*Contributor’s Note: To all, my apologies. I allowed my emotions to get the better of me the other day and I dashed off something political–my Charleston post–in place of this one. Here is what was supposed to be my regularly-scheduled post for this month. Sorry again for the soapbox moment…
by Ron Hayes
Almost a lifetime ago I worked at a small independent bookstore here in my hamlet of a hometown called Erie, PA. It was a great gig. I miss it. One of the fun things about working there was having some say in the displays we’d put together when the time of year called for a change, and I remember the first “Summer Reading” display I set up in the Used Book section, where I spent most of my time. The owner had a problem with it. Where she was thinking Harlequin Romance and mass-market paperbacks, my display featured folks like Denise Levertov and Gertrude Stein, Thomas Pynchon, Lucille Clifton, T.S. Eliot, and an enormous, gorgeous edition of Paradise Lost complete with woodcuts by Gustave Doré. I guess I’d missed the mark.
It was explained to me, a rabid English Lit major at the time, that “Summer Reading” meant “light, easy, digestible, unpretentious, indulgent.” Later, she made it all much easier for me by renaming the display, “Beach Books.” THEN it made sense to me what she’d wanted.
The point is that, for people like you and me who read not just for pleasure but for insights on HOW to write, “Summer Reading” has never meant what it does for other people. For me, summer has become a time to catch up on good stuff, hard stuff, things I can’t devote my full attention to the rest of the year because of school/work/kids/etc. This is why I introduce you to these:
Matilda’s Battle Waltz Poems by Tracie Morell
Virtually by definition, this book is the antithesis of what most people would call a “beach book.” Angst, intelligence, simmering rage, and stoicism with a sneer are the preeminent markers of Morell’s debut collection from Crisis Chronicles Press. It is intense. Consider the opening lines from “The Tangerine Tangent of an Angel’s Far Away Eyes,” one of my favorite poems in the book: “Matilda knows she ain’t nothing but /a well-seasoned stain on /some sailor’s sweat-soaked sheets.” Or the whole of “Working for the Societal Throwaway”:
I have so many flaws, yet they think
I’m a saint. There are only boondocks
and hoods, there ain’t no saints
here, only a series of momentary angels.
Moments like these, with language ranging from highbrow to colloquial, characterize the kinds of poems you’ll encounter in Matilda’s Battle Waltz.
As a concept, Matilda is a metaphor drawn from Australia’s unofficial anthem; the term “Waltzing Matilda” slang for wandering the outback with a makeshift bag slung over one’s shoulder. Morell has chosen to breathe life into a fictitious Matilda as a literary stand-in of sorts. Through Matilda and the poems she populates, Morell meanders through her own past and all of our present to reflect on what is, why things are the way they are, and then she shakes it in our faces to ask why we continue to let it exist this way.
Morell’s poetry is as demanding and edgy as it is reflective. She is relentless in her pursuit of truth, and takes it as her personal mission to lay bare the visceral nuances of today’s screwed up social conventions. Lucille Clifton once told me that poetry should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Tracie Morell lives that credo. Don’t read this book if you aren’t prepared to be challenged. If you’re neither afflicted nor comfortable, this book will be lost on you. If you have half a brain, this book will be one you won’t easily forget.
If you haven’t already heard of this book and you consider yourself well read…shame on you. A 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Citizen is a book-length poem whose feather-soft subtlety delivers a sledgehammer blow. Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen masterfully blends alternating POV (you MUST check it out if writing in the second person challenges you!), graphic arts, and anecdotal testimony to sketch the realities of race in our time. The book is remarkably accessible—it can easily be read in an afternoon—but its deceptive in its content. The criticism inherent in its pages is by no means facile, but the challenging truths Rankine lays before us in her lyric are at once disquieting and demanding. There’s a sly sense of urgency in this book that I fear may be lost on the casual reader, but the unavoidable fact of the matter is that it is the casual—and most disinterested—readers who should be reading Citizen. I wish I had the authority to require this reading in my classroom next fal, but, until I can enforce such a demand, I’ll leave it to you to uncover the beauty, the horror, and the sad truths Citizen holds, like a diaphanous broken butterfly wing, to the light of a badass poet’s scrutiny.
And, if I may, a couple fiction suggestions…
While I am primarily a poet, it is equally true that I write fiction as well. Here’s what I’m reading/trying to learn from now:
Okay, full disclosure. This is my second time through this novel this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Another National Book Award finalist, Doerr’s World War II masterpiece is so fascinating to me in the way it strings us along two parallel storylines for the majority of the novel and then weaves them together so skillfully, so artlessly, so adeptly at the book’s climax. If I have a criticism, it’s that the denouement and resolution go on a little longer than perhaps they should, a bow-tying coda to a breathtaking work that has little need of it. That said, this is easily the best book I’ve read in the past several years.
From the same press that published April L. Ford’s The Poor Children, Muscle Cars is a rich and satisfying collection of short fiction featuring flawed men, flawed plans, and well-rendered prose. Eoannou earned a Pushcart nomination for work contained in this collection and it’s easy to see why. In particular, I’m taking a lot away from it in terms of pacing, voice, resolution, and resonance. Definitely worth a look.
In closing, I’m happy to announce some publishing news. Earlier this month I was honored to have three poems go live at Change Seven Magazine, and within a few days my blog contribution there will be also be published. Also, I’m extremely happy to announce that my poem, “The Boatman Considers A Scone” will be included in the inaugural print anthology from three drops from a cauldron. Finally, while I’m still waiting to hear the official publication date, my first-ever fiction print publication will be available later this year from Fabula Press. “A Soft and Fading White” was long listed earlier this year for the 2015 Nivalis Short Story competition and subsequently selected for inclusion in the print anthology for that competition. Thank you to all the editors who made my day!