Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, January 01, 2016

You Asked, no. 3: Luisa's Ode


I promised myself that some time between last night's feast and this morning's homemade doughnuts or this afternoon's New Year's Day feast, I would begin to write about Luisa Igloria's poems in Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser. So now, while the red wine is soaking out of the giant tablecloth and the guests are occupied, I will take a few minutes to share a poem from Luisa Igloria. Thanks to those of you who said this would be a good idea. Novelist Midori Snyder said she liked posts about poetry, and painter Mary Bullington and writer Jeff Sypeck said they would like to hear about a poet I mentioned (and that was Luisa.), Some others on Facebook liked this idea as well. So I may just share a small group of Luisa's poems this month, starting with one today.


Isn't it curious to consider that a book of poetry can win a national prize (in a competition judged by poet Mark Doty), and yet remain without a single review for an entire year afterward? And yet that is exactly what happened with Luisa's latest book. In our time, books that do not cater to a mass market audience can be easily overlooked. Worthy books can be invisible.

One day I wrote a Facebook post about Luisa Igloria's Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, Utah State University Press, 2014), and how it had not gotten a review in its first year in the world. Several friends left notes to say that they had ordered copies. One small mention managed to find the book at least a few readers, and many seemed surprised at the lack of attention. But if a book has little notice, it is unlikely to sell because people don't know it exists. 

What can you do to help this book, and any book you like? After all, unless a book is a lead choice at one of the Big 5, it is not guaranteed to receive a great deal of push. Small and university presses in particular simply cannot put a great deal of marketing muscle behind a book. 

But you as a reader can do something, just as I am doing a little something right now. Post or tweet about the book. Buy a book (particularly during release week.) When you buy, read, and live with a book, you are not only more likely to get to know it well, but you cast a vote. You say to publishers (and in particular to the publisher of the book) that this book is by a writer worth your time and your support. Your support, joined with the support of others, makes the writer's next book easier to place with a publisher. Doesn't it make sense that an engaged readership is essential to books and to publishing? You can also support a book by suggesting the book to your local bookstore, or asking your library to order it. 


Luisa talks about her daily practice here
Luisa at Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site:
Luisa at
Luisa's latest prize:


Landscape, with an End and a Beginning

In those days, we too looked to the sky
for omens--away from the burning effigies,
the barricades, the soldiers whose phalanxes
we broke with prayers and sandwiches made
by mothers, teachers and nuns passing rosaries
and flasks of water from hand to hand.
The city was a giant ear, listening for news
of the dictator. (Sound travels swift through
a mass of suffering bodies.) Snipers perched
like birds on the peripheries of buildings.
Thickening contrails striped the sky.
Two ravens flew side-by-side over the abandoned
palace, trading hoarse commentary. When night came,
the people scaled the gates. What did they see?
Papers of state whirling in the fireplace. Masses
of ball gowns choking the closet, shoes lined with satin
and pearls; gilt-edged murals above the staircase.
Days and nights of upheaval, their new history
alive; the old one writhing on the floor
with a blur around its mouth like hoarfrost.

I've shared a poem that, if you are old enough or else fond of reading about post-colonial history, may remind you of a time when Aquino followers seized the state broadcasting station in Manila. The autocratic Ferdinand Marcos and his retinue fled the Philippines and People Power, and MalacaƱang Palace was overrun--and the world learned exactly how many "ball gowns choking the closet, shoes lined with satin" Imelda Marcos possessed. Those shoes out-Kardashianed our celebrities. If you are neither of those things, the poem will stand as a kind of mythic tale of transformation.

The world and the image-rich language in the poem is an interesting mix of war and devotion--"soldiers whose phalanxes / we broke with prayers and sandwiches made / by mothers, teachers and nuns passing rosaries / and flasks of water." Like the metaphysical Body of Christ, made up of believers, the city is all one, "a mass of suffering bodies," "a giant ear, listening for news." They also look skyward for omens, finding snipers like birds, the stripes of contrails, and ravens over the palace. In the end, the "mass of bodies" looks not upward but down to the floor to see a cold death and a resurrection: "Days and nights of upheaval, their new history / alive; the old one writhing on the floor / with a blur around its mouth like hoarfrost."

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.