Felicity by Mary Oliver
by Mary Oliver
ISBN: 9781594206764

Do I need Mary Oliver to tell me that “only if there are angels in your head will you / ever, possibly, see one”? The answer is yes, I will appreciate it if she does, in the closing lines of “The World I Live In”.

Whether she is writing about embracing aging (“Cobb Creek”), letting go of possessions (“Storage”), falling in love (“I Didn’t Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly”) or being grateful for having love in your life (“The Gift”) she offers poems full of wisdom, but that don’t take themselves too seriously. To underscore that last point:


Poems arrive ready to begin.
      Poets are the only transportation.

I am not sure how much more there is to say about her latest book; if you enjoy her work you will enjoy this, and if you don’t, well, this isn’t a radical departure so it isn’t likely to move you. I’m glad I read it and will no doubt return to it.

Erratic Facts

Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan
by Kay Ryan
ISBN: 9780802124050

I came across this interview with Ryan — I forget who originally pointed to the link — and was immediately intrigued.

Not being up on the latest news from the contemporary poetry scene, I didn’t know she was named poet laureate… in 2008. (So now you know more about how much I don’t know about contemporary poetry.) She seemed, according to this interview, pretty low key about it: “Being named poet laureate has granted Ryan a new degree of visibility in Fairfax. But, she says, ‘Nobody’s letting me cut in line at the post office or anything.'” The part of the interview that sparked my interest in reading her work was this:

People have trouble with my work because they want to say it’s humorous the way Billy Collins’s poetry is humorous, and that it’s witty. But there’s something else, this cartoony thing. When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.

Her style is what I expected from the way the interview talked about her work: short, clear, lingering. From early in this collection:

New Rooms

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows

From later in the book, this:


We turn out
as tippy as
eggs. Legs
are an illusion.
We are held
as in a carton
if someone
loves us.
It’s a pity
only loss
proves this.

I had to return my copy to the library. I’ll continue to read more of her work.

Slant Six

slantsixbyerinbelieu by Erin Belieu
ISBN: 9781556594717

I’ve been trying to read more poetry this year, so I when I saw this at the library I was intrigued and checked it out.

Belieu’s poetry is about here and now and so-called ordinary every day American life. In “Someone Asks, What Makes This Poem American?” Belieu reminds us:

We need
our artists everywhere,
not scrunched up
in one or two rarefied spots

And these lines make sense, even as you understand the desire to be in a rarefied spot.

In “H. Res. 21-1: Proposing the Ban of Push-Up Bras, Etc.” there’s a further, different plea for sanity and self-acceptance:

           We must learn
to want each other
          in direct sunlight,
no more or less than
          what we really are

If perhaps you think poetry isn’t your thing, or that you wouldn’t “get it” Belieu’s work may get you to reconsider. What cat person would not smile at these lines from “The Problem of the Domestic”: “and petting the cat because / you’re a stooge for her slutty ways”.

At this point in my reading, I’m thinking yes I have to return this book, but I’m going to need one for my bookshelf.

She just does so much: anger and acceptance and bewilderment and humor, sometimes all in the same poem, as with “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year”. This is an excerpt, which I love because she recognizes the whole if you don’t have kids your eyes do roll sometimes, yet you can still understand:

And there are those

who may be reading this poem,
those people without children, or
those, I should say, who choose not
to have children, you might be impatient

now that Jude has appeared here to make
his meaningful pronouncement, and I
get how tedious it is, listening to those

who choose to have children
drone on about the stupidity of standardized
tests and the difficulty in finding authentically
organic apple juice; but I beg your patience and

ask you to imagine how unnerving it is to be
responsible for these weird beings who rarely
do anything you’d expected when you were
reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting;

how we’re suckered into thinking this kid stuff
is a science when really it’s the most abstract
art form, like you’re standing in a gallery at

MoMA, staring at an aquarium in which float
three basketballs, and the piece is titled
Aquarium with Three Basketballs,

and you’re looking at others in the gallery
considering the basketballs and they don’t look
as if they’re having some cross-eyed internal
struggle, and you’re sweating a little

and embarrassed, thinking,
There’s a message here that I’m not getting

I feel like I’ve found another poet whose work I’ll continue to be interested in.

The Best Canadian Poetry 2014

The Best Canadian Poetry 2014
edited by Sonnet L’Abbé
ISBN: 9781926639833

I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book the cover, but c’mon, how awesome is this owl with the bokeh circles of light? Even if I weren’t following a reading trail from Open Field I would pick this up. (And as an object, it is wonderful, smooth pages that feel good to touch.)

So what’s in this collection? There is a long poem by Sue Goyette, “On Losing Their Father” with its “exhausted upholstery of ritual” which will be understandable by anyone who has experienced deep loss and the uncertainties that follow in its wake, and isn’t that nearly all of us? There is the plain speaking yet attention grabbing opening of Aisha Sasha John’s “After the porcupine”: “look–I want you to quit being such a try-hard about your whole life / and let me tell you a story”. There’s “How the Starling Came to America: a glosa for P.K. Page” by Medrie Purdham. (I didn’t know what glosa was and now I’m fascinated by the idea…) I was happy to discover that the contributor notes in the back aren’t just short publication lists, but includes commentary written by the poet about the poem.

I suspect I’m still in the early days of my reading not just more poetry, but more Canadian poetry.

The True Names of Birds

The True Names of Birds by Susan Goyette by Susan Goyette
ISBN: 9780919626997

After finding Sue Goyette’s work in the Open Field anthology, I went looking for more of her work. I decided to read in chronological order, so I started with this. I probably would have started here anyway though, given that the poem that most stuck with me was also the title of this book. (I can be patient; I’m saving her more recent collection, Ocean, to read on my vacation.)

I was not disappointed. Recognition, sadness, humor, longing, questioning… all are here. Spouses and parents and children. Here’s one from this collection:

On Loss

The space between a falling leaf and the tree;
that’s how loss begins. Crows loop

and lace their shadows to that space,
it deepens, becomes sky.

Not everything that goes leaves a trail. Train tracks are obvious,
so are highways. But tell me of the borders we cross

deep within the night. Which of us is marking trees
and which of us is navigating by the stars.

Even though we protect our children from the wind, the bough
still breaks and I drive to the beach alone. Singing of falling bridges,

you make them breakfast while I watch the ocean
from the car. Even the ocean is small under this sky.

I am glad I have more of Goyette’s poetry still to read.

Open Field

Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets
edited by Sina Queyras
ISBN: 0892553146

There’s something to be said for reading the right book at the right time. In this case, the right time for me turned out to be ten years after I first picked up the book on a trip to Toronto.

Yes, I’ve had this book hanging around my house for ten years, unread. I’m not sorry or embarrassed; part of keeping a library (and not just books) in my house means I’ve always got something different, unread, and newly necessary to hand.

I appreciated that it is collection of good Canadian poetry in the early 2000s (it came out in 2005), which gives it a different feel than the “best of” for a particular year. For one thing, it means you get to spend time with poets, instead of a singular focus on one particular poem by a particular poet.

Every name was new to me as a poet (I’d read Margaret Atwood, but not her poem) and most I had never even heard about. So there was a lot to discover: Atwood’s poetry, Anne Carson, Lorna Crozier, Sonnet L’Abbe, Fred Wah, Jan Zwicky. Don McKay’s wonderful opening line: “Sleep, my favorite flannel shirt, wears thin, and shreds, and birdsong happens in the holes.” I searched out books by Susan (Sue) Goyette based on the poems included here. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that, or even if I’ve ever done that, with a poet. Here’s the one that made me realize I would be investing more time in her work:

The True Names of Birds

There are more ways to abandon a child
than to leave them at the mouth of the woods.
Sometimes by the time you find them, they’ve made up names
for all the birds and constellations, and they’ve broken
their reflections in the lake with sticks.

With my daughter came promises and vows
that unfolded through time like a roadmap and led me
to myself as a child, filled with wonder for my father
who could make sound from a wide blade of grass

and his breath. Here in the stillness of forest,
the sun columning before me temple-ancient,
that wonder is what I regret losing most; that wonder
and the true names of birds.

It isn’t every day you find a book you’ve been holding on to has been so worth it; I’m grateful. Highly recommended.

The Best American Poetry 2012

Best American Poetry 2012 edited by Mark Doty
ISBN: 9781439181522

In the introduction, editor Mark Doty writes:

To what extent to we understand the process that calls a poem into being? Someone or something comes to us in the dark — literally or in the darkness of not-knowing — and says “Sing me something.” It’s the uncovering of what is to be sung, and how, which are not two separate things but an intertwining spiral, like a DNA molecule, that gives the process its tension, frustration, and at least sometimes, elation.

So he does his job, as you’d expect him to, enticing you to read what follows.

Collections are often uneven; my hope is that I will find a few new to me voices that I want more of, not that I will like most of the poems. I just need a few to really speak to me.

The ones that stood out to me were Jenny Johnson’s “Aria”, Michael Morse’s “Void and Compensation (Facebook)”, Mary Ruefle’s “Middle School”, and Larissa Szporluk’s “Sunflower” and its “hooligan owl”.

I read all the bits in an anthology, even the bios in the back. This time, I learned from Jane Hirshfield’s of D. W. Winnicott’s description of childhood: “It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”

All of which means yes, I think this is worth reading.


Hinge by Kathleen Lynch by Kathleen Lynch
ISBN: 097140853X

I don’t read much poetry, so finding a poem that I like is rare and reason enough to seek out more.

I forget now where I first read it (somewhere online, but Google is failing to help me retrieve the original pointer). I just remember wanting to read more when I came across this poem:

How to Build an Owl

  1. Decide you must.
  2. Develop deep respect
    for feather, bone, claw.
  3. Place your trembling thumb
    where the heart will be:
    for one hundred hours watch
    so you will know
    where to put the first feather.
  4. Stay awake forever.
    When the bird takes shape
    gently pry open its beak
    and whisper into it: mouse.
  5. Let it go.

The first poem in the book, “How I Got Here”, ends with the lines “I chose one./ I folded my wings / and dove in.” So, yes, it was worth seeking out the book the poem came from and spending time with more of Lynch’s work.

Hermit with Landscape

by Daniel Hall
ISBN: 0300047320

I was in the library looking for something else when I found this book. Having just read a long New Yorker article about poetry readings by the author, I decided to read it.

I’m not sorry I did, though as it turns out the article was by Donald Hall, not Daniel. I am bad at names.

There were lines that grabbed me (“or the salt / pang in the solar plexus”), and images (“among the redundant pumpkins / gone goofy, misshapen”) but my favorite part by far was the poem “Short Circuit”:

For no reason,
all at once,

a dove and a jay
swerve and land

at opposite ends
of the clothesline,

and the clothes — mine,
all mine! — commence

to dance with reckless
love and joy.

Turns out there’s another happy accident: we have a different book by this poet, the Daniel Hall, in the house.

White Pine

White Pine by Mary Oliverby Mary Oliver
ISBN: 0156001209

Not too long ago, I decided to spend my Sunday morning sipping coffee and reading poetry. It turns out, this book was just the right thing for me to read.

I don’t read poetry all that often. Probably the last complete book I read was Oliver’s Dream Work. This didn’t have a “Wild Geese” or “The Journey” in it, but it did have have moments that caught me, and poems that made me stop and think and reread and feel.

Some of the lines that grabbed me were:

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” (from “Yes! No!”)

“perfectly finished, perfectly heartbroken, perfectly wild” (the last line from “In Pobiddy, Georgia”)

“I’m going to be happy, and frivolous, and useful.” (from “Fletcher Oak”)

I lingered over different poems: “Hummingbirds” and “Snails”, “Porcupine”, “The Pinewoods”, “December”. Looking at that list of titles, I realize that though I am a city person now, I did grow up in the country, and something in Oliver’s writing speaks to my early (and continued) wonder at the the animals and plants around me.

And because I can’t help but quote one more thing I loved, I’ll share this from “At the Lake”:

Inside every mind
there’s a hermit’s cave
full of light,

full of snow,
full of concentration.

One thing I think I’ve learned is that I should set aside more mornings to sip coffee and read poetry. It seems, now that I think about it, a necessary luxury.