Barbara Berman’s 2nd Annual Holiday Book Column


I love it when well known people agree with me, especially when they time it to go with a piece I am working on. Super-agent Andrew Wylie did just that, taking on Amazon in an interview in The New Republic that’s gotten some traction and deserves more. For my purposes, he said:

Through greed—which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the consumer and low price and all that—Amazon has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. This is megalomania

Indie Bound, the heroic anti-Amazon is the national association of independent print retailers. It has an in-depth website, so you don’t have to live in a city or a suburb to get good deals and good service when purchasing print and e-books. Bricks-and-mortar establishments give back A LOT. It’s part of their ethos and not part of Amazon’s. End of rant.

The success of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club is proof that an audience exists for serious, quality poetry, and if you are reading this, I assume you are part of that audience. I also assume that you have people on your gift list who are intimidated by good verse. If I’m right, treat them to a copy of A Glossary of Chickens by Gary Whitehead. It’s skillful and beautiful without being twee, and like every book I’m about to mention, it deserves a wide audience. It’s also gently amusing, with some high-flying acrobatics thrown in that never feel forced.

August Kleinzahler has a new book out, his twelfth, and like the others before it, The Hotel Oneira has an unwavering, prickly astuteness that can be riveting, as in the title poem:

That was a heavy freight moved through last night,
and has been moving through since I’m back,
settled in again by the Hudson at the Hotel Oneira :
maps on the walls, shelves of blue and white Pelicans,
multiple editions of the one epistolary novel by K.,
the curios-my sediment, you might say my spittle trail.

Look at them down by the ferry slip,
the bridal party, organza, chiffon and lace, beside themselves,
being wonderful, desperately wonderful, a pastel foam.
Behind them a tug pushes a rusted barge upriver.
Helicopters, small planes, passenger jets above.
They behave, these girls, as if this is their last chance to be thus.

You can feel the rumble of the trains
vibrating up the steel of the hotel’s frame.
They move only very late at night, from three or so until dawn,
North along the river and then west.

There’s too much more for the space I have here, but not a single word or punctuation mark is wasted. Kleinzahler has stayed afloat financially by writing prose about the arts, and this immersion continues to serve him well.

Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras, is also wonderfully welcome. City Lights Books has reprinted this slim volume by a Beat stalwart who never gets stale, has avoided with careful, exuberant wisdom the cannibalization of his comrades’ memories, and is fearless, as this passage illustrates :

We are served by machines making satins
of sounds

Is it the season or coincidence that has my desk piled with recent books by and about poets whose lives and work offer us expansive ways of engaging with individuals and with the world at large? After praising Dane Greene’s Denise Levertov – A Poet’s Life, my final sentence in an autumn Rumpus review said Levertov was a woman of her time and a poet for all time. I soon learned that New Directions was about to publish her Collected Poems, with an introduction by Eavan Boland, and the biography and the collection are a perfect fit. The poems, with historic events woven in and out of personal concerns, often make one wonder how she got there, and the biography gets as close as possible to answering the question. I have many favorite Levertov poems, but since some faiths, including mine, celebrate the mother-son relationship at Christmas, and since Levertov eventually was baptized as a Catholic and always had a fragile relationship with her son, I give you “For Nikolai, Many Thousands of Miles Away”:

The procession that has been crossing
the mountains of your mind since you were six
and went to Mexico and Grandma showed you
the trees or clouds moving
along the horizon
traverses (clouds for now) this evening, the Pacific,
up toward the Equator- horses, men,
centaurs, pilgrims, women with bundles, children :
refugees—or the wild heroes
of a mythology bearing its heavy altars
into the next of its worlds .
In my hand
a spiral shell I’d thought
an empty cornucopia
stirs –something looks out of it
and searches my palm with delicate
probing claws, annoyed.
Among the last stains of sundown
the stars return. I look about
for the Southern Cross, and am given –whist!
a shooting star.
The great world and its wars
are a long way off, news wavers over
the radio and goes out, you and your life
are half a world distant, and in daylight.
the surf the reef holds back
speaks without ceasing,
drawing breath
only to utter the next words of its rune.
Crickets begin- deaf to that great insistence-
to praise the night.
Above the dark ocean , over coral, over continents
the riders move , their power
felt but not understood, their will

There is much to love in the specifics of this poem, and I am especially partial, as the solstice approaches, to the “last stains of sundown’’ and the return of the stars, now also symbolizing the countless ways Levertov returns, and why her life and her poems are so complicated and rewarding.

Writers writing short books in appreciation of other writers is a sub-genre that can get clotted and tedious. Philip Levine did a superb job with this task years ago when the subject was Keats . Few living writers come close, but Alexander McCall Smith, whose curiosity is spacious and kind, has strong, grateful feelings for W. H. Auden, expressed with a straightforward , conversationally erudite tone.

In What Auden Can Do For You, McCall Smith is not shy about the poet’s minimal personal hygiene or the differing opinions on his actions during World War Two. Auden died before many Rumpus readers were born, and McCall Smith makes an excellent case for a young generation to get acquainted with the life trajectory of Auden as poet and as struggling human. The lines below, in “The More Loving One” are from a well-chosen classic :

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Some who read what I say here will celebrate Hanukka, the festival of miracle, when a lamp, a kind of star, burned for eight days, though there was not enough oil for it to do so. In spite of human imperfections, the star/lamp loved back, as Auden’s star did not. McCall Smith reminds us that we have all had unrequited love, and he adds that Chester Kallman, Auden’s longtime companion, was often unfaithful. So Auden made art out of pain and forced himself to be a sympathetic adult. We who read him, we who read every writer in this column, will be taken beyond our wounds, to a place more sunlit, nuanced and grand.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →