I read more poetry in 2017 than probably any year prior—over 60 volumes—and it’s a good thing I did, because I could barely keep up with all the outstanding verse being published today (while simultaneously trying to catch up on some great collections I missed or that were before my time).
It’s easy to say we’re living in a “golden age” of anything, and it’s almost become hackneyed at this point to do so. But it’s extremely hard to argue that we’re not living through something unbelievable in the world of poetry right now. Everywhere you look, from huge publishing houses to tiny indies that put out a couple of titles a year, there is a staggering amount of good poetry being written, full stop. And in a major way it’s young, diverse voices that are setting the bar so high. Nearly every contest announcement comes with celebration—finally so-and-so poet has a collection coming out!—because, frankly, the way poetry publishing works today seems to be unable to keep up with how many books are out there that deserve to be shown to the world in a big way. Just look at the finalist and semifinalist lists for any of those contests or open reading periods: there’s another half-dozen (at least) manuscripts and poets that are no doubt deserving of the prize as well, but only one can win (though maybe a couple of runners-up will also get published).
This is, of course, an amazingly good thing for the poetry world and all the parts of our culture that poetry touches. It does, however, make any “best of” or “favorites” lists seem incomplete at best, as for every book of poetry one reads there’s likely three or four more worthwhile also published that year that we’ll never get to. But, I’d like to put in a few words about the following 15, not because they are the best poetry published in the past year or so (only one of these books is more than a couple years old, but I read them all in 2017), because in no way can I claim to be able to make that judgment, but rather the collections that spoke to me most this year out of what I did read, and which I wholeheartedly recommend others to check out.
So it’s best to look at these books (and their accompanying mini-reviews) as, more than anything, recommendations from me to you. You have a bounty of great poetry to choose from for your next read, and I think you should consider one or more of these 15.
(And yes, 15, not the traditional ten. It was hard enough cutting it down that far, so allow me this small cheat!)
In alphabetical order by last name, my favorite poetry books that I read in 2017 are:
Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books)
“I drank an entire language / and flung tar at whatever moved.” Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is so rich that summing it up simply is beyond impossible, but this passage gets at something in the core of this remarkable collection: the insight of someone who is willing to freeze indulgence, lack, and longing in their tracks and give us time to examine them. Here is a body broken, reassembled, stress-tested, and placed under a thousand different lights. Here is the poet examining what it means to hunger, what it is to be full, and how our desires can inflict both on us simultaneously.
The poems in Akbar’s debut full-length collection sing with a music that loops, charges, stutters, and echoes; the poet is at home in various syntaxes and tones, but they all hearken back to an author listening to his body and bringing it to page with the tools a poet has. In this way, even in its original tongue, the book feels like a translation. Something describable and discernible by our senses, but coming from a place beyond language. Kaveh’s best gift (of which he has many) is the willingness to listen, and transcribe for us these desires and states of mind that are so fundamental to the human existence they feel like they are eternal, an ongoing source of energy transmuted into word and page.
“The boat I am building / will never be done” are the final words of the book, and after the experience in these 89 pages they ring true; Akbar and his poetry are perpetually growing, changing, adapting, and it is our own good fortune to be given a glimpse at the imperfectness of a human being present in their body in the world.
Fanny Says by Nickole Brown (BOA Editions)
What a beautiful book. Poems and prose all focusing on (or even in the voice of) Brown’s grandmother, the collection does an incredible job of building out Fanny’s personality, life, and relationship to the speaker. I truly felt like I got a glimpse of the real Fanny, and that through Brown’s careful eye and attention to detail—especially diction (the words in this book are dripping with character and heft)—I know her better than I know most people in my life. What a love letter to a family member, one that celebrates their history and the way they shaped those who live beyond them, without glossing over the harder edges people can be built upon. A stunning book that is, and I don’t say this kind of thing lightly at all, bursting with love. And it is a total privilege that we as readers can experience it.
Remains by Jesús Castillo (McSweeney’s)
Through a persistent, generous eye and voice, Jesús Castillo pulls together an exciting and touching lyric of modern life. The passages are self-contained but explode with wit and color. The regularly-spaced stanzas that make up Remains become windows on a train, a clear and stunning image that is replaced with yet another, and another, each time we blink.
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)
Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang is a terrific, carefully crafted collection of poems concerned largely with the social nuances and pressures of fitting in with those in your peer and age groups. These concerns are complicated by the dynamics of race and social status (one poem describes the titular character trying to appear not to associate with other Asian people in order to fit in with her coworkers), as well as being a mother who is trying to safely shepherd her young daughter into a world she is still trying to successfully navigate. And all the while, simultaneously dealing with ailing parents.
Desire and acceptance, shown through love, social relationships, economic symbols, and family structures, power these poems and it seems that this yearning is what animates the lines to jump from track to track syntactically. Bereft of punctuation, this book shows Chang to be a master of pacing, as the poems double back or jump forward, loop and echo and play solely on their constituent parts, unaided by punctuation or most modes of enjambment (the lines for most of the book follow a strict length pattern). I don’t know of another poet writing in English who can do more in a single line than Victoria Chang; each poem is layered with intricate connections between words, lines, sounds, and images, that add to the narrative and emotions on display. It makes this book a joy to read.
Equilibrium by Tiana Clark (Bull City Press)
Equilibrium is a book that is concerned with economy, which is to say that it is constantly aware of finitude; material, spiritual, emotional, familial, the finitude of our lives themselves. The speaker describes growing up learning to navigate a world where balance is illusory and decisions must be made on where one should focus their limited amount of energies and care. Coming of age in an environment that predetermines so much about someone before they can have a say—religion, race, class—the speaker in Clark’s poems is learning on the fly, open to the small miracles of life while discovering the need to protect oneself from a world, and a society, that is regularly unfair, and in these image-rich, musical poems the reader is brought along for the journey.
River Hymns by Tyree Daye (American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press)
“I dream mostly in floods.”
—from “A List of Waters”
And the images in Daye’s debut collection do flood. A bounty of them fills these poems as the speaker navigates family history, poverty, love, superstition, and the landscape of small town North Carolina. There are moments in this book that are genuinely breathtaking—often it’s an image, given (as Gabrielle Calvocoressi says in the books introduction) to us in a perspective no poet has been able to before, making us see what we never could. Sometimes its the deft handling of line, rhythm, and syntax that make these poems charge from one obsession to the next, full of passion, longing and life. Whatever it is, it’s miraculous, and it all adds up to a stunning debut. Can’t wait for more by this poet.
Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing (Haymarket Books)
This is a gorgeous collection of poems, prose, and visual art. Ewing’s incandescent verse infuses magic into the reality, the joys and struggles, of black womanhood and girlhood in America, in a way that is reminiscent of Márquez and Ferré’s utilization of the “fantastic” but buoyed and infused with her unique voice.
Here is comfort and fear, here is love, Prince, and shea butter, alongside acts of racial insensitivity that the mind inserts a new narrative into upon recollection. That is one of the guiding forces of Ewing’s poems, that illumination of the past, the insertion of new elements into the moments that combine to make up our lives, as a way of trying to alter the curve of our narrative, the spine that we stand on today. A beautiful collection, made with every sign of passion and dedication that a reader can hope for.
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
There’s a kind of clarity I’ve always enjoyed in Glück’s poetry, and that’s pronounced in this collection. Her voice, while still as assured, confident, and powerful as before, is quieter—urgent in the way one might whisper when talking about difficult subjects. And Glück here takes on death and family and solitude (and the many intersections between each) with a calm poise and the ability to make an image so sharp it stings the reader.
Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm (Metatron)
Sarah Jean Grimm’s debut collection is alive with energy that radiates outward through the speakers’ every emotion and thought. Uncomfortable, yearning, content, confident, violent—the mode and tone keep transforming but the energy stays locked in the poems’ cores throughout this collection.
Grimm also is a master of the off-hand remark as poetic device; some of the most impactful lines and images are delivered in a casual or even disinterested tone that, by virtue of such a tone, sneak under the reader’s guard and implant in their conscious, to keep echoing. This is a beautiful, tense book of poems.
The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn (W. W. Norton)
The oldest book on this list by far (published in 2006, but as mentioned never made its way through my eyeballs until 2017). The Narrow Road to the Interior is a lush and stunning meeting of traditional and new, both in form (borrowing older Japanese poem forms like tanka and zuihitsu and bringing the styling of the modern prose poem to their framework) and content (the poems could not be accused of being anything other than grounded in the present, but still carry echoes of the groundbreaking first female Japanese authors). Kimiko Hahn’s collection is playful, articulate, fragmented, and honest, taking on subjects like life in NYC after 9/11, motherhood, language, romances, and more, and how these all intersect. Indeed, the fragmented zuihitsu form lends itself well to the conflation of disparate subjects, all coalescing within the author.
Ha Ha Ha Thump by Amorak Huey (Sundress Publications)
Packed with music, humor, insight, and lush imagery, the underlying current that propels this book is the speakers’ wonderment at the absurdity of the everyday. Huey shows readers alternatingly outlandish and banal situations, and the human looking for meaning within each. Inventive, genuinely emotional, and most importantly, a blast to read.
Human Achievements by Lauren Hunter (Birds, LLC)
Lauren Hunter’s debut collection so beautifully mirrors the act of living as a young adult in an adolescent 21st century that is fracturing so fast those who don’t already have a hold are hard-pressed to hang on.
The lines in Human Achievement move with an assured confusion reflecting this, boldly proclaiming incompleteness or difficulty into a labyrinth that absorbs the sound and shifts its walls again. Permeating all of the poems is a profound longing that offers many concerns—whether they be in the emotional, racial, gendered, or intellectual realms—as it tries to manifest the human at its center into a world that may or may not be compatible with such close attention. “i too, dream / of where i am as where i’m supposed to be.”
There is a humor, a vulnerability, and a careful eye here that make these poems a joy to read and to hear them walk through you as a reader; I won’t be forgetting this brilliant book any time soon.
Daughterrarium by Sheila McMullin (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)
There is a visceral, thundering force behind these poems’ careful composure. McMullin has carefully wound together, and then unwound, complex poems that veer and stutter and pop with every line and stanza. Alternatively, if they’re quiet, there’s a reason for it. The poet has demonstrated considerable control even as voice charges through the poems toward their conclusions.
Daughterrarium examines a kind of rage that feels as fragile as it does constraining; that is to say, a rage that stems from the reality of having a body in a world where it can be hurt and can hurt others. In the core of this anger is a pain that comes from caring, and from optimism that is being tested; the speakers never come off as needlessly sarcastic or cruel or even hopeless, but rather engaged in what many of us experience as a daily struggle of getting through life and holding on to our reasons for doing so. This is a promising debut from a poet who brings emotion to the fore without sacrificing the tools and texture poetry is capable of; if it’s not on a list of best first poetry books in 2017, that list might be a little bit suspect.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Graywolf Press)
Where to start? Danez Smith is one of the most remarkable poets writing today. Don’t Call Us Dead is as good as I expected, and somehow better; fierce, loving poems full of anger, despair, and at times—crucially—hope. Smith writes clearly and musically, forcefully. He does not hide his thoughts through a veneer of irony, but goes at his subjects with an intensity that expands our capacity for feeling.
The poems in Don’t Call Us Dead seem a nexus of our endless overlapping cultural layers and concerns: racism, violence (particularly toward black persons), stereotype, and the simple difficulty of love in a society that has not truly made the strides it likes to think it has toward the gay community. Smith speaks passionately for those he cares about (and often those he doesn’t; there’s a graciousness in here even when facing some of the ugliest aspects of our country), and laments a world that is so broken as to create these problems that must be overcome simply for folks to live in it. His poems are aware of where they exist in space and time, yet destined to live beyond this moment; in each elegy is hope stretching to everyone it can reach, and its hard not to be affected reading his work:
“tonight, prisons turn to tulips / & prisoner means ‘one who dances in a yellow field.’ // tonight, let everyone be their own lord.”
If you’re looking for poetry that speaks to the world in 2017, and also shows some of the finest that the medium of poetry has come to offer, look no further.
The Road In is Not the Same Road Out by Karen Solie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
How had I not read Karen Solie before this year? This book is remarkable, a kind of electricity in the hand and mind. I am so enamored of Solie’s voice, the playfulness that threads these huge, far-reaching poems together. The poet has done an amazing job of encapsulating the modern experience, of the sense of momentum with no outlet for that energy, of excess that creates a hollowness, of a human yearning that we keep trying to name but evades us. Her willingness to tackle the eternal within the contemporary is something I admire in her work, and wish I saw more of in others’; the poems here are so tethered to the real world you can see them growing behind the jars on your counter, or in the gaps in a mall parking lot.
“When I think of it
all my atoms are past-due notices
but with the option to consolidate
as one large debt.”
—from “The Living Option”