Literary Promises: A Look at Last Year’s Books as a List of New Year’s Resolutions

My year was rich, and I hope yours was, too. It was full of joys and frustrations, thrombosis and the evenest sleeps, massive blizzards with fragmenting winds, rains that blurred the boundaries between body and air, and the exasperations of humidity rising off the tennis courts in the park near my home. I listened to the otherworldly gargling calls of ‘ua’u in the young but stelliferous dark of Haleakala, let the shutter out on my Nikon to see those same stars in the sapphire depth of Wisconsin’s skies, and I spent an inordinate amount of time staring out at the Chicago river from the exhibit hall in the Sheraton Grand Chicago, where I also learned how to sell books on the run. I learned how to make kimchi and that my brother-in-law knows how to replace rotors and brakes. I went to California twice.

I quit smoking this year, and it was easy and hard at the same time. I have thought, have I turned my back on my own radicality, kind of like what’s happening to weed? Remembering my father finding a pack of cigarettes in the center console of my car is now twinged with greater nostalgic hurt, a self that feels more irreversibly lost.

Speaking of self and my father: my father became an American this year, officially, hand to god and all of that, and I have thought about Brandon Som’s The Tribute Horse, the culture that he considers in his Chinese father, that marries to his own American reality, in the hypnosis of English and its sounds. It is a gorgeously sonic book that began my year, and so why not begin our list with it:

  1. I will learn to hear like Som: “Trundled nights of a nun / Fissures between rival tongs / You sell wontons here / Detuned doo-wop songs.” I will learn to embody the words. If all else I will learn to keep the syrinx as my talisman.

Som makes me think the self is a conglomerate; or maybe it’s an assembly of accidents. I thought this year I was never meant to wear athletic polyester and ludicrously neon shoes, but that’s what I’m doing right after I write this (part of the not smoking thing, you see). Maybe the self is something we mishear, a wicked game of telephone like that between Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton, mouthing Berryman. They taught me that I ought to

  1. Learn to play again, be that child self again: “Nobody is ever missing.” “There are not enough hands to count the missing.” “There are just enough feet to count her missing.”

But wait, what am I talking about? I know about the self! I wrote all about it, when it was under threat. The self is a slippery thing. I read the first division of Being and Time this year, and it helped me, in a self-help kind of way, see the self as it can helped. Heidegger told me my anxiety was toward Being-in-the-world as-such, that anxiety makes the world meaningless (just a charade of duties and idle talk), and in that meaninglessness, in my frustration and despair, I can glimpse my authentic being. Anxiety allows me to see myself.

  1. I will make my anxiety useful to me and my writing.

Of course, for Heidegger, the self, our being, is all about time, and time is a matter of scale. I learned how to make kimchi by reading Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, and I was enthralled with his introduction tying bacterial harmony to evolutionary foodways and cultural tradition:

The first definition of culture in the Oxford English Dictionary is simply: ‘The cultivation of land and derived senses.’ Through these derived senses, and the many varied manifestations of cultivation, ideas of what could be cultivated grew. People culture pearls, we culture cells, and we culture milk. We practice aquaculture, viticulture, and horticulture, not to mention popular culture. . . . I keep coming back to the profound significance of the fact that we use the same word—culture—to describe the community of bacteria that transform milk into yogurt, as well as the practice of subsistence itself, language, music, art, literature, science, spiritual practices, belief systems, and all that human beings seek to perpetuate in our varied and overlapping collective existences.

At the center of our humanity is a table full of food. I have long believed this. The table extends into the saturated bokeh of the past, and it takes us into the washed out light of the future. There is the din of chatter on either side. You see what I’m saying? I will

  1. Write in continuity, embracing history and the overlapping collective existence that is the ground of my being—I will write with a sense of deliberate and meaningful perpetuation.

Not unlike Mary Jo Bang. “The future lies in a patter like a wood drummed. / A sensual traffic: what, where, and why.” Of course, the future has its fears, too, even, its paranoia. We watch ourselves being watched, something I learned from Privacy Policy: An Anthology of Surveillance Poetics: “at the movies soul music / playing over the closing credits / you tap your foot / drone hears only / wind and propeller / waiting for you to emerge / from the multiplex.” But maybe there is hope. Maybe all this watching is good for us, like Jessica Baran’s lines in that anthology: “I feel close to what I witness. I love an ocean breeze. I love to shut my eyes and be touched.” I believe surveillance can be therapeutic, a kind of realization. So I will

  1. Perform writing with substance. My performance will generate body, politics, and consciousness; it will reify truth.

Not unlike Robert Lax. His visual incantations are a bringing-of-being, an undulation that is language beyond language, an expanding universe like Laurie Spiegel’s. His work is a hypnosis of quiet, something he shares with Joseph Massey. But Massey, in his book this past year, Illocality, understands quiet as a locus of interaction. How about these lines, quoted recently in the New York Times (!!): “Each strip-mall pennant blurred. / So much ­metal / shoving sun / the sun shoves back.” It’s a kind of dialogue, something for which I had another teacher this year, my friend Carrie Olivia Adams, and her book Operating Theater. Her interiority is a stage-drama of psychic magic, animus in the form of disembodied voices cuing each other. Those voices offer, to us, a kind of call to adventure, a call to open up repeatedly: “It’s not just the plunge in / but the courage to pull it / out and start again.” Courage; my writing will be

  1. Courageous. It will plunge and resurface; it will rest and do it again. Its courage will be toward understanding. Its understanding will be a performance of strength.

The courage, the performance, the continuity—these are, as I think of them, forms of life. This year I fell in love with someone who lives past his life, Tomaž Šalamun. I interviewed his friend and translator, Michael Thomas Taren, and I gathered my favorite of his lines. They have taught me that the world is always more than you think it is, and that you are always more than yourself, even when you think you are at your self’s limit. “Light the fires, / beautiful people of the world, / light the fires.”

This was a good year, blessed in these books I am sharing, which are but a few that have been my companions. One I have not mentioned is my own. It’s a direct plug at the end of my little journal entry here—I would love it if you would buy it and read it. It’s had a handful of readers already, but it will never know surfeit of readership. It leaves me with my final resolution, one that I hope you have for yourself:

  1. I will write another book, whatever it is.

Good wishes to you all for the New Year; best of luck with your projects.


Image: Whistler, James McNeill. “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.” 1876-77. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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