RaveThe New YorkerOne’s experience of Gunn’s poetry—which is, by turns, conversational, formal, and metaphysical, and often all three at once—is deeply enhanced by the life one discovers in The Letters of Thom Gunn (expertly co-edited by Michael Nott—who provides a heartfelt and knowledgeable introduction—and Gunn’s close friends the poets August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer). Gunn’s letters are a primer not only on literature (he taught a rigorous class at U.C. Berkeley on and off from 1958 to 1999) but on the poet himself, who had a tendency to hide in plain sight ... he reveals himself, intentionally or not, by not constantly revealing himself ... Part of the enormous debt I feel to the editors of Gunn’s letters has to do with the way they have expanded my understanding of his work. In the letters, I have discovered the person Gunn left out of the poems ... Gunn’s true self both is and isn’t in these letters. How could he not split off, given what he had seen and what he had survived? The Letters sent me back to Gunn’s poetry to find what I had been missing all along: his often unspoken understanding of the agonies of the mind and heart, as well as the joys, his sometimes childlike reach for the ecstatic. If death is the most vivid, indelible thing life offers us, Gunn’s writing asks again and again, how do we make the best of both life and death? He did the best he could with what life gave him, and I love him for it.
MixedThe New YorkerThe marvellous thing about the new novel, Palmares, is that Jones here allows women to get close without trying to destroy one another. Those feelings, however, still emerge under the dreadful cloud of oppression ... the women of color in Palmares have so little that they can share with their casual or brutal assaulters—to talk back is to court death. But Almeyda has the language of her mind, which is filled with fascinating observations ... The connection between Luiza and Almeyda feels forced at times—Jones’s attempts at magical realism in Palmares are more dispiriting than they are transporting—and one’s patience wears thin with the introduction of yet another significant character, especially one who embodies the virtues of silent womanhood and maintains a knowing, almost supernatural distance. Editing is a delicate process, and part of the job entails listening for what the author cannot hear. Reading Palmares, I thought of Toni Morrison, the editor who helped Jones become an author. Morrison often read with a pencil in hand; in the margins of this book, she might have jotted, \'I hear you, but it’s missing something. How about a bit more life?\'
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveThe New YorkerDon’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy , you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement ... Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence ... A wonderfully destabilizing writer, she admits to something that a more timid memoirist would never cop to: monstrous self-interest. By baring her bathos along with her genius, she makes us reflect on our own egotism. How many of us have thought only of ourselves at a time of great calamity for others? ... Unlike Karl Ove Knausgaard and many other recent memoirists, Ditlevsen doesn’t have a larger philosophy about pain or death; she is drawn to the flatness of facts and the way they mix with dreams. She builds a literature of disaster, brick by brick, entombing within it all the people who couldn’t love her and whom she couldn’t love ... For some, mucking things up can be an assertion of will; negative attention is better than none. Reality—or one’s understanding of it—can be as dependent on pain as it is on hope, and Ditlevsen is addicted to both.
RaveThe New YorkerIn order to understand what Forché is doing on the page, you have to look between the rows of type, and see what she leaves in the white space of your imagination. You have to rejigger, if not jettison entirely, your ideas or preconceptions about political writing and about what makes a poem. Forché’s stately stanzas—her writing is never hurried—are the work of a literary reporter, Gloria Emerson as filtered through the eyes of Elizabeth Bishop or Grace Paley. Free of jingoism but not of moral gravity, Forché’s work questions—when it does question—how to be or to become a thinking, caring, communicating adult ... In In the Lateness of the World, one feels the poet cresting a wave—a new wave that will crash onto new lands and unexplored territories. To read the book straight through is to see connections between her earlier work and her new poems because, by looking at the world, she has made a world, one in which her past is as present as her future ... as much as life takes, it gives, including the poet’s voice and its myriad possibilities, among them how to render silence.
Joan Didion, Ed. by David L. Ulin
RaveThe New YorkerAlmost any page of this invaluable book will take you somewhere emotionally and offer a paramount lesson in the power of Didion’s voice ... Part of Didion’s genius was to make language out of the landscape she knew—the punishing terrain of California’s Central Valley, with its glaring hot summers and winter floods, its stark flatness, its river snakes, taciturn ranchers, and lurking danger.
RaveThe New YorkerMade up of the seventy-eight-year-old author’s eight previous volumes of verse and a new sequence—the bold and elegiac 'Thirst'—Half-Light is both the culmination of a distinguished career and a poetic ur-text about how homophobia, doubt, and a parent’s confusing love can shape a gay child ... His style is marked by a kind of calm hysteria, or a calm that alternates with hysteria, as he struggles with the things that the straight world and his formerly closeted and frightened self think should remain unsaid ... Bidart’s poems are a kind of séance, one in which he tries to invoke and communicate love, even if that love can no longer be achieved, tasted, seen, touched. The poems that Bidart wrote for his lost ones are a testament to the conversations he holds in his head, written with force from the confines of a limitless gay body.