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Library Book Picks

Highlights from the Poetry Foundation's library collection.

  • Library Book Pick

    World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

    By Aimee Nezhukumatathil

    Making it through the frigid winter months is no small feat (especially for my fellow Chicagoans), and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the return of these blissfully warm days than heading to the park with my copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders. The essays and vivid illustrations that make up this book are a love letter to the beautiful and bizarre creatures that call this planet home – from axolotls to catalpa trees, octopi to corpse flowers, Aimee’s lifelong passion for the natural world simply radiates off the page. She uses her beloved flora and fauna to paint an unflinching portrait of the joys and trials of childhood, coming of age, falling in love, motherhood, and the other milestones that make up a life. In her chapter on the narwhal, she writes,

    “A white boy who would take my brown hand in his, putting it to his heart when he makes a promise so I can feel his heartbeat and the warmth residing there. If only the narwhal could have taught me how to listen for those clicks of connection, the echo reverberating back to me.”

    In an age where so many of us spend our lives indoors and in front of screens, Aimee’s stunning prose is a reminder of the wonder that is truly all around us, just waiting to be discovered.

    Picked by Evalena Friedman July 2022
  • Library Book Pick

    Dancing in Odessa

    By Ilya Kaminsky

    “Odessa is everywhere,” writes Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminksky in his astonishing debut, Dancing in Odessa (2004, Tupelo Press). You may know him by the kerfuffle around his prescient and widely-misinterpreted poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” which appears in his National Book Award and National Book Critics’ Circle Award- shortlisted second collection, Deaf Republic. Dancing in Odessa attempts to reassemble, on every page, and every place that this book is opened, from the rubble time and distance has made of it in his memory, a coastal Ukranian city from which Kaminsky and his family became refugees in 1993. This assembly and reassembly gains a kind of propulsive momentum, as if set to the music of Kaminsky’s lyric, or, indeed, like the title of the book’s third section, “Musica Humana”-- that of our human lives. It sounds like something your aunts and grandmothers danced to, it sounds like a generation erased, it is heartbreaking– and yet, reading, you are swept up into it, for, as Kaminsky writes, “we dance to keep from falling.”

    Like the lineage of dissident poets he invokes across the collection– Joseph Brodsky, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Isaac Babel, to name a few– and, indeed, like the current refugee Ukrainian poets whose safe passage and financial support Kaminsky has doggedly organized via Twitter, Kaminksy’s work as a poet is to devise “a human window” into a country where love, old music, daily embarrassments, and variously prepared fish existed among the horrors enacted by repressive regimes. The horrors of the past, Kaminsky says, compel him to write as if his hands have been set on fire. And while the horrors are ongoing? Our memories, too, are precious: “At night, I woke to whisper: Yes, we lived./ We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream.” This prophetic book changed my life– it is the one to read now.

    Picked by Stefania Gomez June 2022
  • Library Book Pick

    Nox

    By Anne Carson

    The experience of moving through Anne Carson’s Nox, a collection printed on one continuous sheet of paper folded over and over into the dimensions of a book page, accordioned inside a box, evokes the archeological dig of personal, familial, and cultural memory.

    After the death of her estranged brother, Carson, whose author bio always notes “teaches ancient Greek for a living,” turns, returns, to translation. A photograph of a Latin poem, Catullus’ 101, an elegy for his brother, begins the book. The unfolding text provides a winding path for translating the famously untranslatable Latin poem into English via a series of dictionary entries and etymological histories, interwoven with familial ephemera and Carson’s memories. The resulting work moves how grief moves—in a spiral, a flock of fragments, each present moment broken by the invisible and bleeding history.

    Nox asks me to consider how reading, and remembering, are always acts of translation. It asks me to consider how my history (personal, familial, and cultural) shapes the text in front of me, and the me standing before the text. There is a vulnerability, and generosity, in baring and preserving the process of composition: the insistence on the tactical, the material artifacts orbiting an elegy; and the hand behind the book, the one that scores a word (DIES) into paper, that tears preserved letters into ragged scraps, that cuts family photographs.

    Carson reminds me that asking questions, about history, memory, and language, is the work of the poet and the work of the historian: “It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” At the moment I am writing this, in the second year of a global pandemic, I have, so far, survived. Many have not. This poem, this book object, shows one way to carry, to fashion a thing that carries.

    Picked by Maggie Queeney May 2022