Counting Down to the New Year: Five of My Favorite Books of 2014

 

happy-new-year Happy New Year, all! I hope you had a wonderful celebration of the upcoming new year and were able to spend some time recounting the good memories of 2014. Along with going to school and becoming a mom, this was definitely a year for reading and reviewing books. I learned a great deal this year—about the art of reviewing and commenting on a text, about my personal tastes and what styles and moves in a text tend to stick with me the longest. Today, I went back through the list of books I read throughout the year and considered which books were the most influential. It was a difficult process. The five books I’ve included below were, both, among my favorites (which were far more than five titles!) and the most striking or memorable: the ending of The Art of Floating, the rhythm I swear I can still feel in my stomach after reading The Bottom, the blue room in The Language of Flowers, the opening poem in Trances of the Blast, and the hilarity of the narrator and the purity of the baby in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day… These were such beautiful books, and whether read at the beginning of the year or more recently, they have stayed with me more than my other titles in 2014.

Because it was so difficult to even narrow down to five titles, I’ve decided not to rank them in an particular order; I’ve simply put them in alphabetical order, by title.

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating THE ART OF FLOATING by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, Penguin/Berkley, 2014
What can I say? This was easily one of the loveliest books I have read in a very, very long time. Termed by some as a fabulous beach read, I walked into the experience expecting a love story and only a love story, but it proved itself to be so much more than that. Teeming with surrealist images and ideas, this book combats what it means to feel something—how we often have to turn to metaphor in order to get our thoughts and feelings across. It’s a project that lives in that literary stance of, “I know the image doesn’t make sense, per se, but it’s right.” Real, honest, raw.

 

Betsy Andrews_The Bottom THE BOTTOM by Betsy Andrews, 42 Miles Press, 2014
Such a beautiful book! As of a few years ago, I became extremely interested in the placement of ecological concern in writing—particularly ecopoetics. What’s interesting to me is how Andrews pushes the bill and makes The Bottom much, much more than an ecopoetic piece; it’s ecopoetic, yes, but it is also political (different, in my mind, from ecopoetic), rooted (in a sense) in pop culture, and pulling from very deep ties in folklore and oral tradition. It also challenges common conceptions of the ocean, who lives in it, and who is impacted by their loss (spoiler: all of us). Deeply rendered, an oceanic rhythm, and shockingly resourceful and smart.

 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh_The Language of Flowers THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2012
There is something especially interesting about the concept of etymology (besides the fact that I love language)—how such a study is like a constant search for origin stories, for new meanings, and (my favorite part) varying and debatable interpretations. This concept is not overly-present in my work, as of yet, though it certainly something I am working on introducing, and something I greatly appreciate in others’ work. The Language of Flowers truly thrives inside etymology, both, as origin stories for the names of and purposes of species of flower but also how wrong an interpretation can be… and what that can mean for the portrayal and giving of a bouquet. Haunting and lovely.

 

Mary Ruefle_Trances of the Blast TRANCES OF THE BLAST by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 2013
I’ve always had a particular soft spot for Mary Ruefle’s poetry, though Cold Pluto has always been my favorite of her collections; there is a certain seamlessness and confidence to the collection of poems, their order and imagery, that I did not find as competitive in her other works (though I loved them, as well; Cold Pluto simply became my favorite). Now, however, Trances of the Blast came into my view, and it is absolutely wonderful. I sat one day with just Cold Pluto and Trances by my side, and it made for a truly wonderful day. An imagistic, confident and wonderful day.

 

Pear Cleage_What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY by Pearl Cleage, Harper Paperbacks, 1997
Not a new book but one that was gifted to me for Christmas 2013; my friend “warned” me that it was a strange read but easily one of her favorite books, ever. This intrigued me, and from the first page onward, I understood what she meant. What Looks Like Crazy is bold and funny, operating in that strange place where grief and laughter strangely, funnily, and tragically coexist (which reminds me constantly of Cleage’s stance in playwriting, and how that stance influences the poise of her fiction, in the best way possible). It’s beautiful and memorable, dark and hilarious, easily a book I will return to—and gift and gift and gift.

 

I’m pausing for a moment and just thinking of how wonderful of a year it’s been. The past several years have each been difficult or heartbreaking in their own ways, and 2014 was the first year in a while where I reached some sort of reprieve—where my husband and I both reached some sort of reprieve—from hardship. And I think that’s been demonstrated, too, in the books I’ve read; when I first came to terms with my five “favorite” picks of 2014, I nodded to myself and said, “Yes, these titles represent me—in what I need as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, what I need as a reader and individual.” These five titles aren’t just memorable and books that I will read again in the future (and look forward to reading again in the future). They were beautiful, and they were hopeful, and challenging, and they were crutches for me during a year of healing. They were confirmation that, yes, this could be a better year than the past few, and they were a constant reminder that there is beauty to be found amidst all of the chaos. They were books I could set aside for later, to return to when things get rough again, because they always do… and to remind me that things will also get better again.

Because they always do.

And, finally, a belated wish to all of you, from a writer I’ve been reading for a very long time, as we turn to 2015…

 

Happy New Year Book Wish

 

 

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The Manger

 

Merry Christmas, Everyone! Whether or not you’re a believer, I hope you enjoy your day with friends and family, build a snowman or stay inside by the fire. Here’s a new poem to read while you drink something warm.

 

THE MANGER

 

For years I lived across the street

from a house, come winter, that was covered

in lights—the reindeer, fat Santa in the chimney

mount, all Christmas save a tilted menorah strapped

to an apple tree. At the center, parked next to

the driveway, was the manger scene,

the three wise men steeped

in plowed snow. David’s staff missing since Year 2

of playing neighbor, probably stolen

by the dog who was struck

right after that year’s first big freeze.

Then, a breeze, the WE’RE MOVING GARAGE SALE

signs, right there in the snow,

many things wrapped

in plastic and garbage bags. Even

the yard was for sale; the reindeer went first, fat Santa

and the menorah, and then pieces

of the manger scene, one wise man after the next, but no one

could seem to put a price on him:

small Jesus winking in the night.

 

 

MERRY BOOKSMAS

 

 


Halcyon

 

Like nothing, you wield these leaves
& branches from miles around

into your fortress, your own floating box.
Wings spread & your partner’s—& the calls

over the water. What power. What control.
The unruly terrain falls. How I wish I were you,

too beautiful & blue to be viewed
from a distance, the blending in. How calm

I would have to be to calm these waters,
how sure. Mystical bird, I envy you.

I look down into her beautiful face & know
I am unworthy. My sadness speaks

for me & with one look she may drink it in.
Small spiral heart, blood in the snow: this

is what I will have done to her. I wish for calm.
Kingfisher & swan, you reign—the sharp

voices & feathers, stark & shine
against flattened seas.

Calm sun, calm moon.

 

*

 

HALCYON has many definitions over the course of its lineage. This is in reference to its representation of a mythological bird, said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming the wind and waves into calm.

 

 


Caterpillar Towns

 

consider their bodies—each separate bead

a head—the string of brains arch

like drumming fingers, or rather,

the knuckles. survival

in a smaller form. like a child pouring out

onto a table, the wide mouth

of an incision, a closed door.

you left me open there, leaves

& breath. Puddles Pity Party like a dream

of black & white film

& song. he opens his mouth, wider

than most, & out comes the sounds

of a clarinet, a tuba, a bird launched

into the higher branches

of a tree until all you make out

is the red smudge against

barren branch, no more sense

of feather or blood, the mother lost

in the presence of crying child, father dwelling

on the sidelines. his voice

in my ears, feathers in my mouth,

the bark like an arrival

in my hand. life will make no more sense

than this. more powder. more song.

 


Solar Panels

 

You said we were a senseless

pairing—the earth and moon—what if

someday the earth falls out of love?

 

Then the moon will fall into, into—

 

We were waiting for a train, heads under

the tunnel eve, rain pouring down, we were

reaching out—

 

what if the earth falls out of love with the sun—

 

you boarded the train,

all shadow,

big freeze.

 

My heart was a bag of sleeves, the hands

developing out, blood under

the fingernails.

 

 


Under Stoplights & Sun

 

                                 What have I learned of compassion? Unharmed,

it releases itself as a seatbelt & a bottle of Coke

in the morning. Baby strapped down

in the backseat, head lolling inside

an oversized winter hat. My daughter was a scene

of silver bird-quest under my skin, the starving ribs, until

until—finally—the release & she came like a small

uproar, the deep incision & multiplied limbs. All that salt

& brie. Now I see her dreaming, suckling like wine,

the thin limbs filling & the always-wet lips, the let’s-learn-

about-tears-let’s-learn-about-anything-about-pain green

eyes. Like mother, like daughter, the trim of blue. Like the ocean

we are love, we are sleep, we are these two

repeating souls, heartbeat on the monitor screen,

printed scales. She stole my body for nine months

the way someone did years ago—but gently & persistently,

the sweetest survival sounds, birdsong & a stray hat

under summer trees as I bloomed outward like an inflating

mattress, a portable whale under a sky of seagulls.

 

 


Reading David Dodd Lee

 

THE WHITE SEA

 

Spin the big wheel of weather. So it’s seven
degrees. I could have sworn it was balmy and getting ready

        to storm
eight minutes ago. One definition of a slob is someone

who runs out to the street through a foot of snow in slippers
and a t-shirt to get the mail. And falls down. I close my eyes to

        the weather
and see black lemons floating on white water.

 

ESTRANGEMENT

 

The deer’s face points downriver, marble-still, cold
eye into the wind, staring into the flashlight. Engine’s shut off,

        snow on
the high banks. I slice her open on-site, organs spilling

into the water. Do the falling parts know that she’s gone yet?
And the animal with its great black floor takes passage. She doesn’t

        need to
worry anymore. The creek’s stars quiver and absorb her. I light

my last cigarette. Barter trumps money in these woods.
Now her neck muscles are flowing out into the falling snow,

        hooves streaming
up into the gray machine… The eyes are deep set, polished already.

I’m still in awe. Later, I remove the head. She smells of wet rocks
and trees. I light a joint, rub the burn scars on my arm, remove

        the wire
frame for the gray fox, place the doe’s head on the fleshing table.

I boil water. The body drains in the carport. I don’t fear being away
from them anymore. It’s quiet and the phone never rings.

 

THE LESSON

 

The joy cannot continue,
cannot extinguish the fire in

        the bathtub,
the sirens roving from room to room

in the small house just down the hill
from the seven large houses, candles in

        every open
doorway. This is how you see in the dark, he says,

and he takes her hand in his hand, her hand
holding a yellow pencil, and he crosses words out.

 

FROM HAND TO MOUTH

 

I can’t see you.
Semblance. I mean
The rain. The black

Rain. It’s night you
Know, fingernails. Dragged.
And bitten off.

 

SAD FLOWERS

 

They’re back-shot, black blood; we get the noon re-
port. It’s divided into pieces—they aren’t out there. They

        curve over
the wires. Hello, death in Africa, to me in my underwear.

Here’s a blueprint of my pocket. When my face was wrapped
in muslin I could feel the dying animals, the places where they

        left salt
in my brain. Child, camel, things burned: what memories of

these will I bring with me out of the grave? Everyone has to
deal with lint. I pick the stuff off my aloe plant, it flows up

        out of
the baby’s mouth and she’s laughing like a dead jazz singer.

 

*

 

all from David Dodd Lee’s Animalities (Four Way Books, 2014)

 

 


At Dusk

 

Out on a walk, I saw two girls
screaming through

a two-seater swing, two fans
of blonde hair. There was a hill

in the way, shoulder-high, and they
were nameless, without bodies,

the way birds might appear
when lying in their nest. I left them

against a blood-orange sun and bent
around a curve, still with their calls,

fading.

 

 


In Utero

 

You are becoming too much for me. I find it
difficult to read poetry, to read

anything. I roll onto my side, the book turning
with me, and I feel your body drop

onto the bed, weighing me there, small
anchor. My lungs have learned a new method

of breathing. Everything, all the organs
and bones, have taken new shape. This

is their method of survival: they are like trees—
leaning—when there is water or earth

to consume. Too much destruction. Growing plant,
I take you everywhere. How important it is

to protect your leaves, to keep your branches
from breaking. You do not understand

the burden you have become, all the lost
water, nor how lovely—

the ocean
and the fish who fill it.

 

 


The Reveal

 

You of average size but I was

so small, so small

they opened my middle like a mouth

the incision is clean, straight, but it was

in that moment, jagged—

layers of skin cut, the muscles intact and spread

open like wire

you were inside, waiting; you had been there

all the time