To my discredit, I rarely read poetry. However, I do occasionally take recommendations from friends I trust, and as a result I’ve enjoyed two recent prose books by celebrated modern poets.
Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack and Honey offers collected lectures and essays about poetry. Like many creative types she fears analysis, and her apologia for the book is brilliant:
I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve – if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “Fret not after knowledge, I have none,” is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.
The themes of the lectures mostly concern Ruefle’s own work in relationship to other great poets (interestingly, the copyrights pages are buried in the back, one needs to read carefully to always understand who she is quoting), but there are also surprise guests like Socrates and advertising copy. Ruefle is funny, elliptical, and profound.
In the New York Times review, David Kirby writes,”This is one of the wisest books I’ve read in years, and it would be a shame to think that only poets will read it.”
Kirby’s right, this is a book for anybody. I will be returning to Madness, Rack and Honey often.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is comparatively direct. Indeed, it is a steamroller, an astonishing and lucid explication of everyday racism. Rankine uses the second person to achieve a kind of grandeur. I can’t recall reading a voice like this before:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
It’s all devastating, but the chapter on Serena Williams was all new to me (as with poetry, I rarely interact with sports) and shocked me to my core. The New Yorker review by Dan Chiasson makes a great point:
“Citizen” conducts its business, often, with melancholy, but also with wit and a sharable incredulity that sends you running to YouTube. These kinds of errands into the culture could not have been performed before the Internet, which provides, for all of us, the ultimate instant replay.
To my surprise I have been watching Serena Williams videos, trying to fathom how such injustice could exist under such a bright glare, for example the sequence of bad (racist!?) calls by umpire Mariana Alves in the 2004 U. S. Open. Rankine is a thoroughly modern artist using the very latest news to achieve lasting impact.