Unless dealing with outright metaphysics, much nonfiction is mere map-making, stencil patterns, or instruction. And it really has something to do with the approach: how much song is given to each subject.
Here are three books by three lyrical masters that deal with such inaccessibles as the loss of one's land, the loss of a father, and a losing search for a sonic fatherland.
For the City that Nearly Broke Me / Barbara Jane Reyes / Aztlan Libre Press / $10, 44 pages
Barbara Jane Reyes, the Manila-born San Francisco-raised poet who eschews the title of activist/poet for the more direct "political poet," writes jagged lines that derail the global treks of homeland hierarchy while running their alarm around the consequences of wanton consumerism and cosmetic eye surgery. "I worry about geography pornography and fast food religion," writes Reyes in a chant of anxiety that spreads its dread over military recruiters, eating disorders, and Europeans googling the words "naked fucking Filipina." The subversive discourse in the street verse of her latest chapbook For The City that Nearly Broke Me reads like a Cosmopolitan-cadenced "Howl," wherein the best minds of Reyes' generation have not at all been destroyed by machismo and an antiquated but ever in effect old boys' system, but have become determined to invert this chronic chauvinism on all shores.
TRANSFER: Poems / Naomi Shihab Nye / BOA Editions / $16, 88 pages
When Barbra Streisand's character in Yentl belts out with entreaty and authority, "Father, can you hear me?" the question is actually rhetorical, even rhetorically selfish as — however beautifully sung — the probe has more to do with the strictures of Talmudic law amid gender crisis than a longing for a lost parent. The question is about one's self-preservation. When Naomi Shihab Nye, a San Antonio-based poet who has authored and anthologized over 30 books, offers in her latest collection a dexterous dialogue between herself and her dead father Aziz Shihab — an exiled Palestinian who attained prominence as an Arab-American journalist and highly regarded diplomat for peace — the exchange is as much about grief as it is about global affairs. Part mourning diary and part bon voyage, Nye's book TRANSFER includes lines from her father's notebooks, his grocery lists, and speculations about a secret photograph of her father as a youth sitting among men by a bowl of hummus; with its puns about blood and nomadism, it wisely curtails its grand conceits by focusing on the quotidian aspects of a life lived willfully, aware of the compromises made by attempts at inclusion.
How Music Works / David Byrne / McSweeney's / $32, 352 pages
In collaborations with artists from Brian Eno to Selena, since the mid-1970s David Byrne has offered his audience often itchy but nearly always infectious art noise. Those colabs have led more than a few people (who might otherwise be distracted by the brick print oversized suits and wavering Adrian Belew-ish vocals) to wonder: "How is this music?" Though he has given answers to FAQ in his liner notes, Byrne has never really addressed the issue, but now offers a McLuhan-like study as big as a Houston phone book that purports to tell how music actually works. With chapters on the African roots of contemporary tunes to wise cant about the inflation of ticket prices, How Music Works solidifies once and for all that the quirkiest, if not the quietest, ex-member of Talking Heads — whose previous books include sketches of trees, treatises on bicycling, and photo essays on found art — has done a lot of thinking as well.