Read This – Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped

Last week, in my course this semester on rural America in contemporary literature, we started reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped. We’d read a novel and a book of short fiction previously, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, respectively, and I have to admit I was anxious about the move to nonfiction, fearing my students might not fully appreciate the difference, might not understand Ward is telling a given story, rather than creating a story. I was worried the class might leap to judgement before trying out understanding, might be confused by and even afraid of a culture most of them do not share.

I was straight wrong. My students handled the transition with wisdom and care. They articulated to each other the fundamental differences between the project of a memoir and the project of a novel or collection of short fiction; they talked and wondered and built metaphors of understanding. It was the kind of thoughtful, probing, compassionate discussion that almost makes you want to weep for how brilliant your students are, and how special a place the college classroom really is.

But I have to thank Jesmyn Ward, too. She’s written the finest investigation of race, violence, masculinity, and rural poverty I’ve ever read. The achronological, back-and-forth structure; the sharp, angry voice; the clarity of observation and investigation–this is simply a necessary American memoir. Steel yourself for a heart-rending, hard-hitting story, and go read it now.

Read This – Amy Leach’s Things That Are

Image“Come and miss the boat with me,” invites Amy Leach, in “Donkey Derby,” the delightful prologue to Things That Are, her book of science and nature essays. “Come and play some guessing games. We’ll read aloud the illegible electric green script of the northern lights; we’ll speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova. […] I’ll buy you the rain, you buy me snow, and we’ll go in together for sunshine for the grass and the clover and the delicious prickly thistles.” And even with these first few lines, you begin to see it. Things That Are is like nothing you’ve ever read: the Seussian language and syntax, the quirky, careful observations, and the wild, myriad subjects themselves—goats, peas, panda bears, colliding galaxies, God, global climate change, and oracles—it all combines to create a tone that is fun, funny, and whimsical, as well as serious, reverent, wise, and suffused with grace.

I started dog-earing pages and quit, because I found myself turning back every corner, top and bottom, left and right. Besides, you can simply open Things That Are to any old page and find a line that’ll shock you right back into the real world, the world of silly lilies and stars. For instance, from page 166, this:

Perhaps you have noticed, when you take your wind chimes down to polish them, that the wind does not stop blowing, or that when you put your flute away you do not stop breathing. The wind does not need wind chimes to blow, nor does a person require a flute to breathe; the oracles were not speaking from their own understanding but transmitting the Earth’s emanations. They were mediums, exhilarated intermediaries—the middlewomen gone, the Earth itself may be our authority.

See what I mean? Go miss the boat with Amy Leach. It’s quite a ride.

Read This – Alyson Hagy’s Boleto

9781410457967_500X500On the second page of Alyson Hagy’s quiet yet striking novel Boleto, Will Testerman, a young Wyomingite with a restless sadness in him, considers one of his quarrelsome father’s long-time complaints: “Town is eating its way right past us . . . When I was a kid, you couldn’t pay people to live in this part of the state. Too cold. Too much isolation. Now everybody in America thinks they’re in love with fresh air and loneliness.” Will dismisses his father, a man who has given himself over to a town job he hates to supplement the lean years on the ranch, as a man who has bartered away what he once held dear, as a man unable to dream. Will Testerman, though, now there’s a dreamer. Will has an ache for a kind of wild, elemental excellence. He dreams of working with horses, the best horses—and making them even better.

Will’s journey, of course, is not nearly so simple and clean and honest as he would like it to be. From slopping stalls as a groom for horse people in Texas to training polo ponies in suburban southern California for the mysterious Don Enrique, Will finds that the American West has been and continues to be the play-place of those who’ve extracted or variously used its mythic landscape and its people for all they’re worth. Yet Will’s dream blinds him to this abuse, to the greed all around, and before he knows it he finds he must choose to either follow his vision of horsemanship or save an illegal immigrant he works with from a cruel fate at Don Enrique’s hands.

He does the right thing, of course; he sells his prize filly and turns for home. Though he will come back to his father’s house a well-to-do man, though his father will very likely congratulate him on his success, we understand he has lost nearly everything, and our hearts break for him. “Ah, shit,” Will says to his filly Ticket, trying finally to explain himself and his stinging dreams. “It ought to be simple, right? You do a thing, and you do it right, and it gets done. But this stupid Wyoming person kept reading the situations wrong. He kept getting the people so wrong that it didn’t matter if he got the horses right.”

Like one of those country songs where everything goes wrong, I left Boleto still humming Hagy’s wide-open, wind-and-worry tune. Even a few pages into the book, we’re pretty sure things aren’t going to work out for Will. But that doesn’t matter. The sad, expansive, affecting particulars of Will Testerman’s journey of disillusionment are what make the novel so fine. Hagy’s Boleto offers us the best that tragedy and fiction can: another mind, another heart, another world. We are moved by Will’s brilliance—his devotion to doing things right, his quiet and impressive competence, his love and care for those around him. We are moved as well by his faults—his blind ambition, his fumbling for relationship. Though Will Testerman is brought low by the end of Boleto, I feel myself grow larger, as if I might turn from the pages and move through my world with more care and grief, able to better feel the wind.

Between Texas and California, those two disastrous poles, Will takes summer work as corral boss at a dude ranch in the Absaroka Mountains of northern Wyoming. It is here, in the company of horses, wolves howling in the night and elk wandering the mountain draws, that Will seems most himself, that his honesty and his earnest, hard-working nature are most on display. One day, out on a ride, he and a boy from Georgia get caught in a rain storm. The cinch on the boy’s saddle breaks, and they are forced take shelter in a shallow cave, the roof blackened by ancient fires, while Will fixes the saddle. “Have you always been a cowboy?” the boy asks Will:

Will laughed and put his hat back onto his head. The kid had bought a silver felt hat for himself in Cody before he got to the ranch, and he had never taken it off, not during the entire ordeal. Not like you mean, he said. I was a boy first. I used to play football like you play soccer. I did all those science and history projects in school.

Though Will’s answer is gentle and knowing, it might be the very key to his tragedy. Even in this good place, a place he can almost be what he is, Will Testerman can’t quite say it. Or maybe it is that he doesn’t know. No matter, if he can’t claim it here, where there is still some room for a cowboy in the world, Lord knows there won’t be anyplace else for him.

Read This – Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country

beautifulCountryThe other weekend, on a plane from Denver to Minneapolis, my sixteen-month-old son sleeping fitfully on my lap, I reread Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country and felt like some kind of thief, keeping all these breathless, needful, gainsaying poems to myself. I wanted to whisper into the small hollow of my son’s ear, recite to my wife, turn in my seat and to the man in the blue suit behind me say, “Listen.”

Consider “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin,” a short, unassuming lyric near the middle of the book, in which the speaker simply tells of how he lifted the old leather cover and “the book / opened like a blasted bird,” how there were no more “familiar and miraculous inks,” only “a constructions of filaments and dust, / thoroughfares of worms, and a silage / of silverfish husks.” Though these lines can no doubt be read as a succinct critique of one of our deepest, most pernicious national obsessions, what I find so powerful about the poem is that it wrecks us and reconstructs us. The end takes us one step further: “in the autumn light, / eight hundred pages of perfect wordless lace.” In place of Paul’s fearful exhortations and those miracles that work against the natural world, Wrigley gives us the rot of silverfish, autumn light, and lace. He allows us, for a moment, to be in and of the world.

The poem, like so many in the book, is technically dazzling as well: dense, sound driven, syntactically various. Truly, Wrigley is the rare poet who delights and challenges the intellect, while instructing the heart. And there is no better example of this than the very next poem in the book, “Exxon”: a three-page, moment-exploding tour de force about shaking a wounded Iraq War vet’s hand at a gas station. Here, rather than letting the images themselves allude to the cultural forces surrounding a particular moment, Wrigley names them all. Searching after some kind of meaning, he lets his language spin out and away and grab hold of everything from prosthetic supply catalogs and the Book of Job to IED’s, our gasoline fueled capitalism, and definitions of citizenship. Yet Wrigley again refuses to merely deconstruct, refuses to let us let go that vet’s hand. Like the war itself, the poem inexorably marches on and into all our lives:

See the soldier who nods and whose left

intact hand extended to your extended right one

confuses you an instant, but who nods again

to relieve you in your awkwardness. And behold them,

your untouched touched hands, as he nestles his man-made

right one over both of yours on his left, feeling,

between his old self and his new, a responsible citizen.

Many of the poems in Beautiful Country follow these patterns. Like “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin,” “Lichen,” “Misunderstanding,” and “Hailstorm in the Mountains” are all carefully crafted lyrics, while “County,” “American Fear,” and “Do Not Go” are similar to “Exxon” for their torqued language and sheer ferocity. Yet Wrigley has always been a powerful narrative poet as well. While never leaving that songlike language, with poems like “Responsibility,” “Letting Go,” and “Beautiful Country” Wrigley allows the poems to loosen up as he tells us of weekend pack trips with his sons and days spent stemming pot as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book, “Miss June, 1971,” has Wrigley again remembering his CO days, facing down an angry sergeant major and a Playboy calendar on the wall behind him:

I was not a Protestant then and did not protest

the sergeant major’s treatment of me. Instead, I took it

and didn’t say a word but studied

the bit of parsley between his teeth, August 1971,

and, for many years thereafter, understood nothing.

Almost all the poems in Beautiful Country are sharper, angrier, more culturally concerned than those of Wrigley’s last few books, yet readers will find Wrigley still grappling with many of his usual subjects: horses, mountains, starlight, the wind in the cedars. For this strange but effective admixture, Beautiful Country calls to mind two of Wrigley’s earlier masterworks: The Lives of the Animals, a book deeply rooted in the mountains of Idaho, and What My Father Believed, which chronicles Wrigley’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and his relationship with his father. Beautiful Country is also, simply, a great book by one of our great poets.

Though I missed the man in the blue suit, I have already given Beautiful Country over to my wife. Someday, when he is wondering at this maddening, breathtaking country of ours, I will hand it to my son.


This review originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion magazine.

Read This – Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys

Stories for Boys

Read This – Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys: A Memoir

As a teacher of creative nonfiction writing, I spend a good portion of my time trying to convince my students that the best memoirs and personals essays are never about what happened—but about what the author makes of what happened.

This, I would like them to understand, matters a great deal, as it then opens up for exploration all the mundane, pedestrian, and, to use a word they often us, “normal” parts of our lives. Took a walk across town the other day? Called your older sister for the first time in a few months? Remembered, for some reason, that big camping trip your family took when you were seven? Write about it. There is a richness there; something you, and the reader, might discover.

The converse of this axiom, of course, is that if you do happen to lead a particularly fascinating life or have gone through something terrifying or wild, you still can’t ride on just what happened. You have to try, no matter how particular or terrifying the story, to make some kind of sense of it all.

Which is why I so admire Gregory Martin’s new memoir Stories for Boys. Consider the sequence of events: Martin gets a call from his mother: his father has just tried to commit suicide. Later, talking with his father in the hospital, Martin finds out two things: 1) that his father was molested as a boy by his own father and 2) that his father is gay and for most of his adult life has been having anonymous affairs with men at rest stops and in parks. Martin’s parents subsequently divorce, Martin struggles to support and understand both his parents during this process, and Martin’s father then moves across the country and attempts to begin another life. Whew.

But here’s what’s so admirable, so affecting: Martin lays out these plots points just about as fast as I have right here, and then he gets down to the real work—trying to make a story of all this that he might believe in and be able to share with his own young sons.

The story in Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys is the making of the story. Using photographs; email transcripts; psychological research; Walt Whitman anecdotes; treehouse blueprints; careful, restrained scenes; and good-old-fashioned thought on the page, Martin details his years-long search for a way to make of all that has happened a new story, a truer story, a story that he, his sons, and his father can live with. And in the process he has written a beautiful, truth-full, hope-filled memoir.

Read This – Chris Dombrowski’s Earth Again

It has been my luck to have in my life a great wealth of teachers, mentors, and friends who press books into hands and say, You have to read this.

From Sometimes a Great Notion to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, from The Book of Nightmares to Beloved, many of my favorite books—those life-changing books, from which you look up and the world has irrevocably shifted—have come to me this way, and so, in gratitude, I begin here on the blog an irregular series—maybe once or twice a month, in among my writing news—titled Read This. Some of the recommendations will be original, some will come from the reviews I have written and continue to write for Orion Magazine.

I’ll get started with this review (which appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion) of Chris Dombrowski’s beautiful, harrowing new book of poems, Earth Again:




“Go light and soft / with this pittance,” Chris Dombrowski whispers to a hatchling mayfly in the remarkable opening poem of Earth Again, “straight to the lord / whose commandments are writ in water.” And, stunned nearly dumb as I am by the book entire, Dombrowski’s second full-length collection, I can think of no better place to begin and so will as well invoke his small-l lord—his lord of a boy with “a king’s courage” asking “What means die?” and “Is the moon / a shining thing?”; of a “trout’s eye,” a woman’s “ornate hip-bone / tattoo,” and “the one mind of the woods”; his “one who sent us,” his “light the sculptor,” his lord of a “blue sky no one / built.” For—and there is no other way to say it—this is a holy book.

These last feverish weeks of the semester, as I read and re-read these urgent, burning poems—early in the morning with a cup of coffee; late in the evening, after my children are tucked into bed and dreaming; or in stolen moments between classes and faculty meetings, trying to force myself to feel and know and hold the day more fully—I found myself underlining and starring and scribbling down not only knee-buckling images and turns of phrase, but commandments and questions to live by. I wept reading this book. I was wrecked reading this book. I sat back and stared out the window, my heart hammering in the suddenly fragile feeling bone-house of my chest.

Consider “Comes to Worse” and “Trimmings,” two of the three long poems that anchor the unsectioned book. Both poems scrawl their way across the width of the page, numerous dropped lines and radical enjambment wrenching the reader through and into the various narratives and moments of meditation. Both poems also employ multiple perspectives: in “Comes to Worse” three different voices speak to and question, in turn, the same event, and in “Trimmings” the single speaker cannot let the situation rest, no matter if he is in his backyard listening to the thudding of windfall fruit or staring at a backwards clock in the barber’s mirror. And both of these risky, courageous poems wrestle with that most nonsensical, most horrifying, most God abandoning of events—the death of a child. In “Comes to Worse” the mother has nothing to do but pray for her son, the rebellious snowboarder and suicide: “I can only wish him / more earth, in the bluntest of terms: another stolen swig of whiskey / brief as July snow, another hard tumble on his board, another / fuck, another hummingbird.” And in “Trimmings” Dombrowski insistently interrogates his own need to wonder at and write about the sudden death of his son’s preschool playmate: “You were talking about the light? / I am. / In the blood of which—of whom?—we are washed.”

And then, as if he knows what our souls need, Dombrowski follows each of these long poems with shorter, lyrical pieces that reckon intimately with the physical world and work to purify and consecrate the sadness we have so recently passed through. For example, here, in its entirety, is “A Toast,” which follows “Trimmings”:

Milkweed pod

            gone to seed


            open, wind-


                        two shallow

            cups of shadow—


“[P]erhaps good John Keats / was wrong,” Dombrowski concludes, in one of the final poems in the book: “the world isn’t the vale / of soul-making so much as it is the river / running through the vale in which souls / can drown.” Though there are moments of levity and irony throughout Earth Again, moments when the poet simply must look away to ready himself to turn back again, to further true his gaze, Dombrowski’s ultimate vision is sepulchral and harrowing. Yet in this good, honest, knife-edge light, you will—I promise—find ways you might “bore your heels into the / earth” and “feel light / strike the bones,” ways you might let “the river / [enter your] body,” its only “route out through [your] eyes.”