On the One Tongue of the Wind the Orishas Rise (Dougherty)

There is a story I like that is told about the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Several actors were supposed to enter their first scene as though out of breath from running. So what did these actors do? Rather than faking it, they actually ran outside the theatre (maybe even down a hill?) just prior to making their entrance. I’m not telling it well, but the only point I’m trying to make is that’s the kind of energy and commitment I get from Dougherty’s poems. To begin one, you’d better be ready to make that long run with him, and he will leave you breathless at the end. Here, for example, is the ending of “A Verb that Flies like a Bird across the Sky of Your Eyes” – “We begin out of / nothing. We leave to forget the beginning. We return in the clothes we / have borrowed.”

And what makes Dougherty different from those actors (and the rest of us) is the level of detail he observes along the way, especially in poems like “I Knead the Rain,” “At Least Not Here” and “The Rain’s Interrogative.”

A small treasure from one of my favorite poets.

Alias Grace (Atwood)

I thought this was excellent. Suspenseful, detailed, provocative, open-ended — all of those good things. Atwood uses letters and various narrators to take us inside the minds of many who all have a connection to a (real-life) crime. I was, and this is an appropriate word for the science and theatre of the times, hypnotized by the narrative. Did Grace do it? What did she know and when did she know it? Atwood plays with our preconceptions like a cat with thread (an appropriate image for this book) and we are left with what we think not only about the characters, but about ourselves.

Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, & Political Freedom (Loza)

Though it reads a bit too much like a dissertation at times, this was an excellent and in-depth introduction to both the basics and the complexities of the bracero program that existed between 1946 – 1964. It also served to explain why the former braceros and their family members are fighting for reparations and trying to avoid the same problems as they participate in a similar program with Canada.

My only disappointment was that the epilogue – a look at the National Museum of American History’s exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1946-1964 would have been longer. What she presents here is an excellent teaser to all of the nuances involved in putting together an exhibit and an archives at a government museum.

Insomnia (Pastan)

I am not sure how I came upon this title. I wish I did know, so I’d know to avoid that source again. I found this collection underwhelming. The poems, often centered on aging, seemed slight to me. I know that often one has to work hard to make things seem simple, but with a very few exceptions, that didn’t seem to be the case here. These poems neither engaged nor moved me.

The Transit of Venus (Hazzard)

I know the question, “What is a classic?” is a tired one, but it is one I still enjoy. So when I read about Hazzard’s book, I was intrigued enough to try it. Penguin, after all, had declared it a classic. Certainly, the prose is marvelous. I lingered over passages and marked them for possible future use as writing samples. Still, I always sensed that there were levels in play here that I simply couldn’t access – about Australia, about World War I, etc.. The plot, though not complex, takes some time to show itself. It could never take the spotlight away from the close, observational language – the small things we notice, the small things that make us who we are.

It is not often that I go searching for other sources while I’m reading something, but when I was feeling lost I found one review that indicated even Hazzard’s husband said that this was a difficult novel to read for the first time. Other readers indicated that they abandoned a first attempt, only to find its genius later.

I would come back to this with a book club or some situation like that, but on my own, I am more likely to try another Hazzard novel than I am to return to this one.

I don’t often get many comments, but if you have read this one, I’d really like to hear your reaction to it.

Be Recorder (Smith)

I felt like I wove in and out of this book. There’d be a poem like “Self as Deep as Coma,” that really jumped off the page at me and then there’d be a handful that I found I really couldn’t enter.

Part 2, the long poem, “Be Recorder,” was definitely a mixed experience for me. This was one of my favorite parts of it –

https://poets.org/poem/be-recorder

In general, I was drawn to the individual poems, like “Entanglement.” “American Mythos” is an anthem and will be part of my work next time I teach American Literature.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (Eire)

This is an elegantly written book. I liked Eire’s style immensely. I’ve been reading a lot of current issue books lately, so this one seemed to lack some urgency in comparison. Still, I was interested in Eire’s life before and after Fidel took over Cuba. It seemed like he was setting up for a sequel. This is largely the ‘before’ picture, with some indications of what the transition phase was like and a few glimpses of life once he and his brother were sent to the United States. Eire tells a good story, but without sufficient contrast, the narrative lacks some drama.

They Call Me Guero: A Border Kid’s Poems (Bowles)

I really wanted this to be poetry written by an actual border kid as an awkward adolescent, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Bowles does a reasonable job of imitating unexceptional middle school poetry, some of which is about being a border kid, but most of which is about an adolescent boy growing up with the love of his family, a few good friends and, eventually, the affections of a girl. There are a few poems that illuminate the plight of someone who lives in between (literally and metaphorically), though the insights are largely surface level – not suprising for a middle school voice, I suppose.

Since I don’t speak Spanish, I appreciated the glossary in the back and, in general, the way Bowles wove Spanish into his poetry.

Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide (Alvarez)

This was fascinating. Alvarez makes his main points clear. Construction on the divide has been a process of “compensatory building.” Each new project is meant to remedy the limits of previous ones when, in fact, it is the policies and not the infrastructure that is failing us. All of this building centers around a desire for control – control of water, of land, of the movement of people and goods. We continue here, as elsewhere, to think that nature is ours to subdue, and nature keeps teaching us lessons that we ignore while we build something new. We seek to promote the connectedness between the two countries when it serves commerece, but not humanity, and we keep thinking that just one more engineering project will do the trick.

Alvarez’s historical survey is clear and convincing as he examines the way that history (the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the election of Nixon, etc.) has also intersected with the efforts of border builders. I love all of the images in the book and very much appreciated that they were not gathered into one collection of photographs inserted randomly into one section of the book. Instead, they are located where they are most immediately relevant. Good for the University of Texas Press for breaking a convention here.