I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I have a couple of favorite contemporary poets.
For most of my life I didn’t pay much attention to this world, but now I follow the work of a couple of poets pretty carefully including Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky and the brilliant Danez Smith. This new book from Smith is perhaps even better then Don’t Call Us Dead. I found myself saying “wow” out loud at the end of one of the poems here. Gorgeous language, gut-wrenching honesty and style approachable to a non-expert like me. Smith moves from the playful to the heartbreaking, sometimes in a single poem, like this one.
Opening myself up to poetry and getting invested in the careers of a small group of young poets has been a great experience – exposing to ideas and lives often far from my own and I look forward to their books now like I used to look forward to new album releases. Even if contemporary poetry isn’t really your thing, Smith’s is a voice worth hearing.
Danez Smith. (Photograph by David Hong)
I don’t really follow contemporary poetry, but there a couple of writers who I adore and I pick up their new work whenever it comes out. Parker (of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce) is one of those writers I follow.
Magical Negro is another round of beautiful writing marrying the political to the personal, the love story to the manifesto. I am sure some of these took a long time to work out, but on the page, this book has an immediacy and urgency that feels rare and special. I’m looking forward to what Parker does next.
Spy novel written by serious novelist that deals with race, gender, and anti-colonial struggles in Africa? SIGN ME UP. Wilkinson walks the line between literary and page turner here, incorporating very specific and nuanced discussions of African American / Afro-Caribbean Brooklyn, race and policing, and modern African history. To this she add a gripping who done it and a believable, tragic, love story. Worth the time even if spy novels aren’t usually your thing.
Booker award winning novelist Marlon James jumps into the epic fantasy game and produces a book that is gorgeous on the sentence level, well constructed on the paragraph level, but hugely challenging as a book.
Perhaps I’m not smart enough, or my attention isn’t focused enough, but I found this one to be tough sledding. James’s use of language is stunning, and I often found myself awed by his phrasing, but I also found it difficult to follow the narrative (such as it is) and never came to care much about the characters. People I respect love this book and say it haunts them months after they finished it, but it never landed with me. I kept feeling like I was just a couple of pages from having the whole thing click together, but it never happened. Despite the beauty of some of the language, I can’t recommend this. Your mileage may vary.
The Atheist in the Attic
I am a huge fan of the work of Samuel Delany and I’m convinced that a hundred years from now, he’ll be one of the most studied writers of our time. This is a minor work made of two pieces, a short novella that imagines the conversations between two great rationalists at the dawn of the enlightenment, the polymath scientific genius, Gottfried Leibniz and the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The book imagines the conversations that occurred between these two luminaries from very different worlds and is, in the intellectual tradition of some of Delany’s other non-science fiction works.
Its not his best work, perhaps because it seems unpolished, more a thought experiment than a fully formed work, but the for the fan like myself it illuminates an aspect of Delany too often overlooked – the historian of philosophy and western thought.
This little book is rounded out by an interview Delany did about his recent work, including the monumental Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders. As always, Delany is a careful, elucidating interview subject and for the fan, this book is worth picking up just for this.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.
There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.
I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America. Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.
For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.
A good crime novel is often as much about place as it is about characters and plot. Raymond Chandler is telling us not just about some caper gone wrong, he’s telling us about Los Angeles. Same with Richard Stark and New York City and, in the present case, Attica Locke and East Texas.
Clearly, Locke knows this area well. The story of a two murders, likely racially motivated, in a small town, and the investigation that follows feels deeply rooted in the details of food, music, and geography that give this book its weight. The black Texas ranger, the black small business owner, the white landowner and cops live in a real place, even if the town in this book is actually fictional.
In the hands of a lesser talent this book could have been clichéd or doctrinaire, but Locke is a smart, nuanced, writer (incredibly, this is her first novel) and she tells this story of racism, violence, and betrayal incredibly well. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t put it down.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
I read and loved Salvage the Bones, Ward’s first novel about a poor black and rural family preparing for hurricane Katrina. And I read, and cried, over her memoir Men We Reaped. But this, her latest about mothers and her children, about prison, about drugs, about race and violence and history and the ghosts that haunt us (and keep us company) is by far her most powerful work.
The plot focuses on JoJo, a thirteen year old boy by turns taken care of, and taking care of his drug addicted parents, his baby sister, and his maternal grandparents, while wrestling (literally and figuratively) with the ghosts of his family, and America’s history.
I’m generally not one for magical realism, but Ward does the supernatural elements here with such grace, and such beautiful language, that they seem essential. Of course there are ghosts here, haunting Parchment Farm. How else could it be.
I read this book some time ago now, but I still remember the moment, on a packed train, when I finished it, almost crying, looked up at the dirty roof of the subway car and whispered to myself “holy shit”.
Its that good.
Zami: A New Spelling of the Name
The autobiography of one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. The story of a first-generation immigrant, a visually impaired girl, who dreamt of things far beyond what her mother could imagine. The story of a woman who read, and wrote, and worked the factory floor. Who discovered her sexuality in a time where that had to be done in secret for fear of physical violence.
A book written with an authentic, though at times almost detached, voice. A story of coming to terms with who you are as a writer, as a lesbian, as a feminist, in a New York City that was changing rapidly, but still very unwelcoming.
A window into a world I would never otherwise see.
A must read.