In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Connie Willis’ Crosstalk and Steven King’s 11/22/1963) stayed home.

december-bookbag-2016Warsan Shire’s chapbook is my skinniest book of the year. I finished reading it on a single commute, but rather than read another volume on my return trip, I reread her poems instead.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth begins with “What Your Mother Told You After You Father Left” and it ends with “In Love and In War”.

Identity is at the heart of the collection, often explored within the context of family relationships (“Grandfather’s Hands”) and the absence of them (“When We Last Saw Your Father”), and sometimes within broader frameworks of belonging.

The cycle “Conversations About Home” are overtly personal and politcal. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” “Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.” “Do they not know that stability is ike a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return.”

Older sisters and soldiers who survived, lovers and escapees. First kisses and minarets, and cayenne and roasted pine nuts. These verses are tender and painful, some freshly poured and others boiled: always striking.

Just as short: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

This is the publication of her TEDx talk, and much of it is as you might guess, filled with feminist-y statements. “A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”

But what makes the piece so appealing is that it draws from her personal experiences in Nigeria. The anecdotes range from advice given to her after she was identified as a feminist following the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibscus, to an exchange between teenaged friends, to the awareness which came from giving a tip to a parking attendant.

Here’s one: “I know a woman who has the same degree and same job as her husband. When they get back from work, she does most of the housework, which is true for many marriages, but what struck me was that whenever he changed the baby’s nappy, she said thank you to him. What if she saw it as something normal and natural, that he should help care for his child?”

Often these musings are presented with a question to follow and, if there is anger in some instances, there is also hope. “All of us, women and men, must do better.”

Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (2015) climbed into my bookbag during this year’s IFOA. The collection claimed the Griffin Prize for poetry this year, which garnered a terrific amount of publicity for her debut.

Mark Medley reported the win in “The Globe and Mail”: “Adam Sol, who served on the jury alongside Alice Oswald and Tracy K. Smith (they considered 633 books of poetry from more than 40 countries) said it was the ‘ambition and reach’ of Howard’s book that ‘made her work stand out. This is a debut book – holy crap. Who knows what she’ll do next.’”

Even without being a dedicated poetry reader, that ambition is clear. (Also discussed last month: Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell, which was also shortlisted.)

Sometimes I felt decidedly under-equipped to participate in these verses, as though she had been observing a world about which I knew nothing, as with these lines from “Foramen Magnum”: “a river of somnolent fauns / heady-white-tailed apnea / our sleep a fossilized memory sequence”.

howard-infinite-citizenThe natural world is not merely a backdrop to these verses; it permeates them. As does the damage which has been done (and is being done) to it. Here is a peek into “Tender Pathos: A Denser, Blue Vapour”:

last June
in heaven
tailwaters did valley the hydro
atmospheric adverse
emergency shelters
of children taken
on advisory
boil this water
of false men

The vocabulary suits a student of the sciences in several instances, but there are also many moments in which I settled more immediately into territory I recognized, as with these lines from “A wake”: “As long as you hold me I am doubled from without and within a wake of fog unbroken, a shore of twisted cedar.”

One of my favourite pieces was “Thinktent” (which includes this lovely bit: “to be a shopkeep / in the showroom of nouns / what to purchase and what /to disavow) which reminds me that sometimes we all feel more like guests than residents:

“I know myself to be a guest
in your mind a grand lodge
of everything I long to know and hold
within this potlatch we call
the present

What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week? What’s the skinniest volume in your stack right now? The fattest?