What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we’ve asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Lena Crown on Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage

A few minutes before a voice on the intercom signaled the end of the final day of the 2023 AWP conference in Seattle, Washington, I purchased one of the last remaining copies of Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage from the American Poetry Review. This feels somehow fated, looking back: that I would first meet this book here, 2,767 miles northwest of my apartment and just 137 miles from the town of Vantage, where the speaker of these poems—young, wild-haired, a “squirrely thing”—grew up and eventually secured a job on a maintenance crew of incredulous, sometimes vicious older men, cleaning up the area around the Wanapum Dam.

I am primarily a nonfiction writer, and I first described Vantage to friends and colleagues as “one of the most compassionate and immersive works of literary journalism I’ve ever read” (with several expletives added in for emphasis). I stand by this tagline, with the caveat that no tagline could hold all that Bambrick has achieved: a sweeping portrait across time of a community beholden to a single, monumental piece of infrastructure, a queer coming-of-age, a specific yet universal story of ecological death and climate resilience. This is a landscape where the drowned and concealed do not stay that way; monoliths crack and water levels fall, revealing what we’ve jettisoned, sacrificed, tolerated into obscurity.

But what keeps me reading and rereading this collection, aside from the precise, often stomach-churning imagery—the dead goats and halved snakes, maggots heaving, “the stink / generating its own heat”—and formal command of line and sound and shape, are the characters who populate this landscape. The men, the men. Bambrick pays them the close attention that reads, even when the prevailing emotion evoked is fear, like a radical act of love—the speaker is always implicated in the little intimacies and violences and betrayals and forgivenesses they unleash on each other. The collection is studded with narrative moments that crackle with tension and determination, condemnation and self-reproach.

Aside from my personal investment in thinking about place and the (gendered) politics of belonging, I love art that reminds me to pay attention, firstly, and secondly, to abide the contradictions in what I’m paying attention to. The poems in Vantage model all this and more. These are poems with an ethic—quiet but stalwart—and could only have been written by someone who has truly, deeply listened.

Writing Prompt

Title a poem with the name of a current or former coworker. Now write a collaged portrait of that person and your interactions with them, paying special attention to how they might perceive the speaker. You might first generate a list of anecdotes and snatches of dialogue that portray that person’s belief system or way of speaking, and which capture one or more essential aspects of the time, place, labor, and hierarchy.

—Lena Crown

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Jeffrey Albright

Lena Crown

Lena Crown is a writer from Northern California. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Narratively, North American Review, The Offing, and elsewhere, and she has received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Peter Bullough Foundation. She lives just outside Washington, D.C., where she serves as the PEN/Faulkner Writer in Residence and edits for Autofocus Books. In the 2023-24 academic year, she will join Colgate University as the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Nonfiction.