University of Salford Press Office
University of Salford Press Office

Ellen McGrath Smith’s Four Books That Prove You Can Get the News from Poems

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems.” Yeah, William Carlos Williams said that, but I always thought he was making a nickel concession in order to deliver the thousand-dollar point that what is found in poetry is essential to a meaningful life. But lately, I’ve been thinking that the news is part of what makes poetry a necessity rather than a luxury. Old news. Breaking news. Broken news. Fixed. Now more than ever, when a poet sits down to write, the news hatches all over the screen on which she makes poems. How could we ever pretend poetry was on another plane when it’s just one among many open windows?

I was a poet working as a freelance journalist when Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us was published; the book’s fine fusion of poetry and documentary changed the way I understood U.S. involvement in Central America. Later, I would learn of Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, originally published as a poem in her 1938 collection, U.S. 1. It was truly a hybrid work, a collage of testimony, transcripts, and dramatic monologues in the voices of the many Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, residents who were gravely impacted by the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster. Had I ever heard of this disaster before? No. I got this news from a poem. “These roads will take you into your own country,” Rukeyser’s title poem begins. They did, because the news I learned from those poems might have been old, but the corporate greed that led to illness and death in West Virginia (and elsewhere) continues, nearly a century later, to be news. In more recent years, greed, environmental disaster, racial and economic injustices have been the newsworthy and poem-worthy topics of books like Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, which fleshes out and ensouls the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking, necessary exploration of race in Citizen.

I get the news and a whole lot more from poems. Maybe Williams meant that the news can’t just be “gotten,” like a pack of cigarettes, or “gotten,” as in, “Yeah, yeah (nod) I gotcha.” It can’t be extracted from a poem without the poem’s other stuff getting all over it: bodiliness, interiorities, associations of things we like to keep separate so we can more or less function in our current mode of living—attractions, revulsions, terrors, toe-nail clippings, placenta, drool on the pillow case. And that other stuff is what weds to you, enters and becomes part of you.

 
1. Robin Clarke, Lines the Quarry

I could read this book over and over. One reason is that Robin Clarke is telling many stories, or rather, she is seeing human life, human history, as a vast quarry whose lines intersect if you look closely and critically enough. There are lines that are harder to see, but she sees them, and invites readers into the quarry to look at the ways it has been exploited–even, in some cases, stripped. The book tells of the wars waged on workers during the Homestead Strike of 1892, and refers to the BP Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, for example. Personal narratives blend into political ones. When the speaker indirectly conjures parents who are both lost (one to prison, one to cancer), I imagine a person abandoned with only “what ifs” as company, “what ifs” that work like filaments of a web spun out of personal suffering to create a wider web of suffering. The web is created through found-poems comprised of lists of statistics that by themselves don’t evoke the suffering they tabulate—workers’ compensation injuries, illnesses, and fatalities; U.S. mining disasters; the industrial farming of genetically altered chickens kept “in a state of constant hunger.”

Other poems work contrapuntally: plain-style lines that seem closer to journalistic language than to poetry continually anchor a poem in lived history, and play off of the lyric tug of lines full of longing and loss.

I get the sense that these narratives and lines of thought underwent an explosion, that the book is, in part, an effort to piece it back together; to read it is to witness the piecing-together. There is a linear way to do this, a conventionally coherent way to do this, but I don’t think that’s what Clarke wanted. Even though movements from line to line can be disjunctive, I don’t find myself confused. The storyline of the movie Robocop, the exploitation of animals in industrial chicken farming, and the long hours of a retail worker whose cigarette breaks will kill her—all these threads may seem unconnected, but Clarke’s continual juxtapositioning of them suggests otherwise. “[W]hat do you see as details // what do you see as details / This makes us human, this,” Clarke writes. The book is resolute in keeping the news coming in and lining the pages with its challenge: to not tune it out but, rather, to learn more and to act, even if that means, as a poem in tribute to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones suggests, “[becoming] the most / dangerous America itself.”

 
2. Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec

Drug addiction is making the headlines now because it has spread into socioeconomic classes and demographics in which suffering registers as “unusual.” But when it comes to poor and minority communities, addiction has generally been portrayed, by the media, as business as usual. This stunning first book by Natalie Diaz, who grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, troubles that misperception by looking at a brother’s addiction to crystal meth from a multitude of angles and in a number of poetic forms. Poems dealing with the brother’s addiction make up the physical heart of the book, but they are surrounded by poems exploring a history of displacement and oppression of Native Americans, as well as poems performing a wild interiority that collides with external realities to create a new, other world.

The title poem opens the book, drawing unsettling comparisons between Aztec rituals and the way a son’s addiction offers up his parents as sacrifices every morning. The addiction is seen through other myths, stories and traditions as well: the Christian account of Jesus’s troubled last night in Gethsemane, the Greek tale of Sisyphus, and the burning of Persepolis.

Other news I get from this book is about the experiences of Americans that I, also American, would know very little about if it weren’t for literature. This, in itself, is a concerning piece of news. Diaz infuses Western Judeo-Christian images and ideas with the Southwestern America and native culture she knows: The Christian Mary is recast as “Reservation Mary,” a basketball player who never misses a three-pointer, but who drops out of high school to become a hard-drinking single mother; “Tortilla Smoke: Genesis” tells of the faith and endurance of a culture, particularly the women who make the bread and “hope gravity doesn’t last long.” Unlike the Hopi basket on historically sanitized display at a museum—whose provenance, Diaz reveals in “The Facts of Art,” is related to the digging-up of burial grounds during the construction of an Arizona highway—this is a book that is fiercely, feverishly, fervently rooted in its time and place.

 
3. Sheila Carter-Jones, Three Birds Deep

Sheila Carter-Jones’s first book, Three Birds Deep, chosen by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2012 Naomi Long Madgett Award, flies back and forth between past and present, personal and public, plain style and “mumbo-jumbo.” Whether exploring the P.T.S.D. of a brother who served in Vietnam, the diseases of a father who spent his life in Western Pennsylvania coal mines, the color lines in contemporary Pittsburgh, or the casual microaggressions that come with a simple trip to the store, Carter-Jones’s work refuses to stay still. The language is at turns beautiful and unflinchingly visceral, like the language of the speaker’s brother when she asks him how his liver is:

My liver! My liver!
I spit it out.
They gave me a new one.
I swallowed it whole and
it wiggled right into place.
Now I’m just fine.

As the title of the poem, “Here. Now. Nam.” suggests, Vietnam may be old news to many, but for people like the brother, it is as present today as it was when the war was happening. Reading these poems drives home the point that many of our current war veterans face a long road of recovery. The short lyric, “How Far Down,” ponders the life of coal miners like the speaker’s father, where descent is not only physical but spiritual. In “Mad Dog Wind,” the sound of the wind outside evokes, for the speaker, the memory of her father attached to “machines / that lend steady push/pull of air into cavities / being eaten by the creeping dark of coal mines.”

While a good deal of the book is devoted to giving voice to others, it’s clear that the speaker is grappling with past and present demons, too. “This is the blue I’ve been getting to,” the first line of one poem tells us before the poem unleashes an overwhelmingly dense litany of blue images associated with memories of childhood sexual abuse, from “blue shame” nursed “in intricate folds of blue labia” to the “vicarious blue” of loss at the end of the poem. The intensity of poems like this give way to more conversational poems like “Where Some People Get Mixed Up About the Meaning of Hello,” which details an encounter with a white cashier in a store whose comment (“My mother gets as dark as you”) takes the speaker off-guard but doesn’t surprise her, accustomed as she is to these “innocent” microaggressions. This poem brilliantly gives us the speaker’s unspoken thoughts as the cashier goes on and on about her mother being stopped at the border after a trip to Cancun tanned her white skin: “Really, I say in a voice that means, / This is not about your vagina on Broadway. / (i.e. Shut the fuck up.)” Being privy to these aggressive thoughts, coming late in the book after so many aggressions against the speaker and her family have been detailed, feels cathartic.

 
4. Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes

Last year was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A growing movement of writers with disabilities is making its voice heard in the literary world, with hashtags like #IAmNotaMetaphor and #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. A striking voice in this movement is that of Jillian Weise, author of the poetry collection The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, and the novel The Colony. Weise’s work accurately delivers news that is typically masked by inspiration-porn and other misrepresentations of disability. And from that news, delivered in bold and direct lines, readers will discover the degree to which women with disabilities are fetishized, stalked, and brutally—all too often fatally—injured by caregivers, strangers, lovers.

The Book of Goodbyes, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets (selected by Brenda Shaughnessy), ends with a long prose sequence, “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” enfolding the speaker’s own coming out as “a cyborg” into the 2010 news story of a 10 year-old North Carolina girl murdered and dismembered by her stepmother with:

Wednesday. Poetry workshop. Here I am talking without thinking. “I have a fake leg and I saw this clip on the news about Zahra Baker who may be dead with a fake leg and it didn’t make me cry. It’s very hard to make someone cry in poems or on the news.”

After I said the words fake leg, everyone in the class looked at my feet.

For the speaker in Weise’s poem, the ongoing dilemma is choosing between passing or being marked by her disability, be it as the recipient of the dubious “Best Disabled Writer Award,” or of unwanted e-mails like, “I got turned-on seeing you walk to the stage. I bought your book. Do you like making love?” This book’s closing poem, like the book as a whole, actively resists the victimizing “tragic cripple” trope as the flipside of the inspirational “supercrip” trope. Instead, both its sadness and its moments of biting sarcasm are a response to ableism. The closing line of the elegy reads, “Zahra: You’ll get better at passing. It’s a pain in the ass, I know. You’ll learn, I promise. Just make it out of the woods.”

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