Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Horizon, by Barry Lopez

lopez

In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China.

Many of these expeditions are scientific endeavors, where he has joined a team of archeologists to excavate the site of a long-gone indigenous peoples or scientists measuring boreal (ocean bottom) life or another team measuring glacier movement. Sometimes he ventures out for other reasons, such as revisiting the Galápagos Islands or tracing the route of Shackleton’s open-boat journey to Elephant Island.

He weaves in stories of explorers and adventurers, the well-known such as Cook, Darwin, Scott, and the lesser-known such as Ranald MacDonald, Edward Wilson, Lt. Adolphus Greeley. He taps poets, writers, and philosophers for insights and connections.

I’ve taken my time reading this book. It’s so rich! I’ve gone back and reread sections, or paused for a few days to consider what I’ve just read. More than once I’ve picked it up to find him addressing something that was on my mind, as in this paragraph from the section in Antarctica. I had been thinking about various lifespans, and in particular that of rocks.

I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance.

The science is easy to follow, the descriptions gorgeous. Lopez depicts not only the natural world, but the human cultures that have come and gone upon it. What stands out for me is the unhurried accumulation of insights building one upon another, like a coral reef, to create an ethical framework, a structure that can hold the eager quest for knowledge of scientists, the adventurousness of explorers, the communities that care for each other and also the atrocities visited upon innocent people, cultures deliberately or accidentally wiped out, chemical waste dumped in cities and towns.

What are we to make of our current societies, where the drive for profit pushes technology without regard for consequences, where science is undermined by for-profit businesses and their government lackeys? There was much that was wrong in earlier centuries, earlier societies, but can we draw any lessons that could help us today? What is being lost as human cultures and species are obliterated, as glaciers melt into the sea?

And then we set that against the generosity of those who have sought to advance our knowledge, those who have labored to save the remnants of the past, those who have devoted themselves to conserving this world that we have so damaged, of Oates walking out into the night, of Shackleton’s determination to save every one of his crew.

Lopez’s accounts embody the respect for other cultures that many people today strive for. The cultures he explores—especially the lost indigenous cultures like the Thule of the Arctic, the Kaweskar of southern Chile—remind me of the long arc of human history, the coming and going of peoples. One insight I found particularly helpful was about communicating with “members of a culture that had experienced the brutal force of colonial intrusion. I knew the only right gift to offer people in these situations is to listen, to be attentive.”

The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings. I will be reading and rereading this book for years to come.

Have you read a book that increased your knowledge of the natural world and challenged your philosophies?

Collected Poems, by Emily Dickinson

Emily

For our first meeting this year, our Poetry Discussion Group read Dickinson’s poems, a mix of famous and now-so-famous works. To prepare, I reread this collection from my bookshelf, finding notes from my schooldays tucked in its pages, enjoying old favorites and rediscovering ones I’d forgotten.

At our meeting one person remarked that almost anyone reading an unattributed poem by Dickinson would know immediately that it was by her. Why is that? It’s partly her remarkable concision—the way she can pack so much into a handful of lines—and partly her combination of whimsy and practicality.

Of course there are her distinctive dashes. In many cases, they designate a pause, as here:

It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

In others, they indicate a modern fracturing of perception, as here:

Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

Embodied scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar —

Adored with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch —

Yet persevered toward — sure — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saint’s slow diligence —
The Sky —

Ungained — it may be — by a Life’s low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

Sometimes they add emphasis to certain words or ideas.

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –

She can be joyous, as in the previous poem, or satirical, as here:

What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions —
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature —
Of Deity — ashamed —

It’s such a common — Glory —
A Fisherman’s — Degree —
Redemption — Brittle Lady —
Be so — ashamed of Thee —

More often, though, she’s kind, appreciative of the world around here and aware of its transience:

I had no time to Hate —
Because
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish — Enmity —

Nor had I time to Love —
But since
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
I thought
Be large enough for Me –

Some of her poems seem straightforward, but may have layers within. Some—such as the last one—are so sweetly positive as to border on sentimentality, though never (in my opinion) crossing over. Some we found baffling, such as this one where the two stanzas seem to be separate poems, the first clear and the second bewildering (Himmaleh indicates the Himalayas).

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I’m used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
‘Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!

Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they’ll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They’ll Carry — Him!

As writers we’re often advised to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, yet she deploys them brilliantly, as in this poem where it is the adjectives that give it power:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ration
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

I have plenty of friends IRL (in real life) and online, but books too are my friends, and none more welcome than wise and witty Emily.
All the poems I’ve quoted and more may be found here.

What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?

Songs and Carols for Midwinter & Christmastide, by Nowell Sing We Clear

Songbook

The release of this fantastic resource caps a glorious 40 years of performances by Nowell Sing We Clear—Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig, Andy Davis, and John Roberts. These four traditional musicians toured the Northeast and beyond with a performance of Anglo-American songs and carols of the season, drawing on their backgrounds: Tony and John’s English, Fred and Andy’s American. (Full disclosure: three of the four have been friends of mine all that time).

Now they’ve pulled together the band’s repertoire in this songbook. It’s musician-friendly, containing words and music for the songs and carols we love: wire-bound to lie flat, with chord symbols and harmonies. The extensive background material will fascinate musicians, singers and scholars alike.

Their concerts quickly became a December tradition for many of us, one that we’ve missed since the band retired from touring after a final concert in 2014. Each concert had the same template, which you’ll find in the songbook too. The first half featured music related to the Christmas story, often pub-sing versions of familiar carols, many filled with more directness and energy than the church versions. The second half was devoted to traditional songs of the season, such as wassail songs, visiting songs, the hunting of the wren, and counting songs.

The first half ended with a mummer’s play, and sometimes a sword dance. As their Facebook page says: “Performed in the traditional manner, the play is typical of folk dramas which survive to this day throughout Britain and North America symbolizing and portraying the death of the land at midwinter and its subsequent rebirth in the spring.” It was always different, with timely quips about current events or politics inserted, bringing guffaws from the audience.

Anyone who loves to sing will enjoy this book that celebrates this season when the light begins to return and many people celebrate the birth that became attached to the ancient rituals. For me, these songs have become such a part of my life for so long that they are inseparable from this season, but even those new to Nowell Sing We Clear will enjoy discovering new and old favorites. My two-year-old grandson’s favorite is Kris Kringle with its rollicking chorus.

Check out more videos from their concerts on YouTube. You can purchase the book and other Nowell Sing We Clear recordings here. I have no financial interest in purchases, just a friendly one: I want to bring together the music of my friends and you, my friends who will enjoy it.

Do you love to sing? This book is for you!

Playlist 2019

Robb

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. And often a comfort to me. This year some on my list are favorites of the little one who spends days with me. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Over The Rainbow, Eva Cassidy
Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Come Away With Me, Norah Jones
Nightingale, Norah Jones
Northern Sky, Nick Drake
Spry Street Hotel. Owen Morrison
Stonegate Waltz, Owen Morrison
Lonely Time of Year, Arielle Silver
The Handloom Weaver’s Lament, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
The Mermaid And The Swallow, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
The Trees They Do Grow High, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
Snowmelt, Owen Morrison
Over The Hill And Over The Dale, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
The Holly And The Ivy, Nowell Sing We Clear
The Wren (The King), Nowell Sing We Clear

Daybreak

In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear

maisie

As I’ve mentioned before here and here, I’m a fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Besides liking psychologist/investigator Maisie herself a lot—she combines integrity with intelligence, a strong work ethic with a warm heart—I especially like the way Winspear includes the historical context. As the author says:

I wanted to focus on the impact of extraordinary times on the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to use the mystery to give form to the journey through chaos to resolution—or not, as the case may be.

When we first met Maisie, she was rebuilding her life after serving as a nurse in the front lines of WWI. This installment, the 13th, begins with Neville Chamberlain solemnly declaring the start of WWII.

Echoes of WWI and its long tail of consequences pervade this story as Maisie tries to find the assassin of a former Belgian refugee before he or she kills again. As several characters remark, who would take a life at a time when there is so much fear of the killing to come? And why would anyone want to kill this harmless man?

I am reading the books in order; some I’ve read before but I wanted to fit them into the larger framework. It’s been said that a series is like a television show, with each book equating to an episode. The struggle for the writer is to include enough information that a new reader won’t be lost without boring someone who’s read the other books.

It’s a little hard for me to judge, since I’m not coming to it as a newbie, but I think this book would work as a stand-alone. Winspear adds just a sentence or two of background as needed. However, I think the reading experience is considerably deepened by having read the previous books. Most of the characters have appeared before, so prior knowledge helps you better understand their actions and reactions. Plus your emotional commitment to the characters is much greater. For example, some of the children you’ve seen tumbling about like puppies are now old enough to fight in the war.

There are some new characters here as well as old familiars. Among them are Anna, a little girl who has been evacuated from London along with the other “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees, but who has no papers. No one knows who she is and she herself refuses to speak, just as she refuses to let go of her small case and gas mask.

Anna and two other children are billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent. Maisie, who lost her husband and baby only three years previously, finds her heart turning toward the child even as those around her warn that she will only be hurt again when the girl returns to her family.

Maisie also becomes involved in the families of other former Belgian refugees as she pursues the killer, even as their former country faces new devastation.

The threads of the story are tightly woven. What makes a person kill? What makes a family, holds it together, and releases it? How does the past continue to shape the present?

I only have one quibble with this book. Maisie repeatedly uses the expression “It begs the question . . . “ incorrectly. She means “It raises the question . . . “ Where was Winspear’s editor? This common error stood out like a starburst in the midst of the otherwise delightful prose.

The perspective of ordinary people during this liminal time, when war has been declared but the fighting not yet begun, is fascinating. One mother travels with great hardship to Kent to reclaim her sons and take them back to London, even though the schools are closed, even though bombs are expected to fall. But who can imagine bombing before it happens? What parent can bear to put their children on a train to some unknown place with unknown people? I don’t know if I could have done it.

Chaos may not always be resolved, though some small part of it may be. We do what we can.

Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books?

Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

lucky fish

True confession: I bought this book for its cover. Not knowing much about graphic design, I took advantage of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference to wander through its sales hall where a couple of gymnasiums full of publishers displayed their books. When a cover caught my eye, I started a conversation with the representative staffing the table about why it was so intriguing (I’d chosen a slack time so as not to inconvenience them).

Tupelo Press, the publisher of this collection, Nezhukumatathil’s third, had quite a number of outstanding covers. And their representative was generous with their knowledge.

But it’s the inside of the book I’m here to talk about. Nezhukumatathil draws on her Indian-Filipino heritage, her Florida childhood nurturing recalcitrant citrus trees, and her husband’s Kansas farming experiences to create these poems. She writes about two-headed calves, made-up folk remedies, fables and families. She writes about love in fresh yet simple ways, such as this excerpt from “Suppose You Chopped Down a Mulberry Tree”:

I know a man who has such a sweet face,
bees follow him down the street. Ants still collect

in the tread of his shoes.

Many of the poems are a luscious cornucopia of images. The author doesn’t hold back, but sprinkles them liberally throughout, often in surprising combinations that still work. Here’s the beginning of “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:

I will pick
a black card

of luck for you;
star, pinkmoon,

mirror, ostrich, eye,
and jasmine bloom.

How does she do it? What a remarkable imagination!

In the third part of the book the poems are about giving birth, speaking simply and directly about this most fundamental experience, yet incorporating whimsical images and strong emotion. She imagines her baby born with a hedgehog resting in its hand and how that might play out. She speaks of the small moments every new mother will recognise, such as in “Waiting for Him to Speak” where she notes that “his hair // is the tobacco hue of an owl feather.” She worries about whether the baby will latch properly, thinking that “if she thought to wear the silver anklets her Indian grandmother gave her, at least there would be happy bells.”

But she doesn’t shy away from the larger world, writing about the Chinese children assembling her child’s toys. In other poems throughout the book there is a welcome astringent note within the sweet and magical songs. In these specific and sensual poems, whether about the taste of soil or the sound of the stone found in an eel’s head, Nezhukumatathil captures the universal and invites us to share the celebration.

Have you read any poems that overwhelmed you with their richness?

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee

tracks

I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately since I’ve been babysitting for a two-year-old. We’ve both fallen in love with this one. It starts with a child looking out the window at the snow and wondering what made the tracks there, and where the tracks go.

They (I’m deliberately using the plural because the child is not named and is not obviously a particular gender—part of the book’s charm) put on boots, coat and mittens (a skill my young friend has been working on recently) and go outside.

Following the tracks, the child wanders through typical landmarks for a little one: a garden gate, woods, some rocks and over a small footbridge. As they meander, they are shadowed by various animals: a squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer. The child considers what could have made the tracks: a duck? a woodchuck? a hippopotamus?

As you might have guessed, they follow the tracks all the way back to their own house and realise they themselves made these tracks the previous day.

This is a quiet book, like the snow’s hush, full of curiosity and imagination. The gentle illustrations are minimal, almost suggestions, yet they capture a child’s body language beautifully. Being snowy landscapes, of course there’s lots of white space.

In my opinion, the best picture books tell a story and, indeed, even in this brief text we have a full story. The protagonist is the child; the problem is to solve the mystery of the tracks. The antagonist is more abstract: ignorance, what we don’t know, the impenetrability of the world.

I remember as a preschooler being terrified by the vast sea of things I didn’t know. I knew my house and yard. I knew my block, more or less. But everything beyond that was a blank, simply inscrutable. For all I knew, there could be dragons. If I wandered off my block, how would I find my way back home?

Solving these mysteries, mapping out the nearby streets a little at a time, became my ambition. I think it’s partly why I enjoyed being a mechanic and then an engineer: understanding how cars and computers work. I never liked black boxes, those enigmatic spots in a flowchart labeled “Here the magic happens”.

So in this brief tale, I see not only an outward journey for our protagonist—following the tracks, answering the question—but an inner journey to satisfy that yearning to explore the world and begin to comprehend its mysteries.

What picture book have you read that you particularly enjoyed?

The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall

hall

It’s actually all about race, I often find myself thinking as I read the euphemisms and cover stories promulgated by blustering politicians and repeated by their supporters. Growing up in a racially mixed city in the U.S., coming of age during the civil rights movement, I learned the code words and recognised what was really meant. It was so clear to me that “poor people” meant people of color that when a new friend told me she was on welfare, I blurted out, “But you’re white!”

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

In examining these three terms of cultural difference, Hall uses Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign, which is that language, each word that we use, that sign has two parts: the signifier which is what we hear and what is actually signified, i.e., the abstraction behind it.

Thus, the title of the first part is “Race—The Sliding Signifier”. In this talk he examines how what we understand by the word “race” has changed over time, yet retains echoes of its earlier meanings. He finds these changes in what is signified by this and the other two terms by looking at public discourse, saying:

As we set out to ask what it means to rethink cultural difference in discursive terms, discourse should be understood as that which gives human practice and institutions meaning, that which enables us to make sense of the world, and hence that which makes human practices meaningful practices that belong to history precisely because they signify in the way they mark out human difference.

These three lectures are obviously not light reading, but they are immensely rewarding. Hall also invokes Saussure’s theory that our words do not operate independently; instead they are part of a web of meaning, related to other words, a systemic model. These three concepts are central to the process of classifying difference in human societies. And this system is hierarchical. It’s all about power or, as Humpty Dumpty says, who is to be master.

By looking at how the discourse around these three terms has changed over time and what lies behind those changes (see what I did there?), Hall challenges us to consider how these terms can slide in the future, as we look at the things that are changing our culture such as globalisation and mass diasporas, which are leading to a “weave of differences” rather than a binary (e.g., black versus white) definition of identity.

He says (italics the author’s), “The question is not who we are but who we can become.”

Who can we become?

Memento Mori, by Charles Coe

memnto

I heard Charles Coe read from his new collection at the Brattleboro Literary Festival and had to take a copy home with me. Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet, designated “A Boston Literary Light” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The poems he read that day celebrated ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

The poems are those of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

Coe is also a jazz musician and his musicality comes through in every line. His experiences and knowledge of jazz rhythms come through especially in several poems about musicians where he explores the peculiar doubleness of performing: the invitation to the audience to respond and the physical, intensely personal, rapt absorption in the playing itself.

He writes movingly about Boston, by which I mean Boston and its surrounding towns, taking a moment on a stalled subway train, for example, to illuminate the peculiar raggedness of a New England winter and the moments that can lift us into the universal.

Long ago, with other young friends, I visited an older man we knew in New York City who took us on a peculiar tour. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you to,” he said, leading us to one odd and beautiful space after another: corners, pockets, a particular painting. In the same way, Coe’s poems celebrate the secret delights of city life. One such is “The Dance Hall of Porter Square”, inviting us to share a sweet moment among the street people gathered there.

Some poems speak specifically to the experience of being old in this culture, while others to the experience of being black. Many find something unexpected in common sights, such as divining the lineaments of their ancestors in landscape gardeners in “Yardwork”.

Using humor as seasoning, he can pull the rug out from under the reader, turning our laughter to thoughtful frowns as the reversal sinks in. Even “The Saga of the Fish Sticks”, which is even funnier than its title, takes us back to the theme of his title poem and of this collection.

He includes a few prose poems, which use the syntax of prose but have the imagery, compression and music of poetry. An example is “The Night My Sister Danced with a Mouse”, a retelling of a family anecdote taken to a higher plane by the use of an image reimagined in the course of the piece. With humor and minimal but precise details, Coe brings us into this scene to relive it with him, and be warmed by it.

As with some of the best poems, Coe’s work draws our attention to something so small and ordinary, perhaps even ugly, that we would normally overlook it. He invites us into the fullness of the moment, unfolding the lotus to reveal the heart. Here is one such poem quoted in full:

mnemonic

It is sometimes necessary
to walk along a moonlit riverbank
barefoot, on the sodden strip
where water meets land,
to remind oneself
that something in the mud
remembers the stars.

Have you read poetry that made you see the world with new eyes?