Ocean Vuong

Just like last year, I thought I’d put out a call to poetry readers to contribute to a favorite poetry books list that doesn’t pay much heed to critical fashions or even date of publication. I asked people to try to select a single favorite book, which I realize is a tough assignment… and not quite everybody managed it. (I allowed a few reviewers to sneak in a second book, as you’ll see.) Unlike last year, I forgot to do this earlier in December so people could use the list for holiday shopping purposes. Oh well. Poetry books do make great Valentine’s Day gifts! And the responses I got are, I think you’ll agree, wonderfully varied, personal and eccentric. Thanks to everyone who took part. —Dave

cover of European HoursI fell happily upon European Hours, collected poems of Anthony Rudolf, published a few months ago by Carcanet. First joy is the cover painting of the poet by his partner, the dazzling Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, and the joys continue through a volume of exquisitely spare, skilled, quirky poems from a long working life as writer, translator (from French, Russian, Hebrew), editor, publisher… Many are abstract and minimalist, but somehow the voice is never less than individual and recognisable. Others evoke lovers, friends, children and places with understated, tender directness. The extended title poem, completed around the time of the Brexit referendum result, praises sights and memories in a long list of European cities. The collection includes just one sonnet, Branca’s Vineyard:

The grapes are drowsy […]
I drink the wine […]
then, for a moment, lingering alone,
wineglass in hand, pen upon this paper,
inhale an ancient oneness which I’d thought
lost for all time, except when I made love
with the woman who has just spoken to me
and broken the spell, as spells are always broken.

So satisfying that I yearned for more, and keep rereading.

Jean Morris

cover of Clinch RiverHere’s the opener to my review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River, published in the last Hollins Critic: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck. In Clinch River, though, we all may find good rural luck, freshly dug from Appalachian coal country. Progeny of R. H. W. Dillard’s new Groundhog Press, this handsome collection will lure readers and not disappoint (Roanoke, VA: Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017.)” And here’s the closer: “These sound-loving poems of the Appalachian South give us the truth of place and memory. They tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”

Marly Youmans

cover of The Amputee's Guide to SexWeise, Jillian. The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2007.

This has been a difficult, painful year. I wanted books around me that helped me to understand and express that pain, words that described being broken and stubborn. Much of what I’ve been seeking has not come from poetry, but from graphic memoirs, mashups of terse words strewn across pages of (usually) dark and limber sketches. I prowled through In Between: The Poetry Comics of Mita Mahato (2017) which was magical, but I wasn’t sure it suited this list, or was the poetry book that I felt resonated most strongly with me right now.

It was actually the day I met Mita, before her book was published, that I found Jillian Weise’s book in the used book section of Left Bank Books in Seattle, at the Fisherman’s Wharf. I was unsettled, having struggled up the steps on crutches to the poetry section, rummaging through the shelves for something, something that fit the strange mood I was in.

I’d already gathered half a dozen when this slim dark book emerged from hiding between several much larger volumes, the title jolting and powerful. The poem titles were similarly potent — “The Scar on Her Neck,” “Body As Cloud,” “Beautiful Freak Show,” “The Body In Pain,” “Incision,” “Ode to Agent Orange,” “Let me be reckless with the word love.” These are reckless, fierce, naked poems, full of dreams and nightmares.

P.F. Anderson

cover of Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown OpenWolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss (University of Massachusetts Press). It’s a few years old — 2010 — but I came to it because a poem from the collection showed up in my email. I forget which poem-a-day source. “Song in my heart” begins:

If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it

Before she’s done she has God shaving with a straight razor, using the Black Sea as a mirror.

I had to check, and no, the poem isn’t an aberration — she manages some neat dance moves with sacred and profane, comic and dead serious. Her voice feels familiar, like the one in the back of my head when I start to write, before I mess things up.

Barbara Young

cover of GarbageI read only a little poetry this year. I think last year I may have nominated Paradise Lost, which I read as part of the “hard-book” reading club I belong to. At the moment we are mid-Karenina, we just finished Nabokov’s Ada, and next will be Gravity’s Rainbow. You see?

But it does leave me just enough time to have waded into Garbage by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1993). I am enjoying it for its rolling quality — he keeps hammering and yammering on like an Old Testament beard or the EverReady bunny. That is what makes it difficult to quote, without cutting him off in mid thought. But I’ll try:

[…] and here we are at

last, last, probably, behold, we have replaced
the meadows with oilslick: when words have

driven the sludge in billows higher than our
heads—oh, well, by then words will have left

the poor place behind: we’ll be settling
elsewhere or floating interminably, the universe

a deep place to spoil, a dump compaction will
always make room in! I have nothing to say:

what I want to say is saying: I want to be
singing, sort of: I want to be engaged with

the ongoing: but I have no portmanteau filled
with portfolio: still, I am for something:

[…]

Steven Arnerich

cover of The Poetry of Derek WalcottMy favorite poetry book of the year has been The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Macmillan, 2014). It’s a big book, and it’s been beside the bed all year, where I’ve dipped into it for an hour or just a few minutes, always finding phrases or metaphors, descriptions and emotions that touch me. Walcott’s background is entirely different from mine, but we share some loves, such as classical literature, European cities, the sea, nature, and watercolor painting. But I’ve been moved the most by his writing about being a black man in a white world, his writing about the American South, and his poems about the Caribbean, where he felt at home. His mastery of our language is astounding and often surprising, but I think this collection has brought me a lot closer to sensing the man behind the poems.

Elizabeth Adams

cover of Saying Your Name Three Times UnderwaterI’d like to recommend a book I just started reading, written by a poet I just met: Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚 (Lithic Press, 2017). This is a startling, beautiful book. With titles like “The Laotian Man Who Offered the Lake a Plate of Turtles” and “The Story That Bit the Butterfly’s Breast,” these are poems of precise, heartbreaking detail. From “Palpate the Third Rib Break It If You Have To,” Roxas-Chua 姚 writes “I miss China – the infant apple of her. / Her mountain bruises singing under rain / / and menthol.” These poems are chewy and dense, like black bread, and just as nourishing.

Erica Goss

cover of The Well Speaks of its Own PoisonThe best book of poems that I read this year was The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith (Tupelo Press, 2015). AMAZING poems. Lots of poems that reference fairy tales in new ways—perhaps they all do? Lots of interesting imagery about the dangers of the world.

It was one of the few books that I read twice this year. When I was waiting for a friend in Panera, and I was going to be loaning her this book, I reread it, and my opinion of it was the same, a month later.

cover of Dark Fields of the RepublicFor a book of older poems that still seems to have so much to say to us, that would be a volume by Adrienne Rich: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (Norton, 1995). Wonderful book. “What Kind of Times Are These” continues to haunt me.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott

cover of Millennial TeethMillennial Teeth by Dan Albergotti (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) is a wonder of a poetry collection. Personal, familial, political, theological, formal, intellectual, and emotional, this book seems by turns severely wrought and effortless in its formal beauty. Albergotti works almost exclusively in strict forms, but he is freer to say what he wants than most who write in free verse. Though we differ theologically, his own heartbreak over the absence of God seems to me a feeling that I share, though strangely I find God to be ever-present and this absence my own shortcoming and blindness. Albergotti uses both a telescope and a microscope (and a keen human eye) to get at an understanding of who we are and the deep paradoxical nature of our lives and the beauty and horror we find in our daily lives and our history. But best of all, he even puts his ear to the viewfinder, to listen surreally to what others hope to see. His “Ghazal for Buildings” is one of the best 9/11 poems ever written. And his own invention, the albergonnet, will force any good poet to try her hand at it. So many good poems.

John Poch

cover of Stereo. Island. Mosaic.Hard to pin it down to only one. But I would like to offer Vincent Toro’s Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press, 2016) for its dazzling language and use of form/s, and the exploration of what it means to be a hybridized subject — not just “Sorta Rican” — in the 21st century.

Luisa A. Igloria

cover of Hollywood StarletHollywood Starlet by Ivy Alvarez (2015, dancing girl press).

Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman are just some of the acting legends given a fresh voice by Alvarez, who peels away the studio-manufactured facades to explore their inner thoughts and troubled lives. It’s a chapbook I return to again and again.

Collin Kelley

cover of Calling a Wolf a WolfFor me, it’s a toss-up between a book that was new and an old book that I had never read before.

First, Kaveh Akbar’s book Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) deserves all the accolades it is receiving — rich and original language, and despite it being hailed as a book about addiction and recovery, to me it was more a book about desire — physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual — and how we seek always something greater, especially in the face of adversity.

cover of The Book of QuestionsSecond, I had read Neruda’s odes and love songs as well as Residence on Earth, but I read El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions) for the first time this spring (both in Spanish, then in the English translation by William O’Daly from Copper Canyon Press since my Spanish is rusty) before visiting Chile this summer. It was one of the eight unpublished manuscripts he left behind when he died and it is both child-like and profound in its wonder. I keep going back to lines like:

And what did the rubies say
standing before the juice of pomegranates?

Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?

Donna Vorreyer

cover of The Blomidon LogsThe Blomidon Logs, by Deirdre Dwyer (ECW Press, 2016).

The Blomidon Logs came to me when it was most needed. I had been away from my home in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia for many months when it arrived like a starfish thrown out of the waves on a beach. Would anyone other than me think it special? Perhaps you will need to know of this place by the Bay of Fundy, or have spent summers at your family cottage in the 1960s. Maybe you should have grown up around farmers, and loggers, cattle and farm dogs with “pink, spoon-shaped tongues” or slept in your “sleeping bag lined from head to toe with cowboys / repeating their lassos and campfire songs.” Have you wondered how the local brook got its name, or pondered over how your birding field guide might describe a macramé cottage owl? Deirdre Dwyer’s collection of 148 poems builds upon the contents of six logbooks her parents kept of her family’s summers in Cape Blomidon. However, they are just a jumping-off point — field notes from which to draw imagery and much speculation. While the subject matter may seem tame, the delivery is anything but.

Bev Wigney

cover of Self-Portrait as Wikipedia EntryMy favorite poetry book this year: Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

I found it smart and moving, and his mastery of sound always makes me want to read the poems out loud. Also, great use of space on the page, fun titles, and the poems converse with each other across the pages.

Lisken Van Pelt Dus

cover of WesternsWesterns by Richard Dankleff (Oregon State University Press, 1984). When I read a description of Dankleff’s Westerns in another book, Erik Muller’s excellent Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets, I realized that I had a copy of Westerns tucked away on a shelf and had never read it. So I pulled it down, cracked it open — and ended up in one of those literary epiphanies that I wanted to tell all my friends about, spending the next three nights engrossed in that book, reading and rereading each poem and reciting them out loud to my sleepy cat. Dankleff’s approach — crafting into poems the historical accounts, diaries, and journals of Old West settlers, trappers, Native Americans, explorers, and journalists — could have been trite or patronizing in the wrong hands. But Dankleff, who died in 2010, was a hell of a poet, deftly moving between lyricism, narrative, and visceral punches depicting the more disturbing aspects of the Westward Expansion. He shows true genius in the small intimacies—a ranch hand alone with his beloved horses, the dreams of a gaunt buffalo, or a haunted roadside in modern-day Kansas. From the shockingly violent cover photo to the meticulous and entertaining endnotes (which made me want to read every historical book he cites), Westerns made me constantly wonder why Dankleff isn’t a better-known poet.

Amy Miller

cover of Night Sky With Exit WoundsThe book that touched my heart most deeply in 2017 is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). His voice is lyrical, intimate, yet measured. The poem in the collection that floors me with its mastery is “Aubade With Burning City.” Hearing him read the poem is an intense experience. The reader is in the room with the two lovers as ash floats outside their hotel room, ashes like snow falling in the lyrics of White Christmas that played over the loudspeakers during the Fall of Saigon. All of Ocean Vuong’s poems are highly imagistic—clear, yet complex.

Christine Swint

cover of The Drowning BookI’d like to recommend Cristina J. Baptista’s The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I do know Cristina (virtually), although we’ve never met in person. I know her well enough to ask her to sign my copy of her book for me. I like the book well enough that I haven’t been willing to part with it long enough to mail it to her and wait for it to come back. It’s a powerful collection of poems… they demand my full presence and attention whenever I sit down with them, and I read only a few at a time, and those stay with me for days after.

Laura M Kaminski

cover of SilageBethany W. Pope’s Silage (Indigo Dreams, 2017) hums with tension. Two forces pull on the string that threads this work. At one end of the string, there is a dire need to tell an extremely traumatic story and to tell it well. The other end leads to a tiger, waiting at the bottom of a pit, ravening, ready to drag the speaker down. So to keep the tiger at bay, the speaker recounts her story, as flatly as possible. It works, mostly. But then again, there are scars. There is blood.

Ivy Alvarez

cover of Ice MountainDave Bonta’s Ice Mountain (Phoenicia Publishing, 2017) is my favourite collection read this year. The book takes us for a walk comprised of many walks, through changing seasons in woods near to Dave’s home. Each step is well grounded. Each poem consists of three-by-three lines, a formal repetition I found satisfying as a frame for the writing of each day. I admire the discipline of Dave’s multi-faceted creativity, which includes publishing, video making, writing and photography. His dedication and long experience pays off in the refined simplicity, keen observations, intellect and emotion of this collection. I chime in various ways with Dave’s views of the world and the creatures in it, including human. On this level, Ice Mountain reads to me as an elegy for the land, and for life on earth.

My disclosure of personal connection to Dave is as one of his many friends over the net over the past few years (as long as I’ve been involved with video poetry, he was instrumental in getting me started). We have corresponded by email occasionally and he’s published some of my videos in Moving Poems. Because Dave publishes his poems on a Creative Commons license, I have been free to make a few videos from his writing, including two from poems in Ice Mountain. My connection with Dave is an extension of my respect for him as a key creative artist in the field of contemporary poetry, as I experience it.

Marie Craven

OK, that’s embarrassing. Thanks, Marie! Here’s to online collaboration and community. I will resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating remark and move swiftly on to my own review.

cover of Void StudiesRachael Boast’s Void Studies (Picador, 2016) is the book I kept re-reading this summer. I found it in a London bookshop, opened it at random, read a couple of poems and was hooked. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for poems that exhibit negative capability… and as you might be able to gather from the title, this book has negative capability out the wazoo. The premise derives from something Arthur Rimbaud had B.S.ed about but never gotten around to doing himself: a collection of poems written more or less along the lines of musical etudes, which “would not convey any direct message, but instead summon the abstract spirit of the subject” as the back cover description puts it. So Boast took up the challenge, and while apparently the results aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (3.33 out of 5 stars on Goodreads?!) if you like poems that pulsate with magic and dwell in possibility, Void Studies is as close to a perfect collection of poetry as you’re ever likely to find. And it only works because the poems are full of keenly observed particulars; the “void” of the title is no airy emptiness, but something closer to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, in which the absence of any intrinsic nature or essence enables a direct apprehension of reality. I mean, check out this spot-on description of a murmuration of starlings in “The Call”:

Stepping through the last of the sky
held by half-asleep mirrors

of the rain storm along the path
by the river where over

the other side the trees uphold
a language picking away

the fabric of reality, the woods
rising with everything to say

at once, with black wings,
with sound shuffling the air.

Don’t you kind of hate those year-end “best of” lists that magazines love to compile? They always seem more about positioning the authors as Serious Culture Critics who are hip to what’s fashionable rather than showcasing potentially over-looked works that they sincerely enjoy. And sure, Luisa Igloria and I could’ve set ourselves up as judges to pick a Top 10 list from among our personal favorites, but I thought it would be more fun to throw it open to poetry lovers at large and ask (here and on Facebook) for mini reviews of your single favorite poetry book from the past year: a new book, an old book, a book in whatever language.

The responses have been wonderfully varied and interesting, and Lord help me I want to read (or in a few cases, re-read) every one of these books right now! I’m presenting them in the order they came in. I haven’t numbered them, lest that imply some sort of ranking, but there are 28 books in all.

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Paradise Lost original coverParadise Lost by John Milton (Samuel Simmons, 1667). I nominate it (short answer) because of the rhythm and concision of the text, but also (long answer) because I read it in a book club with people much smarter than myself, including my daughter. (None of us “believers” — but that maybe made it better.) It reads aloud like Creation itself. We only had two meetings for the book, but they were the best of conversations.
Steven Arnerich

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cover of "Of This World"The single book that’s been among the rotating 10 bedside books of mine — probably for two or three years now — has been Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems, from Copper Canyon (2008). Just can’t get enough of it. I came late to Stroud, and this is the first & only book of his I know. It’s hard to generalize about Stroud’s virtues, not just because this book collects decades of work, but also because he’s a master of many forms, themes, and tones. He can do a tight lyric in the mode of the classical Chinese masters, and he can stretch out in longer sequences. I love that he doesn’t either hide or particularly flaunt his erudition. He keeps his eye on the things of this world at all times (I guess you could call him a nature poet), but the things of his world definitely include his wide reading in literature. Anyway, his poems are consistently smart, sharply observant, and gorgeous. One of the few books I’ve bought based on a blurb — in this case a rave from the late Jim Harrison (“I don’t recall when a poet unknown to me has struck me so deeply.”)
David Graham

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cover of Luminous SpacesOlav H. Hauge’s Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals (White Pine Press, 2016). Why? Because he can see into things in a way that few can. The poems are terrific and journal entries are special.

Tom Montag

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cover of Teaching My Mother How to Give BirthTeaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark, 2011) by Warsan Shire. I think this is really only chapbook-length. This is just a superb little book by a London–based Somali poet. These words of hers have already been often quoted:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Though her experience is particularly hers, her truth is all women, and this is what will make her work last. Beautiful, dangerous, and syntactically diverse, her poems enthrall me, something that I am finding rare these days. “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Susan Elbe

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cover of The RiverI’d like to recommend The River by Irish poet Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2016). It’s a wonderful collection of accessible, musical poems that illuminate daily life. I was lucky enough to meet Jane at the Los Gatos-Listowel Writers Week, held in Los Gatos, California (where I live) in October of this year. Jane’s poems are full of rain, fishermen, farmers and flowers; they seem innocent at first, but pull you into a deeply affecting, emotional undertow. I love lines like “Piebald and skewbald” from “Broken” and “I have known storms that buffer and batter the heart. / I chose a hard bed, bare boards, a bulwark” from “Enclosed.”

This is a book of poems you could give to almost anyone, including people who insist that they don’t like poetry. I return to my copy again and again.
Erica Goss

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Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, 2015) is full of set-down-the-book-because-you-are-weeping poems. Reading it is to be intimate with the extent to which life — joy, loss, etc. — transforms us every minute. Reading this book is to be stung. There is pain. Specifically, the electrical, intense sort of pain. A physical sensation. It’ll give you goosebumps long after the initial zap, and you’ll be glad for the experience. There’s so much beauty in it.
Carolee Bennett

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Rabbit Rabbit coverThe best poetry book I read this year would have to be Rabbit Rabbit by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, 2016). I was blown away by the poet’s superb control of language, how she used the surreal to illuminate the world. It is saved from perfection by virtue of hitting the same note every time — but what a note. Though I am a comically slow reader of poetry, I swallowed this whole.

She’s new to me, and I’m now a fan.
Ivy Alvarez

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Seam coverSeam by Tarfia Faizullah (Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). It’s a beautifully wrought collection that weaves together history and personal narrative with tender attention to craft and form.
Christine Swint

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Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press, 2016).

Beautiful. Raw. Gutting. Luminous.
LouAnn Shepard Muhm

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cover of Saint Aldhelm's RiddlesI’m picking the most unusual (for us, in our day) book of poems I reviewed this year. Here’s the opening of my review, “Riddled with Light,” from a recent issue of First Things: “The riddle of Samson’s strength, the riddle of the eagle’s way with the sky and the ship’s way with the sea, the riddles in royal dreams of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, the riddle of things hidden since the world began, the riddle of a temple that can be destroyed and yet rebuilt in three days: riddling runs like a seam of gold through the rock of the Old and New Testaments. The mystery and praise of Creation and sub-creation that we find in the books of the Bible emerge again as bright knowledge in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (University of Toronto Press, 2015), poems of the seventh-century Aldhelm, noble and bishop and poet and saint. Translated by poet A. M. Juster from Aldhelm’s Aenigmata, these poems suggest that all things possess a mystery. Salamander and raven, candle and cauldron find their secret wonders revealed in riddle.”
Marly Youmans

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Death Tractates coverOf the many excellent poetry books I read this year the standout was Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates (Wesleyan, 1992). The title makes it sound like some kind of plodding, ancient tome — and it is suffused with grief — but Hillman puts suffering off to the side to ask questions about existence. It’s gorgeous.

The poems convey death’s mystery, and treat the deceased as if she were still present, only separated a little, and unreachable. The dead woman is often referred to as a bride and she is nowhere and everywhere. The poems aren’t filled with tears or wailing, but with questions and careful wondering. Here’s the start of “Seated Bride”:

She had died without warning in early spring.
Which seemed right.
Now that which was far off could become intimate.

I said to the guides, let’s stand
very close to the mystery
and see how far she’s gone…

One of the best poems is “Much Hurrying,” which begins:

—So much hurrying right after a death:
as if a bride were waiting!

Crocuses sliced themselves out
with their penknives. Everything well made
seemed dead to them: Camelias. Their butcher-
paper pink. The well-made poems

seemed dead to you …

Sarah Sloat

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To The House of the Sun coverThe best poetry book I read this year was To the House of the Sun (S4N Books, 2015), Tim Miller’s epic poem about the travels of an Irish-born Georgian seeking revenge against his own father during the Civil War. Miller contacted me back in the spring because he found me online and thought I might like his work. He was right: To the House of the Sun is a sprawling, strange, deeply moving poem inspired by the the world’s great religious texts and definitely in conversation with them. It’s a difficult, harrowing, inspiring, incantatory book, and I’ve never read anything like it.
Jeff Sypeck

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De Willekeur coverThe book that got to me the most over the last few ye​ars was De Willekeur by Jan Lauwereyns (De Bezige Bij, 2012). It’s a bundle of death and happiness, adversity and cruelty, the paradoxical aspects of human life, which sometimes produce ironic discoveries. But more than the subject it’s the poetic adventure in which Jan Lauwereyns takes us in this particular book full of alternation: pieces of prose (on a seventeenth-century pornographer, for example), epic pieces of text, simple poems, a senile sonnet. The randomness is itself a poetic tsunami that drags you in. It’s poetry about the miserable, great humanity.

In my view Jan Lauereyns is the most exciting writer/poet that we have in Belgium. And he’s an inspiration to me. I created several videos for his poems and his latest novel led me to make an entire EP based on certain lines from the book.
—Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon

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A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon - New (Soma)ticsA Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics by CA Conrad (Wave Books, 2012). I liked the structure, somatic exercises (none of which I have tried at home) followed by the poems they generate. I liked the urgency of the voice moving between rage and laughter. I just like CA Conrad’s wildness, the feeling that he will say anything that needs saying.
Martha McCollough

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The Country Gambler coverThe Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman, 2016). First collection from a UK-based American poet who writes a lot in strict form, both rhymed and unrhymed, and with such skill that it melds entirely with content: sublime, brief evocations of nature, relationships, mood and emotions. A scholar and translator of Horace, her favourite form is Sapphics (see first poem in sample at link).
Jean Morris

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cover of Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse StoryEvery Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story by Donna Vorreyer (Sundress Publications, 2016). This tightly themed full-length collection chronicles a relationship that starts out rocky and seems to have more passion than promise. By itself, that topic might have kept this book in the “seen it before” category, but then a sharp twist pushes the stakes much higher and the collection morphs into something else, a meditation on the indelible but fallible nature of memory and how it bleeds into everything that comes after. Vorreyer’s lean, elegant verse takes occasional leaps into prose poems and hybrid forms, a welcome change of pace, but the book is anchored by her tight, pared-down poems that pay close attention to line length and visuals while wielding powerful language stripped of all but the essentials. This is a book to read in one gulp and then savor again in small pieces.
Amy Miller

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cover of Jane Kenyon's Collected PoemsThe Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press, 2007) I’d known “Let Evening Come” and “Otherwise” for a long time but after reading “Let Evening Come” to a women’s group struggling with the election aftermath I decided to dive into the corpus of her work. Two features fascinate me — the similarities in our life paths. Born in 1947. Dealing with severe sadness on and off. The simple work of a gardener to clear the garden and compost. And then, the relationship between titles and subject matter in her poems. I’ve been covering up the titles before I read a poem to guess what she titled it. Every poem takes some sort of twist down to the final lines that surprises me.
Tricia Knoll

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cover of The Book of QuestionsThe best book of poetry I read this year was The Book of Questions, Volume I, by Edmond Jabès, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Wesleyan, 1991). In a 1989 LRB review of several books by or about Samuel Beckett, Patrick Parrinder wrote:

…[I.A.] Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

The Book of Questions in its entirety passes Richards’s “sincerity” test more definitively than any book of poetry I’ve read in the past decade or so.
—Kuahine Makalapua

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Four Reincarnations coverMax Ritvo, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I don’t read as widely in new poetry as I ought, probably, but this book seems head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read this year. Ritvo’s poetry is a bit like Ocean Vuong’s in that it’s incredibly emotional, vivid, difficult to read simply because of its horrible intensity. But his language is amazingly restrained, precise, almost ordinary. And yet he manages to convey very surreal and strange images through this plain language. It’s the work of a very accomplished writer with an unusually vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor. Someone I am happy to have inhabiting my mind for an hour at a time.

I do however have to ask myself the uncomfortable question of whether I’d be taking this book as seriously if he hadn’t just died at the age of 25. And the awkward answer is no. I didn’t even hear about Ritvo until the day he died, and everyone who mentions him talks about his early death, so there is no question that his terribly shortened life has amplified the reach of his poetry, as awful as that sounds. I think he knew this, and his writing addresses his terminal illness head on, without pity or melodrama. It doesn’t make it any less awkward for us, his readers, though.

I will be reading and rereading this book for some time, I think.
Dylan Tweney

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Reasons (not) to Dance coverMy favorite poetry read this year was yet another re-read of the poetry chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance by José Angel Araguz (FutureCycle Press, 2015). Other layers of meaning seem to keep unfolding from each poem every time I read through them, each a three-way hybrid of parable, koan, and poem.
Laura L. Kaminski

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cover of bindweed & crow poisonbindweed & crow poison: small poems of stray girls, fierce women by Robin Turner (Porkbelly Press, 2016) reminded me how much I love chapbooks. I’ve been reading mostly full-length collections (some quite wonderful), but I single this one out because it’s the only chap I read this year and it reminded me how much I love these one-sitting collections, so easily reread. I had the pleasure of publishing two of these poems at Gnarled Oak (and nominating one — “bindweed” — for a Pushcart) in 2015, and it was nice to reread them in the context of this beautiful little book. The poems in this collection come mostly from the family of erasure, remix, collage and found poems. They are short and wonderfully open, letting the reader catch glimpses of the stray girls and fierce women of the title. They remind me how much can be said with just the right few words. I will probably reread it a time or two in the coming weeks.
James Brush

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Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude coverAmong the best poetry books I read throughout 2016 (and which I will continue to use in the poetry workshops that I teach, either in part or whole) is Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pitt Poetry Series, January 2015). I will return to this book again and again because it reminds me that we should not have to apologize for poetry: for making poetry, for wanting to write poetry, share poetry, read poetry, make poetry out of everyday experience, eat poetry, pluck poems like fruit from a fig tree growing in the middle of the city. And we should not be ashamed to say thank you, to be grateful as we sit in the mud of all of it: for “what do you think/ this singing and shuddering is,/ what this screaming and reaching and dancing/ and crying is, other than loving/ what every second goes away?” The book won several major poetry awards, including the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize.
Luisa A. Igloria

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The Halo coverI read C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016) earlier this year, and I thought it was stunning. It’s the narrative of a young man who has been in a horrible car accident, a young man discovering his sexuality, a young man who finds wings growing out of his body. All of these are true, and the metaphor keeps slipping so that we’re never such what is metaphorical of what. The physicality and music of this book are extraordinary.
Ed Madden

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cover of The Whole Field Still Moving Inside ItThe best book of poetry I read this past year (other than the ones I published!) was Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It (The Word Works, 2014). The poems, ostensibly about farming and farm life, are of course — as Heaney showed us so convincingly — about life itself, in all its beauty, bewilderment, and violence. I was impressed by Bashaw’s use of language, and deeply moved by her ability to describe but not over-explain, because so much of what she talks about defies explanation or even analysis. She leaves things as they are, but also leaves a great deal of room for the reader. Barshaw grew up on small farms in New England and upstate New York, but graduated from the Eastman School of Music and worked for 12 years in Germany as a professional bass-trombonist — so it’s probably no surprise that her poems resonated with me. She’s young and her work has won a bunch of prizes but that doesn’t matter to me; I certainly wish I had published this first book of hers myself and hope to meet the poet someday so I can tell her.
Beth Adams

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The Black Flower coverI keep re-reading The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated by Claire Sullivan (Phoneme Media, 2015), puzzling over a seamless blend of the wild and the domestic, the real and the surreal; wondering at the understated, even casual assimilation of astonishment; and greatly admiring the fractal-like completeness of the smallest fragments. In a year when indigenous people throughout the hemisphere have mobilized and joined forces like never before in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, poetry such as Toledo’s stands as a reminder of just how diverse and vital literary traditions are in the Americas. (Not to mention ancient: Zapotec culture and writing go back at least 2500 years.) Here’s a bit of an untitled poem:

Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth
a tender leaf sleeps upon my eyelids.
My shadow walks the four paths
content, my skin shivers with ants.
A garden is my house
and the firefly on my back makes me translucent.

—Dave Bonta

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Bodymap coverReading poetry is one of my guilty pleasures. I tend to wander by the poetry section in the local bookstore (Literati) around each payday, and if I miss the bus and have to walk to the bus, well, life has FORCED me to walk past the poetry books, right? Recently (meaning months to years), I’ve been asking the bookstore over and over to stock more diverse poets. I was finding classics, and new books by academically acclaimed poets, and poetry books I’d already read, but was longing for the poems and voices of people of color, women, from other countries, people who are poor, or ill, or disabled, or immigrants, or… well, you get the idea. Diversity. I’d had a tough year, had lost several dear friends, friends who were diverse, so very diverse. I wanted poems that reverberated with experiences that stretched views and minds and hearts.

Then one day I stumbled upon Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Mawenzi House, 2015). I felt the electricity shiver through it even before I bought the book. I couldn’t buy it fast enough, and that was just based on the back cover blurb: “Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha sings a queer disabled femme-of-colour love song filled with hard femme poetics.” Oh, yeah, baby, that’s what I need. The book itself did not disappoint. I read it luxuriously, in strict order, as if it was a story and each poem depended on the poems before. I read about terrible, terrible fatigue, and people who get it and don’t judge you for it. I read about growing up poor and colored and with so many cultures around you it becomes confusing to others when you are just being you. I read about hard life, hard sex, “alternative” sex, and vibrators for pain relief. I read about going to the hospital with friends who are afraid. I read about rape, best friends, moving from one country to another. I read about people who look at you, and you know they are afraid of you because you are ‘different,’ whatever that means.

I carried the book with me everywhere for months. I showed poems to people on the bus, in choir rehearsal, at orchestra concerts. I shoved it in their faces, scrambling through the pages, and saying, “Here! Read this! And this one! Isn’t it AMAZING?” I am not quoting from the poems because they are too powerful and too real to section, and squeeze the juice from them. These are poems to read greedily, and carefully. Stuff your mouth and mind full of them, and let the juice run down your chin. Then read another one, peeling it carefully, removing every shred of bitter white, and marveling at the glorious architecture of how each word glistens inside.

I cried, and laughed, and gasped reading this book. I went back and read who commented on the book, who wrote the “Praise for…” sections, and I bought books by all of them. This was a book that opened to me a mature world of poetry like the one I fell in love with as a teenager, when I discovered “Mountain Moving Day” and “Beginning with O” and “Queen of Swords.” This is woman’s poetry that opens a window on lives rarely witnessed in our culture, powerful poetry, poetry for the excluded and marginalized, poetry for those who want or need to bear witness, to understand, to peep inside a life that is unfamiliar in print but oh so very familiar in the lives of my friends and neighbors. I love this book of poetry in a way I haven’t loved a poetry book in many years. I cannot praise it enough.
PF Anderson

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If I Go Missing coverMy pick for the book of my year is Octavio Quintanilla’s debut collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014).

The poetry sings true and the matter matters.
Katherine Durham Oldmixon

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Highway Sky by James Brush (Coyote Mercury Press, 2016). It reads like a road movie, and there are film references in it. Diverse poetic forms give a range of rhythmic experiences, like musical variation. The poems evoke nostalgia for a wilder freer time, a time of wrestling demons and coming to a new understanding of life. The tone is serious, at times confessional, and also at times humorous, at others uplifting: many shades as the narrative progresses. Themes of history in the American landscapes traversed are a strong thread in the collection. I love the pared back writing style, which is also somehow rich with detail.

My disclosure of interest in this collection is firstly that I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on the manuscript prior to its publication. I was later also involved in a musical piece and video incorporating one of the poems, ‘God Bless Johnny Cash’. This was possible because James has licensed the whole of ‘Highway Sky’ on a Creative Commons remix license, though he also gave his permission when I contacted him by email. He and I are friends over the net.
Marie Craven
[Click through to the book’s webpage to watch all the videos and listen to the music based on its poems. —Dave]