Trust Barbara Kingsolver to surprise you.
In her bestselling novels, and in her nonfiction and journalism, Kingsolver has always been unabashedly political. She tells deeply human stories in lyrical prose, but forces like sexism, racism and environmental damage inevitably affect her characters' lives.
In these intensely political times, she delivers a gorgeous collection of poetry, How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons), that is the least overtly political of her 15 books. These poems unplug from TV and social media and the outrage of the moment and turn our attention to the immediate and the everlasting, human intimacy and the power and mystery of nature.
Kingsolver has published eight novels and five books of nonfiction; this is her second volume of poetry. Her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and an Oprah’s Book Club selection; The Lacuna won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2010. Her 2007 memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle won a James Beard Award. She received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011.
How to Fly is this book’s title and also the title of its first chapter. Its short poems are often wry riffs on self-help, like the hilarious How to Lose That Stubborn Weight. The title poem’s advice is both lovely and the last thing you expected.
“Pellegrinaggio,” the second section, is a group of poems recounting a trip Kingsolver took to Italy with her husband, two daughters and mother-in-law, Joann Hopp, “who was born (and, frankly, remains) Giovanna Spano.” Joann was the child of Italian immigrants who “stamped / a map called home on her life she believed would end / before she could ever come here to find it.” There are poignant contrasts between what is for Kingsolver and her kids a sometimes raucous vacation and what is for her mother-in-law a wondrous pilgrimage of discoveries that feel like memories.
The section titled “This Is How They Come Back to Us” gathers elegies for Kingsolver’s (mostly) beloved dead. Passing Death is a painfully accurate depiction of the “gradual dying” of a woman with cancer, Long Division a clever and affectionate poem about a math teacher.
Striking in its unsentimental look at the very mixed feelings that can sideswipe us at a family member’s death is My Mother’s Last Forty Minutes: “This might be the moment," Kingsolver writes, "to step one last time / from the bedside to mention that while we spoke kindly, / mostly, my mother and I did not love one another. /Ever, not even when I was a baby. ... I would be / the unspeakable first failure that stuck in my mother’s / throat, the child who would never be gentled, / or allowed to touch her good things, or even allowed to / take her to lunch, but could take the rap, the bad daughter.”
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Many of the poems in “Walking Each Other Home" focus on family and friendships. Will brings back that indomitable and beloved mother-in-law to strap an apron around her diminishing body and help her daughter-in-law process and preserve a bumper crop from the garden, a “heartless tomato massif” that overruns the kitchen. Meadowview Elementary Spelling Bee imagines that event as a battle that mows down kids one grade at a time, until Kingsolver’s small daughter emerges victorious, “ecstatic with glossolalia.”
The poems in “Dancing With the Devil" deal with writing itself, including Insomniac Villanelle, a roll-call salute to writers she loves, and Cage of Heaven, which reveals the similarities between Emily Dickinson and a polar bear. My Afternoon With the Postman finds the narrator taking refuge in an art museum on the “day of the cruel review.” Stung by a critic’s words, she vents to one of the arresting portraits Vincent van Gogh painted of his postman. Why paint your postman? The portrait answers that question — He couldn’t pay anyone else to sit for him, / the girls who smile for a price. — but it refuses to agree with her that the artist is more important than the critic. After all, it points out, van Gogh’s critics were cruel, too. Now they are dead, and so is he, and the art is what survives.
The book’s final section, “The Nature of Objects,” expands from the human experience to the natural world — not that those two things are separate. But the scope of these poems is larger in both space and time.
There are poems for mussels, ants, the leaves of trees. Great Barrier puts side by side the flames that damaged Notre Dame in Paris and the unseen destruction wrought by climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, and mourns both “sacred places.” Love Poem, With Birds is about learning to appreciate a husband’s passionate bird-watching and see herself as an object of the same gaze: “That I might walk the currents / of our days with red and golden feathers / in my hair, my plain tongue laced with music.”
The book’s longest and most expansive poem, Where It Begins, takes knitting as its subject, method and metaphor. Winter weather and long evenings are given shape by the act, “straggling trellises of days held fast in the acreage of a shawl.” In Kingsolver’s luscious description, knitting can be an escape, a consolation, a lifeline to friends. When she writes about it as an art, her language is as well: “Textures have family / trees: cloud and thistledown are cousin to catpelt and infantscalp / and earlobe. Petal is a texture, and lime peel and nettle and five / o’clock shadow and sandstone and soap and slither.”
The circle expands farther, to the sheep and how they are sheared, to the spring lambing when they are born, to the grass they eat and the earth where it grows.
“Sunshine, heavenly / photosynthetic host, sweet leaves of grass all singing the / fingers electric that tingle to brace the winter, charged by / the plied double helices of all creatures that have prepared / and survived on the firmament of patience and swaddled / children. It’s all of a piece, knitting. All one thing.”
How to Drink Water When There Is Wine
How to stay at this desk when the sun is barefooting cartwheels over the grass —
How to step carefully on the path that pulls for the fleet unfettered gait of a deer —
How to go home when the wood thrush is promising the drunk liquid bliss of dusk —
How to resist the kiss, the body forbidden that plucks the long vibrating string of want —
How to drink water when there is wine —
Once I knew all these brick-shaped things, took them
For the currency of survival.
Now I have lived long and I know better.
How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): Poems
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 128 pages, $24.99
Zoom in on Barbara Kingsolver
Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft will host Barbara Kingsolver for a livestreamed reading and talk at 7 p.m. Oct. 20.
Tickets for the virtual event are $35 and include one copy of How to Fly. Proceeds beyond book costs benefit the free Times Festival of Reading.
To purchase a ticket, go to festivalofreading.com. You’ll receive an email with a link to join the livestreamed event and a book. The first 70 purchasers will receive a copy of How to Fly signed in advance by Kingsolver.
The 2020 Times Festival of Reading will take place Nov. 12-14 at festivalofreading.com. It will feature virtual interviews and panel discussions with authors, both live and recorded.
Among the more than 30 authors confirmed for this year’s festival are Colson Whitehead, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Mary Kay Andrews, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, Lisa Unger and Maggie O’Farrell.