Staff Picks: Little Glass Planet

Claire recommends Little Glass Planet by Dobby Gibson:

Poet Dobby Gibson is a gondolier, your most trusted confidante, a stern assistant principal who has taken you, a troubled student, under his wing. In Dobby’s poems, you can feel the tenderness with which he treats each line, examining each trinket and bauble of the world as though they were talismans, investigating every subject as if it were an injury on our collective body. He gives us the diagnosis, administers the salve and wrappings. In Little Glass Planet, Dobby writes as if we’re having a heart-to-heart with him, jocular at times, but never shirking the difficult conversation:

“The most horrible person
has been elected president.
The hardest thing to fathom
is the present.”

This kind of odd near rhyme is an instance in which we feel the terrifying comedy injected into everything in this world. Dobby’s lines often linger on the precipice of platitude, but don’t fall. He’s interested in truth—a real kind of hope, since most of us have become so skeptical—and the poet’s diligent eye will follow any spark of veracity unto its end, even into the eely crevices where we tuck away the worst parts of human nature.

From the first poem, titled “Dear Reader,” we know that Dobby is on our side. In a time when it’s difficult to assure anyone of anything, Dobby manages to put my heart at ease in the last line of “Prayer for November”:

we can be loved after all.

Even in his truth-seeking, he reaches toward the ineffable, for a sign—from cherubim, from the powers of ten, from a dog with one eye, from arsonists with no matches. This book surveys the pieces and shards of this world in all their shabbiness, and it is in them that we find the shades of real beauty that we can hold on to:

a lemon tree dressed in December ice
like a girl in her grandmother’s jewelry

Dobby is a poet who is engaging with the social issues and climate change in earnest, nuanced ways, never completely turning his gaze away from the parts of humanity still connected to mythos, and eternity. But he’s not afraid to make bold declarations about the true state of things. This feels especially poignant, after reading a new report by Australian climate experts which warns us that “climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat” to human civilization. This prognosis, endorsed by the former chief of the Australian Defense Force, warns that human civilization could face complete destruction by the year 2050 due to the destabilizing societal and environmental factors caused by a rapidly warming planet. This, of course, is difficult to picture, let alone to truly believe, as we walk through the alarming fog of calamitous news each day and yet, the next day always comes. But as Dobby warns in his easy, yet ominous way:

When our great fire finally arrives
it will make no sound

As we look down the barrel of the next few decades, it is difficult to even process these possibilities. The small, personal actions we can each take to do our part in prevention don’t even come close to shutting down the sensation of inevitable doom. I find that the times when I feel the most hopeful are in small instances of humanness, our persistence in preserving the mysteries of this life, presumably our only, and as Dobby puts it in a title, “Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lurks the Will to Survive.”

Dobby’s tall intuition is eternally reassuring, offering a kind of knowing that can’t be taught. His poems do not hesitate to gesture toward the eternal, even as they inhabit the irreverent humor of adolescence:

All of time is with us here,
each next moment waiting right where we left it
when we last felt safe inside our heads
wondering what kind of leathery faces
they might grow into as we held
the flashlight beneath our chins
to say the one funny thing we needed to
while leaning into the dark.

These poems have an irresistible way of reaching out to us as the reader, of drawing us in, and showing us compassion. As the reader, I know that I am part of this conversation, and that it continues far beyond the last poem in the book. I feel loved, taken care of, seen. This is the particular magic of these poems, one that creates the sensation of peace in a time of chaos, that pours us a glass of wine and offers to talk it out:

This is my love letter to the world,
someone call us a sitter.
We’re going to be here awhile.

Staff Picks: Sabrina

Julie recommends Sabrina by Nick Drnaso:

There doesn’t need to be another review of Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; it was heaped with praise when it was published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2018. Zadie Smith said, “Sabrina is the best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment.” And if you come across as many Zadie Smith blurbs as I do, you can spot the difference between a lukewarm this-certainly-wasn’t-the-worst-book-in-the-world Zadie Smith blurb and a glowing I-actually-loved-this-book Zadie Smith blurb. Sabrina also caught the attention of the Man Booker judges, becoming the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the prize. Suddenly, Sabrina was a book everyone wanted to read, and booksellers were forced to say “sorry, we’re sold out.”

I don’t care for buzz, nor am I the type of person who travels to the ends of the earth to read something that’s selling like hot cakes. Nearly a year after Sabrina’s release, I finally sat down to read this inked favorite, this game-changer, this magnificent addiction—and let me tell you, Sabrina is worth all the praise, and then some. If you, too, avoided the stampede to get a copy, I’m here to tell you, now’s the perfect time to read this superb creation.

The plot is basic: a woman goes missing. Her name is Sabrina, and Sabrina represents the archetypal MIA woman who intrigue swirls around. Out of the mystery of Sabrina’s disappearance, two old friends are thrown together. Calvin, a military worker whose family life is on the fritz, invites Teddy, Sabrina’s very depressed boyfriend, to live with him.

In my recollection, I haven’t come across a story (graphic novel, book, movie or otherwise) that depicts raw tenderness within heterosexual male friendships. We see women comfort each other—pick each other up off the linoleum floor—all the time but we rarely see men perform the same service. Calvin helps take Teddy’s pants and shirt off because he’s too depressed to. Calvin washes Teddy’s clothes, reminds him to eat, and routinely asks him if he needs anything.

As readers, we fear what Calvin has gotten himself into. Teddy vacillates between white hot rages and the fetal position. He’s in bad shape, real bad shape, and if you’re someone familiar with the fate of missing women, you might even begin to wonder if Teddy’s conscience is bothering him.

An element of mystery combined with depictions of an unhinged media make for a tense read. Teddy starts listening to an alarmist radio announcer. “The orchestrators,” the announcer says, “stir the pot, to keep us separate, suspicious and hostile… [T]hey manufacture tragedy. They deal in deception. They stage massacres. And murder civilians. This is the smoke screen.”

It’s surprisingly easy for Teddy (and the reader, too) to get sucked into the melody of the announcer’s warnings and rants. It’s the same black hole that can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and anywhere message forums pop up. Around the black hole congregate people who deny the Holocaust, 9/11, Sandy Hook, and accuse students who witnessed their classmates get shot in front of them of being paid actors.

As someone who doesn’t read very many graphic novels, I confess I’m at a loss for how to describe the drawings and the color palette of Sabrina. There’s an eeriness that I can’t quite place. The closest thing I can think of is an experience I had recently. I was approaching a bus stop at night. A man was sitting on the bench watching what I assumed was a Fox News type program. The man had his phone propped up on his stomach and his pale face was lit up by the glow of the screen. From the blaring volume, I heard clips of Trump shouting, and pundits throwing in their two cents, which is no sense at all. It was creepy, really creepy.

Sabrina is a bit creepy, too, but an artful, good kind of creepy. Creepy because it’s easy to recognize certain features of the current mess we’re in now. Creepy because the mess seems to be getting messier.

Staff Picks: Selected Poems by Dara Wier

Claire recommends Selected Poems by Dara Wier:

Dara Wier is a poet whose work transcends the evolving cycles of American poetry. This collection, her tenth, offers a cross-section of her poetry, and if you’re looking for an entry point into her work, Selected Poems is the book. In it, Wier doesn’t suppress a thing—we are met with the full force of her weirdness, poetry that explores an intensity of experience that is unpoliced, full of humor, longing, and human fragility.

Right off the bat, Wier is like a flirtatious alien showing us her tail. In the collection’s first poem, “She Has This Phantom Limb,” the lines lean into one another, tracking some kind of perverse logic that feels at once completely unnerving and completely right.

She paints the nails.
She oils the hand and thinks
it is moving
down some man’s back.

When I read these lines, I feel the hand down my own back. I feel the alluring, slightly sinister way that Wier doesn’t quite write about the phantom limb, but infuses the poem with the phantom limb’s aboutness. It is an uncanny feeling in truly great poems, when your brain can freely enter into their consciousness, feel their patterns of logic, yet come out of them asking “What was that about?” But of course, the answer can’t be tweezed out with reason; it must be felt. The poems in this collection make meaning out of feeling, associative leaps, the paradox of consciousness, its nightmares, and whimsy.

Wier’s poems are jam-packed with the stuff of this world, full of dog shows and toothaches and snowfields. They offer us a cigarette in the sunflower field. Wier’s poems have an eidetic quality of image; they pass through the mind like ghosts in drag, elegant and unexpected. They resist the nothingness of abstraction, even as they abstract, as in “Colorless Green Ideas”:

We think how difficult it is for nothing
to remain nothing. Everything resists it.

One of the beautiful things about a collection of selected poems such as this one is the variety of the poet’s work that it encompasses. In this collection, we encounter Wier at her most bizarre, her most hypnagogic, in poems that invite a kind of meaning making based on the logic of dreams. We also encounter poems resembling vignettes, telling stories from the natural world, though always just an arm’s length away from some kind of linguistic sorcery. Throughout the collection, there is Wier’s anchoring voice, with an eye for hilarity even amidst disaster, a voice which seems to possess a knowledge of ancient mysteries, even as it describes a fly in your soup. In my opinion, Dara Wier is an essential voice in American Poetry, and if you’re looking for a book of poetry that is altogether sincere in its exploration of the depths of human experience, in all of its absurdity, pleasure and pain, here is one I can highly recommend.

In Praise of Careen

If you’re looking for a wonderful weekend read, we heartily recommend the poetry collection Careen, by poet, journalist and educator Grace Shuyi Liew (published by Noemi Press, and on our shelves right now!)

Claire Bowman just published a review of the collection and an interview with Grace over on the Host Publications’ blog, and it’s well worth a read:

[Careen] captures the strangeness of our times, and the particular strangeness of being an Asian woman living in America. These poems are fierce. They are naked and unadorned, completely without fear even as they enter into the most unstable spaces of the mind, the body and the spirit. This book is a necessary handbook for all of us who are navigating the treacherous sociopolitical climate. It shows us how to remain human, even as we feel more and more alien in our own minds. 

You can read the entire review and interview here, and then stop by the store to pick up a copy of Careen!