Former U-M professor Carmen Bugan's new poetry collection, "Lilies From America," relates nature and the human experience
Poet Carmen Bugan has gone through many transitions, from her tumultuous childhood in Romania to moving to the United States. Still, she writes, “The road to a better life has not yet been planned, / Everyone is waiting for an architect.” Both uncertainty and possibility hover in those lines, which appear in a recent poem called “New Life.” That poem is among a new selection in Lilies From America: New & Selected Poems 2004-2019.
Lilies From America starts with a poem of the same title and then covers Bugan’s three collections -- 2004’s Crossing the Carpathians, 2014’s The House of Straw, and 2016’s Releasing the Porcelain Birds -- plus new poems dating from 2016 to 2019. Calling these poems autobiographical would be an understatement; they comment on family, nature, time, love, and language (the last of which Bugan discusses in-depth on episode 18 of The RC Podcast, “Carmen Bugan ’96 and the Language of Freedom”). This new collection discloses a snapshot of the trajectory of Bugan’s life, going from early days to current sentiments, through the well-selected and illustrative poems.
Bugan’s poetry is inspired by her childhood containing the political imprisonment of her father and exile of her family, and then by her experiences in the U.S. Her writing musters perseverance and suggests ways to keep going despite change and parting and borders. Looking to nature as a parallel, the poems draw on the landscape and flora of the places significant to Bugan. In “Long Island Sound,” dated January 23, 2018, cycles of starting and ending relate to human experience, as the poet reflects:
To see again that which I knew and cherished:
The translucent lift of water and algae,
Clam shells and egg-like rosy stones,
Fluent ending in a new beginning.
Nature becomes a way of understanding what is happening to the people in the poems. The “Moon" is set on an autumn night in a room aglow with moonlight and offers this last stanza: “I felt not too far from being translated, / The same way sunlight was interpreted / By the moon face we could see.” These feelings of being seen and of also making one’s own observations permeate Bugan’s poetry, both explicitly in describing the political protests written on a typewriter in Romania by her parents, as well as in sharing transcriptions of her family’s surveillance tapes, and subtly through the surrounding environment.
Yet even as time gives way to transformations, moments emerge to hold dear, moments in which to linger. On a visit to aging parents, the poet expresses a wish to accurately capture the instant: “While the glasses empty slowly and we are grateful / That we still can have that one drink, together, / Standing in the sunshine, with the song of birds.” Identifying these memories as important, and observing them, stand alongside the history of political protest and anguish in these poems.
Bugan is based in Long Island, New York, and she was the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors at the University of Michigan and the 2018 Dow Visiting Scholar at Saginaw Valley State University.
Bugan reads with David Cope, who is Bugan’s former teacher from Grand Rapids Community College prior to her transfer to the University of Michigan, at Literati Bookstore on January 16, 7 pm. Ahead of her visit, I interviewed her for Pulp.
U-M grad Chris McCormick's novel "The Gimmicks" meditates on relationships, wrestling, and the Armenian Genocide through altering perspectives
While the cover may show a picture of two opponents in a wrestling hold, The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick is about far more than matches. The novel chronicles the stories of Ruben Petrosian, Avo Gregoryan, and Mina, how their lives intersect, and how they love and hurt each other multiple times.
Each character overlaps with the others in ways that are both fortuitous and disastrous. Ruben, small and jealous, first feels envious of Mina’s backgammon luck and then goes on to seek revenge for Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia in the 1980s. Avo, large and kind, comes to live with his cousin’s cousin Ruben and his family in 1971, gets caught up in a ploy to be a part of Mina’s backgammon success, follows a request by Ruben to go to the United States, strikes off on his own as a wrestler, and finds himself misunderstood in several situations. Mina, lucky and earnest, garners success in playing backgammon, and while her luck holds in some ways, she experiences various losses throughout her life. Terry Krill, Avo’s wrestling manager, reluctantly begins to recall his past and piece together the others’ stories 10 years after the fact in 1989.
Their converging lives are told through chapters grounded in particular times and places and through the reflections of these people. During a reunion between Mina and Avo, she tells him, “Our lives aren’t metaphors, halved or broken or split. Our lives are our lives, whole if they feel complete, whole if they feel incomplete.” Her message generalizes the agonizing challenges that they encounter. Good intentions might not be enough or allow them to fulfill their desires.
Early in the novel, Mina muses in a journal: “That the world is round makes me hope that time is round, too, and that maybe I’ll loop to the start one day.” At that unexpected reunion with Avo later, “she felt the muscles in her face mirroring his, signaling a blue smile of her own, and she knew all at once about the roundness of time.” Such parallels and recurring ideas appear throughout the book -- similes and metaphors rewarding for the reader. Another is when Mina’s husband recalls the story of his first wife and mother: "He defended one to the other with all of his heart, so that he ended up without the trust of either.” Similarly soon after, Mina accuses Avo of being caught between two people, of being "someone who confused love for something you could only loan out to one person at a time." These threads bring the characters’ stories that sprawl across time and countries together with poignant and harsh realities.
McCormick, also the author of the earlier short story collection, Desert Boys, grew up in California and graduated from the University of Michigan with an MFA. He teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
McCormick visits Ann Arbor to read at Literati Bookstore on Friday, January 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him ahead of time.
AADL 2019 STAFF PICKS: BOOKS, MUSIC, MOVIES & MORE
Below you will see that 41 Ann Arbor District Library employees composed 18,000 words listing arts and culture that made an impact on their lives in this calendar year. While movies, books, and music released in 2019 figured prominently among our picks, we never limit our selections to material from the past year. Not all timeless art can be discovered and absorbed in a mere 365 days, so we're like Master P: no limits.
U-M Emeritus Professor John Knott recounts adventures of semi-rural Scio Township life in a new nonfiction essay collection
Occasionally you get a good look inside another life. It could be seeing a career other than your own. It could be hearing about a trip to a place where you’ve never been. It could also be learning about a distinct lifestyle chosen by another person.
John Knott’s new book, Almost Country: Living With the Land, reveals the latter. In this 147-page self-published collection of nonfiction essays, he outlines his experiences with building and living in a home in the woods outside of Ann Arbor with his wife, Anne. Anyone with an interest in construction, wildlife, ecology, native plants, and trees, land ethics, local politics, and stories about ways of living might appreciate these essays.
Their house was situated on about three acres near the Huron River and just far enough outside of the city that they experienced a closer connection to the natural world while still enjoying a quick drive to Ann Arbor. As Knott writes, “We would find ourselves learning to appreciate darkness and quiet more absolute than anything we had experienced in town.”
The Knotts moved to their home in Scio Township in 1992 after their children left the house and as a way to pursue their interest in environmental issues. In 2006, Knott retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught and led in academic administration and is now Professor Emeritus of English. He focused on English Renaissance literature before turning his attention to literature and the environment.
One recurring thread throughout Almost Country is the question of how to maintain a landscape. The Knotts made a strong effort to give preference to native plants. Striking a balance between aesthetic and ecological principles presented both a challenge and goal for them, as Knott contemplates the question, “Restoration to what baseline?” in the book.
“We are only here because of Harald Poelchau, the prison chaplain who risked his own life to smuggle these letters back and forth to my grandparents,” says author Johannes von Moltke. “There is no other way that my grandmother would have gotten these letters and been able to keep them the rest of her life.”
The messages von Moltke refers to are the heart of Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence Between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, which contains the intimate notes between German Resistance fighters in World War II. The book is published in English for the first time thanks to von Moltke, his sister Dorothea, his uncle Helmuth, and translator Shelley Frisch.
Late in 1944, Freya von Moltke waited at home while her husband Helmuth James von Moltke was being held in a Berlin prison, awaiting his trial for his part in the Kreisau Circle, one of the crucial Resistance groups in Germany. In the months leading up to Helmuth’s execution in January 1945, the two exchanged heartfelt, moving letters about their lives and love for each other. Poelchau risked his safety daily to smuggle these writings in and out of the prison.
Dr. von Moltke, now a professor of German and film at the University of Michigan, says his grandmother always had the letters with her.
To say that Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq is about the queer black experience is both true and also too simple. The poetry collection engages with the American South, the history of slavery, and sexuality and eroticism in candid, unexpected ways.
In the introduction, Chris Albani, who selected the book for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, aptly illuminates what this book does, writing, “This is where we find Malcolm Tariq’s work, on the cusp of a new south, a new Black, a new self-love, a new history. He is one of a new emerging crop of writers that is redefining Blackness in the United States….” The collection shares perspectives on this history and lineage in relation to today.
One of the poems -- a cento that borrows lines from other places -- states, “We give narrative to experience every day. Being born and living lawfully in my / humanness, I live a reality denied to the enslaved and formerly enslaved.” This contrast between today’s way of life and the not-too-distant past offers insight into how this country’s history still shadows the experience of the present.
"Staying Power: Concrete, Not Wood" is a multigenre production by youths in Ypsilanti, Mich., and Richmond, Calif.
On Saturday, Dec. 7, a cohort of teen artist-activists from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Richmond, California -- collectively known as Staying Power -- will put on a multigenre production that will culminate a year-long cultural exchange program between teens from these two communities.
"Staying Power: Concrete, Not Wood" will blend original poetry, music, theater, and film to stage conversations around gentrification and housing injustice experienced across the U.S, centering the voices and vision of youth of color who are using their art to create change.
Jua’Chelle Harmon, 17, is one of Staying Power's participants and below she reflects on what the project and poetry mean to her.
Regrets, He's Had a Few: Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards is forever "Doing It My Way"
Former University of Michigan All American wide receiver and NFL Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards has a reputation for being outspoken, to say the least. But even so, he had to warm up to the idea of writing Doing It My Way: My Outspoken Life as a Michigan Wolverine, NFL Receiver, and Beyond.
“Triumph Books, my publishing company, originally approached me in 2017,” Edwards said. “I had no idea what my book would be about, and to be honest, at the time, the money was laughable. … So we said, ‘We’ll pass.’ And by we, I mean me and my mother. She’s my business manager, so I run everything by her. But as we started telling people that I was presented with this opportunity -- my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, my coaches, my friends, everybody -- I started to think there enough things I’ve gone through in my life that make my story unique.”
This included constantly traveling between two sets of parents as a child; being a “legacy” athlete since Edward’s father, Stan Edwards, played football for Michigan under Bo Schembechler; the ups and downs of Edwards’ football career, both at Michigan and in the NFL; and his struggles off the field, including his battles with drug use, anxiety, and depression.
“It became evident that the book should happen -- that this was something we should definitely sign up for,” Edwards said. “So when [Triumph] came back to us in 2018, I didn’t care so much about the money. It was more about my story out there. … People forget that there’s more to athletes than a helmet, or a golf club, or lacrosse sticks -- especially now, with social media and fantasy sports. It’s like no one cares about athletes anymore. It’s all about, ‘What can you do for me?’”
Edwards wrote Doing It My Way with ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren. And while you might assume that Edwards felt a bit nervous and vulnerable when his highly personal book debuted in September, that’s not the case.
How do we know if we are fully living our lives? Does asking that question mean that we are not?
Find Me by André Aciman is a novel obsessed with these questions. Its characters find such great love that they feel as though they had not been living previously. This book also continues the stories of Elio and Oliver, among other characters, which first appeared in Call Me by Your Name, Aciman’s 2007 novel. While reading Call Me by Your Name before Find Me would provide helpful background, you can enjoy Find Me without having read the other book, as I read Find Me first for this interview with Aciman and then Call Me by Your Name after.
Aciman is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and lives with his wife in Manhattan. He will be in conversation with Zahir Janmohamed and also answer audience questions at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Saturday, November 9, at 7 pm in a ticketed event by Literati Bookstore.
In the four-parted Find Me, the first section focuses on Samuel, who is Elio’s father and receives a bigger role than in the previous book. On the topic of whether someone is truly living, Samuel reflects, “Some of us never jumped to the next level. We lost track of where we were headed and as a result stayed where we started.” As he interacts with Miranda, a woman he meets on a train, he muses about embracing life and how conversely, “Perhaps going about one’s daily life with all its paltry joys and sorrows is the surest way of keeping true life at bay.” This concern becomes not only a call to action and attention for Samuel as he comes to this awareness while his relationship with Miranda simultaneously grows, but also a theme as other characters reconsider their lives in subsequent parts of the novel.
The next three sections of Find Me center on other characters -- Elio, Oliver, and Elio again -- in their first-person voices, and they pick up what has happened in their lives since Call Me by Your Name. The subject of how to live gains more nuance as those characters discuss who they have been, who they are now, and how they have changed over time. Michel, Elio’s lover, says to him, “I suspect we have first selves and second selves and perhaps third, fourth, and fifth selves and many more in between.” He recognizes how, at different times and places in life, we are different people, and then later we are no longer those people. This concept becomes especially poignant between Elio and Oliver.
Not only do people evolve during their lives but they also reveal unique parts of themselves in different relationships and situations. As Samuel says to Miranda, “Most of us never meet those who’ll understand our full rounded self. I show people only that sliver of me I think they’ll grasp. I show others other slices. But there’s always a facet of darkness I keep to myself.” Find Me is also clearly preoccupied with who we are and how we know -- and are known to -- others.
The events and musings of characters in Find Me expose the situational nature of relationships and also embrace intensity and sensuality, though it may be hard to believe the ways and speed in which relationships progress. Fate plays somewhat of a role in bringing characters together, but the novel suggests that the characters’ choices and desires have a bigger effect on their lives. At so many points in the relationship between Samuel and Miranda, or Elio and Oliver, someone chooses or chooses not to say something, or they get scared and bolt. Yet, they discover a greater life when following their desires.
Aciman answered some questions from me before his visit to Ann Arbor.
AADL cardholders can download PDF copies of the books here; print copies for most titles will be on sale at the reception.
To read interviews with the other authors, click on the book titles below:
➥ The Elements: A Love Letter to All Things Everywhere written and illustrated by Hannah Burr
➥ Intersections by Shanelle Boluyt
➥ All That We Encounter by Bethany Grey
➥ Shape Notes by Judy Patterson Wenzel
➥ Fantastic Planet: Modern Crab Adventures written and illustrated by Douglas Bosley
➥ Over in Motown by Debbie Taylor, with illustrations by Keisha Morris
➥ The Dragon Library by James Barbatano, with illustrations by Douglas Bosley
➥ Breaking Through by Johnny Thompson
➥ The Planet We Live On by Shanda Trent