Friday, May 22, 2015

National Poetry Month

On April 1, I put two books in my bag: Lightwall by Liliana Ursu and Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein. Then, the April Fool's joke was on me because I realized that my random decision to read poetry fortuitously coincided with National Poetry Month. And I told myself that I was going to finish those books. Completely. In April. And. I. did.

I've been telling myself for years that I need to read more poetry. I've been trying it, and hating it, and giving it up quickly. But, finally, this time, it stuck. I'm sure it had to do with the particular poems, but I think it also has to do with how I'm growing into myself. A few years ago, I would never have willingly entered an art museum, but this year I took a trip to NYC almost exclusively to spend time at the Met. Something about the passing of years renders me more compassionate and more aware. And the more that I feel, the deeper grows my appreciation for all forms of art. Has anyone else experienced this particular transformation: an appreciation of art that grows along with age and empathy?

24. Lightwall by Liliana Ursu

I bought Lightwall directly from the publisher, Zephyr Press, at the second annual Boston Book Festival, approximately four years ago. I bought it because I wanted to support a small press and translated literature and women's literature, though little did I know at the time that I would later become more knowledgeable and passionate about all of the above. Ursu is translated from the Romanian, which also happens to be one of my ancestral tongues. I remember flipping through and vaguely liking it, but not being interested enough to continue, so there it sat on my shelf till this year. The pages are English and Romanian, facing each other, and it's been interesting to try to decipher some of the Romanian words. So far, I think I've only got place names like Belgrade and Lewisburg (Ursu was a visiting professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania). In her poetry, Romania tastes like blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and billberries (though I've never tasted a billberry). The imagery is full of berries, tart berries in particular, and I imagine stark winters pierced with berry brightness. There is more than one bear too and wolves, and I imagine wilds filled with predators. Her Lewisburg feels comparatively domestic, with lilacs and trees and farms and rivers. Some of the poetry is fantastical, involving transforming animals, and there are references to East European and Russian literature, the only one of which I got was Oblomov, and barely then, and many references to Ovid and Rome. In fact, one of the sections is titled "Ovid Returns to Rome."

It's difficult to write about poetry, because I can't quite grasp it, but Ursu's are lovely. My favorite or one of my favorites is titled "The Bed of Mint" and reminds me of home. It begins:

Between two houses,
Between a garage and a kitchen,
surrounded rusty chicken wire.
It's the baby of the Romanian teacher, every stem
every new leaf of mint is a letter
In Winter, they nurture words underground.
Spring, they compose sentences.
In Summer, the patches of mint are full-grown poems.

Read on.

27. Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein

I first saw Dispatch from the Future at the new Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, and I picked it up because I recognized the author's name. The year before that, my mother had bought me Leigh Stein's novel The Fallback Plan, which I frankly did not care for. Maybe I'd feel differently if I read it again (don't think so, but it's possible), but I read it when I was in a similar moment to the main character--moving unhappily back in with my parents after failing to secure post-graduation employment--and the way the character dealt with it really angered me. I didn't relate to her behavior, and felt like she was basically an insult to who I was at the time. Anyhoo. That probably had a lot more to do with me than any inherent characteristic of the writing, but I picked up the poetry book with that in mind. And I was intrigued. I really related to the poetry! It felt like the kind of nonsense that I write, with lots of unexplained references, which I had fun fishing out, and a feeling of uncertainty and carelessness, but also a genuine hope and, I don't know how to express it, spark, that the novel lacked. I may not care for Stein as a novelist, but I greatly admire her as a poet.

Here's part of the Warning at the beginning:

If you read this book
sequentially, bad things may happen to you, but only as bad
as the things that would have happened to you anyway.
If, however, you do not read this book sequentially you may
find that you are suddenly aboard a sunken pirate ship,
staring into the deep abyss, and wishing you had chosen
not to chase the manatee in your submarine after all. Do not
panic. If you end up in the wrong adventure just go back
three spaces and draw another card.

Recommended especially to young adults in their 20s and 30s who have ever been a part of geek culture or the Chicago arts scene.

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