Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

30 Books in 30 Days: Daisy Fried on Ana Ristovic’s ‘Directions for Use’

by Daisy Fried | Feb-22-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Daisy Fried offers an appreciation of Ana Ristovic’s 'Directions for Use' (Zephyr Press)     

 

Serbian poet Ana Ristovic is author of nine books of poetry. Not much known in our sometimes self-absorbed American poetry circles, she has been awarded Germany’s Hubert Burda Preis for younger European poets, and the Disova Nagrada, one of the most prestigious Serbian poetry prizes.

In Steven and Maja Teref’s translation, Ristovic’s poems are wryly feminist, darkly exuberant, fascinated by commodities and focused on the body. In “Barcode Girl” a friend has a barcode tattooed on her back. “…every other word from her/ is my worth, I value, and at the cost of…” The store alarms her tattoo sets off are “Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’to her ears/or the cry of a gull swooping/on a landfill.” Into a comic situation comes great music, and the elsewhere of gull and landfill—becoming huge, concerning human plight.

Ristovic’s tonal shifts are immense. “Circling Zero,” begins in declaration (“We are independent women”), and ends intimately, elegantly describing masturbation (“And we smile with sadness in dreamless dreams./And the safe hand, circling/the soft zero.”) Talking about God in “Black Radish,” she’s casual, and not merely irreverent: “I grate a black radish/as God grates snow…//He and I/grate one another,/until exhausted/by the same/hunger.”

Imagining poets on World Poetry Day, in “Beware, Poet!” “flooding the streets like Hitchcock’s birds,” she imagines bumping into them at the supermarket. “Salt will turn Biblical./At the butcher counter, every slab of meat my body./And every bone, a quotation about Adam’s Rib.” Later she subsides, sort of:

After such an ordeal,
I’ll stand before my oven
like Sylvia Plath.
But, I’ll rethink
what to stick in it.

Many American poets wouldn’t say something like that, more’s the pity. Which means they couldn’t lead us to the particular places of hilarity and epiphany that are all Ristovic’s own.

30 Books in 30 Days: Daisy Fried on James Longenbach’s ‘Earthling’

by Daisy Fried | Feb-22-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Daisy Fried offers an appreciation of James Longenbach’s 'Earthling '(W.W. Norton).

 

 

The clarity and intelligence of James Longenbach’s 'Earthling' (his fifth book of poetry) exist in tandem with a strangeness that disturbs and disarms. These poems frequently begin with the quotidian—dogs are walked, money is saved, refrigerators scrubbed—then wheel into the irrational: a flash of the surreal, a deliberate anachronism or perspectival shift. What’s familiar suddenly isn’t.

“My wife went running with the dog,” writes Longenbach in “One Last Thing.” “She tied her sneakers, secured the collar around his neck.” Woman and dog disappear into the woods—can this end well? The dog pees; abruptly yet gracefully we switch from the poet’s perspective to the wife’s. She “looked off into the branches, which were laced with snow.” But the dog has “…vanished,/ No shadow, no narrative,/A smudge of white against white snow…” Wheeling back to his own perspective, the poet tells us, with fable-like simplicity and intensity, that “when she returned,/The dog was trotting beside her./ No conclusions; observations.” No more vanishing. Coffee is brewed, the newspaper retrieved and, with a flash of color in a whited-out poem, “A cardinal settled on a branch.”

That’s the magic of Longenbach—the way his poems reveal simultaneous normalcy and shocking vertigo. The titular “earthling” calls to mind sci-fi: humans seen from an alien’s perspective. But Longenbach, also one of our finest literary critics, tells us that the word referred, in Old English, to a “ploughman, a cultivator of the soil.” 

'Earthling' goes deep into what we are, what we have always been and always will be: creatures bound by mortality and preoccupied by what’s just in front of us, as we careen on our planet through emptiness.

REVIEWS

Publishers Weekly.

Elizabeth Lund in the Washington Post.

An interview.

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