If anything can save the world from Donald Trump, it might be poetry. Not because he will ever read it (or comprehend a word if he tried), but because of its power to provoke, ignite, and unify the rest of us. Sadly, the Chicago Review of Books didn’t cover as much poetry in 2016 as I would have liked (so if you want to write about poetry, drop us a line). Nonetheless, here are our 12 favorite poetry books of the year, including 4 Chicago-area poets and 11 independent presses.
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books, January
Phillip B. Williams is a Humboldt Park native and the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry. He is a Cave Canem graduate and the author of two previous chapbooks. Thief in the Interior was inspired by the brutal murder of a young man in Brooklyn, and the resulting poems are heartbreaking. By addressing contemporary racism and hate crime head-on, Williams is an essential and unstoppable force in 21st century poetry.
Poems: New and Selected by Ron Rash
“Ron Rash’s Poems: New and Selected acts as interpreter, cryptographer, and historiographer,” says Mark Magoon. “His poetry transcends hundreds of years—familial history forgotten, misread, and unknown. His makes a stubborn and unchanging place accessible to us, to family that forgot, and to anyone who looks to one day return to a place they miss. Ron Rash sees the American South as only a mystic preacher and time traveler can, and he’s damn sure worth listening to.”
Ghost County by John McCarthy
Midwestern Gothic, March
“A love letter to the Midwest, John McCarthy’s debut collection of poetry Ghost County is the only book this year I’ve finished in one sitting,” says Heather Cox. “McCarthy, who lives in southern Illinois, paints a familiar, blue-collar picture of the Midwest but with a dose of surrealism that enlivens the region and gives it dynamic force in his storytelling.”
Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann
“What Kelly Schirmann accomplishes in her debut collection Popular Music is no simple feat,” says Heather Cox. “Through poetry and essay, Schirmann weaves sentimentality, irreverence, wit, politics, reflection, research, and philosophy into one harmonious soundtrack of our complicated, modern lives. In lesser hands, the result would be cacophony, but Schirmann’s brilliance alone is convincing connective tissue. Popular Music is both a love letter to music—how it accents, affects, and defines us through varying stages of our lives—and a hilarious and heart-breaking investigation of our relationship to technology, nature, and country. This book is in a class of its own and is simply unforgettable.”
Night-Sky Checkerboard by Oh Sae-young
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Phoneme Media, April
“From start to finish, Night-Sky Checkerboard is questioning, somber, and beautiful,” says Mark Magoon. “Readers will enjoy a flowering, artistic start as each piece is first presented in Sae-young’s native Korean with English translations following after. And though many of Sae-young’s poems start slow, he truly has a knack for and a keen understanding of how to finish. An end is good, satisfying, only when things all come together naturally. In “Waves,” Sae-young uses nature to satisfy, water to quench thirst. He writes about violence and beauty, and resolution. He writes that all things hard need not end so terribly. His repetition of the “good” over and over again feels firm, natural, and this book, like the sentiment found within that poem, is good, too.”
The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay
BOA Editions, April
The Black Maria isn’t just some of the best poetry I read this year, it’s also one of the most powerful and memorable collections I’ve read as an adult. In the words of our own Sanya Noel: “a haunting, blistering, vital examination of the African diaspora from 15th-century slave ships to Neil deGrasse Tyson … More than any other question, The Black Maria forces us to ask ourselves if anything has truly changed [since the slave trade].”
1989: The Number by Kevin Coval and Nate Marshall
Haymarket Books, April
Kevin Coval is the Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors and teaches hip-hop aesthetics at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Nate Marshall is the National Program Director of Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College. Both men are editors of The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop along with Quraysh Ali Lansana. Last year, Coval and Marshall spent 6 days writing 1989: The Number, an innovative collection of poetry that revisits the year 1989 in music, pop culture, and history.
The Secret Birds by Tony Fitzpatrick
Curbside Splendor, June
Tony Fitzpatrick was born in Chicago, and in 1992 opened a local printmaking studio, Big Cat Press, which is known today as an exhibition space for art called Firecat Projects. The Secret Birds is a stunning mix of poetry and art that could have only have come from the man Newcity called the “best iconic Chicago personality now that Studs (Terkel) is gone.” As with most of his work, The Secret Birds is filled with Fitzpatrick’s drawings, found images and objects, and poetry.
child in a winter house brightening by Abigail Zimmer
Tree Light Books, July
Abigail Zimmer is the poetry editor at The Lettered Street Press and the author of two additional chapbooks. A reimagining of the Ugly Duckling fable, child in a winter house brightening is a hybird long poem that offers a glimpse—sometimes gentle, sometimes haunting—at the not-quite-natural world in a singular, ghostlike voice. Our sister publication, Arcturus magazine, published an excerpt from child in a winter house brightening last month, and the chapbook won the first-ever Chicago Review of Books Award for Poetry.
Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin
Coffee House Press, October
“Look to your local bookstores, your libraries, for the incomparable new work by Sun Yung Shin, this Unbearable Splendor that has hit the shelves from Coffee House Press,” says Tim Moore. “But be sure to ask for assistance in finding this book, as it will difficult to place—yes, it’s as reviewers say, part poetry, part prose, ‘poetry as essay,’ yes, a book that masterfully brings together disparities as far ranging as Asterion and Korean history, language and media, science fiction and science fact. This is a hybrid text, whose form has an essential function—to fill in this hole, or, as Shin places it, this “Uncanny Valley” left in the wake of her being “knocked loose,” made a “family of one,” an orphan stripped of her family and country of origin. Unbearable Splendor will be difficult to shelve in a single space—perhaps even impossible. Fortunately, this is to the book’s betterment.”
Meditations of a Beast by Kristine Ong Muslim
Cornerstone Press, December
Kristine Ong Muslim is a fearless writer who pushes us to the edge of an abyss and asks us to jump. Meditations of a Beast is a dark, wild, ruthless collection that offers glimpses of worlds and futures beyond our own. Each poem leaves a bruise. Each verse slips right into your ear—eel-like—and never leaves. We are witnessing the rise of a truly singular voice in speculative fiction and poetry.
Editor’s Note: We published excerpts from Meditations of a Beast over at Arcturus magazine.
Cattle of the Lord by Rosa Alice Branco
Translated by Alexis Levitin
Milkweed Editions, December
I read Cattle of the Lord in one sitting in the middle of the night, between feeding sessions with my newborn daughter. Needless to say my dreams thereafter were haunted by dark wings and blood and larvae thanks to Blanco’s visceral poetry. A literary star in Portugal, Blanco’s English translations deserve your attention for their singular perspective on the natural world.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.