I was driving north on I-5, a little lost and running late–two hours late–to a gathering of friends who’d come together to celebrate the holidays, the new year, and the new child that our hosts would be bringing into the world in seven months’ time. Celebration was the last thing on my mind, though. I’d just left my newborn niece in a room at Children’s Hospital, a feeding tube and a steady drip of intravenous antibiotics keeping her tethered to the perilous new reality she’d found herself in just a week prior. Even further from my mind was this blog assignment I’d agreed to. It wasn’t the assignment’s fault. It was a good assignment. But my heart wasn’t in it. It was dark, and unseasonably cold in Seattle, and I felt a mood coming on. For each new year, a new tragedy, it felt. Lives begin, lives fall apart, lives end. What good are books in the midst of all that? It’s an important question to consider as our industry continues to fragment. Whatever forces might seem poised to ring the death knell of the written word–be they technology, indifference, crass careerism, or the like–I’d like to think that we still cling to language as the gateway to the essential.
Henri Cole is a poet who understands that. For the better part of three decades, he’s been writing poems that mine the darkness for beauty. His selected poems, Pierce the Skin, will be published by FSG in March. “We fall, we fell, we are falling. Nothing mitigates it,” he says in “Beach Walk.” It’s one of those lines that come snaking out of the poem to kick you in the gut in the best kind of way, inevitable, devastating, and surprising at the same time. I don’t know if that poem will be collected in Pierce the Skin or not, but Cole is a master of those kinds of lines. You can’t read his work without being affected in some way. For me, that’s everything, and it gives me hope for the coming year.
Something else that gives me hope: when good people get good things. In that spirit, I’m looking forward to the first books of Ken Chen and Dorine Jennette (nee Preston). Ken Chen is the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and his book Juvenilia is the latest Yale Younger selection, due out in April from Yale University Press. Jennette’s Urchin to Follow is due out in May from the National Poetry Review Press. I’m especially excited for this book, as Dorine is an old friend (we published two poems by her under her maiden name in Issue 9). I have personal reasons for wanting to read these books, but isn’t any interaction between poem and reader somewhat personal? It’s a contract that we can take faith in during uncertain times, that poems will always have readers. It’s not everything, but it’s enough.
Tomorrow we wrap up 2009 with our last thoughts on next year’s books.