I Don’t Know What T. S. Eliot Was Talking About, or, It’s National Poetry Month!

How odd that National Poetry Month falls in April—the month so famously designated as “cruel” in one of the canonical poems of Western literature (The Waste Land). Is this irony, or whimsy, or just an unfortunate coincidence?

Regardless, as we slide toward the end of National Poetry Month, here are a few of the poetry collections I’ve been reading.

In Whereas, Layli Long Soldier takes as her starting point President Obama’s 2009 signing of a Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans. Long Soldier adapts and evokes “official” language, that of contracts and proclamations, to precisely document the reality of being a dual person, both American and Native American. Long Soldier’s careful language underscores the reality of inhabiting multiple languages, and thus multiple worlds. As she writes, “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”

Donika Kelly’s Bestiary includes a series of love poems addressed to various mythical creatures. The whole book is mesmerizing, but it is these poems in particular that I keep rereading. It isn’t easy to breathe freshness into and around these old beasts, but Kelly does just that, as in her “Love Poem: Chimera,” which I’m sharing here in full:

 

I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought

myself body enough for two, for we.

Found comfort in never being lonely.

 

What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived

along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane

to forked tongue beneath the skin. What clamor

 

we made in birthing. What hiss and rumble

at the splitting, at the horns and beard,

at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.

 

What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie

are we. What we’ve made of ourselves. 

Finally, in Tears and Saints, first published in 1937, the Romanian intellectual E.M. Cioran presents hundreds of aphoristic passages on mysticism, music, the nature of pain, the politics of sainthood, and, yes, tears. I’m including the book here because its language is undeniably poetic—piercing, musing, associative. Two of my favorite passages are: “The dead center of existence: when it is all the same to you whether you read a newspaper article or think about God,” and “The poor maidservant who used to say that she only believed in God when she had a toothache puts all theologians to shame.” Tears and Saints mystifies and electrifies—and that makes it poetry, as far as I’m concerned.

All three of these books are doing the essential poetic work of, as Eliot writes in The Waste Land, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Whatever the reasons for April being designated National Poetry Month, I hope you’ll check out these books, and much more poetry, throughout the year.

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