The Best Poetry Collections of 2015
Poet-Editors Select Their Favorite Poetry This Year
S O S: Poems 1961-2013, Amiri Baraka
Adam Fitzgerald (Literary Hub): Across the entirety of American culture this year, dissonance and contradiction have underscored discourses around racism and free speech, structurally within universities and publishing houses, all amid the backdrop of anti-black police brutality and renewed xenophobia for Muslims and Latin@s. If my bias is not binding, I believe right now it’s poets—not artists, not novelists—who are interrogating most intensely the intersections of aesthetics and ethics. It’s for this reason that I returned frequently to Amiri Baraka’s S O S: Poems 1961-2013 these last months, as if trying to track our collective moment to its source. With Baraka, literary modernism’s historicized whiteness is exploded by the black vernacular, freeform rhythms, hallucinatory history. And through founding the Black Arts Movement, disavowing the white bohemian apolitical approach, articulating a black Marxist vision, Baraka only continued to radicalize poetry and the world. Though he can still be dismissed wholesale as anti-Semitic or homophobic, Baraka’s contradictions—his first wife after all was Jewish, one of his children was gay—add rather than subtract to the reasons we should read him now more deeply. Too often white readers demand writers of color to be model citizens, forgetting our national pathology of denying such citizenship to black and brown bodies. Baraka’s poem “Black Art”—though marred by bigotry and misogyny (qualities that never stopped Eliot or Pound from their towering canonicity)—is still to my mind one of the most eerie masterpieces of 20th-century poetics. I remain permanently astonished by its formal kineticism, its black ascendancy, its unstoppable rallying cry which ends:
Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
Evening Oracle, Brandon Shimoda
Janice Lee (Entropy Magazine): This is the kind of poetry that I sincerely believe we need more of, at this critical time, when poetry should matter more than it has. Shimoda bears so much within himself via the language contained in these pages, rewriting and creating an intimacy that pierces and penetrates and resounds and betrays. The wound of language is the existence of a body, sparks that cause fire and sparks that dissipate with the wind. Shimoda writes, “Here we are, gazing at the moon / Like all poets say / Close your eyes, and think about the light / How it will feel as you elevate your body / Knowing what will soon become of your mind / Your body, the victor, will have gone the distance / Your mind separated / Will be for the first time / Really nowhere.” To me, this poetry is so much about existing within the space that one already belongs to, to notice everything, to affirm, to allow for sadness and pain and joy, to persist vehemently and elegantly and ethically. Remember so much of what is lost and so much of what is yet to be.
Lighting the Shadow, Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Katie Raissian (Stonecutter): In 2015, a voice I turned to often was that of Rachel Eliza Griffiths in her stunning fourth collection, Lighting the Shadow. Lauded by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith as “rare and revelatory” and by National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes as “a book of spellbinding radiance,” Lighting the Shadow journeys us across vast landscapes of memory and forgetting, of violent histories and myth, of racist brutalities past and present. Drawing on myriad influences—from Kahlo to Jarrell, Darwish to Rukeyser, Brautigan to Clifton—Griffiths expertly examines American and world history through a dually personal and literary lens, exploring what it means to be woman, body, voice, victim, witness: “I am the shriek, / the suture, the petal / shook loose from their silence.” (From “elegy.”) These are live-wire poems that burn and lament, that speak to history’s numerousness, its silences and its voids, and transform those silences into song:
These words will start no war. Syllables
will only explode the tongue
while history assassinates bone. Remember,
the girl who ran towards us
years ago from Vietnam begging us
to promise her skin
It is for these things—along with Griffiths’s unique ability to communicate and distill her broad field of vision and knowledge into deeply emphatic and elegiac verse—that I returned to Lighting the Shadow again and again this year.
A few other incredible collections that published in 2015 and that I loved spending time with were Caitríona O’Reilly’s brilliant third book, Geis; National Book Award finalist Ada Limón’s, Bright Dead Things; and Amiri Baraka’s collected S O S: Poems 1961-2013. Wendy Xu’s poetry constantly pushes towards gentle and breathtaking truths, and her recently released chapbook Naturalism was another indispensable book for me this year. 2015 also heralded some astonishing poetry debuts, of which I particularly loved Dark Green by Emily Hunt, [insert] boy by Danez Smith, and Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn. Come 2016, among others, I’ll be looking forward to Yvette Siegert’s stunning translations of Alejandra Pizarnik’s later poems, Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972; The Child Poet, Homero Aridjis’s poetic memoir about his childhood in Contepec, Mexico (translated by his daughter Chloe Aridjis); and Solmaz Sharif’s sure-to-be amazing debut Look.
Blood Oboe, Douglas Piccinnini
Calvin Bedient (Lana Turner): Douglas Piccinnini’s first collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn, 2015) is poetry as pumped-up kicks. It transforms English the way a rope burn changes the way you feel about rope. Andrew Joron brilliantly reviewed the book in the journal Lana Turner, and I wrote the introduction, but it may not receive much attention, and not just because few books of poetry do, but also because it is rare, ferociously accomplished, difficult, aggressive, and crack-throated; it’s not for sissies. “A sort of storm / verbs the air”; “the center is closed”; “To wait out / the lozenge of spit”—it’s in that line, bitter as Rimbaud. Piccinnini may be a child of the internet age, but he’s not buying it: “‘I come out’ / to you thru websites. / Websites? Websites”). He’s not buying anything, not now, not with “everything titted up—unrhymed.” His short lines elbow away comforting concepts. Life? “Our timed something.” To me, his existential toughness is refreshing. No bullcrap. Like Ashbery he sees the basic insufficiency, the crying shame in the peculiar anti-phenomenon called time and in what still receives the name of “self”: “my property of cells / my ‘my’ / . . . decharmed / . . . blood in the hopper.” With his kitchen-Spanish inserts (Piccinnini is a New Jersey chef), he mouths “the air big air” in more than one language, but still comes away starved: “Life is ‘terrible.’ I get hungry: / it’s time to punch everyone.” Clearly the man can communicate and has humor. That he is difficult in askew, gnomic statements and abruptness I lack the space to illustrate. If anything suffices in or near the Puccinnini ex-world, suffice it to say that each of his poems is something to marvel at. He has arrived complete, “already late, dismembering.”
Boy With Thorn, Rickey Laurentiis
Danez Smith (The Offing): The work of Rickey Laurentiis has made me a better reader of poetry. A few summers ago, I shared a suite with Rickey, Phillip B. Williams, and L. Lamar Wilson once upon a Cave Canem. All of them have become writers and peers I hold close to my heart, whose work constantly throttles and rescues me, but Rickey’s work, at the time for young Danez, was the most unfamiliar for me. Definitely kin, but from a side of the family I didn’t know well. But I believe it’s impossible to read Rickey’s poetry for too long without falling (in love/in mercy) for him. Boy with Thorn swept me up in it’s unrelenting lyric, in Rickey’s ability to render violence into something tender, seductive, and no less sharp. Here, the (black/queer/desired/targeted) body is given space to be mourned and beautiful, is offered shelter, and if not shelter, reverence for what it must endure. By the time I get the closing and title poem, once Rickey asks us “Was he so terrible a thing to look at? But was looked at.” I am too aware of who I am and how I exist, of my body’s possibly for glory and massacre. Through these masterful works of elegy and ekphrasis and just plain freaking great poetry, Rickey gives his subjects portraits so clear they seem to breathe and hurt just the same as us. No conversation about the year in poetry is complete without talking about this book, this poet. In his work is a call to read better, make better, and demand better poetry, and it’s a joy to witness.
Along with Boy with Thorn, some other collections that shaped my year were Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comfort Keep’s Me Up At Night, Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, Fatimah Asghar’s chapbook After, and Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. Really really excited for Phillip B. William’s Thief in the Interior and Cam Awkward Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster coming out at the top of 2016 kicking off an awesome year of releases.
The Chair, Richard Garcia
Don Share (Poetry): It is a dire—and common—fate for a superb book of poems to be overlooked, especially in a year like this past one during which so many wonderful books garnered prizes, acclaim, and media attention. Less familiar, perhaps, is another misfortune: that of the book published late in the year. A fall or winter publication date will occlude the reputation of a fine book because most year-end lists and awards are finished well before the first frost hits. For me, a poet who ought to have received far more attention in 2015 is Richard Garcia. The author of five previous collections, each excellent, Garcia’s poems are unfailingly lucid, vivid, humane, acute, accessible, and delightful. Born in San Francisco in 1941, writing since he was a teenager, he’s worked as a poet in residence at a children’s hospital, and in art museums. Working between, you could say, the poles of suffering and high art, he writes in a language that navigates extremes by plotting a solid, steady course. He’s been praised by no less than Octavio Paz, which is more than most poets can say; and his most recent full-length book is The Chair, published in late 2014 by BOA Editions. All the hyperbole at one’s disposal has been deployed by now, and readers are presumably inured to it. But with The Chair, Garcia proves himself to be a master of prose poetry. Prose poetry is notoriously hard to judge, because it’s notoriously hard to be good at it: most of it is terrible, and has no reason to exist. The few contemporary Americans who’ve excelled at it—Mark Strand, Franz Wright, James Tate, Russell Edson—were rueful in a way that, thankfully, Garcia is not; I wish they had lived to read The Chair. If they had, maybe like me, they’d also have loved rereading it. You can’t excerpt a prose poem, so let me offer one as an example of Garcia’s skill and characteristic wit; it’s the last piece in the book:
The Pants Dance
A brown pair of pants walking across the room. Is this the same pair of pants a spirit held up to my mother when she asked what sex I would be? My pants cower under the bed, cowardly pants. My pants swing on the clothesline. My pants follow me into the Voodoo Lounge. Stupid pants. I thought I told you to wait in the truck. You can dance with your pants. It’s called The Pants Dance. It’s a dance for old men. You are permitted to dance sitting in your chair waving your pants around your head.
Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass, Daniel Borzutsky
Carmen Giménez Smith (Noemi Press) Daniel Borzutsky’s Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy is the latest version of 20th-century poetry of witness, writing that distills the monumental disaster of neoliberalism in dystopian minimalist mythologies Samuel Beckett would love. In Borzutsky’s world, we are all only bodies trapped in a stark cycle of stark abjection. While it reads a little like science fiction, his poem-stories are the profoundest truths framed coyly in gallows humor. He writes, “The ability to frame your own body in relationship to other bodies is forbidden to you,” and I nod in sad agreement. Another book that I adored equally was Monica McClure’s Tender Data. This book has a million affects at work and under interrogation. While louche (which I love), McClure is also a devastatingly precise lyricist. The book is dense with formal risk and a thrilling version of Anzalduan alterity.