Thursday, October 24, 2019

October 2019 Nightstand

I've started but not gotten into enough to keep reading several books in the last month or so. I feel like a cat kneading and kneading a cushion, trying to find the comfortable sweet spot. When a book has stuck well enough for me to see it through, it's been collection of shorter works.

Alice Munro's Dear Life has been lurking around the house for a good long while. I have a tendency to buy books and let them ripen on the shelves for a few years before I get around to reading them. But I was trying to motivate myself to write short stories earlier this month, so I decided to read short stories and, of a rather large stack, Dear Life rose to the top. I have a love-hate relationship with short stories (the hate part born, perhaps, from reading nothing but during grad school). Sometimes they're these brilliant little capsules of life, and sometimes they're…WTF? Munro's stories in this collection fall into this former category, most of them little slices of slightly strange, slightly obscure, but mostly ordinary lives of characters living in post WWII Canada. I was particularly fascinated by the way in some cases the stories followed a character through years or over most of a life, in just a dozen or two pages. I always feel the compressed length of a short storie necessitates a short timespan, but I see now that it need not. The book ends with a few sketches about the author's own life, in post-WWII Canada, which are every bit as fascinating as the fictional stories.

I wrote a sonnet once, in 12th grade English class. It was about the first Gulf War and had a rather nice metaphor about war planes and birds in it, and it had only one syllable off meter. I was rather proud of that sonnet, and I'm resting on its laurels nearly 30 years later. Then my co-editor in the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama had to go and write an entire stack of sonnets and put my small effort to shame. Libby Maxey published her debut poetry chapbook, Kairos, this summer, and it waited on my nightstand, I think, until the world outside matched the cold and leafless but red and glistening image on the front cover. I found myself reading each sonnet two or three times, savoring the rich language and right metaphors, untangling the threads of meaning. The formality of the vocabulary and form gives this collection a sense of timelessness, a faint sepia hue of times past, like a poet from history is whispering the words in my ear, at the same time feel very present, with poems about kindergarten and snow days and looking back at one's naive teenage self. It's a gorgeous collection and I wish my friend all good things to come from its publiction.

Where the poems in Kairos are tightly structured, those in Arrival by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor are loose and free-flowing, sometimes arranged in stanzas and sometimes cascading over the page in widely and wildly spaced words. The words themselves are ripe fruits of Caribbean patois, an accent, a history, an identity, as in the oft-repeated "gyal" (girl). The poems are warm and bright with tropical heat and color, but also achingly real with loss and strained relationships. They tell a story of a life that's rich with varied origins and a winding pathway, one that has been hard and beautiful at the same time.

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