Books of 2020: Year in Review

Okay, this year I read 140 books. Sadly, I was unable to maintain my monthly reviews (2020 got a bit busier than expected) but I hope to return to doing those in 2021. I’m not going to write a review of every book in this post but will, instead, highlight my most and least favourite books in each category as well as my overall favourites this year.

So, let’s start with the best of the best. My favourite reading of 2020 is not a single book but the works of a single author: Robert MacFarlane. I read three of his books this year—The Old Ways, Landmarks, and Underland—and each one was remarkable and filled me with a sense of beauty, wonder, longing, sorrow, acceptance, and comfort. They are difficult books to describe. Are they travelogues? Memoir? Nature writing? Contemplative meditations? Literature? Yes, they are all of those things in different ways and all at once. At one point in Underland, when visiting cracks in the earth and pits in the Dinaric Alps—a breath-taking place, but also a place used by the Nazis to engage in mass executions of civilians during the Second World War—MacFarlane asks, “What is the relationship of beauty and devastation in a landscape such as this?” It is a question that he is constantly circling around in all of his work and, for those of us living through the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, it is a question that we must all confront as we seek to live our very brief lives responsibly, thoughtfully, and, yes, even joyfully.

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My Daughter Who Delights to Play in the Company of Others

My daughter
Delights to play in the company of others
And she will love you
If you play with her
—–Last night we had a dance-a-thon
—–I nearly died and she nearly died
—–Laughing
—–And then we drew pictures
—–Of pumpkins and haunted houses
—–And monsters
—–Who aren’t really all that scary

And my daughter
Was playing with her friend
(She is always delighted to play with her friends)
This boy who is always outside
—–Seeking food and seeking companions
—–But who is also kind and sweet and
—–Who reminds me of a puppy neglected at home
—–Always but always so eager
—–To love and be loved
—–By someone
—–Anyone
—–Please?

It was with this friend
My daughter was playing with
My daughter
Who delights to play in the company of others
My daughter
Who will love you if you play with her
But her friend went inside
And his older brother came outside

Sixteen years old
(My daughter is nine)
And he said to her
My daughter who delights in the company of others
—–I really want to see a vagina.
—–And
—–Have you seen your brother’s penis?
——And
——Do you play with his balls?
—–And
—–What about other boys?
—–And
—–Do you look at their penises and play with their balls?
—–And (several times over again)
—–I really want to see a vagina.
—–And then
—–Show me your vagina.
———-(My daughter shook her head no)
—–And
—–Come behind this car with me.
———-(My daughter said no)
—–And
—–I’m playing with my balls!
—–(Or maybe he said: Come play with my balls!)
———-While standing behind a car in a parking lot
—————A few metres from our home

And my daughter
My nine-year-old daughter
Scootered home
Still saying no
—–Although, later that evening, she told me that what she was actually saying in her head was
—–No, you bastard!
—–No, you bastard!
—–No, you bastard!
———-no

Tasting Notes

Black poets
Especially young Black American men who are poets
Sure do mention the ways in which American cops
Murder Black American people
Especially young Black American men
A whole lot more than other poets do
Like middle-aged White men
Talking about reconnecting with nature
And profiting from the spirituality of the same Indigenous peoples
Whose lands they stole and made into National Parks
Or the lot for their forever home
On Whidbey Island
Which also provides the base for the navy’s tactical electronic attack squads
Flying the EA-18G Growler
Or popular young White women poets
Talking about how the princess doesn’t need no prince
In order to slay the dragon
By which they usually mean some White dude
Who feels entitled to their bodies and everything else
And not the Black man
Trying to watch birds in Central Park
Because they’ve been slaying men like him for generations
And slayings that are so taken-for-granted
Don’t merit mentioning
In their poetry
Or at least this is what I thought to myself
When I thought about the next poem
I wanted to write
And what it was going to be about
I’m thinking maybe something about
The challenges of home ownership
Getting Registered Retirement Savings Plans started early
Or what to look out for in middle management
Maybe something about what kind of wine to buy for others
When you’re climbing the ladder
I almost always suggest a Bordeaux

Untitled Poem

Do you remember when Pip met Estella in the long-cooled ashes of Miss Havisham’s estate, darling?
Do you remember the feeling of possessing great expectations?
We were all ablaze,
All a blaze,
Like the wedding dress on the bride of the groom who never came.
But we were young, darling,
We burned without feeling the flames.

Pale fire.
We were writers in exile,
Chasing butterflies,
A long, long time ago.

What could Pip say to Estella, darling? What could Estella say to Pip?
I was cruelly hurt, as were you.
As were you.
And I hurt you, too.
I hurt you, too.
And we now live in the long-cooled ashes of the selves we never had the opportunity to be.

Dolores, Dolores!
We walked the sorrowful way,
We died in childbirth.
And the rest is footnotes and stardust
Gone tender with madness,
A long, long time ago.

Now silent but for the buzzing of insects,
The chatter of songbirds,
And the wind that flows invisibly
Through spaces we once filled.

There are convicts in the marshes, darling,
Leave them be!
Leave them be.

With Soft Hands

Even good-hearted men fantasize about killing women
I thought to myself as John Darnielle sang about
Going to Georgia
And I found myself getting a little more sad
Thinking about all the sensitive indie musicians
Who have identified with serial torturer-murderer-rapists
In songs intended to be both provocative
And caring and sweet
Nick Cave and Jack
Will Sheff and the Austin Yogurt Shop killer

(And oh my god
Sufjan Stevens too
If we factor in the sweetest song ever written
About a man who raped and murdered at least thirty-three
Young men and teenage boys
But of whom Sufjan says
That’s me, I’m him)

All these beautiful, shy-boy misogynists
(or closeted homo-antagonists?)
With soft hands
Dewy eyes
Gentle voices
So patient and attentive
They display their vulnerability
Awkwardly
only partially ashamed
But doing their best to not be like
Other MenTM
Wanting you to feel safe and comfortable
So that you’ll fuck them
Or
At the very least
Freeze up
Not say no
Not stop them
From fucking you

2020: First Quarter Reviews

Well, due to life being what it is, I have been unable to complete monthly reviews and am now, instead, moving to quarterly summaries. In the first quarter of 2020, I read 54 books and watched 0 movies and 0 documentaries. So, instead of my usual divisions, I will break things down by genre.

In the world of “literature,” I have one book to review (although a number of the books in my “science and nature” category count as literature of the highest quality). One book only, but what a book! In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir of her relationship with an abusive partner is astoundingly good.

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This is a poem about a poem called you have nothing to be ashamed of

This is a poem about a poem called you have nothing to be ashamed of and I’m so proud of you and things are hard but we can get through this together, I’m here for you, it’s an honour to be here for you, you just relax for awhile, darling, you’re sacred, curl up in my arms, we’re going to be okay.

There are some words that only have power during a fifteen-minute window once every five hundred years. Like in old stories about a keyhole that will appear in the side of the ocean when a solar eclipse occurs during the season of the strawberry moon—then, and only then, will you be able to enter the undersea, if you have the right key. All other times, the key is useless, there is no key hole, no matter where you put it, the ocean will not open. There are some words that are like this and, if you are present in that rare moment when the keyholes appear, and you do not have them, even if you find them later, by then it will be too late.

There are some stories that can only be told at certain seasons, to certain people, by certain storytellers. There are stories for winter and stories for harvest, stories for children becoming adults, stories for young lovers, stories for cellies, stories for the bereaved. There are stories that only runaway slaves can understand. There are stories that only children can tell to other children. There are stories you can only hear in the forest, stories you can only hear on the water, stories you can only hear under the earth. And there are stories that can only be told after you die, stories you will never hear, stories whose time has not yet come.

There are some poems you can only understand when you are very old. And others you can only understand when you are very young. And if you do not hear them then, you never really will.

This is a poem about a poem called it’s not your fault and he says he is punishing you when he beats you but that’s a lie and you don’t deserve it, and when he doesn’t show up and you are longing for him that’s not your fault either, and some parents are always terrible, and some parents are sometimes terrible, and some parents start terrible and get better while other parents start okay and get worse but, regardless of the state of the parent, this is a poem about a poem called all children are born innocent and so full of love that they will believe every kind of awful thing about themselves before they believe that those whom they love are abusers who abuse them for no good reason at all.

This poem is full of words that are magic keys: You are lovely. You belong here, together, with the rest of us. You matter. We aren’t going to reject you, abuse you, push you away. You have a specialness that is all your own, that is only you, that has never been before you and will never be again after you. Add these words to your key ring. Carry them with you everywhere. Attend to the appearance of keyholes—there, after the third crow calls, six minutes before dawn; there, after your brother stops coming home; there, in the water; there, in the stone; there, in your body, your hands, your feet, your side; there, in that moment, and that moment only.

Speak carefully. Like poets who have given up on crafting masterkeys and who instead form one word, maybe two, and they give them to the world, seed scattered on soil, shots fired while blindfolded, in hope that one person, maybe two, will read it and it will be just the right time and just the right place with just the right before and just to right after to fit.

Melancholera

I.

“It is hard to leave happiness for life.” ~ Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness

On the walnut tree, five young pileated woodpeckers talk to one another as they explore just how to do what woodpeckers do. They stand at odd angles—upside down, sideways, underneath an overhanging branch—and pipe softly back and forth. They’ll figure it out.

I sit in the afternoon sun and doze. It’s amusing how the things you really want to do when you’re older are the things you really didn’t want to do when you were younger—nap, sit in silence, do nothing, be alone. Stop trying so hard. I’ll figure it out. Or maybe not. Either way, along with everything else, I will be okay and not okay all at once, and that, itself, is both okay and not okay, worlds without end. It’s all a question of perspective — a parallax view. It’s indeterminate, entangled, and where we end up, where we materialize, has as much to do with the actions we take (and that our ancestors took before us and, in many ways, still take with us) as it has to do with whatever else is out there and in here.

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After You Die

After you die
Magnolias will blossom
Rain will fall
And the same dead stars that lit your way
Will continue to shine
Regardless of whether or not people living in cities can see them

After you die
A few people will remember a few things about you
For a very short amount of time
Because after you die
The people who remember you will die
And pretty soon all that will be left
Is the love you put into the world
And your Hydrogen
Carbon
Oxygen, Calcium, and Phosphorus
Which made up 99% of you
But it’s hard to say if it was ever really yours
But if it was
It’s hard to speak of you dying
Perhaps better to say that you’ve been dispersed
Rearranged
Emancipated
(Which, of course, is the meaning of the word “redeemed”)

After you die
Commensal bacteria will still move from the bodies of mothers
Through their breast-milk
Into the digestive tracts of their infants
Where it will help those infants to develop healthy immune systems
And the bacteria living within your digestive tract
Will migrate out into your tissues
And begin the process of taking apart
What they so tenderly built and cared for
For all the years of your life
“A job well done, a job well done,”
I imagine them saying to each other
Like authors releasing books into the world
Like parents releasing adult children
Like Tibetan monks erasing the mandalas
They painstakingly crafted
Grain of sand by grain of sand

After you die
Cladosporium Sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Wangiella dermatitidis
Will keep munching radiation at Chernobyl
Continually marveling at the bounty they have been given
For the next twenty thousand years
And who knows
Maybe the badgers
Badgers!
Will return to the forks of the river where you lived

After you die
Even for you
It will be like you were never here
So you can get busy being all the you
That you will ever only be for the very briefest moment
(so brief, in fact, it doesn’t really even merit mentioning)
Or you can wash your hands of it all
But regardless of whether you experience this as liberating
Or devastating
As hopeful or anxiety-provoking
After a few more sleeps
It won’t make any difference

After you die
You will be dead
And with and as the dead
You will abide
But even then
Not for very long

Before You Were Alive

Before you were alive
Magnolias blossomed
Rain fell
And young men died in trenches
In cotton fields
And in Jallianwala Bagh
British soldiers opened fired on unarmed civilians
Killing at least 400

Before you were alive
Algae or cyanobacteria
Found their way into fungi
Created photosynthetic mycelia
(Lichen)
And life as we know it followed after
Including
At one point very recently
You

Before you were alive
Europeans killed all of the passenger pigeons
Made mountains of buffalo skulls
Starved the Nehiyaw
Fell in love
Tried to offer their children a better life than they had

Before you were alive
The place you now live was the floor of a sea
Was buried under miles of ice
Was a forest
Had drinkable water
Even badgers
Badgers!

Before you were alive
Other beings lived
And died
And your Hydrogen
Your Carbon
Your Oxygen, Calcium, and Phosphorus
Were a part of them
And after you die
Your Hydrogen
Your Carbon
Your Oxygen, Calcium, and Phosphorus
Will no longer be yours
They will be a part of someone else
A part of very many someones else

Before you were alive
An infant girl held her hands up to the rain for the first time
Said wow
And her mother was bayoneted by soldiers
As she marveled at the water that fell freely from the sky
And when the soldiers tossed her in the air she laughed
The way she laughed when her father tossed her
And caught her
Tossed her
And caught her
And she was still laughing
When she landed on the muzzle of a gun
And somewhere in Poland
A little boy and a little girl
The only survivors from a boxcar full of frozen corpses
Tripped and held hands as they fell face-down into the earth
Before a gate that declared: Arbeit macht frei
Where the dogs tore them to pieces
And the grass was just beginning to rise from the soil
And on the other side of the world
Three kids the same age
Set out from a residential school
In the heart of winter
Temperature: -42
One with no shoes
But all with enough courage and certainty
That they never wanted the priests to touch them again
That they almost covered all the miles home
Before freezing to death

Before you were alive
Dinosaurs walked the earth
And the comet that ended them
Was still millions of years in the future
But one hundred and eighty million years is a pretty good run
We’ve only been around for 2.5 million years
And look at everything we’ve done