Part III of my 2020 Reading Round-up is devoted to poetry, because poetry is a complicated animal, requiring its own care and feeding. I read poetry completely differently than fiction and nonfiction and I can’t find my way to ranking the books in any way (and somehow feel I shouldn’t). (Here are Part I and Part II of the Round-up if you missed them.)
Below are the books I read cover to cover, but I have to add that as usual I read poetry in lots of other ways: dipping into perennially necessary volumes (the selected Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell, Leaves of Grass when I was feeling down on America, though this was tinged with the recent critical reconsideration of Whitman); in a range of journals (my favorites for poetry are Sixth Finch and Sink Review), from posts by cool people on social media, etc. Summarizing the books I read here, it makes me realize how much incredible work has been published recently (most are from the past five years).
A crop of new books I can’t wait to get my hands on just sprung up all at the same time it seems, so I’ve listed these after, in case anyone is hungry for fresh work, especially from small presses doing their own thing. I’ve included links to at least one poem by each writer, as I think the work speaks better for itself than anything I could say. I would encourage purchases through bookshop.org, which partners with independent bookstores, which are really struggling now. Powell’s is also a good alternative for used books. (Please don’t buy books through Amazon!)
2020 Poetry Round-up
In order of how vividly they remain with me:
I, too, dislike it by Mia You (1913 Press, 2016)
You is a scholar of Gertrude Stein (and my press-mate at 1913!), so I was expecting more abstraction in the content and was instead happy to find an intimate, sometimes chatty, sometimes arch voice in compulsively readable poems. The long prose poem “Birth Story” in the beginning is an absolutely knock-out. Here’s an excerpt from it published in Poetry.
Provenance: Index Poetry, poetry-only bookstore in Leiden!
Atopia by Sandra Simonds (Wesleyan University Press, 2019)
Simonds is one of my favorite poets writing today, for her spiky language, the richness of her images, all of the detritus stuff of contemporary life packed in and revealed anew. This book in particular feels like it contains everything we’ve been swamped with - from the politically enraging, to internet absurdity, to the stuff of everyday life, feeding kids, watering the thyme plant, noticing the sign at the zoo that said, “Shhhh, the wolf is pregnant so please be respectful.” I found it comforting not because it sidesteps feelings like powerlessness or despair, but because it shows a way to write/live through and with all of it. Here are five from the book at Florida Review, more here.
Provenance: The magical Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2018)
Written in the first 200 days of the Trump presidency, the “assassin” takes many forms. The work speaks to the political moment, yes, including anti-black violence, but with complexity, humor, dazzling use of language, pop culture and history references... I need to acquire and re-read it. Here are a few sonnets, and more on the book at The New Yorker.
Provenance: Loan from American poet in the Netherlands, Abra Bertman.
Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Graywolf, 2017)
Another phenomenal book that makes me think poets are writing about this moment better than anyone else. The books opens with a “sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth” (quote from the publisher), which is just beautiful. But what struck me most was Smith’s series on contending with his HIV-positive status, his artfulness in exploring the biological, political, historic, sexual and personal dimensions of it. Here’s an excerpt from the opening poem.
Provenance: Loan from Dutch poet friend, Milla van der Have (and I need to get it back to her!).
Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer (Ahsahta Press, 2015)
Prose poetry, hybrid forms, defiantly anti-capitalist. A woman sewing, a woman philosophizing, a woman cooking, an inquiry on what it means to write, a mother surviving poverty. This is what I recall - I want to say more, but I need to re-read it and can’t find my copy! Here are two poems from the collection. (Related note: Boyer won the 2020 Pulitzer with her nonfiction book The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, which is such a triumph for those writing on the fringes.)
Provenance: McNally Jackson Bookstore in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Dear Jenny We Are All Find by Jenny Zhang (Octopus Books, 2012)
Zhang seems to be exploring obscenity and “body stuff” as a kind of poetics, and I think in defiance of stereotypes of Asian-American women.
Provenance: Boekenzolder, free book warehouse in Leiden
Apuestas. Nueve nuevos poetas, anthology (La Bella Varsovia, 2014)
An anthology of young Spanish poets. I picked this up in my part-time scouting for untranslated writers in Spanish, to not completely abandon my road-not-taken of literary translator. I didn’t find particular stand-outs. I was disappointed in the limited vocabulary of many of the poets, and the editors seemed to concerned with technology (poems in the form of texts, etc.), which I think is secondary to language concerns.
Provenance: Cervantes y Compañia, gorgeous independent bookstore in Madrid.
Recommended New Books
I don’t own these yet, but I will be reading all of them! I do know the poets to varying degrees, so I can assert with confidence that you would also be supporting beautiful humans and their endeavors with a book purchase. In alphabetical order:
Creature Sounds Fade by Shanna Compton (Black Lawrence, 2020)
From Compton, the poems in this collection “explore interleaved themes of intimacy, landscape, climate change, animality, and our connection to/alienation from the natural world—concerns that often result in hybridized or chimeric speakers.” I was excited to read it after seeing this knock-out in The Nation. More poems here. Order here.
(Compton is the brilliant mind behind Bloof Books, which reliably publishes great work, including by both Sandra Simonds (above) and Gina Myers (below)).
Ghost Hour by Laura Cronk (Persea Press, 2020)
Cronk’s best poems remind me of a perfect swan dive - watching the climb up, the leap, and then the graceful descent, you hold your breath until the feet sink below the water. This collection dives into girlhood, memory, marriage, motherhood. Some poems here. Order here.
Some of the Times by Gina Myers (Barrelhouse Books, 2020)
I’m always struck by how effortless Myers’ work feels, like someone speaking so honestly that you’re only focused on listening. From Brian Teare’s blurb: “A daughter of deindustrialized Saginaw, Gina Myers is sensitively attuned to forms of capitalist ruin: the city long after the factory closes, the wage earner barely getting by in a shit job. Whether surveying the blight and arson of her hometown or settling into a gentrifying Philadelphia, Myers tallies the manifold promises capitalism offers and never keeps.” Myers made me aware of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, and I think she’s di Prima’s heir in a lot of ways. Poem here, order here.
Parallel Resting Places by Laura Wetherington (Parlor Press, 2021)
From the publisher: “Following behind Jack Spicer's After Lorca and swinging its ovaries, Laura Wetherington's second book uses the concept of translation to create original poems … Interstitial love letters to queer writers process a miscarriage, the most recent election, and queer puppy love. This is a book of yearning-for a foreign tongue, for a body growing inside the body, and for a form of communication that can capture feeling.” I’m in! Poems here order here.
I have run out of room, but I am also excited about Mark Bibbins’ Thirteenth Balloon, and Mark Wunderlich’s God of Nothingness!
Hola! If you’re still reading, thanks! I started this dispatch with an introduction about why writing about poetry is difficult, and it got too long. I’ve made it into a separate post, you can read it here. If you want to get future book dispatches in your email, click below.