It’s a hectic time of year, so I’m grateful to the poets and bloggers who found the time to respond to my call for write-ups of their favorite poetry collections from 2019 (or late 2018). The idea was to showcase some books that might have been neglected by the standard taste-makers and gatekeepers, but I suspect that, poets being poets, the results would have been equally idiosyncratic even if I hadn’t specifically encouraged contributors to stray from the beaten path. I’ve done little editing except to standardize title presentation and to excerpt from and link to longer posts. In addition to formal submissions by email or DM, I’ve also included three short takes at the end: responses on Twitter of at least a sentence in length. There were just two books selected by more than one contributor.
I have the pleasure of knowing Rebecca Schumejda in real life. Our paths don’t often cross — even though she lived a couple miles down the road for a while — but I’ve heard her read at a number of local poetry events over the years. I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, and I’m so much in awe of this book. As a single long poem about a family tragedy, it’s a massive undertaking both emotionally and poetically, and she hits it out of the park. This book is engaging. It’s breathtaking. Her torment is palpable. I paused more than once to cry. I actually had to put the book down and sob. And it’s not because I know this story already. This is the first and only telling of it that I’ve heard, and it’s stunning. […]
The question with a long poem is how to sustain it. In this case, Rebecca drops and picks up a number of threads (some are narrative elements; others are images) as the poem progresses. These threads usher us through the poem, like Ariadne helping Theseus through the maze. The narratives/images tangle with one another and flow into one another, but a familiar one is always present. There’s always at least one to hold onto. They include the tragic event at the core of this piece and the forgiveness the narrator pursues, a cat that hunts birds, home renovations, the woods, motherhood and childhood, childhood trauma, the jail, cockroaches, bodies of water, fish, etc. These repeat and recur at various paces, something like a fever dream, but the reader knows from the beginning they’re going somewhere. And so we follow. [Read the full blog post.]
Full disclosure: Justen is a friend of mine. But I’d pick his book even if he weren’t. This collection was born in part of his work with refugees on Lesvos, so it’s a work of witness. But it’s also a work of hope and redemption. Ahren pairs his poems with his photographs, and both are luminous.
The collection is both ravishing and gutting. In word and image, it deals with the ubiquitous violence of the human condition – from the overt violence of bombs to the more subtle violence of our choices and even memory itself – but it renders that violence with love, by looking at it head-on. The poetry and photography become a kind of prayer. Many of the poems share the same titles, reinforcing this almost compulsive prayer-like drive. Likewise, certain voices cycle and recur – an “I” who is (some version of) Ahren himself, but also one who is Giacometti (these are gorgeous poems…), and others who are refugees and civilian victims of war. In one of the “Fragment: East 2nd Avenue” poems, Ahren describes how he and his partner “make a quiet love in the dark”: this is precisely what the book does. It’s dark alright, and many of the realities it describes unflinchingly are grim, but the poet’s and photographer’s witnessing (and use of language and light) is a gift of love.
—Lisken Van Pelt Dus
Tari tells of growing up in Zimbabwe, of being one of only two black girls in a white classroom, of being “the girl who has to hesitate before she speaks because she must double-check that she is thinking in the correct language so that her words are not misconstrued.” (Mustang)
She tells of struggling with verb forms in Shona, of watching Bollywood movies with subtitles, of insecurities in speaking either Shona or English, of what it is to expect drought and famine, of gender inequity, wealth inequity, racism, classism, detentions, demands to conform.
Self-portrait-poems of a child who shrinks into silence because there is no safe way to use language: “You wear silence / sitting on the concrete floor of a library / a shroud like speech // Language does not belong to you” (self portrait at nine).
Definition poems. Prose poems. Semi-erasures, strike-outs, lists. And poems that do things I myself have never dared to do with poetry. Poems that succeed in saying things I’ve never quite found the way to express in my own lines, and have mostly given up trying.
Tariro Ndoro, though…she didn’t quit. And Agringada: Like a Gringa, Like a Foreigner, succeeds and stuns. [Read the full blog post.]
—Laura M. Kaminski
If I could choose only one book I’ve read in the past year to read again and again, it would be [this one] … A look at the titles of the poems lets us know that we’re in store for a treat: “You Be You, and I’ll Be Busy,” “God’s Secretary, Overworked,” and “So You Want to Leave Purgatory.” It’s one of the few volumes of poetry where I’ve put a star by the title of one of the poems because it delighted me so.
Let me look at that poem, “On the Train, a Man Snatches My Book.” I love the way she describes how she’s feeling, if she decided to pay attention to the man who sneers at her with such contempt and dismissal:
… I feel
as if I’m on the moon listening to the air hiss
out of my spacesuit, and I can’t find the hole. I’m
the vice president of panic, and the president is
This book is full of musings of our current existential despair–both on an individual level and a species level.
It’s been a good year for poetry collections that use science in interesting ways. I’d add [these two books] to my list too. Regular readers of this blog may remember that I wrote a post about Roripaugh’s book back when I first read it in the summer.
I’m also including a book that I’m not likely to read again–it was a tough read the first time. Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale revisits Ovid and all those metamorphoses. The description sounded like it would thrill my inner English major who loves to see the connections to older literature.
I had forgotten how much of Ovid’s work revolves around sexual assault and rape. Perhaps all of Greek mythology does, and I’ve forgotten. In this Me Too world, the book was a tough read for me, as much of it revolved around sexual assault.
It’s important work, and “Nightingale: A Gloss” is an amazing poem. It also makes me nauseatingly afraid to leave my house with its depiction of threats at every corner, no matter how idyllic. [Read the full blog post.]
The testimonials and review excerpts on the back cover (by Diane Seuss, Cynthia Cruz, and Airea D. Matthews) emphasize the Russian mythological and erotic aspects of the book, but these were not what primarily resonated with me.
For me, having lived in Chicago, her memories studded throughout the book take me back to walking through Avondale in Chicago, wiry old men chatting in the gray booth in the Busy Bee Polish pancake house, waiting for the bus while two prostitutes wrestled in the intersection tearing out each other’s earrings, the woman who did not believe I was American or French and insisted on speaking Russian to me, the dark gray of the buildings laced with strips of sunlight. They remind me of here and now, the butchers at Kerrytown, the ones from Hamtramck, blood sausage for breakfast. For me, as someone with PTSD, I read her poems as if they are fragments of flashbacks, as if I have become the disembodied spirit that floats in the dissociative darkness just behind and over one shoulder, bearing witness to a life that is in no way my own. For me, as a self-identified asexual enby (pursuant in part to the traumas which caused the PTSD), the queer eroticism praised by the other readers becomes a window into terrors and joys which are not and cannot be part of my life. They are simultaneously persuasive and repellant, snippets of experience alien and curious, a beauty that baffles and bemuses. Her phrase which demands I respond is on page 13 — “When we ignore the body, we become more easily victimized by it.” I return to this over and over, unpersuaded and perturbed.
You said we could share up to four other recommendations. These may not be quite what you were thinking of, as they aren’t exactly always books. This year I discovered the emerging world of poetry journals devoted to disability themes. There are many of these, but Nine Mile is an exceptional standout to me, taking center place with their Fall 2019 double issue of “neurodivergent, disability, deaf, map, and crip poetics.” The actual book-as-a-shining-star of this space for 2019 has to be the sizzling, quirky, snarky
which reads for me like sitting down in a coffee shop for a bitch session with a best friend who isn’t holding back. Social justice and marginalized voices in poetry are becoming so much more visible and are essential to my reading, but I know others are including many of those titles. I’ve become a huge fan of Button Poetry through their videos, then snarfing up as many of their books as I can. Science and medicine in poetry are new themes I am exploring, with
as a leading 2019 exemplar.
I love the verbal incantation, the spell of words cast by poetry. Our current social crisis, with its urgency and ER alarms, seems to overwhelm the lure of musical sound. It’s no wonder that I love the power that poet Alice Oswald, keen magician versed in multiple voices, summons in her new book Nobody.
Oswald takes as her starting point a hapless side story from Homer’s Odyssey, the fate of an anonymous poet. “The poet” is taken to a remote island, left to die in a triangle of love stories between mortal and divine. The narrative gives Oswald the occasion to write immersively, from the inside out – immersion and dissolution in water a theme she works with seeming inexhaustible attention and imagination. For instance: “and the waves pass each other from one colour to the next/and sometimes mist a kind of stupefied rain/slumps over the water like a teenager.” The poet delights in her mystical moves – closeups, long shots – with meditative intelligence. In the chaos of our world, a willful individual divorced from and standing against the natural world is quaint and unsustainable. Nobody is classically old and radically new in this elegy of human consciousness. The process of dissolution is also a process of recovery, a baptism in the experience of universal nothing. What remains is the song, many-voiced, long-lasting – a moving incantation.
I catch myself complaining that I hardly ever have time to read anymore. That’s not true. I read constantly as a writer, editor, and teacher; what ebbs sometimes is my ability to fully immerse in a book. What I love about my friend Hailey Leithauser’s second collection—about all of the picks I’ve named here—is that the first time I read it, while it was still in manuscript form, I could entirely relax into the play. “So rarely does music / so clearly resemble / the creature who makes it,” declares the poem “Rrribbit.” These poems have set aside the political moment, and there is no sustained speaker, so in that sense it exists outside the zeitgeist. But good lord, these poems are lively and glistening in their love of language as they consider the enduring themes of nature, indulgence, and mortality. We need poetry to fill a variety of roles: to document, to confront, to testify. We also need poetry to frolic, to weep with one eye and wink with the other.
Other top picks:
[See Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s write-up above.]
[See P.F. Anderson’s write-up above.]
Though published in December of 2018, I read this in 2019… twice in two months. Shout-out to Poetry Daily for the excerpt that brought the book to my attention—and in general for including so much poetry in translation these days. Unfortunately my copy currently sits on the other side of the Atlantic, but I think I can do this from memory. I loved the spareness of the poems and their deep evocation of places and people, especially rural people left behind by the economic and political upheavals of modern China. The poems are often quite short but always evocative, like ink-brush paintings able to suggest whole landscapes with just a few strokes, and I was reminded a lot of the great contemporary Korean poet Ko Un. There’s an earthiness that at times verges on Rabelaisian, helping to balanced the elegiac tone. Yang Jian also manages to balance passionate engagement with detached observation, which apparently reflects his background as a factory worker and a practicing Buddhist. Here’s the sample poem on Tinfish’s order page, “Night Deep”:
shriek above the field, scatter.
looks at the sunset, astonished,
cannot stop crying.
I find his corpse by the river,
like a bundle of firewood at the door.
Like many writers, I suppose, the poets I love the most are those whose work is like the Platonic ideal of what I’m groping toward in my own poetry. Yang Jian is certainly writing the sort of thing I strive for (without nearly as much success) in my ecopoetry and micropoetry. Another 2019 book I absolutely loved couldn’t be more different, at least on the surface, exemplifying another approach that I also long to be more proficient at: extreme playfulness and surrealism. I’m talking about
which I pre-ordered with great anticipation and did not disappoint. Her choice of title poem suggests she’s embracing the role of the wise fool here, especially in its riddling conclusion:
There is in my house, she said, a stovelight
that never goes off. And in my car, I said,
there’s a dashlight that never goes off.
What warning has no end and ends without warning?
She thought I didn’t know.
I felt a jolt of recognition when I read that, because I’ve also written a poem in which an oven’s pilot light was a key, concluding image. Damn you, Ruefle! Oh well. This book is simply a masterclass in lyrical absurdism. Like the best stand-up comedians, Ruefle lulls us into a receptive mindframe for serious social and environmental concerns that emerge clearly from time to time with devastating effect. As would-be dunces go, she is easily as subversive as Nasruddin.
This has made so many people’s lists, I don’t feel I have to say much more about it here except to acknowledge that it really is All That. Not merely one of the best, most surprising, beautiful, tragic, gripping, and sadly relevant books of the year, but arguably of the entire decade. California poet and blogger James Lee Jobe told me on Twitter that it was his top book of the year, but that he didn’t feel he could write about it without gushing. Carolee Bennett, who blogged her reading notes as part of her ongoing project to read 100 poetry books in 12 months, wrote, “I want to both read this book over and over and never speak of it again.” Yep.
Lauren Alleyne’s risky, crafty, brilliant powerhouse of a book deserves big love and many readers.
Two distinct but equally compelling takes on military life by women poets.
True confession – I was the acquisitions editor for this one. His first book was fabulous and long out of print. He was sharing really powerful new poems on Facebook. I approached him about a New & Selected that would include the complete first book and two sections of newer work. It makes for a beautiful reading arc.