Of Lists and Longing

Bluebells in Ireland, May 2018

2018 didn’t quite go the way I thought it would. I could say that it was better and worse. I could enumerate all the broken pieces and all the shining moments. Every life has such. Mine is nothing special.

After a picture-book snowy December, we are pounded by rain, raveled by high winds. The gracious curve of the snow banks is now pocked and dirty, broken limbs, unburied trash, dog shit. And yet, a junco landed on the railing outside my window and clearly looked me in the eyes. There was a break in the cloud cover this morning unveiling a tiny sunrise, all golden and pink for the few minutes it held open.

2019 comes apace, a date I could not have even imagined when I was a child. The world now is different and the same. Politics eerily repeating itself like a warped tape, but I take a breath and there is ocean, rain, tomatoes to grow. 

Books to read. And so, I cross the threshold to the new year, the new list. I’ve been keeping a reading list for a decade or more, and how I wish I started sooner. Looking back, I see patterns, interests evolve and then fade away. But poetry. Oh, poetry remains. So this year I read 138 books, 82 of which were poetry collections. I’ve listed them below in alphabetical order by title. A rich stew of ideas, language, and heart’s blood. 

May the new year find us all looking toward the light. May we listen well. May we feel heard. May we not forget our place in the web of all life on this planet. May we remember that kindness is better than money. May no person be made to feel less than human, less than worthy of compassion. May we find teachers that help us become the most full expression of our hearts.

And may we read some poetry that connects us to each other.

Poetry Collections Read 2018

A Sleepwalk on the Severn by Alice Oswald
American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrence Hayes 
Anaphora by Kevin Goodan
Be With by Forrest Gander
Bind by Christine Murray
Bird-Woman by Em Strang
Bloodroot by Annemarie Ní Churreán
blud by Rachel McKibbens
Bread fro a Stranger’s Oven by Janlori Goldman 
Break the Glass by Jean Valentine
Bucolics by Maurice Manning 
Cairn by Peggy Shumaker
Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
Companion Grasses by Brian Teare
Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil by C.D. Wright
Corpse Whale by dg nanouk ok pik
Dear Almost by Matthew Thorburn 
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Anemic Writing by Sam Roxas-Chua
Ends of the Earth by Kate Partridge 
Extra Hidden Life, among the Days by Brenda Hillman
Feast Gently by C.G. Waldrep 
Feel Free by Nick Laird
First the Feathers by Amanda Bell
Flight by Chaun Ballard
Fur by Grace Wells
Geomantic by Paula Meehan
Human Hours by Catherine Barnett
If You Have to Go by Katie Ford
Inside, Outside, Morningside by Marjorie Kowalski Cole 
Insistence by Ailbhe Darcy
Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman
Lessons on Expulsion by Erika Sanchez  
Lies by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Liffey Swim by Jessica Traynor
Maiden Names by Martin Dyar
Miraculum Monstrum by Kathline Carr 
Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins
Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil 
Once in the West by Christian Wiman 
Randomer by Colm Keegan
Rising, Falling, Hovering by C.D. Wright
Rock Piles Along the Eddy by Ishmael Hope
Ruination Atlas by Sarah Pape 
Sailing the Forest by Robin Robertson
Saudade by Traci Brimhall 
Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua
Scavenger Loop by David Baker
Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey by Hayden Carruth
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers 
So Far So Good by Ursula K. LeGuin
Some Say the Lark by Jennifer Chang
Something Yet to Be Named by Kersten Christianson
Songs from the Blue River by Paul Kingsnorth
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss 
Swithering by Robin Robertson
The Astrakhan Cloak b Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
The Best American Poetry 2017 – Editor, Natasha Trethewey
The Dream of Reason by Jenny George
The Echo of Ice Letting Go by Julie LeMay 
The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa
The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven by Brian Teare
The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden 
The Grief Performance by Emily Kendal Frey
The New Testament by Jericho Brown 
The Rain Barrel by Nicholas McLachlan
The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney
The Undressing by Li-Young Lee
Things as It Is by Chase Twichell
This is Yarrow by Tara Bergin
This World by Teddy Macker
Thrust by Heather Derr-Smith 
To Those Who Were Our First Gods by Nikole Brown
Tough Luck by Todd Boss
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Water and Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha 
Witch in the Bushes by Rita Ann Higgins
Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino
With the Dogstar as My Witness by John Fry
Woman Reading to the Sea by Lisa Williams 

All the little lights


I am sure that every field of study is as deep as poetry, but poetry is the one that I know. Or the one that I am learning more every day. I am reading Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. For a “little book,” it’s quite extensive, 430 pages, and so, I am reading it in sections, one piece each morning before I dive into my own writing. I’ve been using it to push me to write in form which is not my comfort-zone at all.

What I’m also learning is how much learning there is to do. Hass writes about a form, then goes forward to explore how that form works in writings both classic and contemporary, and so often he presents poems that I’ve read. Sometimes, they are poems that I’ve read deeply, written about, thought about. And yet, he almost always uncovers something new for me to consider, some new layer of meaning or allusion or craft at work that I missed or glossed over.

I am pretty sure that I am not a sloppy thinker and reader (I hope). It’s more that as I learn, I discover that there is so much more to learn. There is such comfort in that, several lifetimes of ideas and information to explore. We need not feel as if the world has boundaries within which we must travel and become bored with the same mile of path. In this case, I can read a poem that I studied in high school, college, and grad school, and suddenly tilt it in a new direction to see the light shine off facets that had rested in the shadows.

By the way, this is the same gift teaching offers. I read my students’ work and ponder what books to suggest that would clear the path a little further for them. My mind shuffles through hundreds of volumes searching for the one poem that could be used as a guide. My impetus in reading is now multiplied, not just for pleasure, not just for my own edification, but now for the possibility of being offered to my students.

I think of my own teachers, from classrooms, from libraries, from the world. I trace back my journey, following little lights: here is the fifth grade teacher who put my poem on the bulletin board; here is the counselor in eleventh grade that nominated me for a NCTE writing award; the used book store owner who offered me The Yellow House on the Corner, Rita Dove’s first book, and a mangled copy of Ariel while I was in high school; here’s James Welch patting a draft of my poem that is face-down on his desk; Diane Ackerman rushing breathlessly around the room to fill it with poetry; Walt Whitman as I tear into Song of Myself for the thirtieth? fiftieth? time; Bill Stafford writing from the dim living room sofa in the early morning; all of them, all those years.

I will never be a famous poet. Never post pictures on Facebook of myself reading at the Poetry Foundation. Never teach at Bread Loaf. But I will have this incredible road to walk for my entire life if I choose. Each morning before the sun comes up, or as it is sliding over the mountains of my home, I will have a book to delve into, a blank page to explore, a thread to follow. All those little lights to accompany me along my way.

So Much Closer

by Alexey Kljatov

It is not a coincidence that we deck our halls with lights this time of year, that we gather round fireplaces and candles, that we crave, physically crave the light which is only now thinking of coming back. We’ve forgotten the endless days of summer, the long blue twilight of 2am. Instead, the clouds are low and the world is ten thousand shades of white and blue and grey, mixed together with a broad and ragged brush.

Look closer. This time of year, look closer. Look closer at what the old year has gifted you, what hopes you have for the new. Look closer at what you thought was gone that might have only been sleeping. Look closer at the clumps of wet flakes that come down in fistfuls. Look closer at the small flame hidden inside every log.

Five more haiku. I’ve written 360 this year and they’ve forced me to look closer. How is this grey sky different from the one in February? How do the stars look different each night depending on the scent of the air? Woodsmoke from alder, a different tang than woodsmoke from spruce.

How will I gather the new year?

Moon Gathering

And they will gather by the well,
its dark water a mirror to catch whatever
stars slide by in the slow precession of
the skies, the tilting dome of time,
over all, a light mist like a scrim,
and here and there some clouds
that will open at the last and let
the moon shine through; it will be
at the wheel’s turning, when
three zeros stand like paw-prints
in the snow; it will be a crescent
moon, and it will shine up from
the dark water like a silver hook
without a fish–until, as we lean closer,
swimming up from the well, something
dark but glowing, animate, like live coals–
it is our own eyes staring up at us,
as the moon sets its hook;
and they, whose dim shapes are no more
than what we will become, take up
their long-handled dippers
of brass, and one by one, they catch
the moon in the cup-shaped bowls,
and they raise its floating light
to their lips, and with it, they drink back
our eyes, burning with desire to see
into the gullet of night: each one
dips and drinks, and dips, and drinks,
until there is only dark water,
until there is only the dark.

by Eleanor Wilner from The Girl with Bees in Her Hair