I’m Reading

April 2024


In New York I heard Michael Ondaatje read from his newest book, A Year of Last Things, which is a collection of poems. Ondaatje is fairly soft spoken; so are the poems. And they are full of twilight and evening. Both the opening poem, “Lock,” and the closing poem center on a spot on a river, and on the magical lift (and resultant unfamiliar perspective) that a lock “in its evening light” enables:

Where you might see your friends
as altered by this altitude as you

The fresh summer grass,
the smell of the view—
dark water, August paint

At the reading Ondaatje was asked, predictably, what, when he writes a poem, spurs him into making poetry and not prose. I can’t remember his answer.

February 2024


It grows harder, while teaching, to sink into something I’m not reading for a class. But this month and last, as my graduate class read poems by T.S. Eliot and then Gwendolyn Brooks, I read the first part of Brooks’s autobiography: Report From Part One. Here are notes on her childhood, her children. On teaching; on her trip to East Africa. On her poems, early ones, and on poems to come. Unsurprisingly her prose is rich and warm and sometimes bubbling and always exacting—”…even in writing prose I find myself weighing the possibilities of every word just as I do in a poem,” she tells an interviewer. (“I’m a black poet,” she tells the same interviewer, in 1969, “and I write about what I see, what interests me, and I’m seeing new things.”) From an early section:

Dreamed a lot. As a little girl I dreamed freely, often on the top step of the back porch—morning, noon, sunset, deep twilight. I loved clouds, I loved red streaks in the sky. I loved the gold worlds I saw in the sky. Gods and little girls, angels and heroes and future lovers labored there, in misty glory or sharp grandeur.

Also, poems from a very old copy of Anthony Hecht’s The Hard Hours (1968). The page-paper so thick the pages feel almost like sailcloth. A favorite is “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” as well as a sonnet (after Du Bellay) about voyaging home that contains this line:

But slate is my true stone, slate is my blue.


December 2023

ALL SOULS by Saskia Hamilton

I just finished reading All Souls, Saskia Hamilton’s fourth, and final, collection of poems. Saskia’s poems are so smooth, penetrating, and utterly hers. From the back of the book: “…Hamilton transforms fear, expectation, and memory into art of the highest order.” Yes. It seems she wrote and gathered these fragments and sequential poems inside of and in spite of serious illness. They are solid, collected, beautifully lit, and full of inquiry. It felt right to read them at the close of the year. They’re so carefully interwoven that it’s a bit criminal to pull excerpts, but—from “Exits and Entrances to the Auditorium”:

Although the remedy does not exist, the remedy is no exit, only

death is—

there was the time a friend brought the Prince of Denmark to the

door and she gave him a cup of chocolate amongst the Kokoschka

and Dix and Grosz and Beckmann prints that hung in the room of

chintz and old furniture like the soul itself, collective soul of suffer-

ing, peering from behind the arras into the curious gallery of polite

forgetful living space, with three windows and two doors.

You can tell the dead from the living in the old poems by their sur-

prise at the guides. Where they’re heading, no guides, just a crowd

gathered at the shore, where it’s quiet.

Saskia died in the summer; Graywolf published the book in October. I was lucky to be a classmate of hers, at NYU, where she would sometimes bring in a draft and call it a ‘sweet nothing’ and then proceed to read it to us. And more often than not it would sound like something a piece of old-world velvet would say, if it sat up and spoke. If you don’t know her work, I recommend it all, beginning with her first book, As For Dream.