Rabih Alameddine’s Year in Reading: Poetry Edition
"You know that I hate end-of-year lists..."
If you have read any of my previous end-of-year lists here, you know that I hate end-of-year lists, and unsurprisingly, I still do. I would like to say no when asked to do one, but a certain editor has naked pictures.
This year has been horrid for so many people. Personally, 2020 has been the ultimate annus horribilis. I spent it binging on a few things: bad television shows, delicious ice cream, and incredible poetry.
I always claim that I don’t know how poetry works, which is why I love it so much. I started a poetry blog seven years ago, hoping to teach myself. Every evening, I type a poem that I like and post it the next day. The following are my favorite poetry books of last year, and I still don’t know how any of them work. They are by no means the best, simply what I enjoyed the most.
Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
I remember when I first read one of Diaz’s poems “When My Brother Was an Aztec” from her first collection. I held my breath beginning with the first stanza and only let go at the end. Goosebumps and crackling hair. I’ve been an admirer ever since. This second collection is just as astounding: lyrical, loving, angry, fearless. I lost count of the number of WTF moments while reading this book, as in “What the fuck did I just read?” She’s one of our greats. Bow before her, please, or at least read her.
Shane McCrae, Sometimes I Never Suffered
McCrae is a poetic chameleon. Just when I think I know what he might be doing, or maybe going, he takes my hand and leads me down another unchartered path. In this collection, McCrae gives us Jim Limber, an angel, who happens to be the mixed-race offspring of Jefferson Davis, wandering through the afterlife in search some understanding, of his life, of his country, of everything. A phenomenal collection.
Danez Smith, Homie
A stunner of a book. Smith is changing our language and how we speak. I’ve been talking about Danez’s work for so long, I’m running out of words. Danez makes me fall in love with language over and over again. This book, like the two following ones, deals with loss and the pursuit of grace. The death of a close friend leads to a meditation on the harshness that is America if you’re young, Black, and queer, and where one finds solace and forgiveness in an unforgiving world. How can I not love a collection that has a poem titled “waiting on you to die so I can be myself”?
Victoria Chang, Obit
I’d read a couple of poems by Chang that I loved from an earlier collection Barbie Chang, which I thought would prepare me for Obit. Let’s just say I was expecting it to be good, by my lord, it’s so much more. After her mother’s death, Chang begins to chronicle all she has lost. She looks at grief both directly and awry, allowing us to process our own. The collection is innovative in form (newspaper obits), structure, and style. I loved it.
Mark Bibbins, 13th Balloon
A beautiful book. A beautiful book. A beautiful book. A beautiful book. A beautiful book.
Have I mentioned that this is so fucking beautiful? In the last few years, there has been a number of books that look back at the tragedy that was the AIDS epidemic. With 13th Balloon, Bibbins throws his hat into the ring, and what a lush, gorgeous hat it is! Many poems are addressed to his lover who died at 25. How does one deal with loss, with grief, with atonement, with grace? Bibbins doesn’t have answers, but how he poses the questions is nothing short of miraculous.
And I should mention some other book that aren’t on this short list because I can. Two poetry books I loved that came out in 2019: Matthew Zapruder’s tender brilliance, Father’s Day, and Ada Limón’s utterly gorgeous The Carrying. There were two collections that came out this year that I can recommend even though I haven’t read them yet (I can do that too!): African American Poetry: 250 years of Struggle and Song, Kevin Young, ed., and Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, Alice Quinn, ed. Both promise to be great.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of love, featuring work by Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Maaze Mengiste, Mieko Kawakami, Olga Tokarczuk and Semezdin Mehmedinovic, among others, is available now.