Bunker Book Recs: Joanna Penn Cooper

Break It Down by Lydia Davis

I first started reading Lydia Davis back in 2002, at a friend’s suggestion. Encountering this book was for me one of those “oh, we’re allowed to do that?” moments. Davis writes stories that blur the line between deadpan prose poem and short story, between short short story and overheard internal monologue. It’s delightful and unsettling to read someone who writes in a form that seemed to be so much her own. There’s a flatness and an urgency, a low-level angst and a good-humored absurdity here that I can’t help but like. Lydia Davis’ work belongs in a category in my mind with American writers like Eudora Welty, James Thurber, Lorrie Moore, and David Sedaris. Is that a category? Maybe not. But they all have genius of voice that has to do with a desire to explore the intersection of the absurd, the poetic, and what we might think of as existential itchiness.

Wedding Day by Dana Levin

Many of Levin’s poems in this 2005 collection are crafted and engagingly elliptical treatments of the how and why of writing poems. There is desire woven through these pieces that often appears as a desire to explore and explain the relationships among aesthetics, ethics, and meaning.

In the poem “Quelquechose,” for example, Levin writes,

  I was in the fish shop, wondering why being experimental means
                not having a point—

                why experimentation in form is sufficient unto itself
                       (is it?)—

  But I needed a new way to say things: sad tired I
                with its dulled violations, lyric with loss in its faculty den—

  Others were just throwing a veil over suffering:
                glittery interesting I-don’t-exist—

  All over town, I marched around,
                ranting my jeremiad.

  Thinking, What good is form if it doesn’t say anything

  And by “say” I meant “wake somebody up.”

Other poems in this collection evince the same intriguing tension between a desire to “say something” or “wake somebody up” and their concern with helping shape contemporary poetics. Levin’s poems exist at the intersection of the experimental and the lyric, and part of the draw for me here occurs in our sense of watching an artist at work as she finds “new way[s] to say things,” while avoiding the “sad tired I/ with its dulled violations.”

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