You should buy new books of poetry. Sure, there are novels and memoirs that are worth your money, but don’t be averse to verse. Show libraries your love, but buy poetry. Buy poetry for escape and for inscape. Buy poetry to pause the world, to hide from it, to consider all its hues and microscopic wonders. Buy poetry because poets deserve to get paid. Buy poetry and leave copies on your kitchen table. Buy poetry and read it aloud — to yourself, to someone you love, to someone who loves you but hates poetry. Buy poetry to learn what it means to be surprised and stirred by words.
Start with these five new books.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
“At school they learned that Black people happened.” Parker’s gifted poems shift and pivot. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” she writes: “What kind of bodies are movable / and feasts. What color are visions. // When he opens his mouth / a chameleon is inside, starving.” True to the collection’s title, Beyoncé’s presence is present — she calls Lady Gaga “Tonight I make a name for you.” She listens “for prophecies / from my daughter’s sticky mouth” and tells her “Never give them / what they want, when they want it.” She prepares a will: “A vigil will be held in memory of / a prime evening / sweating like ice in a glass.” And there’s other gems like “Another Another Autumn in New York,” when the narrator smirks “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap.” She smokes, eats a whole box of cupcakes, steps on leaves: [I] “confuse the meanings / of castle and slum, exotic / and erotic,” and “breathe dried honeysuckle / and hope. I live somewhere / imaginary.” So many sweet and sour lines here. One of my favorites comes from “Delicate and Jumpy:” “Soon a beer-colored sky will sneak / up behind the fence. I toss my hair / to the street without permission.”
American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Every once in a while, poetry needs to say to novels: I’ve been around longer, and I can tell stories better. Howell’s the kind of poet who can announce the apocalypse in a whisper. American Purgatory is set in some charred near-future that looks increasingly like our present, where “persons are held to service and labor.” Where “dust here is big,” and people “work a whore’s hours, but care less.” I love how Howell yokes the mythic with the muddy: “Everything dies, I tell him an old lover said that / to me each night. Slade rises to bend backward, / his hand on his hip, his eyes open straight to the sun.” Howell documents a diseased, dehydrated world through three characters, whose dreams are like threnodies. “From a distance the brushfire looked like veins crossing, / a flame’s thin arm, like electric wires, like Christmas”– lines that loosen the reader into one character’s dream of “two diamondbacks, a cross / of tails bent to the motion of a lock.” What can they — we — do in a world like this? “Above us / geese charge / north on abacus wires strung tight to — what. What sky / are we held by? Who counts our sins.”
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
In 2009, then-President Obama signed a resolution “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution contains a litany of sentences that begin “whereas,” and ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” The resolution was signed in silence. There was no announcement. No ceremony. Long Soldier was angered by the mode and method of the apology, and wrote a book in response to it. Whereas is a poetic document of force, an indictment of bureaucratic language that makes violence passive. She begins a section of “whereas” poems with the statement that she is a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation, and “in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” She begins: “Whereas when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through / me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it / that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses — I read / each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.” Long Soldier’s book is diverse in form and function, a beautiful work of book art that needs to be held and museum-shown.
Fair Sun by Susan Barba
Paging through Barba’s collection, I first opened to “Marathon,” the penultimate poem in the book, and was instantly hooked. “Only the moon over Soldier’s Field Road sees us depart, / quiet until the sun apocalyptic above the hospital / jars us into words at river’s bend, electric pink / feedback feathering the water.” Rare is the pitch-perfect running poem, but Barba captures this New England moment: “Human / technicolor snakes and schoolbuses perambulate / the park and idly limber in preparation to go west.” Barba’s poetry settles on the tongue. “How Should We Live Our Lives?” is a poem worthy of framing. The first stanza follows the title’s question with another: “With love / and trepidation / sign our letters?” More questions follow, before we realize this is an internal conversation that reaches the air: “Daughter, / as you grow up I / will grow old, / a fact that shocks / you, even at age three.” The narrator laments “Love has no part in this.” Barba is masterful at finding the shine in disparate moments: “Yellow coldness, puddles in the mud. / The brush of winter waiting for the sky to dry.” A book to read, and re-read.
Blackacre by Monica Youn
“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace.” Instead, it is the “sudden /terrible // elevation of / a single point— / one dot // on the topography / of a life.” Youn effortlessly shifts between many forms in Blackacre, but I find myself returning to her columnar poems that careen forward like freshly sharpened arrows. Her sense of poetic lines is keen and clean; her work feels sculpted. And then she stops a reader in her tracks with prose-poems like “Desideratum:” “But what is it that you want?” We are placed in a high-school parking lot, the humidity visible like “sluggish cellophane ripples, epoxy threatening to go solid.” A truck starts, with rope “knotted to its tow hitch,” and that rope “begins to play out, uncoiling, looping, unlooping itself …hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac.” You — audience, reader — “find yourself lurching after it, staggering,” hoping to grab it. Afraid “what that rough plastic rope would do to your hands, what the sudden jerk would do to your shoulder joints, whether, once having grabbed hold, you would ever be able to let go.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for poetry. Poems are a dangerous invitation, but if we can grab hold of the language, we are caught. We are changed.
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 13, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 16.
The fiction list seems well balanced but also includes many familiar names. Alongside highly touted books by Colson Whitehead and Garth Greenwell are critical darlings like Lydia Millet and Karan Mahajan. It’s a great time to be a reader.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder (“Men in Tights Crammed into Confined Spaces“)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (“ISO the Next Great Gay Novel“)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (A Most Anticipated book)
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (excerpt (pdf))
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (I Want Complete Freedom When I Write: The Millions Interviews Karan Mahajan)
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (excerpt)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet (Lydia Millet, writing at The Millions)
Miss Jane by Brad Watson (Brad Watson’s Year in Reading)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (“Scars That Never Fade“)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (A Most Anticipated book)
America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (excerpt)
The Firebrand and the First Lady, Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice by Patricia Bell-Scott (excerpt)
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (interview)
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Most Anticipated)
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (excerpt)
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Year in Reading)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (Most Anticipated)
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez (excerpt)
The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha (interview)
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Most Anticipated)
The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Collected Poems 1974–2004 by Rita Dove (Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler)
Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi (Peter Gizzi on J.H. Prynne)
The Selected Poems of Donald Hall by Donald Hall (Sonya Chung on Donald Hall)
The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler (poem)
Bestiary by Donika Kelly (poem)
World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead
Look by Solmaz Sharif (the title poem)
Blackacre by Monica Youn (Siobhan Phillips on Monica Youn)
Blue Laws by Kevin Young (poem)
Young People’s Literature:
Booked by Kwame Alexander (excerpt)
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Susan Orlean on Kate DiCamillo)
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (our review of Book One in the series)
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin (excerpt)
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (excerpt)
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (excerpt(pdf))
Pax by Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (excerpt)
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon