What I’m Reading Now… by Kathryn Cowles

 

Upon being asked to write one of these, I immediately looked up what other people had written in order to confirm what I already suspected, which is that other people are much, much, much more interesting and cool than I am. And so my original impulse was to fake what I was reading—to make a version of my reading self that portrayed less what I was actually reading and more the things I wanted others to think I was the sort of person who would read. You know.

I bored even myself pretty quickly this way, though, looping through different possibilities of cool and never feeling happy with the self they would suggest, and so, as a last and deeply suspect impulse, decided to look at what I was actually reading to see if it could give me any direction in writing about what I was supposed to be reading. And here I am. With this list, I’m taking “now” to mean a smattering of the things I’ve read or reread in the last couple of months. Here goes.

Ottessa Moshfegh – Homesick For Another World

I date a lot of novels and short story collections. I also break up with a lot of novels and short story collections. Sometimes we’re getting along just fine and I think it could last when suddenly and for very little reason whether on page 132 or page 4, I just stop. (I do this with TV shows as well, but never movies or albums, for some reason, though there are plenty of those I don’t like.) One thing that always makes me think, “It’s not me, it’s you,” is stuff that’s weird for weird’s sake but has nothing else to it. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply love weird. I grew up on weird. Hell, I’m weird myself. But I like my weird with a bit of heart, with some kind of hook in it that catches me up as a human being. Ottessa Moshfegh is definitely weird, even aggressively weird, but weird shot through with bits of heart, albeit a kind of foreign heart, like a bullet that went through someone else’s chest and ended up in sharp little pieces in my arm. I’m actively dating this book, and the thought of breaking up has never occurred to me.

Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead

When a few years ago the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day sent me Smith’s poem “the bullet was a girl,” I read it through and then read it again. Then I sat still for ten minutes. Then I read it through again, and then I printed it up and hung it on my door. This is not something I do often. Which is not to say being on the stupid door of my stupid office is supposed to be some big prize or compliment. I just can’t think of a way to explain how struck I was, I always am, when reading Smith’s poems, as with this latest collection. How I want to touch the poems with my hands and then hold hands with people I love, or strangers. How I want to get the poems in my students’ mouths, to paint them up on a wall and point to them. I love this book, this writer.

C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster – One Big Self

So photographer Deborah Luster began photographing Louisiana prisoners for complicated reasons, and poet C. D. Wright started tagging along as a self-proclaimed “factotum” to give a parallel, poetic account of these prison visits. I’d already read and loved the poems part of this book before (the part you get when you order the paperback version from Copper Canyon), but a few weeks ago, I suddenly decided I needed to see the famed full original hardcover art book, poems interspersed with photographs, which is actually kind of hard to get one’s hands on. It’s, like, $175 on Amazon, for instance. In the end, I interlibrary loaned it, and it was very, very difficult to give back once it came due. The photographs blossom out the poems, and vice versa. They make a kind of beautiful terrible self-contained sense together. This project is collaborative in effect; what I mean is its collaborative elements amplify its effect. The poems and photographs evidence each other. You can see some of the photographs on Luster’s Web site, too, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the giant actual book, there’s something really moving about holding it, with all its white space, while you read, about looking right at the prisoners’ eyes before you find out how long they’re in for.

I remember reading some of Williams Blake’s poems in a grad class (I had read them before but never really read them), then ordering the Complete Illuminated Books and being shocked at the difference it made to read the poems in that form. And then I went to the Special Collections at the University of Utah library and looked at some copies of the poems printed not by Blake himself but by the Blake Society 100 years later using his original plates, next closest thing, and again I was shocked at the difference, at the bump up from the previous iteration, at the feeling of entering a new dimension with the work. I love Walter Benjamin, but I have to say, contrary to what he argues, some mass-produced copies have aura, and I am, at heart, a sucker for aura. And this version of One Big Self has aura.

Yoko Ono – Grapefruit

I stumbled across this astonishing book on a discount table in a gift shop in the basement of a famous art museum a few years ago after visiting an exhibit called “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950,” one of the most influential-to-me and best-strangest exhibits I’ve ever seen ever, but one that left a person feeling pretty smacked up in the end. The book is little and yellow and contains instructions for art pieces you can make, like this one:

TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE

Imagine one thousand suns in the
sky at the same time.
Let them shine for one hour.
Then, let them gradually melt
into the sky.
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.

or this one:

PAINTING TO LET THE EVENING LIGHT GO THROUGH

Hang a bottle behind a canvas.
Place the canvas where the west light
comes in.
The painting will exist when the bottle
creates a shadow on the canvas, or it does
not have to exist.
The bottle may contain liquor, water,
grasshoppers, ants or stinging insects, or
it does not have to contain.

The pieces in Grapefruit are poems, in my mind, as well as conceptual art pieces. They are both gently funny and strangely moving. They are both nonaggressive and aggressive in a winking, charming way. They are so many of the things I love about writing. I’m teaching a Hybrid Forms Workshop right now, and we’re reading excerpts from this book, so I will soon be reading less wonderful imitations of these from my wonderful students (she writes seriously, not sarcastically—just because they aren’t Yoko Ono doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful), and I won’t even mind it because I like the originals so damn much.

James Galvin – The Meadow

This one’s a little bit throwback, but hear me out. I am from the west. But I live in the east. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I live—I’m on a Finger Lake, for fuck’s sake. I am surrounded by beautiful. But when I go too long without visiting my part of the west, my part of the east gets all into my eyes, all that green, so that when I land in an airplane in Salt Lake City, it sometimes takes a couple of days for the landscape to make sense to me. For a couple of days, everything looks washed out, like photographs from the 70s, like someone took the edge off the regular green, dulled it down. Then, a couple of days pass and I remember that where I grew up is the most beautiful place in the whole wide world. It makes me sad that I can forget this, even for a little bit.

Lately, I’ve been writing about Seneca (which is my Finger Lake). For a two-month span there, I would go to the lake every day I could, rain or shine, and write about it in between fits of reading ancient Chinese wilderness poets (from David Hinton’s anthology Mountain Home, another book I’ve been reading lately, now that I think of it) and take the same unremarkable photograph from the same bench every day as evidence, which I want to hang next to the writing in a gallery to show the scale of the everyday—that’s my end game. This lake is not entirely my place, but I’m at the point where if I died tomorrow, I would want my loved ones to spread some of my ashes over my lake and some over my mountain, Timpanogos, thousands of miles away. I love this place. But I’ve found that in order to write about this place, I need to be reading about my original place, about the west. And so I’ve been reading The Meadow, which is an epic of place and one of the truest books I’ve ever read. I read it and it reminds me who I am via where I’m from. Or at least nearby there.

Goodness, in writing about other people’s books, I’m spending a lot of time talking about myself. Sorry about that.

Rebecca Lindenberg – Love, An Index

Lindenberg wrote this book after her partner of many years, the poet Craig Arnold, disappeared while researching volcanoes on a remote island in Japan. The poems circle around the circumstances of the writing of the book, the big terrible nothing at its center. Sometimes they look at it over their shoulder. Sometimes they reach out and touch it. I’ve read this book a lot of times, and I will never be over this book. The central title poem, which is written in index form, is among the most human, moving, hilarious, heartbreaking things I have ever read, and I will never, ever be over it. It’s like the goddamn Old Man and the Sea in that every time I read it I still cry. Except that I’m kind of over The Old Man and the Sea, but not this book. Which is why I’m teaching it, once again, this semester. Which is why I’m reading it, once again.