T.S. Eliot aside, April, with its changeable weather and motion, seems a peculiar month to designate for all things poetry. Yet, as one of the most contrary months of the calendar, it’s perfect: poetry is the country of flexible words and contexts and sometimes startling shifts in a single stanza, the way you need to peel off your morning jacket by lunch, then pull out the umbrella against a squall on the way home.
The challenge with this list—and with spring, which asserts its control beyond our plans and desires—is that it can’t note every outstanding poetry book to seek out this year. Consider this dozen a tasting menu exhorting readers to forage for more poetry, especially from authors new to them. (Note: Poem excerpts are not necessarily from the named collections.)
By Raymond Antrobus
Tin House Books
Published March 30, 2021
Already a multiple award winner—a Poetry Book of the Year at The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and Poetry School as well as a winner of the Ted Hughes Award, Rathbones Folio Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award; shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize—The Perseverance is one of the most highly-anticipated books of the year. In it, Antrobus explores grief, identity, and language—both what it can express and what it can’t. He offers intimate insights into being biracial as well as part of the D/deaf community, yet these personal revelations, musical and meaningful, transcend the individual, ultimately expressing universal themes of connection and impact.
“Gaudí believed in holy sound
and built a cathedral to contain it,
pulling hearing men from their knees
as though atheism is a kind of deafness.
Who would turn down God?
Even though I have not heard
the golden decibels of angels,
I have been living in a noiseless
palace where the doorbell is pulsating
light and I am able to answer.”
By Douglas Kearney
Published April 6, 2021
Douglas Kearney’s extraordinary and award-winning output is boundary-less, encompassing poetry, performance and libretti. His diversity of expression—sonic, visual, and the alchemy that comes from dismantling and reforming both—cannot be contained in a single (or several) description(s) but once seen and heard, is equally impossible to forget.
Sho, his seventh collection, is sure to showcase Kearney’s remarkable prosody, visual play, linguistic acrobatics and verbal dexterity that is both exact and wildly open. Kearney’s juxtapositions are uniquely his, yet readers are enticed—enjoined—to make their own connections and meanings.
One hopes that there’s an attendant reading tour, virtual or otherwise, as Kearney’s live performances are not to be missed.
From “The Irregular and/or Anti- and Ante- Regulative”:
“Did not but didn’t not or did not not did? Woke up
a rando hour in that ol’ double-bind of suspicions of
activity (didn’t not did, did not’d). No sich thang ez
reppytishun. Didn’t not not’d no such thing as. Only
insistence, amplification of. Rigor, please!—I’ve
been in a steady residency studying doing sans
getting done (-) in…”
By Sonia Sanchez
Published April 13, 2021
Sonia Sanchez—one of the bright lights of the Black Arts Movement—has done it all, and has rightly received accolades for much of it, including the PEN Writing Award, the American Book Award for Poetry, the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the National Education Association Award, the Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Robert Creeley Award, the Harper Lee Award, the National Visionary Leadership Award, and more. Her diversity of output—poetry, drama, fiction, spoken word—matches her remarkable additional impact as an activist, scholar and inspiration.
These Collected Poems span fifty years of her poetry, starting with early pieces from Homecoming (1969) through to recent work in 2019, and is a must-read for all poetry lovers, with wide-ranging pieces from haiku to long-form narratives.
She wrote the following in “Haiku and Tanka for Harriet Tubman,” which could surely be said as emphatically about Sanchez and her own legacy:
“Picture her saying:
You have within you the strength,
the patience, and the passion
to reach for the stars,
to change the world … ”
By Arthur Sze
Copper Canyon Press
Published April 13, 2021
A poet, translator, professor and the first Poet Laureate of Sante Fe, New Mexico, Arthur Sze’s exquisite complexities—his work is often at the nexus of modernism and spiritual contemplation—are intellectual and compassionate, and altogether unforgettable. He is a verbal architect, employing sharp and memorable connections to craft wildly exciting yet fully grounded experimental works through the frictions and contradictions of language, ideas and imagery. From his poem “Transfigurations:”
“So many transfigurations I will never fathom.
The arc of our lives is a brightening then dimming,
brightening then dimming—a woman catches
fireflies in an orchard with the swish of a net.
I pick an openmouthed pistachio from a bowl
and crack it apart: a hint of Assyria spills
into the alluvial fan of sunlight. I read spring in
autumn in the scroll of your breath; though
neither you nor I saw the completion of the Great Wall,
I wake to the unrepeatable contour of this breath.”
The Essential June Jordan
By June Jordan; Edited by Jane Heller Levi and Christoph Keller
Copper Canyon Press
Forthcoming May 4, 2021
The multiple award-winning June Jordan was an essential part of the poetic and activist dialogue of most of the twentieth century, and this long-awaited anthology of forty years of her work is of great import for casual readers as well as scholars. Her poetic voice is in turns incisive, celebratory, rallying, conversational, in the moment and ever musical, and this compilation offers a necessary spotlight on a canonical modern writer.
Jordan’s “Calling on All Silent Minorities” is only one example of work that is timeless, untethered by era or space. It is a call to arms, to be sure, but also an invitation to come together, diversely, yet as one. Twenty-one words that encompass human history, present and future.
WHEREVER YOU ARE
WE NEED TO HAVE THIS MEETING
AT THIS TREE
AIN’ EVEN BEEN
Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry
The Library of Congress; Edited by Joy Harjo
W.W. Norton & Company
Forthcoming May 4, 2021
Joy Harjo—the first Native American poet to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate—is appropriately the editor of this necessary compilation of First Peoples poetry. This anthology is a companion to her signature laureate project to “introduce the country to the many Native poets who live in these lands…who understand poetry to be a living language…[and use it] to mark transformations…[or as] a tool to uncover the miraculous in the ordinary.”
This collection features all the poems and poets from the project, offering truly American perspectives on the natural world, the diversity, power and enduring beauty of First Peoples cultures, and of course, issues around loss and exile.
From Harjo’s “An American Sunrise”:
“…We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We
had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die
By Michael Kleber-Diggs
Forthcoming June 8, 2021
Though Michael Kleber-Diggs’ Worldly Things, awarded the 2021 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, is his debut poetry collection, his prowess as an essayist and literary critic isn’t new. His prose is especially honest, engaging and descriptive, and this collection is sure to offer similar meaning and pleasure, with the sound, voice and impact that only poetry can deliver.
In “America is Loving Me to Death”:
“…I hear the enduring republic,
Erect and proud, asking through ravenous teeth Who do you riot for?
Tamir? Sandra? Medgar? George? Breonna? Elijah? Philando? Eric? Which
One? Like it can’t be all of them. Like it can’t be the entirety of it:
Destroyed brown bodies, dismantled homes, so demolition stands
Even as my fidelity falls, as it must. She erases my reason too, allows one
Answer to her only loyalty test: yes or no, Michael, do you love this nation?
Then hates me for saying I can’t, for not burying myself under
Her fables where we’re one, indivisible, free, just, under God, her God.”
By Kaveh Akbar
Forthcoming August 3, 2021
Pilgrim Bell will be a long-awaited late summer gift to the many readers who have been yearning for Kaveh Akbar, the poetry editor of The Nation, to publish his second full-length collection. Akbar’s ability to craft incisive, lush and memorable poems is matched by his determination to face what challenges us personally and societally in these especially conflicted times. He accomplishes this with the grace and passion of a linguaphile, and is a poet’s poet: one who loves others’ verse as much as they love his.
From “The Miracle”:
“…Imagine the emptiness in you, the vast cavities you have spent your life trying to
fill—with fathers, mothers, lovers, language, drugs, money, art, praise—and imagine
them gone. What’s left? Whatever you aren’t, which is what makes you—a house
useful not because its floorboards or ceilings or walls, but because the empty space
Blood on the Fog
By Tongo Eisen-Martin
City Lights Books
Forthcoming September 7, 2021
It’s been far too long since Tongo Eisen-Martin’s last collection, the multi-award-winning Heaven Is All Goodbyes (also published by City Lights Books), in which time he has become San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate.
Eisen-Martin is known as much for his activism—especially around mass incarceration and extrajudicial killings of Black people—as his singular poetry and performance. His work is musical, mystical, sharp and honest. It speaks to a society that must change, whether directly or through revolution, yet is equally about community, love and hope.
After being named Poet Laureate, Eisen-Martin commented: “A poet of any station is secondary to the people. A poet of any use belongs to the energy and consciousness of the people.” He and his poetry are both representative of society, and of great value to us all.
From “Channels to Fall Asleep to”:
“casually be poor
how to get out of this room
and we’ll leave you enough blood
to turn off the lights on your way out
casually be poor …
they are all cops when you are poor”
By Devon Walker-Figueroa
Forthcoming September 14, 2021
The word philomath suggests a hunger for learning and this debut collection—with its exploration of humanity, nature and the surreal—represents Walker-Figueroa’s passion for storytelling and language, and ignites our own.
As befitting a writer who “grew up in Kings Valley, a ghost town in the Oregon Coast Range,” Walker-Figuero’s work is powerful, at times mysterious, and a thrilling study of memory, time and events both quotidian and historic. Selected by Sally Keith as a winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series, Philomath is sure to be a notable debut.
From “My Madness Is My Love Toward Mankind”:
“…I have two ends
and they are both on fire. Because I am alive,
I do not like the bygone centuries.
Because I am alive, swallows flee
at the sight of me. Exaggeration
is not in me, nor the will to kill tsars,
nor to live in the streets, nor to live
Such Color: New and Selected Poems
By Tracy K. Smith
Forthcoming October 5, 2021
Former U.S. Poet Laureate’s Tracy K. Smith’s work has always been both of the moment and of a time apart: whether it’s the arms of the past intruding on our present or as a glimpse into the future or a future. This new book promises a retrospective of her award-winning collections along with more than two dozen new poems, and is sure to take on our confrontational times, provide a necessary light, and always underscore the need for truth, connection and love.
Several years after it was published, Smith’s “An Old Story” feels especially striking as we hail “a different manner of weather”:
“…When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.”
A Dangerous Place
By Chelsea B. DesAutels
Forthcoming October 19, 2021
In “Ghost Child,” one of the poems in Chelsea B. DesAutels’s debut poetry collection A Dangerous Place, she writes about a false pregnancy that turns out to be a cancer diagnosis, asking “What kind of body prefers cancer to a child?” This parallel of growths—one hopeful, one terrifying—is a reflection of the many dualities and metaphors DesAutels explores in her work. Life itself is a “dangerous place,” and she is as interested in the subjects hardest to discuss as she is in the human emotions that allow us to move forward, despite them.
don’t want to hear your story
of grief unless they knew you before
see grief in a new person is ugly but
…and of course
I always mention gratitude because
people like that ending.”
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and an Editor-at-Large at Chicago Review of Books, Mandana Chaffa’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies. She serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.