THE OPENING IS WHERE THE LIGHT COMES IN

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I wrote about working with the wondrous Spittoon Literary Magazine—a bilingual Chinese-English literary publication showcasing Chinese contemporary voices—for Asymptote; consider this piece a love letter to Chinese literature, how it has made me ever more curious, ever more devoted, and ever more grateful to be working amongst such brilliant voices in the country of my birth.

Drivers here love talking politics, my aunt says to me after my hour-long ride into Xiaotangshan, the oddly idyllic suburban town in northwest Beijing. Really? I reply. They’ve been telling me the stories of their lives

Beijing is brimming to burst with stories, occasionally startling, occasionally brilliant, told in voices bred by an immense variousness, from the sandy waters of the Yellow River to the steaming skies of Hunan, the stillness of Heilongjiang winters to glittering Kunming greens. It is a city that collects and bounds the language of its citizens, between circling highways and sky-bound apartments. So it is that one is never beyond the reach of a story, told as regularly as the hour tells the clock.

The literature of contemporary China is represented in the contours of Beijing—a place you must visit a great number of times, an ongoing landscape impossible to traverse by foot alone, wayward beginnings which speak nothing of ending. Any attempt to define it would be a disservice, as it openly resists definition; one is only able to catch at its hems, glancing, in search of openings that allow light to come in, any small light that would lend sense to the vastness. So it is with this knowledge that we, at Spittoon Literary Magazine, set out to compile a selection of China’s most engaging and original literatures, carving a door by which one can visit again and again. This publication is an entryway toward something lasting, a portrait of a national body that refuses to stay still. Within it, we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

continue reading the essay on the asymptote blog

dispatch from Z9festival in sibiu, romania

The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.

Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.

The wide-ranging lineup started with the prolific Romanian poet Elena Vlădăreanu, whose potent and veridical work regarding motherhood, stereotypes, and the physical costs of poetry gave the festival an air of brilliance from the beginning. She was followed by Livia Franchini, an Italian writer based in London, who delightfully proclaimed how good it was to read poetry in daylight. The celebrated Jakobe Mansztajn, reading in Polish, delivered his work with an assurance and steadiness that gave no hint to the fact that he was suffering from the flu. Up fourth was Jesica Baciu, reading poems punctuated only with breathing, light, and other ephemeral things. Then the lovely Nadia de Vries, from whom an outpouring of clipped, dangerously smart, and brutal lines came forth. Andrei Doboș, hailing from Cluj, gave his reading in Romanian, textured with consonants, and was celebrated by the crowd. Ioana Iacob, who was the winner selected from a pool of young, unpublished poets, read her unrestrained work with an equally enthralling lack of restraint. Richard Scott first charmed the audience, before breaking certain hearts with a series of gorgeous poems on queerness, sexuality, and love. Charlotte Warsen read her poems in German, experimental works which dealt with shame and consequence. Then it was my turn, and when I went up, I felt grateful, and chose to read poems that had something to do with that. Arno Van Vlierberghe gave to us an excerpt from what will become an 101-page opus, and he captured it in one line: “The art of riskless thinking.” When Eta Dahlia, the video poet, stepped up, the new-fallen night was given away by his abstract and startlingly coloured films, heavy with music. Ioana Vintilă cut a sharp shape with her clipped lines broken in purposeful places. Robert Gabriel Elekes ended the night with his grand, dark language.

Z9Festival is immaculately organized by a young team consisting of curators and writers Vlad Pojoga, Cătălina Stanislav, Krista Szöcs, Ilinca Pop, Daniel Coman, and grew out of a reading club founded by Radu Vancu, the renowned author whose brilliance is on par with his kindness. It was also almost unanimously hailed by the poets as one of the best we had attended. It had something to do with how genuinely we were thrilled by one another’s work, the low roofs of Sibiu that had eyes, the ripe night curious with our various languages, narratives, selves. Someone told me, during the trip, that if you ask Romanians the silly question of what it is to be Romanian, they will eventually come around to speaking about poetry. It has brought me immense joy to have taken part in and witnessed what will surely become a legacy—built up, line by line, by the courage and dedication of a nation of poets.

originally published on the asymptote blog

what I've taken home

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fields of endless sunflowers
occasional sun which surprises us when lighting the tips of roofs slanted like the hands of clocks
catalina putting her hand on mine to stop me from scratching a new tattoo
ice cream coloured houses
an abandoned chinese restaurant with hooks on the awning that had held red lanterns
radu’s kind eyes when he told me stories about poetry in the backseat of vlad’s car with the transylvanian mountains rushing by in the background
arno making me laugh whenever I accidentally looked into his wild face
livia’s everywhere curls that she can’t stop touching when she gets drunk
mimosa-tasting sunsets
nighttime collapsing on our shoulders and spinning down dizzy into the cobblestone
shivering when I got up on stage, then not shivering
robert pushing his hair out of his face with an open palm
contagious rounds of cigarettes
sitting with daniel outside mango and talking about being happy
a very small window in the hotel at brasov
sour peppers that were the most red
greg rubbing his eyes after staying up all night
richard and danny sharing a bag of french fries
abandoned towns between bucharest and sibiu, in which one dog or one person wandered
sunflowers, sunflowers, sunflowers

twigs

by taha muhammad ali

Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.

My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.

My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
exist
beyond the realm of women.

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us.

dispatch from japan for asymptote: june 2019

June is despairingly known in Japan as tsuyu, or rainy season—low skies colliding with concrete, damp hems of sleeves, and umbrellas occasionally meeting one another in a multi-coloured tide cascading down the still-avid streets. It is also, on a brighter note, the month in which nominees for both the prestigious Akutagawa and Naoki Literary Awards have been announced. Undoubtedly the most sought-after literary prizes in Japan, with some of the most infamous names in Japanese literature (such as Kenzaburō Ōe, Yoko Ōgawa, and Ryū Murakami) being previous honourees, the two awards are given in partnership, honouring both established and young/rising authors. Winners of the awards will be announced on July 17.

In an unprecedented victory for women in a male-dominated field (as most fields in Japan are), all six of the nominees for the esteemed Naoki Literary Award are women. Included on the list is 窪美澄 Kubo Misumi’s トリニティ(Trinity), which focuses on the subjects of childbirth, infertility, and motherhood by way of three women living from the Showa era to the Heisei era, periods which witnessed an increasing awareness of gender equality while remaining fully rooted in traditional concepts of family, duty, and honour. In a contemporary Japan that is facing a population crisis of falling birth rates, the supposedly personal choice of whether or not to become a mother has become a dominant topic of conversation in the public realm. To be a woman is to have always been criticized externally as to what one’s life should be; this novel is for those who, instead, wade through the straits of self-discovery in attempts to find what is most valuable to them.

read the rest of the dispatch on the Asymptote blog

THE BOOKS OF APRIL AND MAY 2019

DORIS LESSING 《THE FIFTH CHILD》

doris lessing writes women remarkably. by which I mean she writes them fearlessly. in a complicated and entirely unpredictable era of feminism, this book (originally published in 1988) brings forth a chilling truth about the second wave, and sets a brazen foundation for the third wave, as we wrestle now between who we are as women, and who we are as humans. in the fifth child, lessing turns an unflinching lens onto motherhood—the monstrous aspects of motherhood, in which one is forced to reconcile with an impossible fact, that what we make with our bodies by no means belongs to us, yet how is it possible? it is a question that has haunted women. by shattering the familiar totems of happiness and fulfillment such as family, marriage, and motherhood, we are left with the indignity of finding out the truth about ourselves.

HITO STEYERL 《DUTY FREE ART》

there is a certain reluctance, as an aficionado of art, in diving into its worldly existence— a somewhat irritating idea: that art is not creation made transcendent, but instead exists amongst the unromantic nature of markets, technology, and class. hito steyerl, whose work involves intricating gallery spaces within apps, reality-defying projections, and data manipulations, is well known for her themes of exploitation, capital, and both the sociological and technological conditions in visual culture. so it is expected that her writing, discussing the complexities and manifestations of artistic creation in our age of increasingly fractured insanity, is exceedingly technical, intricately humourous, and rife with declarations. from art trapped in freeport storage facilities to the performative nature of spam (data, not the conglomeration-meat), steyerl’s intent of subverting visual culture to combat the catastrophic forces of inequality, digital existence, and currency is conducted throughout this book/manifesto in a fast-paced series of moral consideration. without presenting a single, unified thesis to the reader, this work instead chooses to act in process, relaying into language the moral necessity of an artist creating amidst endless noise.

《WHAT ABOUT THIS: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF FRANK STANFORD》

there is no one who writes about the moon as frank stanford does. with constant exchange of character, with mood swings shifting as light does, with defiance and placation and negotiation. the moonlight has wet libraries. it abides a dark lake. it is caught flinching behind the trees. it is getting the soul blown out of it by the wind. this is language spoken in muddy dreams, by a man with his voice all smoked-out, while fighting ghosts off with knives. surrealism that you meet on a footpath in the desert, carrying a knife. it is such a cliche to be seduced by trouble, but the way he speaks of trouble, you could listen to him go on about it forever.

You have the feeling
The past
Is like a woman

Who ran off
With everything
But your belongings

YOKO TAWADA 《THE LAST CHILDREN OF TOKYO》

tokyo retains a bounty of secret facets by way of its language, and it is language that is the most pervasive character in tawada’s dystopian tale of urban japan. in a world void of external languages, the previously inclusive and adopting diction of modernity has morphed into an oppressive system of unnameable things. of course, the danger is not language itself—it is not language that renders the children sickly and incapable—but it does take the role in softening the edges of the unbearable. all throughout the text language is played to say what it cannot say, and the journey is taken from original, to symbol, and back again; it is unsure as to whether the changing world morphs our language, or if it is our language that enchants and informs our world.

OTTESSA MOSHFEGH 《MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION》

“we are probably the saddest generation in the history of the world,” someone recently said to me. and though that can hardly be true (we must simply be the most emotionally transparent), anyone between the ages of fifteen and thirty, living in the first world with a strong online presence, can hardly avoid the oddly flavoured melancholy that seems to be the flavour of these years, exemplified by a fervour for “sad tweets”, an increasingly open and inclusive discussion on self-diagnosis and self-medication, and anxiety memes. reading this book while acknowledging the rappers who name themselves after the benzos of their choice and endlessly inane articles that either denounce or congratulate a netflix special for portraying suicide “intimately” is to go through a cycle of pity, annoyance, sympathy, and bitter humour. and the lack of truth amidst the artifice is every bit as tragic as it is ironic. pain used to be the most honest— when did it become so hollow? moshfegh has written here a merciless observation on how everything, even sadness, even love, even death, can be rendered into mere stimuli, exhausted by frequency, and muted by our own vapid desire to understand why we hurt.

《PORTRAITS: JOHN BERGER ON ARTISTS》

my chief complaint is that in berger’s encounters with seventy-four artists, curiously, few of them are women. my other complaint, which is really an extension of my first complaint, is that the bold and sensuous painter lee krasner shares her section with her husband, (the admittedly more famous) jackson pollock. that aside, this brilliant volume, comprising of just over five hundred pages, is composed of episode after episode of close-up and intricately portrayed meetings with some of the greatest artists throughout history, whether it is through their work, through their person, or through the wildnesses of imagination. less an introduction to art as it is a diary of a lifetime spent amongst the beautiful and the impassioned, through bergers awareness we are made full with the extraordinary moments that exist in painting.

《AGAINST FORGETTING: TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETRY OF WITNESS》

a totem numbering over seven hundred pages, each of them instilling an arresting and heart-rending sense of the times in which they were written, this compilation is absolutely required reading for anyone writing poetry in the twenty-first century. from the armenian genocide to the revolutions for democracy in china, we are led through the anthological history of human atrocities by the language of great poets who have lived it. certain poems are deadly simple:

We opened
each volume
of Marx
as we would open
the shutters
in our own house.

—vladimir mayakovsky, at the top of my voice

some are unflinchingly emotional:

No longer for me is there anything late. All is late.

ion caraion, tomorrow the past comes

some are bare-boned and blatant:

The innocent know nothing
because they are too innocent
and the guilty know nothing
because they are too guilty

tadeusz rózewicz, what happens

and some are heartbreaking, because they are hopeful:

Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
how blue
and how wide.

—nazim hikmet, since I was thrown inside

I am certain that poetry has a responsibility to speak on behalf of what we have seen, what we know, what we feel, and what is just. it is to be rich in understanding and to reject simplification, it is to forego the simple notions of what is personal, what is public, what is political, and to count on, instead, the redemption of speech from silence. this is an extraordinary collection, and anyone who holds it in their hands is in possession of an immense privilege. it is my hope that poems commemorating this era will continue to be discovered, and translated, and dispersed, and that such poems of witness will continue to be written, always in opposition to violence, always in possession of the living part of life.

as carolyn forché says in her introduction; “. . .the poet asks the past and the present to stake a claim on that future.”

I would have a woman as real as death

by frank stanford

pain my star
of all times I remember
none of them
now I do
I notice the points
of light the shoes
the ballerina wore
though years ago
now I do
nothing like
the fish
swims in its sleep
the birds patrol that dark
ness that glows
in my shadow
look
back over the
years with you
I have
the final say
so of the kiss
which goes
so alone
which knows
its destination
so well
I
no sound
I
sang
with no
passages I give you
a real blue
song the mountains hold
under their foot
on the neck
of your voice
not mine
now I know
the echo
the two bodies no
sound at all

the books of march 2019

MADELEINE THIEN《DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING》

this is the book I have dreamed about writing. by which I mean this is a book one writes in honouring the legacy of one’s ancestry, country, stories passed by blood and scraps of fabric and brief touch, in place of language. it is ode to what language is capable of in a century of lost words. the lineage that renders the melodic narrative into symphony is breathtakingly present upon every page. in configuring a tale commemorating the generations of chinese people for whom the spoken and written truth were dreaded and lethal, madeleine thien has—redeemed is the wrong word, because there is no redemption in horror—somehow wrought a belated justice for the silenced. the kind of justice that is not synonymous with fairness, but exists wholly within the unjust reality, the justice that does not give voice back to the massacred, but delivers their message. it is a well-known historical anecdote that in china, any scrap of paper possessing language was considered sacred, and this totemic work of literature is the embodiment of that invulnerable quality. I am reminded of a segment from understory, by craig santos perez:

because you
will always

find shelter
in our 


stories, you
will always

belong in
our stories,

you will
always be

sacred in
our ocean

of stories

KEVIN YOUNG《FOR THE CONFEDERATE DEAD》

the first thing that strikes you in their poems is their musicality— they perform the dance of the living. the second is the poet’s consuming sight, in which attention is directed with brutal precision and intention: the signs of southern america, bruised eye that turns the light, hovering feet, blue, then green. the lines measure brief and track the pages like pioneering footpaths. in this volume is the elegy that turns its back on grief— not out of pain, but stemming from a refusal to be dissolved by mourning. there is mourning to be done, but in kevin young’s poems is the sterling knowledge that we mourn not with the vacuous sense of loss, but by vividly paying tribute to the brilliant living, the living that was done, despite.

if I did not know
better, I would think
we were living all along

a fault.

HANNAH ARENDT 《ON VIOLENCE》

this work is perhaps meant to be read in tandem with frantz fanon’s enthralling work, the wretched of the earth, in which violence is deemed necessary in the relocation of power from the colonizers to the colonized. fanon assigns to violence “a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.” arendt, however, is utterly disparaging of the notion that violence has the ability to empower; the most powerful statement from this brief treatise is that violence is only of an instrumental nature, and that any attempt to equate power and violence is ultimately fallible, as power necessitates a concerted mutuality between the governing and the governed. to delve into the psychology of the colonized is something fanon boldly achieves, and such is where arendt’s intellectualism may prove worthless in the overall application of violence— in the face of brutality the conceptual nature of power is pushed to the peripheral. on violence is a vital text in considering with clarity the use of violence as strategy: “… what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.”

YUKIO MISHIMA《THE TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION》

there is no one who writes about beauty the way mishima does— as a grotesque manifestation of humanity’s constant darkness, as a scornful construct bred by disgust and defilement. as a man infamous for his insatiable desire for physical perfection, mishima reveals to us in this work the seemingly degenerate psyche of one who craves beauty, yet there is something veracious or perhaps even noble about the act of revealing the corrupt system of beauty, as being equated with worth or absolution. discussing the moderation of human behaviour in japan is no longer so interesting to me, but there is little doubt that such rigorous abeyance plays a significant role in the creation of mizuguchi, in whose mind the entire novel takes place. the hierarchy of beauty has always been a tortuous one; there is no choice but to admit to desire, and when one finds oneself to be so estranged from it, the true toxicity of aesthetic worship is overwhelming. the act of radical elimination is a case of revolting against conscripted standards of degradation. mishima’s prose is absolutely magnificent in its craft, brought into its second life by ivan morris’s translation. the work of the artist colluding with the assurance of self-destruction is such a transfixing element of his oeuvre, and this novel is the distillation of his genius.

《THE SELECTED POETRY OF RAINER MARIA RILKE》

I turn to rilke on the occasions in which words begin to lose their radiance. there is always something to be plumbed from the splendor that holds deeply to his verse, and in stephen mitchell’s considerate and illustrious translation there is the true pleasure of seeing language thrive in the expanded borders of its subject. rilke wrote about poetry with painful sagacity. I quote here from to hölderlin:

From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity. Here,
falling is best.

yes, falling is best. we lose ourselves in his lines. in the vital contours of his craft. I owe him a great debt, him, who commanded landscape, moonlight, the earthly and the eternal.

The great gesture, the selfless poetic act, is timeless, a moment outside history. With poetry we are still back in the cave, we still understand very little about the universe, we’re wondering, we’re astonished at the stars, everything is new everything is beautiful, complicated, myster­ious.
— charles simic, from a roadtrip with barry lopez

new on the asymptote blog

I wrote an essay on the chinese language in the act of poetry, the words that we know so well they come to mean nothing, and the indecisiveness and guesswork that take place within the process of translation — all exemplified by one of the most talented young poets writing in china today.

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

continue reading on the asymptote blog

the books of february 2019

KAREN TEI YAMASHITA 《LETTERS TO MEMORY》
a sacred documentation of a family pulled through the wreckage of living, this book is not so much a biography as it is an epistolary exploration of philosophy, negotiation, interrogation. each page is cherished with the sense of having loved and being grateful for offered the chance to do so. in a literary generation populated with immigrant legacies (no complaints here), I am reassured that there remains innumerable paths to interlock with the stories that are inherited, yet still startling at every turn. though this book is officially a reckoning with the internment of japanese-americans during WWII, it discards the imprints of theme or genre in a starry attempt to understand the resonances of legacy. there is no end to knowing oneself or how one came to be. though it is the future that reaches on, we must not discount the past and its infinity, expanding alternately and constantly, with no end in sight.

ZADIE SMITH 《N-W》
to write a city as zadie smith does would be to walk its streets and see yourself in multiples. at different ages, angles, on different corners, with different friends, wearing whatever clothes you had at that time, listening to whatever music was playing that year. it would be to capture the fragrance upon the page, the light at various times of day, the measures of fruit trees outgrowing. the most riveting passages in N-W could take place nowhere else. london in its mesmerizing chaos escapes the paper in sound and vision and touch. we witness the growing-up and growing-into of women, the intersections of where-when-how you were born being wrapped around the bodies of the young and never letting go. it is the truth that only fiction achieves; a truth of others, and yourself among them.

JAMES BALDWIN 《IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK》
once within a james baldwin book i find it impossible to break with its captivity. a master of both internal and external dialogue and a immaculate composer of pace, the way baldwin conjures character is unrivalled and absolutely thrilling, and here, especially heartbreaking. love— this love— the love of this work— love that aspires to be otherworldly and fails— is vivid to the point that even in only language it is granted everlasting life. there is not a single page where the characters are not startlingly present, no sentence uttered that does not grant a truth from the self. a human thing. here the idea of love is taken and made a human thing.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI 《THESE ARE MY RIVERS》
ferlinghetti’s poems remind me of a time when american poetry revelled at its own existence. when people wrote lines on paper napkins unironically, when smoking inside was still a thing that everyone did, when books were kept inside jacket pockets and pulled out when you wanted to show your friend something beautiful you read earlier in the day. there is joy, unabashed, in these lines of dancing and california sunshine and exclamation, joy even of impossible situations, joy even in endurances of pain, joy at the ability to write something down on paper, and to call it a poem.

CLAUDIA RANKINE 《CITIZEN》
political poetry looks like this. here the power of language is harnessed in a way it so rarely is: fully.

XINRAN 《MESSAGE FROM AN UNKNOWN CHINESE MOTHER》
xinran is a writer that has been formative in my continued inquiries into the lives of chinese women— it is tempting to compare her to svetlana alexievich in her awe-inspiring quest to bring the humanity of a hidden country into light. though I find translations of her work to be lacking, the starkness of her message refutes any affectations and damages committed in the process of shedding its original language; these stories are unflinching, the incidences transcribed at once terrifying and devastating. china has a long history of ruining her daughters, and this heritage of trauma has left horrific scars on the country and the women within. though verging on the melodramatic, the stories xinran bring to us are ones seldom told and barely even admitted to oneself. to be a chinese woman today is to survive a terrorizing campaign of shame and bloodshed and ruination; our lives are records of strength, evidences of survival.

Among those who have everything, I have never seen a family go to the seashore just to celebrate a political decision, because for them politics changes almost nothing. This is something I realized when I went to live in Paris, far away from you: the ruling class may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs, no government ever inspires a trip to the beach. Politics never changes their lives, at least not much. What’s strange, too, is that they’re the ones who engage in politics, though it has almost no effect on their lives. For the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.
— édouard louis, "who killed my father"

ten love poems

JUNE JORDAN
Poem for Haruko

in which the memories of love become love, and the process of having loved becomes your body.

                        How easily you held
my hand
beside the low tide
of the world

FRANK O’HARA
Having a Coke with You

the very first poem I memorized, and which for me will always materialize in sunned-out afternoons smelling like sprigs of new-flower and hand-holding during a lunch hour.

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time

ANDRÉS NEUMAN
The Things We Don’t Do

the life you live with another becoming sweetly mysterious; possibilities turning to reality just by being thought. it is strange and wonderful to be with someone, when they turn all those spare moments into ideas.

I like the languages we wish we spoke and dream of learning next year, as we smile at each other in the shower. I hear from your lips those sweet, hypothetical languages: their words fill me with purpose.


REGINALD SHEPHERD
You, Therefore

the love poem is the writer’s way to test the limits of language. it is to reconcile the absolute with the daily, the supreme with the common. it is to rein in all the wonders our senses receive, all these splendid and pure totems of beauty from our real world, to celebrate them in conjunction with another, to give them away.

and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees   
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you)

BEN JONSON
to Celia

the poem to be read aloud.

Or leave a kiss but in the cup, 
         And I’ll not look for wine. 

GARY SNYDER
Four Poems for Robin

the loneliest love poems are not to be pitied. they are a reckoning with the past, a reconciliation. they are to fold the gaps and failures of time, to bring the gone back into the arms of the present, and thereby, into oneself.

I dont mind   living this way   
Green hills   the long blue beach   
But sometimes   sleeping in the open
I think back   when I had you.

LI-YOUNG LEE
Adore

love as being always between.

You and I, eye
to eye, are born. 
But such refraction, multiplying gazes, strews
Love’s eye upon the objects of the world,
as upon the objects of our room. 


ADRIENNE RICH
Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem II]

the poem is to give beauty everlasting life.

You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,


GWENDOLYN BROOKS
when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story

of the day infinite sprawled at the bed’s ends.

And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—


WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
Asphodel, that Greeny Flower

there is nothing hyperbolic when I say that this poem taught me the vital, primary lessons about love.

It was the love of love,
the love that swallows up all else,
a grateful love,


a love of nature, of people,
of animals,
a love engendering


gentleness and goodness
that moved me
and that I saw in you.

in a time of peace

by ilya kaminski

Inhabitant of earth for fortysomething years
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open

their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.

It is a peaceful country.

We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist,
to pick up the kids from school,
to buy shampoo
and basil.

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

We watch. Watch
others watch.

The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—

It is a peaceful country.

And it clips our citizens’ bodies
effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.

All of us
still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,
of remembering to make
a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt.

This is a time of peace.

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the back yards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

the books of january 2019

DORIS LESSING 《The Golden Notebook》
my much postponed read of this totemic classic turned out to be a blessing; the world of these women would have seemed impossibly chaotic, their minds hyperbolic and personalities impossible, in my past of having loved literature but not knowing enough to be challenged by it. doris lessing has created, here, a legacy for women once thought impossible, who will themselves into reality and unreality, who are variant, difficult, brilliant. the feminism of today will seem foreign to those fighting then, yet the ever-persistent notion of self-doubt and contradiction rages for as long as there are battles to fight. and there is something that remains unchanged: to be, as women, we must know ourselves beyond the standards held by our society. we must be unflinching in self-examination, in scrutinizing our hypocrisies, our expectations, our fragments. in this, lessing is unafraid. the golden notebook is a book worthy of women. yesterday, today, tomorrow.

GEORGE OPPEN 《Selected Poems》
george oppen, a master of the line break, of patience, of the sky in increments. it has been a wonder to see his poems in different forms, how the infamous of being numerous mutated and grew and became glorious. to start days with a coffee and these light-footed, tender-hearted lines of noticing, gives such sweetness to the state of being wakeful.

AKIYUKI NOSAKA 《The Cake Tree in the Ruins》
if I didn’t know better I would call it heartless. in these japanese stories from the last days of WWII, there is no mercy. yet in these stories of war and murder and starvation there is no bitterness, either. how is this possible? nosaka ascribes to his characters the status of myth; we are not wrecked from these stories because, despite that they are incredibly painful, they take on the form of tales told to the child, so that the child may learn, may do better. a mother floats away because she has turned into a balloon. a soldier starves to death without ever realizing the war has ended. a whale falls in love with a submarine, and it is this love that tears him to pieces.

VIET THANH NGUYEN 《The Refugees》
the portrait never coheres. for refugees, immigrants, expatriates— in a world we define by nationhood there is no knowing a place still enough for our many selves to become one. in these subtly brilliant stories we live inside and beside memory, as people who reckon with multitudes of identity, some more shameful, some more vacant, some further and further away.

SAKUTARŌ HAGIWARA 《Cat Town》
the father of japanese modernist poetry is attractive in the way many moody, quiet men are attractive. there is the intense suspicion and expectation that behind the sullen facade there lies a universe of tumult and depth. enclosed in these poems there is, here and there, that universe.

SEI SHONAGON 《The Pillow Book》
and here is a woman who sees. with the delicacy and grace the heian period demanded, the woman of this work collects herself from the world around her. at a time when poetry was so revered it gives such pleasure to see an artist and a thinker escape the rigidity of a canonized craft, and sei shonagon does so with a self-assuredness that renders her beauty irrelevant.

PANKAJ MISHRA 《Age of Anger》
today, if you are not angry, you are not looking. mishra’s ambitious text links back centuries of philosophy to culminate in an inevitable outburst of rage: today. page after page it appears that we have locked ourselves in this world with our legacies and our learnings, that we build smaller cages for ourselves based on the preceding lectures and manifestos. for lessons that ranged with malleable ideas in history (Voltaire’s love for commerce, Rousseau’s intense belief in revolution), when applied by the rigorous standards of a perplexing and multi-dimensional present, can indeed be twisted to indicate anything; the ideas aren’t new, but have used their place in the timeline to multiply dangerously. within the hierarchy that relies on powerlessness and inferiority, we invent our own enemies.

MASUJI IBUSE 《Black Rain》
the inability to read japanese is especially irritating when it comes to books like these— in certain cases translations must apologize for the inexpressible. in ibuse’s book on hiroshima after the a-bomb, much (like one has come to expect from japan) goes unsaid (a seemingly insignificant passage in the middle of the book suddenly informers the reader that our narrator has died by the end). so it is that such books are always characterized as “restrained”, and one is left wondering if such restraint is merely a symptom of a language that depends on implication. nevertheless, ibuse is profoundly effective at detailing the aftermath of a literary earth-shattering moment in japanese history, and of all the continuations that live on in a world that no longer seems to understand them.

NOÉMI LEFEBVRE 《Blue Self-Portrait》
a slim volume of tremendous will and perspacity combines the categorical values of painting, music, and literature. it is difficult to believe that in few pages one may bore so keenly into the historical inheritance of trauma, and what that effect has on creation. in the ways that nazism continues to haunt the works of german creators, self-interrogation is such a constant companion to the point of grazing, then embracing, absurdity. this book has the pace, the unpredictability, and the urgency of symphony. “it’s a novel without any fiction,” lefebvre has said.

A great book involves the assertion of a world. Authors loath to betray the dictates of a fiction must submit to its characters. The best women in books take on the ballast of life. Irrepressible Isabel Archer must have bettered her creator. Long-suffering Tess d’Urberville, savagely raped by a man masquerading as her cousin, stars in by far the best of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Sometimes a writer’s genius qua writer amounts to moral salvation. His own inability to betray the demands of his work secures his compassionate treatment of his female characters, thus his deliverance.

But then, I am not convinced that it is not the woman’s doing: that it was not Isabel Archer and Tess d’Urberville themselves who endowed their male creators with so much immensity. The woman with their totemic, transformative suffering. The women who can redeem even the most loathsome lothario by weeping over him—or writing about him. Whatever appeal he ever appeared to have was no more than a trick of the lighting. Men have only ever borrowed their beauty from the women they hurt.
— becca rothfeld, "a gender study"