The Poet’s Nightstand
The Poets Nightstand with Michael Robbins
In The Poet's Nightstand, we ask poets to talk about five books that have made a big impression on them recently. Michael Robbins selected Diane Seuss, Chelsey Minnis, Natalie Shapero, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and Anahid Nersessian.
Diane Seuss, Frank: Sonnets (Graywolf Press)
It irritates me when I discover a new poet whose books I have to track down and read relentlessly because they're just so goddamn good. I already have too many books. My friend Paige Ackerson-Kiely, herself one of the world's great poets, texted me a couple of poems from Seuss's new collection, and I became very irritated. Nothing since Olena Kalytiak Davis's The Poem She Didn't Write and Other Poems has scratched my itch for word-wilding without preciousness like Seuss's sonnets (unlike so many contemporary "sonnets," they're not just 14-line poems). Anyone can verb nouns like an affected undergraduate in love with his own voicemail greeting. It takes a volcano to write like this: "You know what living means? Tits out, tits in the rain"; "I could do it. I could walk into the sea. / I have a rental car. It’s blue and low on fuel."
Chelsey Minnis, Baby, I Don't Care (Wave Books)
I wrote about this book a little back in 2018. I still don't think it's quite as good as Minnis's Poemland, but that's a once-in-a-century lightning-strike, just cleaving the old oak tree in the town square right down the middle. I recently recommended Baby, I Don't Care to a student in my undergrad advanced workshop, and I started flipping through it and never put it back on the shelf:
There are a lot of compliments lying around.
Why don't you give me some?
You're the kind of darling I hate.
Now let's get ritzy.
I'm a pair of diamond earrings away from sleeping with you.
These nervy pieces are all attitude and bravado, like Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, which is to say they're terribly vulnerable and a little sad.
Natalie Shapero, Popular Longing (Copper Canyon Press)
A kid asked me where to start with death metal, I told him to go back to the beginning: Morbid Angel, Death, Possessed, Suffocation, Incantation. When I first heard those records, the world was still a surprise. Shapero gives me the same sense of freshness, blasting the cobwebs off the rafters. Not that her poems are like death metal—they're like the poems that woke me up when I was 20, reading on the quad and thinking, "Oh, you can do that?" Shapero's speaker is constantly swapping out spite for barely-holding-it-together: "Apparently it's illegal here to tattoo / a person who's crying."
Tongo Eisen-Martin, Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Books)
Some openings: "I walked off the plane somewhere over Ohio"; "When a drummer is present, / They are God"; "Apparently, too much of San Francisco was not there in the first place"; "I am off to make a church bell out of a bank window"; "Thinner streets mean somewhere God is tired of this brand of cigarettes." Eisen-Martin's mind moves fast, fast, taking shortcuts across a city of prisons, "back alley arguments," "chalk outlines," payday loans, the whole thing inexplicably shot through, sometimes, with joy. Along with Sean Bonney's, these were the poems I turned to during last summer's uprising. "The first white man invented the first flagpole / while inspired by the first hole he ever put in a human being."
Anahid Nersessian, Keats's Odes (University of Chicago Press)
I'm cheating, since Nersessian is contemporary but not a poet, and Keats is a poet but not contemporary. (Also I am thanked by the author, a dear friend, in the acknowledgments.) But this book! Keats! Whoda thunk anyone had anything new to say about John Keats? Nersessian demolishes the kitschy gift-shop Keats, giving us in exchange a dangerous political poet whom you have to read Marx to fully grok. This never gets tendentious, because it is leavened with a personal narrative modeled on Barthes's Lover's Discourse, and because it sings in its chains: "When I say this book is a love story, I mean it is about things that cannot be gotten over—like this world, and some of the people in it."