What They're Reading: Books Recommended by Poet Chris Nelson


Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman.
In her seventh book of poems, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Brenda Hillman explores various forms with a voice at once fierce, playful, political, and inviting. In the middle are nine untitled epyllions—poems that resemble an epic, in that they present an episode from the heroic past, but are much shorter. Here, in the contemporary American mindscape, the heroic takes tragic and ironic turns. Hillman presents her epyllions on alternating black and white pages, which immediately evokes dualisms of night and day, evil and good, shadow and visibility. On black paper in white text the series opens, “Something about breathing / The air inside a war.” And the poems continue, rhetorical and imagistic, building in intensity and gravity: “After their freedom had / started I fled for / the flatness I felt / had no horizon.” I marvel at Hillman’s tonal deftness: within the speaker’s troubled confrontation of human-at-war despair, she graces her subjects with boldness and beauty.


Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee
Since its publication in 2008, I’ve been infatuated with Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes. The themes of all his books—domesticity, divinity, consciousness, displacement—are present here, yet never before have they been as fully realized. One of Lee’s great achievements is that he has created a mythic atmosphere with spare language. Father, Mother, the apple, childhood—these immensities are treated with such subjective insight that they become universal; something that could only result from a ruthless but compassionate scrutiny of his own mind. “A Hymn to Childhood” is one of my favorite poems. It opens with a rhetorical question that becomes a refrain: “Which childhood?” With each occurrence of the refrain, however, the circumstance of the rhetoric changes so that childhood is simultaneously something that “didn’t last” and something that “never ends.” Such paradoxes abound in his work. The hardback edition of Behind My Eyes comes with an audio CD of Lee reading about half of the book, which is more than a superb addendum to the poems.


In mapping what he calls the “swamplands of the soul,” Hollis tactfully guides the reader to inquire into those aspects of self we’d rather avoid.

The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife and Why Good People Do Bad Things by James Hollis
Perhaps we all find ourselves once—or again—in a time of suffering (depression, anxiety, sorrow, guilt, doubt), when what you were—or what the world was—shifts, and difficulty takes the place of normalcy. I’ve found insight and comfort in the wisdom of Jungian analyst James Hollis. He plumbs the depths of psyche and soul, not to find happiness but to come to understanding and a sense of meaning. Like Jung, Hollis believes we shouldn’t be too hasty in ridding ourselves of symptoms of emotional suffering, for they are indicators of something that needs addressed, examined, and learned from. In mapping what he calls the “swamplands of the soul,” Hollis tactfully guides the reader to inquire into those aspects of self we’d rather avoid. Frequently using poetic and mythological allusions, his books are perfect for the intellectual and literary-minded who are experiencing dark times—or who want to better understand the depths of the psyche. For the troubling middle years, consider The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, and for the shadow self—the lust, grief, anger, and fear that exerts great force from the sub- or semi-conscious—consider Why Good People Do Bad Things.


The Second Book of the Tao translated by Stephen Mitchell
Where would we be without Stephen Mitchell? For years his translations of Neruda, Rilke, and Amichai have been among my favorites; then there’s his work with the Old Testament, Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, Bhagavad Gita, and, most recently, The Iliad. What I’d like to encourage you to read, however, is The Second Book of the Tao, a selection of passages from two ancient Chinese anthologies of wisdom and right-living, the Chuang-tzu and the Chung Yung. Mitchell is again at his lucid and poetic best, but here he does more than translate; each selection is followed by witty, insightful commentary written by Mitchell, and the commentaries are as pleasurable and challenging as the ancient source texts. He writes, “When you act with integrity, everything you do is right, because there’s no separation between doer and done. Besides, you realize that you’re not doing it in the first place. You have let go into the nameless, and it’s not even you who have let go. It’s not even you who have been let go of.” If you enjoy the Tao Te Ching or the Hua Hu Ching, you’ll love The Second Book of the Tao; but it is surprisingly accessible, a good entrée into Taoism.


Collected Poems (1951-2000) by Charles Causley
British poet Charles Causley was, for many, newly popularized by singer Natalie Merchant, who set twenty-six of her favorite poems to music; one was Causley’s "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience." It, like “Eden Rock,” exemplifies Causley’s penchant for the lyric-narrative made of imagistic, plain language. What we experience, however, in his plain language is complexity and ambiguity. I admire his statement: “The mere fact of a poem appearing simple in language and construction bears no relation whatsoever to the profundity of ideas it may contain.” “Nursery Rhyme …” is what the title claims it to be, but it is also a poem about devotion, desire, and ultimately the bewilderment of time. (And I didn’t yet say the obvious: it is heart-wrenching!) Likewise, “Eden Rock,” apparently a quaint reflection on family, is a speculation on the sublimity of the afterlife. Causley edited his Collected Poems (1951–2000) before passing away in 2003; it is the definitive gathering of his life’s work.


I often consider the final, polished, published work of poets, but what about all the messy, murky, meandering material that isn’t intended to be seen?

The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of 26 American Poets
Excerpting from the notebooks of twenty-six American poets, editors Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall, and David Weiss compiled The Poet’s Notebook. Over 300 pages of journal entries, poems, epigrams, maxims, confessions, rants, quotations, essays—the range of material and tones is wildly engaging: Anselm Hollo notes that he heard on the radio that “if you could find a large enough ocean to hold it, Saturn would float”; Alice Fulton complains that she’s “tired of the kneejerk epiphanies of contemporary poets … too much praise, too little effort to change”; Mary Oliver tells an anecdote about burying fox bones in a sand dune; Heather McHugh describes a dream in which she reads a letter from the dead: “No love, no words, no apples, no oranges. No pairs.” I often consider the final, polished, published work of poets, but what about all the messy, murky, meandering material that isn’t intended to be seen? It turns out that there’s much to delight in there as well.


Photo by Ben Bessick

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