The uncategorizable, the mongrel, the hybrid, the impure: I don’t consciously say I’m looking for any of those traits when I pick up a book, but I get excited by any piece of art that makes itself up on its own terms, that says no in its quiet (or loud) way to the call of obedience and conformity. I think all of the books on my list say no, as if that no were an affirmation, and I’m sure that’s why I’ll keep going back to them not just in the present, but 10 years from now.
While many contemporary novels restrict themselves to a tight focus, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway gives itself permission to sprawl. Its characters come and go, live and die, lace together in startling, unexpected ways. Its sentences ring with insight and dark charm. Entire paragraphs feel like song, even those spotlighting a minor character—see the page featuring the woman who adopts wild animals and takes them into her bed. The thing is, there are no minor characters in McCracken’s work, and that notion is central to her vision: Everyone has a face, a body, a longing. I can’t think of a book that’s as queer, even if its queerness isn’t out front and center. Who would we be if we allowed ourselves to see that our closest ties aren’t blood ties but chosen? How would history change if we de-centered procreation as the measure of time and interconnectedness? The novel enacts those questions with increasing urgency and takes us to a place where the character we’ve known the longest doesn’t simply stop, but re-invents himself once more.
Speaking of things queer, some of the freshest books of 2019 have come from queer writers. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Sentence by sentence, these books are alert and alive, written with exacting description and a musical ear. Most importantly, they take queerness into their structure. They refuse chronology as the only way to tell an immersive story. Instead, these are stories of moving minds, minds at work, as they try to shuck off the old narratives that want to shoehorn us into sameness and oblivion. For that, and more, I love these books the way I would love a person.
Finally? Poets. We must not ever forget the poets, those beautiful monsters. Source of all things good, at least when it comes to the word. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Toi Derricotte’s I, Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long, Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder.
are six notable books of poetry publishing in January.
Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne LauxThe final 20 poems of Laux’s book are written in memory of her late mother, and they are unflinching and resigned. “I am not deceived,” she begins the poem “Lapse.” “I / do not think my dead will return. They will not do / what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees.” Helpless but not hapless, she deftly writes of heartbreak—the absolute, gutting, severe loss of the one who brought her into this world: “go,” she writes to her mother, “where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow / your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies / of despair, your can of beer.” Laux is majestic here: “We never knew which way to run: / into her arms or away from her sharp eyes. / We loved her most when she was gone, / and when, after long absence, she arrived.” The elegies accumulate, settle into our throats, drill down—her selected poems are gorgeous to revisit, but these new pieces are symphonic—and they become a perfect coda of grief. “Soon she will be no more than a passing thought,” Laux knows. “Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus / her happiness, minus her grief.” She ends the book’s titular poem with transcendent precision: her mother belongs to the world now, but not all of her—not “her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms / of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers, / Lord her slippers, where are they now?”
The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala AlyanAlyan’s fourth book of poems arrives with the earnest ambition of a debut, but the care of a poet whose lines have earned their sentiment. Poems of sorrow and shame live next to verses of desire. In “The Female of the Species,” “They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases / full of spices and cassettes.” The narrator can “tell stories about the women I know. / They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.” She also thinks about her cousin, how “the best night of my life was the one // she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed, / and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.” The narrator thinks of her father in “The Socratic Method,” a man “as lonely as Wyoming, a perfect country for no one to see.” Sometimes, in the mornings, she will “clutch my chest and chant God forbid God forbid,” thinking of his death. The Twenty-Ninth Year bursts with lamentations, hopes, fears, and a weary but wide faith: “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon.”
Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés CerpaOne of the most moving books of family and illness in recent years, Cerpa’s debut is a force of poetic will. The narrator’s father is living with Parkinson’s Disease, and each successive poem feels like a step deeper into darkness. The narrator knows “the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old, // he is kind & clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle, he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” Bicycles turn and return throughout this book: They move the narrator and his father across the Bronx, across time. The narrator arises from his grief but never forgets its origin; not when he is in Barcelona and “burnt a cigarette into my wrist like a botched tattoo”; not when, with resignation and acceptance, he concludes: “Let the earth do what it will — / have me, spin the spokes until my memory fades to a ruthless spring.”
Oculus by Sally Wen MaoThe poems in this collection consider the detritus and delirium of digital life. In “Live Feed,” the narrator warns that “After I am dead, I will hunt you / day and night. // Pixelated ghosts / will haunt your ears.” Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door. The collection’s titular poem bends time and sense: “Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” Online we are dead, alive, temporary, and permanent. Mao’s serene descriptions are masterfully unsettling: “How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” Mao further examines our technological transfigurations in “Electronic Necropolis,” set in Guiyu Village, China, where ditched electronics are collected and recycled. Mao’s descriptions are precise and surreal, a next phase of evolution: “By slicing open dead circuitboards, / I cultivate rebirth. I douse / the hardware in pyretic acids / before it scrapes me, enters me, a lather of data / against my organs, bless them, / my warring insides.” An expansive book, but each poem bears careful reading.
Mothers Over Nangarhar by Pamela Hart“Dear one / From the yard I see Mars / While you keep watch in far-off deserts.” Hart’s collection begins with such a simple yet profound sentiment: We are so often mired in longing and distance, yet if we merely look up, we are together. Hart has said she has been inspired by lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Her son has served overseas with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and the poems in this book teem with domestic despair of many forms. A group of mothers speak in a Red Cross parking lot, after a meeting on PTSD. In “Sometimes We Talk About Nothing,” “Her son’s platoon / is moving / to a dangerous place // At the market Beth says / the strawberries / are huge // So sweet she eats / some / every day.” Eschewing punctuation and blending joy with fear, Hart captures the paradox of a service member’s family: Hope keeps them alive, but hope is exhausting. Hart’s book ponders the mixture of pride and love for a son, fear for his safety, anxiety and guilt over violence. “He was small and almost perfect at birth,” she writes. “Did I raise him up to be a warrior.” There is no question mark here because, Hart knows, there is no answer.
Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies edited by Harold Schechter and Michael WatersThis pocket-sized Everyman’s Library book is worth sneaking into the theater to browse during the coming attractions. A diverse selection ranging from the early days of cinema to auteurs and remakes, poetic cinephiles will find much to love here. Juliana Gray asks us to “Look closer” at Hitchcock’s Rope: “They’ve shut their secret in a chest, but failed / to lock it.” Virgil Suarez offers an ode to the late Harry Dean Stanton: “See it in the crow-black eyes, the stubble / And the way his lids sag as he belts out / The next sad song.” Chase Twichell thinks “Matinees are the best time / for bad movies.” Marcus Wicker writes a love letter to Pam Grier: “Even now I don’t know how / to love you right.” And Joseph O. Legaspi reminds us that the theater is always more than projector, screen, and sight: “My mother favors / tearjerkers in which women suffer in martyrdom, / fall from high grace, seek revenge, and reap moral / redemption. In this communal, cavernous space / celluloid glow outlines each solitary audience, / embraced by air-conditioning, drowsing into / forgetfulness.”
It seems like the years get longer and longer at this moment in time. Remember when we thought 2017 was a long year? And this year? How do we count the hours as they elongate in the world’s strange suffering. What helped me navigate the world most this year (and every year?) was books. While I travel constantly and I’m often on the road or in an airport, it was living with a variety of other voices that helped me to feel grounded, less isolated.
I read a great deal, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. Like most writers, my desk and nightstand are full of books on the to-read pile. Still, I not only read, I also listened to audiobooks. I was drawn to work that spoke to me in that moment, work that was recommended and passed on to me by dear pals. Lists are always impossible and I hate to leave anyone out, but I am going to do my best to be truthful here. These are the books that I adored, that moved me, that I would pass on to anyone. I read widely so my list covers fiction, non-fiction, young adult, and my beloved poetry.
In terms of novels, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend really blew me away for numerous reasons, but I was struck by the sheer power of her sentences, her eviscerating eye, and how she was able to meld both canine and human grief in a way that left me devastated. Tommy Orange’s There There had me deeply disturbed and enthralled, not only for the characters and cultural veracity, but because I think he’s an incredible master of time. I also adored Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire for the intense, witty, and complex characters. I admit that I didn’t read a ton of young adult fiction this year, but I loved Carrie Fountain’s I Am Not Missing.
I read a few surprisingly good memoirs this year and my favorites would have to be Heavy by Kiese Laymon for the way it surrenders to self-incrimination and how the book is truly a love letter to both his mother and himself. Of course Gregory Pardlo’s Air Traffic was exceptionally well written and gave us a deep look into toxic masculinity and the pitfalls of the ego. Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries was brutal and stunning and honest in a way that felt necessary. I’d also like mention Letters from Max by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo. This is a book of letters between two artist friends before Max’s untimely death. It’s sublime.
Now, poetry is my heart’s blood, so this category is tough because I love so many poets that are writing today. I thought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal was a powerful debut that was as ruckus as it was artful, as was Raquel Salas Rivera’s lo terciario/ the tertiary. Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water was breathtaking. Wonderland by Matthew Dickman was such a keen exploration of whiteness and the poems are revelatory. Tiana Clark’s book I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood delivers a lesson on excavating the body and its history. Eye Level by Jenny Xie is a high wire act that deserves attention. I was floored by the relentlessness of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky. Forrest Gander’s Be With left me depleted by grief and lifted by song. Mary Karr’s Tropic of Squalor was hard-bitten and fierce. Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin is a triumph and a mindfuck all at once. If You Have to Go by Katie Ford is a unique and surreal book about heartbreak. Justin Phillip Reed’s debut Indecency made me stand up and applaud. Another favorite of mine this year is the New Poets of Native Nations anthology edited by Heid E. Erdrich. There are so many more that I love, but I will stop there before this turns into a memoir all its own.
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