Sometimes the summer books that beckon are playful, quirky, maybe even refreshingly unsettling. James Tate’s contemporary poetry fables fit that definition to a T, and his latest collection, The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010, is a picnic basket full of them. Smart, darkly comic, often touching, and on occasion downright strange, his poetry is plainspoken but oh how it resonates–
I had gotten a nasty bite at the petting
zoo earlier that day. On the bus home I sat
next to a little old lady, tiny and stooped,
I did this, but I showed her the bite on my hand.
She stared at it for a long time. The she
reached out and took my hand in her papery
blue-veined hands. She brought my hand closer
to her eyes. Her mouth was open just a little
and my heart started to race. I jerked my
hand out of her grip just in time. She smiled
and showed me her teeth. “They’re beautiful,”
I said. “Brand new,” she replied.
Some folks want to walk through summer’s door and into nature. In that case, The Ecopoetry Anthology would be good company, though at 500 pages you might not want to take it in your backpack. Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street with an extensive introduction by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, this is a generous gathering of environmental poetry that, as the editors write, rises out of “attentiveness, precision, tenderness toward existence” and returns us “in countless ways to the world of our senses.” The collection includes over 200 American writers and ranges across time and style, from Walt Whitman to Robert Wrigley, Emily Dickinson to Brenda Hillman. Rain or shine, with this book, you can contemplate the natural world, and our complex and at times problematic part in it. Here’s a leaf from the volume–
by Richard Hoffman
Small waves repeat,
disappear on sand,
stairs of an escalator
down. I forgot what
I meant to say. I forgot
what I meant to say.
Soft flesh in a broken
shell. Tangled rope.
Stones worn human.
If travel calls during the warmer months, you might want to embark on The Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders, edited by Jared Hawkley, Susan Rich, and Brian Turner. While not a book of poetry, it is by poets and serves both as a guidebook for writers wanting to take their pens abroad as well as a collection of essays by those who have, providing a window onto the experience of the journeying poet. Writes Donna Stonecipher, a former Seattleite who now lives in Berlin, “My poetry thrives on newness, difference, tension, difficulty, and friction. Placing oneself in a foreign context supplies plenty of those things.” The travel discussed comes about for a variety of reasons, including military. Here is a revealing comment by Emily Ruch–
“As a woman soldier living in Iraq, I discovered that carrying a book with me and being seen reading it made local males more likely to talk to me. Because of my book, they concluded that I was literate and therefore educated–at least that’s what one of them told me–and so they broke with customs based on social and religious taboos and stereotypes, and held conversations with me on a few occasions. I heard a number of interesting stories that would have been entirely inaccessible to me without that book in my back pocket.”
What about a collection for the kiddies, you ask? With which I counter, what about one for the whole family? Though Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart is indeed a children’s book, with charming illustrations by Michael Emberley, it provides a great opportunity for all ages to try their hands (minds?) at committing a poem to memory and sharing it aloud. Editor Mary Ann Hoberman has included the familiar and less so, the rhyming and free form, the brief and long. She even suggests a method for memorizing. What results could be hours–even years–of pleasure. Try this one–
“How to Tell the Top of a Hill”
by John Ciardi
The top of a hill
Is not until
The bottom is below.
And you have to stop
When you reach the top
For there’s no more UP to go.
To make it plain
Let me explain:
The one most reason why
You have to stop
When you reach the top–is:
The next step up is sky.
What summer idyll would be complete without…postcards! New Directions, a publisher with an amazing history of bringing important works of poetry and prose to American readers, has created a boxed set of 50 cards with reproductions of the marvelous book covers that Alvin Lustig designed for the press between 1941 and 1952. True, they’re not pictures of the Parthenon or the Grand Canyon, but they represent the most powerful journey, the flight of the mind. And you can make that trip in your own backyard.