On poetry: Erin Belieu’s ‘When at a Certain Party in NYC’

On poetry: Erin Belieu’s ‘When at a Certain Party in NYC’

I live in a town with wonderful libraries.  And this has left me spoiled.

Even though Bloomington is a small town, our municipal library is one of the best I’ve visited.  I think it compares favorably to libraries in much wealthier, more densely-populated areas, like Silicon Valley and Toronto.  And within a mile’s walk of the town library is the main university library with its ten story tower of stacks.  Plus there are specialty collections scattered across campus, like the rare books library, the black culture center library, the education library, the disabilities library, the physics library, the life sciences library…

Given that I’m a bibliophilic glutton, I visit them all.

4621636807_791d6de73c_bBut the same way wealthy people become readily habituated to excess and can still feel unsatisfied with what they have, our splendorous libraries have given me absurd expectations & I can find myself feeling petulant when these go unfulfilled.  For instance, the New York Times Book Review recently published their annual poetry issue, and as I was reading through it I hopped over to my computer to look up some call numbers for books I wanted to borrow.  But none of my local libraries had purchased these books yet!

A tragedy!

I did notice, however, that several of the poets whose new books I wanted to read had been included in The Best American Poetry 2011.  I sighed a beleaguered sigh and placed a hold request for this volume instead.  I hadn’t read it yet.  If I were the sort of person who likes puns, I’d probably now write something like “I’m less well-versed in contemporary poetry than prose.”  But I’m not, so I won’t.

Not everything in the collection was meant for me.  This is probably a good thing.  Editors Kevin Young and David Lehman would’ve been doing a poor job if every poem they picked appealed to one particular (& peculiar) person’s taste.

And yet, despite knowing full well that not everyone shares the same taste in poetry, I can’t help but recommend you read (or at least experience) my favorite from the collection, Erin Belieu’s gorgeous, plain-spoken, devilishly clever “When at a Certain Party in NYC.”  In such a short space she captures so much of what people love & hate about New York.  And her words are perfect: the Midwest described as the great asphalt parking lot of our middle, the crushing self-doubt of living amongst the razor-blade women with their strategic bones and learning that even their toothpaste is somehow more desirable than yours.

I could go on quoting charming phrases from her work, but a brief internet search revealed that I don’t need to: from the comfort of your own wherever you are, you can click the link below and hear her poem in its entirety.  The only problem is that the narrator zips through so quickly that you probably won’t have time to savor everything worth savoring, but… why not hear it twice?

On returning books unread.

On returning books unread.

I would’ve liked to write a post about Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” because it seemed like he had an interesting thesis.  From what I gathered reading the first five chapters and the short blurb on the dust jacket, he wanted to write about the contribution of the American slave trade, especially during the big westward expansion toward the Mississippi, to the birth of the modern financial system.  It seemed as though his argument was that the slave trade involved many more large transactions on credit, and sales of credit documents from one person to another, than had occurred previously.

But I don’t know if that’s the argument he wound up making.  Because I didn’t get to finish reading his book.

Instead, K. said to me, “Can your next draft be done by the end of December?”

“No,” I told her.

“Why not?”

“Well, it takes me a while to type.  And I still have all this research to do.”

At which point she swept through my stack of library books and vetoed them all.  Just like that! Said I wasn’t allowed to finish reading Baptist’s book until this next draft was finished.

I was halfway through Sandeep Jauhar’s “Doctored” (which was well written and has many relevant personal anecdotes but didn’t have anything surprising in it so far, at least from my perspective – I’ve already read a fair bit about problems of our health care system), but it was vetoed also.

I complained.  “I’m writing about the philosophy of medicine!”

“You can read this later.”

Needless to say, “The Philosophy of Pornography” was also vetoed – apparently the ~2 pages (13 point font, 1.5 spaced) I am writing about pornography do not qualify as a good argument to finish reading that book.  My favorite essay in that book, at least of the ones I was able to read before K. vetoed all my research, oddly echoed the folksy rebuttal to gun control laws – “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – in that its thesis seemed to be, “pornography doesn’t hurt women, our society’s pervasively sexualized, demeaning culture hurts women.”  Several other essays argued that feminists shouldn’t hate pornography because, look, somewhere out there is some playful, non-demeaning trans-sexual porn.  But I don’t know if that’s a fair argument to make without statistics showing that videos of that sort are viewed at a comparable rate to other more objectionable kinds.

I can’t quote anything in this terse summary, by the way, because I no longer have the book.  It’s back at the library.

Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” was also vetoed.  Just temporarily, at least, and I did have a chance to read it about two years ago – I had checked it out again to flip through and find something to write a post about.  I would have been sad if it’d been perma-banned from my home.

When I was reading it, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be considered inflammatory.  Hinduism is very old – of course a plurality of voices has contributed to its current form.  It seemed as though her aim was simply to draw attention to some of the less-often heralded contributors.

And then, fittingly, the last book K. vetoed was Fernando Baez’s “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books.”  I’d read only part of the first chapter.

Luckily, she didn’t burn my collection.  Just forced me to put them into a bag and return them to the library until later.

I was allowed to keep only “Wrongs of Passage,” about fraternity initiation rituals, and “Fortunate Son,” a biography of George W. Bush.

I suppose the list as a whole should make me feel, um, a bit of concern about the focus of my project.


I  received an email from my library telling me that the hold request for Christine Kennealy’s “The Invisible History of The Human Race” – which obviously I need to read, as it might well relate to the themes of “broad political happenings shaping the fortunes of individuals,” “do humans have free will or are we subject to physics-based / DNA-based / divine-based determinism,” and “popular retellings of scientific findings make them sound like mythology” – was just processed.

Of course, her book might not be about any of the things I think it’ll be about – those are suspicions I wound up with based on reading a review in the newspaper.  I’ll have to read it to be sure!

But what devious stratagem can I come up with to borrow it without K. noticing?