My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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My library puts a slip of paper in books where people who’ve checked out the book can rate it. When I took out this book, I saw that three gave it top marks and one hated it. Me, I loved it.

Obviously, this quiet story is not for everyone. Lucy herself is the narrator, telling us about a time in the 1980s when she was in the hospital for nine weeks and her mother came to stay with her for five days. From the start we wonder what is wrong with her that she must be in the hospital for so long and why this is the first time Lucy has seen her mother in years, since Lucy and William’s marriage in fact.

Over the course of the five days, Lucy’s mother relates gossip from home, mostly of marriages that did not end well. Lucy’s thoughts wander over the years, touching on her brutal childhood when the family’s poverty was so great that they lived in an unheated garage with no running water and she was locked in her father’s truck while her parents were at work. She tells us about her life in New York City with her husband and daughters, though not—she insists—about her marriage.

It’s Lucy’s voice that made me fall in love with this book. Like her mother, whose voice Lucy describes as “shy, but urgent”, Lucy tells us of these things calmly, leaving us to infer the desperation underneath. Telling details—a memory of her father’s hand on the back of her head, hiding a magazine from the doctor for fear it makes her seem “trashy”, her near-envy of people with AIDS because they seem part of a community—reveal what lies beneath her surface calm.

Even the title reflects Lucy’s calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Lucy tells us how happy she is to see her mother and reassures us that she loves her mother, but the two of them shy away from anything too personal. Their relationship is at the core of the book. As in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Lucy’s love for her mother and apparent lack of self-pity make the book glow. She recognises that their love for each is an “imperfect love”, as Sarah Payne says. Payne is an author who, in occasional encounters, gives Lucy advice on writing that become life lessons.

In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. There is so much that Lucy does not say. Sarah Payne, too, is criticised as a writer who shies away from telling everything, from digging too deeply.

The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is. The seeming randomness actually follows traditional narrative structure.

Also, things are mentioned without explanation, such as Lucy’s fear of snakes or her friend telling her to be ruthless. Then, later, we learn a bit more, and then perhaps another bit. We are never told everything, but we are told enough. As one person in my book club said, every single thing in this book has to be there.

Recently, I was thinking that I had lived in my most recent home for 17 years—which seemed like no time at all—when I was surprised to realise that 17 years was the length of my childhood. When I left for college at 17, I shook off my family and began to create my life, just as Lucy did when she married and left home. Yet those few childhood years exert a power as great as that of all the decades that followed.

In the end, though, what I treasure most in this story is the perception that it’s not so much a matter of forgiving parents, but rather a recognition that the love is there, an imperfect love, but love nonetheless.

Have you read a quiet book that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2

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Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

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Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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In post-Authurian Britain, an elderly couple set off to visit their son. Axl and Beatrice can’t remember when they last saw him or why they haven’t seen him in so long, although they do believe they can find the way to his village. Like everyone else around them, a mixture of Britons and Saxons, the devoted couple have been afflicted by what they call the Mist, which erases memory. On their journey they encounter many others, some of whom travel on with them.

I read this novel a few years ago, but didn’t write about it then. I didn’t quite have a handle on what I wanted to say about it. Ishiguro has long been one of my favorite authors, and I’ve been steeped in Authurian tales since childhood, so I expected to love this book.

Instead, I found it confusing and somewhat tedious. My interest picked up as I went along, though, and the end left me deeply fascinated by the ideas and experiments woven through the story. A recent book club discussion helped my crystallise further what so intrigued me.

The challenge Ishiguro faced was how to present fully developed characters when they have no memory of their past. Equally, how do you create a narrative structure when supposedly no one remembers anything from one moment to the next?

Most of the people in the book club, like me, found the book confusing and boring. Some didn’t finish it; others skimmed or skipped to the ending. One complaint was that the characters seemed two-dimensional and therefore impossible to relate to. Another was that there was a lot of repetition, especially in dialogue.

These concerns indicate that the author did not meet the challenges described above, essentially the challenge to create an engaging story. Perhaps that was not important to him; perhaps creating a vehicle for the ideas took precedence.

And the ideas are fascinating. We ended up having a long and lively discussion about them. To say more I’ll have to give away the ending, so skip this section if you don’t want the end spoiled.

***SPOILER ALERT***

At the end we discover that the mist is created by the breath of the dragon Querig, thanks to a spell by Merlin. King Arthur himself tasked Merlin to do so, to erase memory so that the Britons and Saxons could live together in peace despite the terrible battles and massacres during their long war. Only by forgetting these traumas, Arthur believed, could the cycle of revenge be broken. Killing Querig would restore people’s memory but restart resentment and hostility; they would once again be caught up in war after war.

It was this idea that so engaged us. We discussed the relevance to today’s wars, the back and forth of wars in the Balkans and the Middle East. We shared our small knowledge of the efficacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. One person had actually lived there for four months, so had some first-hand experience. My takeaway was that the commission succeeded in averting a civil war, but was by no means a perfect solution for living side by side with your former enemy.

How can you do that? I’ve wondered often about Rwanda, Sarajevo, and so many other homes of recent trauma. I’ve thought about the effects of horrors from before I was born, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the decimation of indigenous peoples. I’ve thought about ongoing injustices, such as the treatment of Native Americans, the new Jim Crow treatment of blacks in the U.S., the unjust wars started by the U.S., the flood of refugees, the war on poor people in the U.S. How do you live together, how do you find a way forward when you hold these long memories of injustice and suffering?

We know too much now about the longterm effects of trauma to believe there can ever be sufficient reparations to compensate for the damage inflicted, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

If I ever thought impatiently that people should just forgive and forget, I learned how impossible that was for me a few years ago. Meeting a man named Campbell, I mentioned that I come from a long line of MacDonalds. He understood the reference to the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe when a troop of Campbells, claiming hospitality from the Glencoe MacDonalds, rose up in the night, killing men, burning homes, and forcing women and children into the winter night where they died of exposure.

Provoked by this modern-day Campbell’s derogatory criticism of my ancestors, I found myself surprisingly roused. The two of us spent quite a while discussing this long-ago event, not so much with hostility as with a rueful recognition that it was ridiculous for us to care so much.

Recounting this episode at the book club, I said that forgetting may not be an option and that perhaps these memories of trauma serve a purpose. Challenged to explain what purpose being suspicious of Campbells might serve today, I could only respond that I thought humans’ ability to remember suffering must be a trait preserved from our earliest history, just as an animal’s ability to remember that a plant made them sick or killed one of their group saved them.

Later, though, I thought of an article I read recently about Christy Brzonkala who was raped by two football players at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1994. Her case was taken to the Supreme Court as a test of the Violence Against Women Act where the majority ruling went against her. Her senior quote in her high school yearbook was “I will trust you until you do something to make me not trust you.”

She said she’d never learned about rape in high school. It reminded me of a remark a friend of mine, herself a product of an all-girls Catholic school, made that so many of the young women raped or murdered by boyfriends were from all-girls Catholic schools and never taught to be wary.

I thought: yes. Glencoe taught me to be wary. Glencoe taught me not to trust blindly. So, yes, that ancestral memory did serve a purpose for me.

I don’t go around carrying a sword to swing at any Campbell I meet. But I also don’t expect there are any simple solutions to the problem of living peacefully with former enemies. Expecting people to forgive and forget is not reasonable. As one person in the book club said, I do not forget; I do not forgive; but I can set it to one side. At the moment that is the best way forward that I can see.

***END OF SPOILER***

Despite our struggles with the story, we all found much to consider in Ishiguro’s examination of memory and whether forgetfulness is a blessing or a curse.

Have you read a novel about memory or forgetting? What did you think of it?

Open City, by Teju Cole

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Julius, a medical student from Nigeria in New York City on a psychiatry fellowship, starts walking around the city in his free time. Sometimes he has a particular destination, but more often he just sets off aimlessly. On his walks he sometimes notices other people or has brief encounters with strangers. Sometimes he visits a former professor, now old and in poor health. Mostly, though, he lets his thoughts wander, ranging over his past and future and that of the city.

There is a long tradition of mostly nonfictional accounts of walking journeys. Here, we are entirely in Julius’s mind and constrained by what he chooses to reveal. Remembered scenes are recounted through his filter. In a novel like this, without other characters—the few who appear more than once are only sketched in—or a traditional narrative with dramatised scenes, what holds a reader’s attention is the quality of those thoughts.

Julius is in his early 30s, so his thoughts have an existential tilt. Within the mosaic of the city’s streets and his life there, both of them shadowed by the events in their pasts, he thinks about death, how he has gotten to this place, and what “this place” is. He questions his choice of profession and even if psychiatry can actually help people.

He appears to be an extreme introvert. At the start of the novel he has more or less broken up with his girlfriend of a few months; they have drifted apart since she moved cross-country. He has one, unnamed friend—referred to only as “my friend”—who moves away by the end of the novel. He enjoys his new activity of occasionally visiting with his former professor, but the professor dies. He encounters a woman from home who remembers him, but he seems not to remember her. Meanwhile, he walks alone.

I was intrigued by the form of this novel and surprised that it held my attention as much as it did. Julius is an unreliable narrator, but we only have his words and perceptions to go on, so that added a level of interest. I was curious to see how Cole would bring structure to the seemingly random string of events. The structure he worked in was subtle but sound.

Also I have long been enthralled with the way the past colors the present, especially in terms of places. I loved W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and knew that Cole counted Sebald as one of his big influences. However, I would have enjoyed the book more if I lived in New York City. Cole takes it for granted that we know all these places—streets, neighborhoods, buildings—and for the most part doesn’t bother describing them. Since the city is the main character, this lack left a huge emptiness in the center of the book.

The other lack I felt as I finished the book was the sense of an ending. Nothing was resolved; the questions that were raised throughout the book were not answered; Julius seemed to have achieved no insight into his own heart or integration of his divided self.

Cole’s voice, filtered through Julius, stays with me, despite some of the flaws in this novel. I will certainly read more of his work.

What account—fiction or nonfiction—of a walking journey have you read? What did you think of it?

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Playlist 2017

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. In this year of much darkness and much light, I turned to true stories, songs that gave me courage, and old favorites. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Blues Run the Game, Jackson C. Frank
Mill Towns, David Francey
Far End of Summer, David Francey
Get Behind the Mule, Tom Waits
Hold On, Tom Waits
House Where Nobody Lives, Tom Waits
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Jacqueline Schwab
Lately, Aengus Finnan
Lass Among the Heather, Keith Murphy
C’est Aujoud’hui Grande Fete, Keith Murphy
Waves, Margie Adam
Lighthouse, Cris Williamson
Morning Glory, Terry Garthwaite
Doc Con Xa, Pham Van Ty
Le Morvandiaux Cesar’s The Sound of Sleet, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Bourees 3 Temps, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Keys Meadowhawk Mstr V2, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, Keith Murphy
A Psalm of Life, Jacqueline Schwab
Loftiδ verδ ur skyndilega kalt, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Sólin, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Jöδin, Ólafur Arnalds

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

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What a treat to reread Clifton’s poems, not to mention finding some new to me! I was thrilled when she was nominated as our poet of the month in my poetry discussion group. I’ve loved her work and been profoundly influenced by it since I first encountered it in the early 1970s.

What makes her work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion.

Many of her poems are sheer delight, simply celebrating being alive. These sing with jazz rhythms and the melodies of speech. Good examples are the well-known “homage to my hips” and the lesser-known “homage to my hair” that starts:

when i feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!

Another aspect of her work that astonishes me is how she holds her rage in check. It is there, in the poems about injustice and racism. But she finds ways to present it that enable us, even those of us with privilege, to participate in. There is, to me at least, always love in her poems as well, even the darkest ones.

Her sense of injustice may lurk under humor, as in this untitled poem that starts her first collection that begins:

in the inner city
or
like we call
it home

Another technique she uses is repetition. The lines quoted above are repeated at the end of that short poem, but by then we have a different slant on them. Or several different slants: as we discussed the poems, we found different meanings in them, sometimes because of the diverse life experiences we brought to them and often because Clifton’s lines are simply open to multiple interpretations.

She sometimes uses questions to enhance that openness and to invite the reader to participate in the poem. Sometime the questions even feel like a call-and-response, creating an unexpected resonance. For instance, each of the three stanzas in “the photograph: a lynching” is a question. Details, such as the woman who smiles and fingers a cross as she watches, arouse rage and a burning desire for justice but Clifton ends by asking:

is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album/ will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

Note the ambiguity in these lines as well. In our group we discussed various interpretations of “us” and “we” and “a gathering sky”. And if the latter portends a storm, what might that be? Also, the lynching itself is never described, only the audience’s reaction before the final question.

Her persona poems sometimes function as a container for rage or other complicated emotions. Another famous poem “jasper texas 1998” speaks from the point of view of a man’s head. Again, she does not describe the tragedy, leaving us the title and the dedication “for j. byrd” as sufficient clues. But speaking as the head in a voice that is measured and resigned gives us the opportunity to summon our own grief and outrage.

Many of the poems here are full of love and sometimes a wry understanding, especially those about her parents, husband, and children. This is also true of some addressed to all of us, such as her famous “blessing the boats” and this section from “the message from The Ones”:

the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes

they have learned to love you
and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings

Finally I am astounded by her prolific output. Parenting six children is no joke, even without the financial struggles. I know, too, from colleagues how generous Clifton always was with other poets, especially those just starting out.

As one person in my poetry discussion group said, holding this hefty volume—it is 720 pages—is like holding a life. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

What is your favorite Lucille Clifton poem?