Harvest of a Hard Season: Poetry in 2016



Let’s be honest: the end of 2016 has made everyone’s head spin. Like many others I’ve been distracted, swept up in current events. But in a moment defined by misunderstandings and cheap sound bites, I’ve needed the countervailing complex nourishment of books, poems in particular. I’ve needed the solace of human encounter, human rhythms. I’ve needed poetry’s compressions, solitude, intimate light. I’ve needed to be companionable with the lyric art.

One of the fiercest voices I’ve come to love these days is the one that emerges from Chris Santiago’s Tula, a book about what pleases the ear, about mother tongues, about travel and nostalgia, and about losing and finding ourselves in the upending music of language. For Santiago, this pleasure is always political: The eardrum itself registers accents and cadence; the dance between eardrum and voice is the very site where any of us becomes singular. “The first time I saw the inner ear / I thought it looked like a little life, thriving” writes Santiago, who sees his poems as a way of “redacting . . . inheritance.” His own heritage threads through the Philippines, and in his hands this homeland itself is mined for metaphor: the colonized archipelago is fragmented, misremembered, and fleetingly recaptured Santiago’s string of poems. This book is dazzling — “wakeful” and “mackerel-bright.”

Another honeyed light was Melissa Range’s Scriptorium, picked by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith for the National Poetry Series. Range has let her imagination run wild over the province of ancient books, and — as a poet should — she takes carnal pleasure in the word, the object, the phrase. This is a reader’s book, a sensualist’s book, a book about steeping, curating, honing. In a world that sometimes feels increasingly formless, Range dares sonnets, villanelles, and quatrains to focus us. A sonnet to Kermes red, for instance, celebrates the crushed bug that makes vermillion possible. “Christ of the pierced thorax and worm-red cloak” she writes, and her verse throbs as well. Onto this, Range fuses, improbably but richly, her own east Tennessee dialect, one from a “stiff-necked mountain town.” In addition to bookbinding and old script, Range mines her childhood mountains not for coal but for a mother lode of words. The unexpected balance holds. Speaking out of a seam, Range traces forth an ancient vein.

Even as I’ve craved the lush, I’ve felt comforted by poetry’s starkness too. For a world that’s felt wildly confused, perhaps permanently unsettled, I’ve turned to Wayne Miller’s Post-, which traces the fate of elegy now. Miller uses spare language, playing with seemingly simple forms of presence and absence, exploring questions of mourning and meaning in aphoristic verses: “When the movie begins / it erases the empty screen,” or “Chords, like ladders, work because of their emptinesses.” Yet are we allowed to notice our losses? Miller’s poems circle the very form of elegy uneasily, as if in a postmodern world of shooters, screens, and hoax bombs, we have lost even the right to feel lost. His speakers are often deliberately faceless, as in a poem entitled “Consumers in Rowboat.” In another, entitled  “A Bit about the Soul,” Miller begins, “Little fuse. Little blip. Little ball of snow. / Little packet of heroin / egged inside him. / (though how could he know?)” These poems are deeply rueful. The world they inhabit is stripped down, denuded. But like small fuses, or fragile blips — they track their dark necessary path back to the feeling self.

Last, as we leave our own dark year, Jane Mead’s stunning World of Made and Unmade — a book about losing a mother, and tending to a mother dying — has made a stunning calendar of farewell. It represents the kind of compression that poetry can make of the complicated world, and of a whole life, albeit one now at its final margins. Mead is a rancher in northern California, and outside the room where her mother is dying, grape harvests are going on, as is the difficult, unsolved politics of farm labor. Inside her mother’s cottage is a daughter remembering and pain and death — also unsolved, partly unknowable. The book compresses the season of dying. In it death itself — and the act of watching and being present among the living — becomes its own difficult harvest. Mead’s watchfulness stares us down. How will we hold ourselves up, how do we hold on to one another?  “The finest strand of deep blue yarn / connects me to my mother, spool– / unspooling.” It has been a hard season. I have wanted many things, but among them I have wanted to be present, with myself, the human, struggling to make sense of a life that moves through time. How will you spend your courage, / her life asks my life,” Mead writes. Now and always, the poem calls us to attention. The poems call us to feel, to stumble forward, even in the dark. Yes.