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166 hat holds a book of poetry together? When can—when should—we read it as one work, rather than as three poems, or ten, or twenty-­nine? These days books that raise such questions—book-­ length poems and longer sequences— seem to be everywhere. Ten years ago, the poet Dorothea Lasky published a pamphlet complaining that “Poetry Is Not a Project”; last year, another poet and critic, Ange Mlinko, suggested that ours is the age of “the Project Book.” A project book (and it’s a term familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an MFA program recently) comprises a set of poems, or else just one long poem, organized around one problem or theme, often a politically urgent one, with quotations and documents and journalism folded in. Such books include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Anne Carson’s Nox, Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Dart, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. At books On Long Poems Four recent books make length a virtue Stephanie Burt W On Long Poems | 167 their best, like Citizen, they do what no mere collection of short poems—and no book-­ length narrative—could do, bringing a variety of approaches to a dilemma too big to ignore. At less than their best, they can be like the rock concept albums of the 1970s, whose laborious techniques and references strove for a whole weightier than the sum of its parts. (The last thing I want to read, in 2020, is another book-­ length erasure.) And yet the lens of the project book—the book with a clear, consistent connection to some single issue or site or source—might not be the best lens for all of today’s best long poems. Four such books were among my favorite poetry books in 2019—Fred Moten’s All That Beauty, Emmalea Russo’s Wave Archive, Rosalie Moffet’s Nervous System, and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems. None feels like a methodically rigorous Project. And none feels like a collection of stand-­ alone poems, either. Rather, they use length as an aesthetic device: their continuity, their ongoingness, shows how the people, things, feelings they depict remain intertwined, open-­ ended, hard to resolve. Because they can take the time to show you how to read them, they depend less than brief lyric poems do on conventions you’re likely to understand coming in. They have room to digress: they have space to double back, and even to string you along. Taken together, these books show how disparate strategies for writing a long poem—or creating collections made of long poems—can preserve a sense of surprise in the middle, yet hold a book together, beginning to end. how would it feel to enter the world not as someone who wants to control and to understand it, but as someone who sets out to improvise, to collaborate, to play? How would we know when a poem could end? As with most of Fred Moten’s earlier volumes, All That Beauty comprises sequences, in a roller-­ coaster of prose and occasionally verse, incorporating quotations, riffs, echoes, and bits of literary and cultural theory in (to use Moten’s own terms) a Black Radical tradition. Moten usually jettisons such familiar standards of prose (and of pre-­ modernist verse) as consecutive 168 | Stephanie Burt argument, concrete reference, and consistency of voice. Instead, he has style, distinctive sounds, and a way of being—Moten might say a “resistance”—that goes along with them. “Hearing saves the place it makes by changing”; “Rumination wanders, a resuscitative essay on the run, but you never get there”: you just keep going, and—if you are the right reader for all these riffs—the sound leads you into its “unfinished unfinishing,” its “knotted openness.” These are poems—or are they one poem?—that want to work on their readers, on their listeners, in a way that unsettles consecutive thought, even as it satisfies the ear, posing questions such as: what if all our expectations have been built on white supremacy, on habit, on a string of settler-­ colonial lies? What if “this idea that thinking comes first…is a problem of settlement, of the settler that brings...

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