More echo of myth. Although I never thought this was my thing until I sat down to do this, and now I see, looking backwards: breadcrumbs. H.D. made films. Not many people know this, but it was one of the things I like about her, that she put into practice what I have only considered, that film images and poetic images have affinity. That the unraveling of a poem line by line is an unspooling. That poetry, like celluloid, should be exceptionally flammable.

Trilogy was the first long poem I ever read–or long sequence. I loved the pacing of it, the patient couplets making evenly measured steps forward. I have always loved her for “Oread” and this was like “Oread” on Red Bull. It went on forever. It forbade the war from winning, and yet it is a book of the war. It is unsentimental and it will not stop caring. There are a lot of contradictions inside.

It made me love the couplet.

The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara

He was the first poet I read exhaustively. He was like my first poet love in that way. He was strange and unknowable and I was excited by his sudden confessions, which seemed improper, too intimate for our level of familiarity.

I met him in a college poetry class. My teacher Jennifer Willoughby brought in “The Day Lady Died” and encouraged us to write something “immediate,” something in the moment, something of the day-to-day. It engulfed me, that assignment, and became the way I interacted with poems for a long, long time.

At a used bookstore near campus, I found this book. It was $18.95, or almost 10 packs of cigarettes. I bought it. I carried it around with me for years, and then while I was in grad school it followed me around some more. Once, a boy I liked read pieces from it to me, and I read some back. I made steady progress through it and Frank became like an obsession for me. Obsession’s not the right word. He became a kind of dream for me.

I still love him. I still think of him. I still go back to this book from time to time. I still dream.


I love this book because it does not let go–of its concerns, of the reader.

I love this book because it tells the same story any number of times and each iteration is unique, horrifying, ruining.

I love this book because it tries to be sexy sometimes when it thinks you’re looking at it.

I love this book because, ultimately, it chides itself for its sexiness, for wanting to think it is seen by you when it thinks you are looking.

I love this book for its multitude of striking lines and juxtapositions, for its liberal use of the page and for its concern with a physical kind of unraveling, for its attempt to be structured but then more loose in association and narrative.

I love this book for the dream about the Safeway when the speaker is sure there will be a hold up, when the lover teases him for it, when someone suddenly shouts “Nobody move!” and the speaker whispers “I told you so” because it is precisely the thing I would do in such a situation. Because the book knows that even though we like to think ourselves valiant, at heart we succumb to our most basic needs and instincts.

I love this book because it runs on instinct.

Because it is a giant sequence and not at all a sequence.

Because its title means both “to smash” and “to love.”

Diving Into the Wreck

I was already a fan of Adrienne Rich when I read this book, but it became the book that, for me, solidified my connection to her. Reading it some thirty years after it was written, I felt like I could see some of the work in it, some of the intentions, some of the politics, but that the poems, as pieces, and the collection, as a whole, still stood.

I think of “Diving Into the Wreck,” the title piece, as a kind of ars poetica. In the poem, the speaker–guess what?–dives into a sunken wreck and examines the detritus there. For me, the act of writing poetry is just this kind of explorations. We go in with expectations and curiosity, develop questions, and leave, hopefully, having answered some of them, or found something wholly new there.

The poems of this volume are plain-spoken, somewhat stark even, lacking some of the more formal structures and considerations in Rich’s later (and earlier) work, so reading her books backwards in time makes this volume feel wild, unstructured, and fearless. But like many of the books that speak to me, it is haunted, it is shadowed, it is aware that despite the poems, the world is full of shadows, full of wrecks, full of questions.

Lie Awake Lake

Another grief sequence today, but this one is somewhat different. While mourning the loss of a father, the speaker of these poems turns to the natural world, where memories of animal encounters and dreams of animal encounter abound, as well as subtle explorations of flowers and plants, all leading toward a zen understanding of the universe’s quest for balance.

This is a book of memory, where the mind is always in the act of remembering, about to remember, or craving memory. What is familiar is mistaken for echo rather than suggestion.

There are two poems from this book that follow me. “Wren” includes the sudden memory of dipping a hand into a pool to fish out a small bird stranded there, recognizing as it shudders with fear despite the salvation the hand brings. “Dogwalk Triptych,” near the end of the book, brings to mind every time I’ve seen a dog play on a beach. The images throughout the book are startling and memorable, but what truly sings is the language, which is luscious, erotic, and cropped all at the same time.

Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced

This collection will destroy you. It is such a finely wrought, spot-on exploration of grief–grief over the death of children, two of them, which is always unimaginable, if you’ve ever loved a child. In a steady sequence of brief, lyric poems, Catherine Barnett reifies this grief through objects, dreams, tableaus.

The tableau is actually such an essential part of this book, now that I think of it. There are many stilled images that echo the loss of the girls. The most enduring are the white ribbons tied to a fence at the school, the girls’ rooms unchanged, their clothes.

The smart move is that the tragedy does not occur in the book, making these poems a kind of V-shape, like a boat wake, slowly widening out, just as the experience and understanding of grief begins with a sharp stab and dulls outward back into the world, where it comes mixed with the work of living.

This is a great example of narrative sequence, where each poem is a lyric component of a larger narrative, particularly one that moves emotionally rather than with causality.