It’s been a long 2017. So much of being a poet as I understand it is about maintaining a permeability to wonder, and that’s been difficult work in a year spent in the long shadow of a fascistic regime, a year in which the earth has grown increasingly desperate in its attempts to warn us about the damage we’re doing to it.
The (perhaps feeble ((but noble))) balm—a year of books, richer than any I can recall. It’s like the world of poetry knew we’d need it to rise up and carry us, to orient us toward our livable tomorrows. Poets are watchers, wonderers. And they have the magical ability to make us realer than we can make ourselves. Elizabeth Alexander writes: “We are of interest to one another, are we not?” I like thinking of poems as little empathy tablets, granting us access to (and compassion for) lived experiences unlike any we’ll ever know firsthand.
Here are some new books (mostly poetry, listed in no particular order) from the past year that have helped me wander and wonder from one day into the next:
Frank Bidart – Half-Light
Anaïs Duplan – Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus
Marwa Helal – I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return
Traci Brimhall – Saudade
Layli Long Soldier – Whereas
Rachel McKibbens – blud
Sahar Muradi – [Gates]
Steph Burt – Advice from the Lights
Maggie Smith – Good Bones
Cait Weiss Orcutt – Valleyspeak
Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular
Nicole Tong – How to Prove a Theory
Craig Morgan Teicher – The Trembling Answers
Nicole Sealey – Ordinary Beast
Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead
sam sax – Madness
Javier Zamora – Unaccompanied
Marcus Wicker – Silencer
Alex Dimitrov – Together and By Ourselves
Ruth Awad – Set to Music a Wildfire
Bill Knott – Selected Poems
William Brewer – I Know Your Kind
Morgan Parker – There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
Carl Phillips – Wild Is the Wind
Marie Howe – Magdalene
Ghayath Almadhoun – Adrenalin
Patricia Smith – Incendiary Arts
Tyree Daye – River Hymns
Gabrielle Calvocoressi – Rocket Fantastic
Mai Der Vang – Afterland
Sarah Browning – Killing Summer
Alessandra Lynch – Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment
Adrian Matejka – Map to the Stars
Finn Menzies – Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn
Eve L. Ewing – Electric Arches
Shane McCrae – In the Language of My Captor
Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah) – The Silence that Remains
Franny Choi – Death By Sex Machine
Laura Kasischke – Where Now: New and Selected Poems
Megan Stielstra – The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
Hanif Abdurraqib – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
Melissa Febos – Abandon Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power
Alissa Nutting – Made for Love
Roxane Gay – Hunger
Kevin Young – Bunk
Wendy Xu – Phrasis
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Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in October.
For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel
Pimentel renders passion through crisp, cutting lines. In “The Kiss,” “I’m mad for gravity though / I’m bound, diagonally, to / you.” And: “Leave me // to wither while moss weeps / in the corners, our halo liquid / as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat / our divinity melting.” Later, in “Late September, When the Heat Releases”: “A sage brush flowers, / and all night long, your skin rippled, softening // through gaped window, the cathedral long / with bells.” For Want of Water is a hot book: life in the desert, desire laid bare. “We are learning how to lie down quietly / each afternoon, to let // whimpers fall over us, through / the air, and through // our skin, to forget our wet mouths, their hungry gestures.” A great book doesn’t need two narratives, but there’s a parallel current of pain in this book. “The wives in Juárez are used / to slumping their bellies to their knees.” This grief is thick: “The violins in our home are emptied / of sound, strings stilled, missing / fingers.” Love and struggle, lust and pain, all here under the same poetic roof.
Good Bones by Maggie Smith
Come for Smith’s viral title poem, but stay for her range as she builds a notable collection, one suffused with grace, and—dare I say it—hope. Poems like “First Fall” make her narrators feel like careful guides, each line a gesture, a lesson: “The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back. I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” This book is full of wonders. Of sky: “As you move through it, you make a tunnel / in the precise size and shape of your body.” Of the past: “The chairs are empty. The children / are unwrapping golden butterscotches / in the cool, shuttered houses.” Of the wisdom that comes from grief: “Where do you carry your dead? . . . what cut shape is made / whole by opening? I mean besides the heart.” Good Bones breathes mystical, pastoral wind, while also hitting notes of longing. The world has to be falling apart—it has to be a place where the narrator might ask “Where is your voice now…What has the land done to your tongue?”—in order for us and our words to lift it back up.
Civil Twilight by Jeffrey Schultz
“The calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us, / Happen, somehow, beyond us, without us, out in a world as wide / As it is unimaginable.” Civil Twilight is a surreal trip of a book. Schultz describes our world, but does so in a murky, tired tone—as if we have stumbled out of a daze to finally see the light. I felt somewhere in the range of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in these pages, my senses both bombarded and soothed: “We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh / And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences // Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color, / Earth toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism.” The State has exploded into some nearly apocalyptic organism, and Schultz is like some haggard oracle—spent and disgusted with violence and obfuscation, turning to language—there to document the fall: “called here to gather / In memory of what by the end of this will have already been forgotten.”
Who Reads Poetry edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share
Poetry is most often defended by poets, so this anthology is a welcome addition to the chorus from outside voices. From Neko Case to Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert to Roxane Gay, we hear spirited confessions of those converted to poetry. Ebert recalls his Catholic school assignment to memorize a poem. He never forgot William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., the fifty-sixth superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, sees poetry as an essential tool for communication “because it describes reality with force and concision” and “confronts cadets with new ideas that challenge their worldview.” Jia Tolentino is not a poet, and never talks about the form with others: “that, in the end, is what made me free” to observe, experience, and realize “I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end.” Poetry is malleable and moving; a form that will never tire of importance. Who Reads Poetry is an invaluable testament to a simple truth: we all read poetry, in our ways. As Aleksandar Hemon says, poetry helps us understand “what it meant to live.”
Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burt
Advice from the Lights is buoyed by two themes: the imagination of youth, and the search for body: its shape, outline, expectations. “If I can’t be weightless,” Burt writes, “or glide among twigs, or sate / myself on dew, then let / my verses live that way.” We begin in 1979, when “I could have trusted my instincts if I had any,” when “I had become convinced / that character was fate.” A year when “My bedtime and I were both eight.” Soon Stephanie arrives in the collection, a second self whose first poem ends in a question, whose other appearances infuse poems with the anxiety of identity: “Because I can’t ever appear / as I would like to appear, / I once tried to make it so you couldn’t see me at all.” Yet there is young hope, as in “Fifth Grade Time Capsule”: “I dream of the day / when I am decoded and vaunted.” Burt’s year-by-year cataloging gives Advice from the Lights an immediacy within its nostalgia, a compelling ars poetica of self.
Madness by Sam Sax
“I’d say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you:” Sam Sax’s advice for writers applies to Madness, a book saturated with misdiagnoses, anxieties, fears, and the paradoxes of bodily desire. In “#hypochondria,” the narrator writes “if i lived two hundred years ago // i’d have been bled nightly, / i’d have slept at the foot of a holy man’s bed / i’d have lapped up his snake waters.” Sax’s book feels like a funhouse of debunked treatments, a suffering mind’s headlong dive into nightmare. In “Willowbrook,” the narrator’s father worked at an asylum: “something funny happens / when a person becomes a patient / the name changes & everything / that follows is bandages.” This book winds its way in and out of these institutions, their corridors and their darkest rooms. Madness wonders: “what does it mean to be descendant / of something monstrous? / to still love the monster?” Can we ever escape unscathed?
Devotions: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
Oliver’s religious sense has been considered before, but this volume is quite clearly curated and presented—from the title on to the selections—as a work of (Gerard Manley) Hopkinsesque devotion. It might seem like a small gesture of design, but as a hardcover, Oliver’s play with white space feels almost spiritual. It is affirming that a poet so widely read as Oliver feels new with this work. The selections are ordered from most recent, Felicity, on to No Voyage and Other Poems from the early 1960s. Among those earlier poems, there is the gentle yet ultimately firm “The Swimming Lesson,” where “the endless waves / Reaching around my life” force the speaker to swim. Or even better, to learn “How to put off, one by one, / Dreams and pity, love and grace,— / How to survive in any place.” My favorite is “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”: “Once, in summer, / in the blueberries, / I fell asleep, and woke / when a deer stumbled against me.” She takes us, almost effortlessly, somewhere else. Oliver’s selected is the type of book to leave out on a table and hope somebody—perhaps those not yet converted to verse—will page through and find, inevitably, a voice they’ve been looking to find.
Small Gods by Matthew Minicucci
Minicucci offers readers a gentle slant on the observed world. In “Wedding,” the “tabernacle / door slides closed like some gilded / impossible hotel.” I linger on that image and drift to the opposing page, where, in “Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians,” “On resurrection: to the dead, the living seem so pointlessly busy.” Like his fine debut chapbook, Reliquary, Minicucci’s new book is suffused with religious nostalgia, a wonder welded to the culture of a Catholic sense, but distant from firm belief. The tension gives structure to the book. We read epistles. We hear of Aquinas. We see a poet clothe description with ancient cadence: “Aperture and embouchure of the living word. Speak, friends, if your mouths have tongues.” This lifts the language; gives Small Gods the song of myth. Tucked between the book’s mystical bookends are mathematical and astronomical works; it’s as if the poet is trying to find worthy forms, or trying to make his voice worthy of forms. There are no easy answers here, but the scars are reminders of struggle: “Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. But blessed more are those who must accept the silvered hangnail of this proof when pressed deep within the cavities of their own flesh.” Words can’t do the ineffable justice. Maybe “salvation is a missive I read backwards.”