On Poetry: September 2023

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: September 2023

Synchronicities frequently catch my attention when it comes to poetry. I notice them when I’m curating “Read Me a Poem,” the American Scholar podcast on which I read a poem each week. Suggestions sent in by listeners from around the world often overlap. But I also see them in several new collections this month.

As an example, Hafiz’s Little Book of Life (Hampton Roads) by Erfan Mojib and Gary Gach was sent by my editor at the Independent for possible review in this column. A few weeks earlier, and quite separately, I’d recorded a Hafiz poem on my podcast at the request of a listener. Up until then, I’d never encountered his work before.

Hafiz was a 14th-century Sufi mystic. I’ve since learned that his poems (ghazels) present translators with a special challenge. They are so multifaceted that a single passage can be approached from multiple angles. Which is why translator Daniel Ladinsky, whose work I recorded for the podcast, prefers to call his translations “renderings.”

Mojib and Gach explain in their new book that an Iranian household is just as likely to own a collection of Hafiz as a copy of the Qur’an, and that children often learn his verses by heart. They’ve chosen here to translate extracts. The verses are placed imaginatively on the page and can be enjoyed in various ways. There’s an established Persian tradition of opening Hafiz at random, like an oracle. But you might find you want to immerse yourself in all the refracted light of these dazzling little gems.

It’s worth remembering that poetry isn’t just about words. It’s about what lies between words and what arises in the imagination as we experience it.

Other collections selected here, though written in different registers, also share common themes, such as metamorphosis and the growth that comes from our wounds. Fariha Róisín is a queer Muslim multidisciplinary artist. Her second poetry collection, Survival Takes a Wild Imagination (Andrews McMeel), chronicles her personal journey from self-loathing to celebration.

In short, accessible verses, she moves from shame to sexual celebration and freedom. As a survivor of abuse, she dedicates poems to others who have similarly suffered and invokes poetic muses like Audre Lorde and Joy Harjo. One 10-part prose poem, “An Ode to Baby Fa,” written after Lucille Clifton, imagines mothering her younger self and ultimately finding wholeness in the natural world:

The hurricane speaks. The lark strings through the spouting trees & I’m abandoned. But the Earth is here & I am still. Still like the quiet spurring of a cicada, they reach their tenuous sounds while never moving and yet, and yet — resounding.

But although the practice of sampling allows artists to repurpose passages of others’ work, writing “after” a poet suggests a tribute or response to them, or a poem written in their style. I feel the last stanza of this poem so closely appropriates Clifton, there should be more by way of acknowledgement. You decide.

Here is Róisín:

But mostly, find celebration
For every day that has tried to kill you… & failed.

And here is Clifton:

Come celebrate
With me that everyday
Something has tried to kill me
And has failed

I was similarly struck when, in the first few lines of Peter Gizzi’s Fierce Elegy (Wesleyan University Press), I encountered the phrase “a litany of survival,” which recalls “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, written in defiance of her sense that she was never meant to survive. Although Gizzi may expect readers to recognize the reference, he uses Lorde’s hard-earned phrase in a completely different context.

That aside, Gizzi is a master of the elegiac mode, having employed it in several previous collections. Fierce Elegy reads like a soul’s journey, the final passage of selfhood into the “I am that I am” of oneness:

I get it, it was good to leave the world,
to find myself in thou.
There’s a lot to be said
For seeing in the dark,
And more to the light
When there’s nothing to see.

His subject isn’t loss alone, but loss interwoven with afterlife. Shadows, reflections, mirrors, and migrating birds populate his poems, and he weaves one state of consciousness into another, like gossamer.

Selfhood sometimes resolves into language, as in “Dissociadelic” and “Creeley Song,” the latter an exquisite poem composed primarily of titles from books by Robert Creeley.

For Gizzi, individual selfhood is random. It doesn’t define us. “No ideas but in things” becomes for him “no ideas but in wounds, I is that wound.” Self ultimately moves from being a noun to being “unleashed as a verb”:

To dart is an intransitive verb
And moves freely
A dart draws blood
When it’s a noun

His final poem, “Consider the Wound,” feels like an end-of-life review. Selfhood resolves into “a collective breath, sweet noise of becoming.” Fierce Elegy is lyrical and transcendent. It is also fierce in the sense that overcoming the broken world is the ultimate act of defiance.

Finally, Franca Mancinelli’s All the Eyes That I Have Opened (Black Square Editions), in Italian with English translations by John Taylor on facing pages, begins with an epigraph:

Cannot scatter itself
Puts itself back together at every turn
Like a flock flying onwards

Next comes a series of diary entries. A migrant woman and her child pass through the woods between Serbia and Croatia. It’s cold, muddy, and desperate. A holy book is abandoned in the trees, its pages ruffling to reveal fragments of verse. The diary ends with a rape, which is followed by a sequence of short poems. The switch to another poetic form here marks the beginning of rebirth:

Deaths are time’s beads
We go through them like a string

We enter new terrain and discern the voices of trees. They are survivors who have allowed their branches to crack and fall. Their surrender to destruction has been the path to new beginnings:

From here ways parted
Breathing I was growing

In the collapse, something sweet
A hollow of time

All the eyes that I have opened
Are the branches that I have lost.

Mancinelli’s finely crafted poems have a surrealist quality, with a continual interplay between collapse and rebirth. Glimmers shine through detritus. She moves from dust to starlight. Vases hold cut flowers that deceptively seem alive, while bulbs which have yet to bloom remain buried in the earth. Things are in flux and overturning. Metamorphosis is the natural state, and there’s no choice but to yield to it.

The book finishes as it begins, with a diary and crowds of migrants trying to cross borders. It’s a new speaker, but there are traces of the earlier migrant’s passage in an energy-drink can mentioned in the opening diary and a child’s abandoned romper stained with mud. Boundaries are marked, but nature doesn’t abide manmade borders.

All the Eyes That I Have Opened is original, complex, and quite challenging. But it rewards close reading, and Taylor’s English translations are sensitive and beautiful.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and poetry editor for the Independent and the voice of "Read Me a Poem," a podcast of the American Scholar.

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