Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Three Contemporary Poets

bringing the shovel downBringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay

I loved Gay’s first book, Against Which, for its verve and tough-minded honesty. That collection’s second poem, “It Starts at Birth,” exemplifies this poet’s gritty, encompassing vision that balances the so much that is wrong in our world with the seemingly impossible beauty and hope that can still fill our lives. One of my teacher friends created an outstanding writing prompt based on “The Truth,” a poem in Against Which that repeats “Because” statements to tell the story of a teenage speaker working in a Burger King Whopper line alongside a middle-aged man whom the speaker knows to be struggling to provide for his family. All this praise for Against Which is a long way of saying I wish I’d enjoyed Gay’s second collection, Bringing the Shovel Down, more. Gay’s talent for line and image is clearly growing, and I’m excited to see what’s next, but the grittiness of his second book feels less balanced by the beauty and hope that cracks through many of the poems in his first book. I’d say Bypass Bringing the Shovel Down (though I’d say buy Against Which if you’re looking for some contemporary poetry very much rooted in the trials and hard-won joys of our present moment).

forbidden entriesForbidden Entries by John Yau

Yau and Gay are distinctly different poets. Whereas Gay typically keys his verse in the concrete detail of the real world and creates mini-narratives, Yau is focused more on explicitly exploring the way language works and on a more dream-like progression of detail and experience. For me, the best of Yau’s books has been A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns, which is actually a non-poetry work of art criticism that has helped me to more deeply appreciate and engage with one of the most important artists of the 20th Century (Johns is still working now in the 21st). One of the many cool ideas in that book is how Johns’s work inverts our usual understanding of Before and After to place our present moment firmly between After and Before—a kind of omnipresent stasis (that is actually not static at all) as we stand between everything we’ve known and all the unknown that awaits. A Thing Among Things, published in a beautiful hardcover by Distributed Art Publishers, is a good intro to Yau’s thinking. Forbidden Entries, which I was thrilled to find at a used bookstore in Asheville, is the third of Yau’s collections I’ve tried to read. I say “tried” because his poetry requires effort and patience for me, given a personal preference for realism and narrative more along the lines of Gay’s poetry. Still, I think Yau is worth the effort because of his poetry’s potential to open up lived experience in ways I had not thought to imagine. His play with language can also be very funny. Yau’s collections aren’t always easy to find, and until you decide he’s right for you, I’d start out with a trip to your local library to Borrow a few of his books including Forbidden Entries.

the long meadowThe Long Meadow by Vijay Seshadri

This is a recent re-read and my Buy recommendation. The Long Meadow is Seshadri’s second book. His third and most recent, 3 Sections, won the Pulitzer and is near the top of my stupid-long-won’t-ever-stop-growing-or-leave-me-alone books-to-read list. It’s convenient for this post and true enough to say that Seshadri’s poetry in The Long Meadow stakes a middle ground between Gay’s realism and Yau’s more language-based poems—though you can’t write a statement like that without seeming to undervalue Gay’s serious skills with language or Yau’s highly imaginative take on human reality. In The Long Meadow, Seshadri fills his lines with language play and rhyme, shifts easily between concrete detail to scientific minutia to the vast history and emotion that enwrap our lives. Though not my favorite in the collection, “Wolf Soup” illustrates Seshadri’s vision through a father’s description of sharing “The Three Little Pigs” with his young son. The below excerpt picks up where the father describes the no-consequences ending of a child-friendly version of the original fairy tale that he’s shared with his young son:

Everyone has survived their lessons.
Everyone, as in the Last Judgment of the Zoroastrians,
is saved, even the wolf,
today exterminated
across much of the world, and almost so
in the forty-eight contiguous states.
The real story, which is locked in my desk
while I write this encryption, goes,
as you all remember, differently.
In it, the wolf eats the first two pigs,
but the third pig, the smart pig,
the shrewd, shrewd little pig, eats him in a soup
flavored with the turnips gathered
in a memorable prior episode.
Long did that pig rest a pensive trotter on the windowsill,
as he looked down the dusty road
travelled by the wolf.
His brothers were dead, his mother
unapproachable in her grief, and for weeks
the taste of wolf, at once unguent, farinaceous, brittle, and serene,
touched his mind with a golden fire.
In a pig’s eye, he thought,
as his molecules began to recombine . . .
My son might be ready for this version of the story.
Like most four-year-olds,
he’s precocious and realistic and bloody-minded.
He already knows, for example, that Jack
was nothing better than a common thief,
and has at some point observed
that giants let their fingernails grow,
sometimes to hideous lengths.

There’s a sense of play throughout Seshadri’s verse that can nudge a reader toward surprising climactic moments and on to the recognition of hard truths. (You can read the whole poem and an older interview with the poet here.) Above, the molecular deconstruction of the wolf in the pig’s mouth and gut carries the reader forward to a child’s instinct for vengeance and fascination with the hideous. Depending on your sensibilities, that summation may make Seshadri’s work sound darker than it is. The poems in The Long Meadow manage to be fun, inventive, serious, and heart-felt. A definite Buy.

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