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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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in May.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
Scorched, palpable, sometimes pungent, sometimes brutal: Karr’s new collection is a mixture of tight narratives that end without resolution, hymns of unsettled suffering, and confused prayers. Writing years earlier about becoming a Catholic, Karr said “like poetry, prayer often begins in torment”—her own brand of poetic faith does not end in sweet redemption. Her poetry suggests that Catholics often live in extremes of devotion or doubt, swelled with something like poetic fervor, or sunk down to melancholy. In “The Age of Criticism,” the narrator shares a moment with what seems to be Franz Wright, “his face swollen from drink, his glasses / broken so a Band-Aid taped one wing on.” They smoked and “wondered who might be dumb enough / to print our books or read them or / give us jobs.” Downturned, they are “unable to guess we’d ever be anywhere / else, thick snow coming down and piling up, // sawhorses blocking all the small roads.” Karr’s all-but-accepted that life is full of wayward roads, but she’s dogged in following the routes that remain. In “Illiterate Progenitor,” the narrator thinks about her father, who, in a “house of bookish females, his glasses slid on / for fishing lures and carburetor work, / the obits, my report cards, the scores. / He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.” Yet she finds poetry in his pleasures, his moments, his sense of self. Tropic of Squalor is a catalogue of broken graces. How love can find us in the “predawn murk” of suburbia. How God’s speech is not “lightning bolt or thunderclap,” but rather “sights and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” Maybe we are sustained by what ails us, as the “jackhammer the man in the crosswalk wrestles with / He also leans on.”
Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
“I’ve always been the girl in the wrong // clothes for spring, yet I understand my body / is a gift.” Miller’s book is a strange testament, teeming with some of the most original poems you’ll encounter this year. “When my mother slaps / my thighs to circulate the water in the blood, / the bruises still purple. I let blood work / itself small again.” Her work lives in the same world as Sarah Goldstein’s Fables: “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe in mist. We all saw the mother / gnawed to bone in upturned soil. I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” Metamorphoses saturate this book, suggest our bodies and souls are in flux. There’s a lot of wonder to get lost within here; this is a book to awaken the imagination. “When my grandmother fell through / the floorboards, she cupped her hands // to create an echo that crosses / five acres of cows, and they don’t know how // to listen.” When I hear ceremonial, I think ritual, significant, surreal, and Miller encapsulates all of those traits, writing of bodies made of flesh and fog. Bodies wedded to the earth: “What keeps you / tacked to me, my lone // saint of weeds? Maggot — / I mean, may we get // comfortable as suspects / or each other. May we slink // and croon across shrines with our soft bodies.”
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Mark Doty has said “the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation.” Diane Seuss’s new book fits that description. In “Still Life with Self-Portrait,” she uses Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s as a fount, the genesis of wonder. She wants “to touch him,” though thinks he might have been “a bad man. / Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women / bad as well?” The narrator has lived within the space of bad men, and admits that she’s brought men into her own “badness” as well. Her recursive first stanza leans back into the painting, how Gijsbrechts created optical illusions. “He has offered you his backside and called it / his frontside, has offered you nothing / and called it something. You’ve known men / like Cornelius Gijsbrechts.” We can almost feel Seuss painting her way through this book, playing the page (and us) with her clever lines. But then she stops us and takes our breath, as in “Still Life with Turkey”: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes // are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” Or the elegiac “Silence Again”: “Now, when I embrace it, silence, / especially at night, in the dark, I see my father’s // name, as if silence were a canvas he painted, / and his signature there in the corner.” A skilled, inventive collection.
Junk by Tommy Pico
Frenetic, furious, exhausted, and exhausting: Pico’s poetry is like a syntactic tidal wave. His books are experiences, and Junk is a trip. There are no breaks here, but his stanzas are paced and one of his skills is how he manipulates our idea of lines: “The air is heavy feathers in mid- // summer, literally and metaphorically in my foul apt above the / chicken slaughterhouse where we wheeze awake.” In this stream, consciousness is a dizzy show, and among the refrains are the many permutations of the word junk, and what we look for in love: “Is it wrong 2 call yr partner a // mirror in the sense that when we’re together I’m with myself / in a way I can’t escape.” There’s more than one wink here: “Convention says a book shd be // this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want / to read in one sitting” and “Ppl are // too busy callin themselves ‘poets’ to notice the canary died.” Taken as a whole, “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Junk is fast and loud, but Pico is really a poet “looking to // connect & inhibit more than I want 2 slip away.”
Fludde by Peter Mishler
“I’m embarrassed,” Mishler begins a poem titled “Mild Invective.” “Four deer step / onto the embankment / beside the Sunoco / at dawn, champing / and misting their breath.” The narrator’s “shaving in my car.” Those unusual but precise moments appear throughout Fludde, a debut expansive in subject and skilled in practice. In “To A Feverish Child,” the narrator imagines a child “with the chime of fever in your eyes.” A boy, sick, gifted with a nighttime word from his mother—“delirious”—and the fever dreams that follow. How the narrator dreams (or becomes? poetry has a way with magic) he feels that way, swelled with sickness: “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip / to watch my face among the neighborhood lights, / swallowed and renewed. I felt for one moment / insane and holy.” There’s an inevitability to these types of glimpses, how they return at just the right moments, as in “From the Overflow Motel”: “At quitting time, / I press my forehead / to the hallway’s ice machine, / and see a blood-red curtain / draped across a field.”
Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser
Poet of place, generations, elegies, spirit, and love, Kooser’s poetry deserves continual praise. He’s often noted as a poet for a broad audience, and certainly his two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and continued cheerleading for poetry attest to his appeal, but let’s not forget that he is also incredibly skilled. His poems are generous; their profluence nearly effortless. The gorgeous, stilled-heart lines of “A Letter”: “I have tried a dozen ways / to say these things / and have failed.” The feel of the moonlight and the cool November dusk, “and what these things / have come to mean to me / without you.” Kooser captures how we wear pain like clothing, how our everyday actions carry a silent song of grief: “I raked the yard / this morning, and it rained / this afternoon. Tonight, / along the shiny street, / the bags of leaves — / wet-shouldered / but warm in their skins — / are huddled together, close, / so close to life.” His lines make me believe in language again, as in “Applesauce”: “the way / her kitchen filled with the warm, / wet breath of apples, as if all / the apples were talking at once, / as if they’d come cold and sour / from chores in the orchard / and were trying to shoulder in / close to the fire.” A recurring theme in Kooser’s work is how all of us—the living and the dead—seek comfort in each other. This collection is a gift.