bryan Walpert and Dr Jack Ross. Their support, unending patience and guidance not only helped me to write this thesis but helped me to see the beauty in literary theory and criticism. There were tears. There were disagreements, but without a doubt it has been my privilege to work with such sharp, funny, and impressive writers.

It is important to thank Massey University for the doctoral scholarship that enabled me to undertake this thesis. Without that essential financial support this work would not be what it is today. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

I would also like to acknowledge my writers’ group: Pip Adam, Sarah Bainbridge, Dave Fleming, Chloe Lane, Bill Nelson, Lawrence Patchett, and John Summers. Along with poet Amy Brown, they are a steadfast support in my writing life.

Last but not the least, I would like to thank my logical and biological family: my parents Pauline and Nikki for their proofreading and advice, my many friends for their support, especially Matt Bialostocki, Megan Hinge, Mike Kmiec, Sam Searle, and Andrew Smith, and my sister Jennifer Barnett-Melbye. I would also like to thank my amazing proofreader, Margaret Cahill. Finally I need to thank my husband Tim Rastall and our son Sam Rastall for their love and support throughout every day of this process.

IMG_5966

Off into the world it goes.

Tuesday Poem: “Mowing” by Robert Frost

Mowing

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

(Source: http://www.sonnets.org/frost.htm#004)

I discovered “Mowing”, a wonderful sonnet by Robert Frost, while reading an article about using field trips to help teach nature writing (for my PhD–this is not my usual bedtime reading!). In the article, the teacher taught his students how to mow a field using a scythe. Fun. The article also talks about Frost’s dedication to factual description of the countryside. For example, he names the flower in the poem as “Pale orchises”, not accidentally, but because he wanted to be true to the field that he has mown. “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak”, he says. Robert Hass, who is the focus of my PhD thesis, is also persistent and specific in his descriptions of the natural world. I see it as a sort of homage; a purposeful naming to make others notice.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “Smells” by Jane Buxton

Smells

I love . . .
The smell of the rain on the warm footpath,
the smell of our baby all clean from her bath,
the smell of clean sheets when Mum makes
XXmy bed,
and the smell in the kitchen when Dad’s
XXmaking bread.

I love . . .
the smell of the sea, all sharp, fresh and briny,
the smell of our Christmas tree, pungent and piny,
the smell of sweet peas climbing over the wall.
But the warm smell of horses I love best of all . . .

This sweet and nostalgic poem by Jane Buxton comes from the book 100 New Zealand Poems for Children (Random House, 1999), edited by Jo Noble and illustrated by David Elliot. Jane Buxton is a New Zealand children’s author who was born in Otaki, but currently lives in North Canterbury.

I bought 100 New Zealand Poems for Children a few month ago because I am trying to build up a library for (my son) Sam of childrens’ writing about New Zealand. I want at least some of the books he reads to be about the place he lives. And because a PhD is inescapable, being able to read about your home relates to my doctoral research on Robert Hass, who is known for writing about his home, California. In conversation with Claire Miller from GRIST magazine, Hass talks about the connection between understanding the history of a place, and our careful treatment of the land:

It felt to me then that American culture existed in a kind of dream of itself, not particularly connected to reality. One of the qualities of that dream in California was this absence of any real and fixed sense of history. It was in the 1960s that some developers out in Contra Costa county decided to name a new subdivision San Diablo, turning the devil into a saint. The historical roots of language were so shallow here. That seemed to me a symptom of our carelessness in the way we treat the American land. (Miller, par. 12)

It seems that Hass’ poetry tries to engage with “our carelessness” by writing about the natural and cultural history of California. I think that the subject allows him to represent the landscape of his home. He goes on to say: “Since most books in my childhood were published on the East Coast … my nature wasn’t represented in the world. And so one of the pleasures of writing about California and reading the few writers who were writing about California was that this world was represented” (Miller, par. 21).

I think it is important that our nature and identity are represented in the world, and for me Buxton’s poem reminds me of Christmas in Christchurch, summer sun showers, and riding my friend’s horse on Banks Peninsula. I tried to get permission to use the poem, but found it impossible to track down Buxton. In the unlikely chance that her publisher reads my blog, I ask for forgiveness in lieu of permission.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “The Gazelle” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Gazelle

Gazella Dorcas

Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?
Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb,

and all your features pass in simile, through
the songs of love whose words, as light as rose-
petals, rest on the face of someone who
has put his book away and shut his eyes:

to see you: tensed, as if each leg were a gun
loaded with leaps, but not fired while your neck
holds your head still, listening: as when,

while swimming in some isolated place,
a girl hears leaves rustle, and turns to look:
the forest pool reflected in her face.

From New Poems (1907; 1908). Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As my undergraduate studies were in fine arts and museums, I don’t have an academic background in literature. This might be why I am just discovering the work of Ranier Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet who lived from 1875-1926. He wrote in German, his melodic poetry talked about the inner life, emptiness, and solitude, and he had a love affair with a woman to whom Nietzsche once proposed. It is also said he wrote poems in French because German didn’t have an exact word for absence.

My discovery of Rilke’s work came about by accident. I had ordered Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, because the introduction is written by Robert Hass, one of the poets I am studying for my doctorate (I find poets can be revealing about their own work when writing about other poets). So far I am surprised by how modern Rilke’s poetry seems, at least in translation. This especially applies to his prose poetry, poetic sketches and exploration of form. I find it interesting that the original version of “The Gazelle” does not rhyme the first and third line of the last stanza. I would say this rhyme makes the ending quite powerful in the English translation. On the other hand, the original version rhymes the last two lines. This must be the compromise and complexity of translation.

For other Tuesday Poems, check out the hub.