1.) George Saunders’ article on Dubai, “The New Mecca.” Originally written for GQ, this essay alternates between gee-whiz appreciation for Dubai’s apparent perfection of the luxury industry (villas with private swimming pools, a seven-star hotel shaped like a sailboat, a theme resort built to replicate an ancient Arab village, complete with wind towers and 2.3 miles of fake creeks) and distinctly non-preachy, humanist concern with the wide range of issues connected to the flourishing city: class, racism, post-9/11 international relations, workers’ rights. Whenever I read a travel essay like this, particulary from a tony magazine, I pretty much expect the writer to hate the place they went and do a lot of hand-wringing. What I liked best about this essay is that Saunders has a good time, just by staying open. He talks to everybody; he’s not too self-conscious to take pleasure in a fun ride at a themed water park or in eating champagne and strawberries while watching a desert sunset. His trip leads him to feel, overall, positive about the human race. I guess you could argue he engages in some hand-wringing, but it doesn’t feel like hand-wringing, just genuine concern and curiosity. The essay appears in his collection The Braindead Megaphone; you can listen to an excerpt here.
2.) What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland and pretty much all the poems by Tony Hoagland. Doesn’t it seem weird that poets didn’t start writing about parties till like, the 1950’s? Actually, maybe they did but I haven’t read those poems, it feels like Frank O’Hara was the first person to commit to it and before that the narrator was always on a cliff or addressing the beloved or, as Anthony Hecht points out, both. One of the sections of What Narcissism Means to Me is titled “Social Life,” which is telling: If you like your poems funny-sad with lots of people in them, and I do, Hoagland is your man, standing a bit apart from the crowd but nonetheless invested in the party’s goings-on. He’s sometimes frustrated by what he sees (“What I like about the trees is how / they do not talk about the failure of their parents / and what I like about the grasses is that / they are not grasses in recovery”), sometimes repelled, but he stays connected. As he writes in the terrific poem “Personal,” which appears in this month’s issue of Poetry: “Don’t take it personal, they said;/ but I did, I took it all quite personal.” And how.
3.) Terra Firma: poems by Thomas Centolella. I got this book this afternoon, pulled at random off the shelf at Smith Family Bookstore because I liked the title, and took it with me to read by the river that I am obsessed with, aka the Willamette. It won the American Book Award in 1991, so I’m kind of late to the game, but the other things I’ve listed here are also not exactly new releases. Anyway, guys, these poems are so perfect. They’re written in narrative form–I’ve been reading the book straight through instead of skipping around as usual, because the poems pull me along like a novel does–but with an attentive ear to rhythm and sound. I don’t really know how to describe them, they’re so sprawling and occupy so many different moods, but it’s the kind of book that you read and you feel better, like talking to an old friend makes you feel better when you’re in a new place and nobody knows who you are yet. I guess that’s it: I feel like we know each other. Here’s the first poem in the book, mostly because I can’t choose and the beginning’s always a very good place to start. Julie Andrews never lies.
That year everything went transparent.
First the buildings. Their concrete and granite,
their monumental marble, all seemed like
cardboard facades one stiff wind would flatten
Their faces. What they registered was never more fleeting,
and what astonishments lay hidden behind them–
space shuttle, sonata form, world series, mortal sin–
were, after all, only fabrications of flesh and blood:
perishable, pitiable, nothing more.
Worst of all was hope. Like wine
turned back to water, hope was weak
and easily seen through.
It was something of a miracle, then, that one day
when, dwarfed by the library’s massive vault,
penned in by words intended for posterity,
I stared at the hand holding open my book
and saw it was only flesh and blood,
but perfect. The greenish veins, the knuckles
and grimy nails, the fine reddish blond hairs ablaze,
even the tiny white scar left by an army knife when I was seven–
my hand was nothing to be improved upon.
And I looked up from the book that had been failing miserably
to enlighten or uplift me, and among the dreary stacks
and institutional quiet, I was drawn
to human faces–each one holding the weight of a world
carefully chosen or acquired at random,
faces open to me now as any book–
and one by one, I began to read them.