I’ve never liked the word ‘quotidian.’ It seems like such a fancy word to describe the ordinary. And besides, are we really to keep celebrating poets for writing about ordinary things? I know at one point, that was quite a big step, but now?
In any event, this collection did not knock me out. Most of the poems seem slight, with maybe one or two lines each that seem to merit a pause for attention to both craft and content. There are a few interesting examples of poems that prompted me to wonder – in a good way – about what was left out. Aside from “The Star Market” and “Sometimes the Moon Sat in the Well at Night,” there are no real keepers here.
Leila Chatti, recently named the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow and Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center, promises to be an exciting addition to Cleveland’s literary scene for the two years of her fellowship. Her most recent book concerns itself, as the title indicates, with her dual identity. ‘Amrikiya’ is Arabic for an American female. ‘Tunsiya’ is Arabic for female Tunisian. Chatti grew up in Michigan and holds dual citizenship. In an era when few of us could have found Tunisia on a map before Arab Spring, her Tuisian voice is most welcome.
But she cannot just be reduced to a token representative of a particular culture. Her words may come across as gentle, but her insights and technique are quite pointed. In “When I Tell My Father I Might Begin To Pray Again,” she writes
If there exists / in my blood a map, it is one I kee / folded for dear // of where it does not lead. God, / I want so badly to speak // with you
Note the line breaks. She also demonstrates her skill with lines in the absolutely heartbreaking “Motherland.” The opening lines –
What kind of world we leave / for our mothers?
and the closing –
“no one’s leaving the world / to anyone yet.”
Perfect. Now remember the title.
Both “What do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” and “Upon Realizing There are Ghosts in the Water” are haunting. From the former –
Death grows here. . . I don’t know the names / of the dead accumulating like snowflakes, so many / the news talks about them as if they are one thing, / amound of indisinguishable parts.
The magic she makes in this 33-page collection is just remarkable. I look forward to what she produces while she’s here.
Anisfield-Wolf’s press release about Chatti’s appointment
Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center
The first one that sent me reeling was “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti.” With the frenetic energy and ambition of part of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Dougherty writes a love letter, an honest love letter, to the city. “Somewhere on Planet Earth” also summons that optimistic, specific, and straightforward energy. Dougherty is no romantic, it would seem; nor is he romanticizing the city, but the love of someone who can write lines like – “Monk choreographing the sound that smoke shapes” – for a city he loves. Algren’s here – the beautiful woman with the broken nose. “Never a lovely so real.”
“Embraceable You” is one of the best love poems I’ve read; “Narrative I Don’t Know How to Spell” is its spiritual partner. I’m not sure how Dougherty does it, but his poems seem to have their own momentum; they move forward and demand to be heard. I’d often find my lips moving as I read; I wanted to say his words out loud.
Even with all of that energy, I think it is “What We Keep” that I’ll return to the most.
I had the good luck to hear Mr. Gianelli read at a Brews and Prose event and was struck by his forceful attention to nuance, if that makes any sense. For him, words and presenting those words, seemed to be a kind of exploration. He was not trying to break boundaries, but negotiate them, massage them in order to both show their limitations and discover his own meaning. His is a gentle approach, which should not be confused with nice. From the outstanding “What We Know” —
What we’ve learned of love
we keep in a narrow closet
beneath the stairs, wrapped
in tissue so it will not wrinkle.
More on love in the very next poem, “A Thousand Small Nights” —
The body in love
is like a jar of fireflies
It seems to me that that’s absolutely true.
This might be the best example of what I’m trying to describe – a challenging sentiment in language that seems to be trying to find its way through the labyrinth of language. From “Perch” —
It would be nice to think, what if things
but the imagination
and draft when stretched
Other favorites include “On a Line by Proust” and “Garland.”
If you don’t believe me, trust the Iowa Poetry Prize; he won that.
The title has to be ironic. Aside from some throwaway and, at times, icky poems, about women, these poems represent a mind that is anything but tranquil. Here, Amichai (here translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt) grapples with how, both personally and politically, we can balance history and memory with the need to move forward in life. In “In the Old City,” the battle seems lost. He writes, “We are weepers at feasts, carvers of names on every stone, / Smitten by hope, hostages of rulers and history.” The ‘we’ here is almost certainly Israel. In “Since Then,” he says, “I march against my memories / Like a man against the wind.” On the other hand, or, as he puts it in “People in the dark always see, “between darkness and light real life goes on.” This tension is represented most effectively in his poem, “Jerusalem is full of used Jews.” There are a handful to just skip here (and make me wonder what Amichai pays his editor for), but three quarters of the collection is incredibly compelling. Amichai seems to genuinely ask (in “An Attempt to Hold Back History”), “Do you think you can hold back history?”
My only objection to this wonderful collection is that it’s a collection and not, in my view, a book. Freeman has traveled a great deal. Thus, the more literal definition of maps. But for reasons I could not pick up on, unless it’s to present us with an anti-map approach, he alternated these poems with some deeply more personal ones, maps dare I say, of the human heart. So poems like “Barbers” and “Maps” and “Bomb Shelters of the Oligarchs” are all amazing, but the collection never develops the momentum it deserves.
Smith’s well-titled (play with that second word a while) is, like his poems, compact, powerful, and purposeful. I will also add versatile as Smith ranges over a variety of forms and topics, from current events (with attention to a topic that he covers in one of his TED Talks – “How to Raise a Black Son in America,to New Orleans (his hometown), to language, to love.
There are too many favorites to list here. Here’s one –
“what the cicada said to the brown boy”
Here’s his site – Clint Smith’s site. Go ahead and get his book for yourself.