A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent MillaySavage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a force of nature and Nancy Milford writes like one. Seldom do I finish a book and find that not a word of praise said about it has been exaggerated. Milford reveals so wholly the life and person of Millay in this compelling, insightful biography it is as if we were childhood friends of Millay’s looking over our own memories. Starting with Millay’s poverty-stricken childhood caring for her two sisters while their single mother worked as a travelling nurse, to her bisexual, sexually free adulthood decades before the free-love sixties, the stratospheric heights of renown she and her writing achieved, her later addiction to alcohol, morphine, and other drugs and the havoc wrecked on her life by those addictions, Milford shies from no dark corner. But it’s not all sex and addiction. Millay demonstrated in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, men accused of taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and sentenced to death for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. She refused awards proffered her by prestigious Literary groups, if they refused on the grounds of “moral failings” to honor her accomplished female friends. (For of course, male poets weren’t held to this standard; a male poet could abandon his wife and run off with another woman and provided his poetry was good enough no one would flicker an eyelash.) She spoke out exhaustingly against American isolationism as Hitler’s thugs vomited atrocities in Europe, sacrificing her health and personal standards to write what she believed was desperately needed propaganda in favour of America entering the war:

“If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” (452)

She stood up for what she believed in. She was passionate about everything she loved. She loved wildly and widely. Savage Beauty is an incredible book about an incredible woman. An inestimable pleasure.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – Extremely Belated April: Poetry Month: Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Volume II ed: Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, & Robert O’Clair

I swear to you May’s books are coming. In the mean time, a helpful list so you can decide if you want to read the most poetry ever.
The Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Vol 2: Contemporary PoetryThe Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry, Vol 2: Contemporary Poetry by Jahan Ramazani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pros:
-You get an excellent overview of ground-breaking, influential poetry written from 1940 to the new
millennium.
-Huge range of poetic styles; if you don’t like what you’re reading it will be different in at most 5
pages
-Includes bios of each poet at the beginning of their section so you can learn a little about their
lives, what influenced their writing, and how many awards they won.
-Good range of diversity in ethnicity and sexuality
-Copious footnotes explaining terms and historical events

Cons
-over 1000 pages of poetry followed by 100 pages of essays
-footnotes can be inconsistent: repeatedly explaining a basic definition that is used by multiple
authors in multiple poems but not explaining a much more obscure word that is only used once
-I feel the fact that this is over 1000 pages of poems bears repeating

In short: If you’ve got lots of time on your hands and want to get a really solid idea of who the current poets are and the works of the last half-century this could be the book for you. Find it at your local library and be prepared to renew it at least twice. Maybe read just two poems per poet, and do all the submissions for the ones you especially enjoyed. Because this is a lot of poetry.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Poetry Month: Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems

The Complete PoemsThe Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anne Sexton tackles some difficult and controversial topics in her poetry. She writes frankly about suicide, death, breasts, incest, the holocaust, abortion, pregnancy, god, and mental health issues. Hers is not work for the faint hearted reader, or the one longing for a straightforward composition with easily understandable imagery. It, and her choice of subjects, were ground-breaking when they were first published. Poets, and women poets in particular, did not write about suicide. Or abortions. Sexton was one of the group who opened that door for greater honesty in their work. Her style seems to be very consistent throughout her career; while poets naturally improve with practice the changes to Sexton’s capabilities don’t appear to be the kind easily detectable by the lay reader. Her first works are as surreal and evocative as her last. So if you enjoy her first book of poems, you will probably enjoy her last ones. If you don’t like her first book of poems…six hundred pages is a lot to get through on white-knuckled willpower. For readers who want a taste of her style but are uncertain about some of her subjects, I would recommend her Transformations. A collection of classic fairy tales retold as poems, they have all of Sexton’s creative chops with minimal need for content warnings. And minimal time commitment. Because we’re all busy people.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Poetry: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai edited by Robert Alter

The Poetry of Yehuda AmichaiThe Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Yehuda Amichai
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Hebrew poet who wrote intimately about Judaism, Jerusalem, and the body, Amichai moved from Germany to Palestine with his parents in 1936, when he was 12. The area was wracked with wars throughout his life and they are a frequent topic of his poetry. As is his pubic hair. An evocative poem about grief and the passage of time might be followed by one talking about genitalia. Sex. Or childhood. Amichai plays with grammar and syntax as much as rhyme scheme, and my hat is off to the translators who have to massage these complicated images from one language to another. Overall, the poetry is very accessible and you can glean a reasonable amount of meaning from it in one or two readings. The only things I didn’t like was the incessant pubic hair and his representation of women; they often were presented as just extensions of the male viewer/narrators’s desires and not as separate, autonomous beings. A weirdly one-dimensional portrayal. Despite that, his work is a creative and interesting addition to the poetry pantheon, and worth taking a look at.

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The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry edited by Mark Callanan & James Langer

The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland PoetryThe Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry by James Langer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Callanan and James Langer combed the rock for its premier poets to build this collection and the rock was not lacking. Showcasing the works of Al Pittman, Tom Dawe, John Steffler, Mary Dalton, Carmelita McGrath, Richard Greene, Michael Crummey, Agnes Walsh, Ken Babstock, Sue Sinclair, and Patrick Warner, each poet has a section all their own. The smallest section has only six poems in it, but most of the others are 10 or more. Some of my particular favourites were Tom Dawe’s Outport Christmas and Abandoned Outport for the beautiful landscapes he wove with his words, Mary Dalton’s many poems with authentic Newfoundlander slang, and the part in John Steffler’s poem That Night We Were Ravenous where he describes a moose as “a team of beavers trying to operate stilts” which amused me so much I immediately texted it to four people. Less amusing were the poems dealing with violence or hinting at abusive relationships. But in the whole book there were maybe five works addressing those topics, and none were excessively graphic. Overall, this book was a wonderful experience and made me long to visit Newfoundland.

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The Waste Land and Other Poems by T S Eliot

The Waste Land and Other PoemsThe Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Are you good at interpreting poems? At diving into the mysterious language and metaphors and resurfacing after minutes or hours or days, breathless but exultant with your hard-won treasure of meaning? I’m not. I’ve read enough about these poems to know that there is scads of depth to them, that every word and line break is resplendent with meaning. But they all went over my head. I can’t tell you, for example, why, in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the women “…come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo.” (9) Are they at an art gallery? I suspect not. This edition has the odd line in German, preambles in Latin and Italian and (maybe?) Greek, but to be honest even when I went and translated them the poems they were part of didn’t become measurably clearer. In spite of all this, I still kind of enjoyed reading Eliot’s work. His sentences tended to linger in my head, cropping up at random times during the day and giving me something else to think about. And there’s something to be said for writing that you have to work for. Eliot’s poems are that. Keep it in mind; it’s a really skinny book so you can finish it in a day and check it off your to-read list. Or just read the same poem ten times over until you actually understand it. In which case you may be somewhat longer.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

Flowers of EvilFlowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Baudelaire threw himself a poetry pity party and called it a book. Now, I gather that this book was really ground-breaking at this time; it was maligned for years. Frank writing about sexual assignations, devils, and disillusionment with life, as well as the role of art and the poet in society make an appearance in nearly every poem. Much of what he wrote about was taboo at the time but is de rigueur in our world. He combines traditional poetical structure with these shocking, new subjects in a work that was scandalous when it was published. There are still poems that will appall readers – I’d love to blot The Martyr from my recollection – to say nothing of his scathing attitudes towards sexually assertive women; but overall this book makes me think of Faust. A narrator’s desperate search for meaning and novelty taking them further into depravity, though here Baudelaire doesn’t close the book by sending his poet-narrator to hell for his explorations. Some editions end with The Voyage, an homage to TS Eliot and my favourite piece from the whole book. Not quite the only poem I liked, but almost. My particular edition includes a splash of random poems after The Voyage, but you have to keep those mentally separate from the rest of the work if you’re going to really appreciate the narrator’s travel through his own personal Rubicon. This edition also includes every poem in the original French. Which is great if you’re bilingual but if you bought the book thinking the multiple translations were going to be multiple English translations by different translators so you can get a more refined sense of the original poem without having to learn fluent French you are going to be disappointed. But then once you start getting tired of all these depressing poems rambling on about death and how nobody appreciates poets these days, you’ll be relieved to discover the book is only half as thick as you think because the back end is all French. Always look on the bright side. Perhaps if someone had taught Baudelaire that his book would have been a little more cheerful.

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milk and honey by rupi kaur

Milk and Honey is a wonderful name for a book of poetry. There are no capitals anywhere in the entire book, so I left the capitals out of the title and author’s name. That’s the way it appears on the cover. All of the “I”s are lower case. Nothing has a title. Sometimes there are one-line comments after a poem; a dedication or summary. The poems are deceptively short and simple, few exceed ten lines and many are only three or four, but their subject matter is far from easy. Kaur writes about abuse, sexual assault, misogyny twisted up with racism, and the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Many times her poems focus on menstruation, women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality. At no point does she mince words. It’s refreshing to have these topics addressed so candidly, something that happens more often nowadays but is still frequently considered taboo. Kaur packs quite a punch into a tiny three line poem. Or puts a lot of anger into a poem about body hair. She speckles the book with line drawings, switching between a rage of scribbles or a single curving line to represent a whole figure. They’re evocative and sometimes discomfiting. There’s nudity, sex, and threats in the drawings too. It goes with the poems. One of the neatest is a half page covered with falling eyelashes. It’s paired with a two line poem about loss. Together they create a unique perspective on grieving the end of a relationship that I’ve never heard anywhere else. That sums up Kaur well. What she’s writing is stuff rarely heard anywhere else. The world would be a much richer place if we had more voices like Kaur’s; the voices that aren’t usually heard.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

Metamorphoses (''Transformations'')Metamorphoses by Ovid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One downside to ebooks: if you’ve never seen a physical copy of the book you’re starting, when you break out your ereader and flip that first page you have no idea what you’re getting in to. Did you know Metamorphoses is huge? I didn’t! It’s 15 books long! I guess Ovid sat down one day and banged out a chronological list of every transformation in Roman mythology, and then wrote a poem for each one. And then wove them together like some massive, wordy scarf. Everything rhymes. He even includes things you wouldn’t typically think of as transformations, like Caesar being deified. Metamorphoses includes such classics as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Narcissus. The Trojan war shows up in segments too, as does the Odyssey. And plenty of myths I’d never heard before, all wrapped in a rich cloth of descriptive imagery. Unfortunately, because in the earlier myths transformation was typically a way for a woman to escape an assaulting god, or a punishment for failing to, the first half of the book is loaded with sexual assaults and victim blaming. There’s also some passages of gory violence. Mainly pitched battles, but also a boar hunt. Surprisingly, there’s a sizable monologue towards the end by a guy espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, specifically to stop cruelty to animals. Not an attitude I was expecting to see displayed after so many pages of sword fights. One of my favourite poems came towards the end of the epic; in the Trojan war segment. The Greeks are discussing who should get Achilles’ armor now that he’s been killed. It’s down to Ulysses (Odysseus) and Ajax, neither of whom will budge. The solution winds up being a trash-talking contest; the one whose accomplishments are the most impressive and who can make his opponent seem the weakest wins the armor. Ajax accuses Ulysses of being a coward and Ulysses claims that since he persuaded Achilles to join them in the war the armor is rightfully his. Ovid really makes you see how invested each man is in winning the right to wear the armor of their greatest warrior, how they try to be nonchalant while brimming with emotion. In fact, this poem is suffused with men feeling every emotion: sadness, rage, embarrassment, pride, love, desire, you name it. I’m not sure where people got the idea that men don’t have emotions, but it couldn’t have been from this. Furthermore, it’s a giant poem. You can’t write poetry without having emotions. It just doesn’t work. And unless it turns out Metamorphoses was ghost-written by one of Ovid’s wives, this means not just that men write poetry, but that they have a full range of complex human emotions! So the next time someone tries to tell you men don’t cry, grab your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and smack them with it. Ovid earned us all that right.

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