I don’t really know why I do this to myself. There’s no way to narrow down the fantastic poetry of any year into a brief list. Personal tastes aside, my hope is that you pick up as many poetry books—and chapbooks—as you can. Though the focus of this list is contemporary poetry, read any verse that speaks to your soul. Read Neruda. Read Brooks. Read Darwish. Read Dickinson. Read someone you’ve never heard of before.
And if you’re up to it—you know you are—take part in the annual The Sealey Challenge this August, established by the great poet Nicole Sealey, where we read a collection a day and post about it on social media.
Below are a mere dozen of many dozens I’m looking forward to reading in the coming months, with mea culpas to all I couldn’t list. (Note: poem excerpts are not necessarily from the named collections.)
All the Flowers Kneeling
By Paul Tran
Published February 15, 2022
Paul Tran examines lineage and language, oppression and freedom, and the long-term effects of ancestral, cultural and sexual trauma in a debut that is formidable in scope, form and content. Even with such complex and confident poetic structures and narratives, it’s equally intimate in its vulnerabilities and investigation of the heart, and its ultimate embrace of love. How do we name what is unutterable? How does the unutterable define us?
From “Incident Reporting”:
“I had a form.
The form said Name of victim.
The form named me.
The form was a form of naming.
Naming gave me form.
The form said Time of incident.
Time could be measured.
The Incident could be defined.
Both had a form.
Both were a form of naming.”
by Kemi Alabi
Published April 5, 2022
Claudia Rankine selected Kemi Alabi’s Against Heaven for the Academy of American Poets First Book Award in 2021, remarking, “[a]t once sonic and disruptive, these poems pull together everything in a world where nothing is sacred.” Though her vote of confidence is enough of an endorsement—I’d read anything Rankine recommends—poetry lovers who embrace intricacy and a bold approach to what language can do will appreciate this debut, which, as its title suggests, pushes against traditional ideas of paradise, linguistically and otherwise.
From “Theory of Plate Tectonics”:
“She asks me the difference between arson and wildfire.
I say arson is chain-smoking with her Tinder wax doll collection.
Wildfire misusing match blaze as daylight. Should have said
the difference depends on what’s burning. Should have said
we have such old bones for such new people, more cinder than marrow.
We feel safe in all the wrong places, most at home in flames.”
The Trees Witness Everything
By Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press
Published April 26, 2022
Victoria Chang followed up her multiple award-winning poetry collection Obit with another award-winning collection, Dear Memory, this time swerving into nonfiction epistolary essays. Given her acknowledged excellence in the latter, one would be forgiven for wanting her to continue to write more prose. Yet the poetry lover in me is thrilled that the world has more of her elegant and lyrical verse, which explores the cycles of grief and loss, and of course, rebirth.
From “Late Spring”:
“Does spring start grieving,
in April or May? Once each
spring, the girl appears
in the white house behind mine.
The window opens.
The girl paces, phone to ear.
One day I look up,
the girl is gone, window closed,
and I go back to dying.”
Smoking the Bible
By Chris Abani
Copper Canyon Press
Forthcoming May 2022
This new collection by Nigerian American Chris Abani—the celebrated, award-winning novelist, poet and professor—mines individual, cultural and geographic losses, creating a collection that is emotional and linguistically expansive. He explores “the personal story of two brothers—one elegizing the other—and the larger story of a man in exile” through poems that are spiritual, philosophical, personal and deeply affecting. Especially for those of us with more than one culture, the more we move through life, the more we must wonder: what do we belong to, and what belongs to us?
From “Incantation” (Poem-a-Day, May 2018):
“What words can you wrap around
a dying brother, still dying, even now.
A man who has not eaten for a month
sips at water and says, even thirst is a gift.[…]
You sing softly to him in a language
only the two of you speak and he
snores softly into your palm, breath and blood.”
You Can Be the Last Leaf
By Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Translated by Fady Joudah
Forthcoming May 2022
Somehow You Can Be the Last Leaf is the U.S. debut of Palestinian poet Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. Translated from Arabic and introduced by Fady Joudah—a much-admired poet himself—the collection encompasses more than two decades of her work. There’s a double pleasure in experiencing the work of a poet new to many English speakers and also contemplating the luxurious breadth of her oeuvre. Abu Al-Hayyat explores the broader political and geographic aspects of Palestinian life under colonial rule while at the same time interweaving the quotidian aspects of life and loss in such settings. Within these frictions of exterior trauma and private contemplations, large constraints and small freedoms, these poems soar.
From “A Road for Loss”:
“Like the rest of you,
I thought of escape.
But I have a fear of flying,
a phobia of congested bridges
and traffic accidents,
of learning a new language.
“I don’t dare to speak.
Whatever I speak of happens.
I don’t want to speak.
I’d rather be lost.”
All the Blood Involved in Love
By Maya Marshall
Forthcoming June 2022
Given her many literary achievements—numerous fellowships, faculty appointments and publications—I was sure that Maya Marshall had a number of collections to her name. Yet All the Blood Involved in Love, published by Haymarket Books, where she also serves as editor, is her first, and this assured collection is a culmination of all she’s accomplished. Her poetry explores race, gender, identity and the narratives we create for our lives. Beautifully, simply, sharply and always memorably, she refuses to accede to others’ expectations of who we should be and how we should live.
In the poem “Why Don’t You Parent a Little?”:
“The story is that there is so much loss,
so much waste in a woman who does not make
a body with her body. Such sunk potential
in a sex that does not produce.
The story is that we have progressed.
The story is that the black woman is safe.
The story is that the black woman is safe
if she protects her king.
The king is dead.”
By Zeina Hashem Beck
Forthcoming July 2022
Zeina Hashem Beck’s work is always layered and powerful, interrogating how we envision home, language and identity amid external forces that may be crushing in their impact. She has also “invented a bilingual poetic form called The Duet, in which Arabic and English exist both independently and in conversation with each other.” For a woman who has experienced conflict on a variety of personal and political levels, this quest for a language to describe her life, many lives, is profound, and in Beck’s talented hands, beautiful both sonically and in significance.
From “In Souk”:
“And so I, of this city,
I who stand on stages and name this city,
deny this city in the heart of the city,
deny this city at the old gate of the city.
I say Bonjour, I say Thank you, I undo
my accent and put on the colonizer’s tongue.
When you say hometown, what do you mean?”
By Claire Schwartz
Forthcoming August 2022
As culture editor of Jewish Currents, Claire Schwartz regularly curates and provides space for a magnificent range of contemporary writing, so it is a genuine pleasure to anticipate her debut collection. Civil Service contains “poems populated by characters named for their occupations and mutable positions of power,” especially timely in our own complicated and often polarizing times, with echoes of past brutalities overlaying current acts. The dualities of the title—at what point does civility become uncivilized, and whom or what does it serve?—reflect a poet who both employs and questions structures, whether poetic, cultural or authoritative.
From “Lecture on the History of the House”:
“Before the alphabet, there was the house.[…]
Oh, I know what a house is.
A house is my knowing.
Knowing is faith absent doubt.
When doubt is cleaved from faith,
where does it go?
(A caucus of ghosts, cackling.)
Knowing casts no shadow.”
The Rupture Tense
By Jenny Xie
Forthcoming September 2022
The poems in first part of Xie’s second collection are “provoked by the photography of Li Zhensheng, whose negatives, hidden under his floorboards to avoid government seizure, provide one of the few surviving visual archives of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” She uses this as a springboard to excavate the scars—and minefields—that such political events cause a society and its future. She also explores the devastating impact to her own grandmother, which anchors the narrative and the emotional core of this work even more deeply. What do we remember? What are we forced—sometimes at the risk of death—to forget? How do ancestral secrets and extraordinary losses impact generations to come?
An excerpt from “Rootless” (from an earlier collection):
“Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?
No matter. The mind resides both inside and out.
It can think itself and think itself into existence.
I sponge off the eyes, no worse for wear.
My frugal mouth spends the only foreign words it owns.
At present, on this sleeper train, there’s nowhere to arrive.
Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.”
The Symmetry of Fish
By Su Cho
Forthcoming October 2022
The marvelous poet Paige Lewis selected Su Cho’s debut about “immigration, memory, and a family’s lexicon” as the winner of The National Poetry Series. My own experience as an immigrant child certainly influences my personal anticipation for this collection and the ground Cho covers, yet her constructions and powerful content will surely appeal to all those who love poetry. Beyond the investigation of cultural and national languages is that family lexicon: how do we express ourselves to each other, what do we hold onto, what must we release as we make our way into a new life, a new world?
From “Hello, My Parents Don’t Speak English Well, How Can I Help You?”:
“Are you the head of the household?
Because I am
Calling about the census—
Dear, I need to speak with an adult
Even if they don’t speak English well.
For every call like this, my mother
Gestures wildly as if we
Haven’t done this a million times.
I’m sorry, I say back to the voice.”
Wound Is the Origin of Wonder
By Maya C. Popa
W.W. Norton & Company
Forthcoming November 2022
Maya C. Popa’s passion for and knowledge of poetry is demonstrated in all her professional and personal endeavors: as a professor, as the poetry reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, and, an equally pure pursuit, as a generous champion of all manners of poets on social media. She’s also—unsurprisingly—a gifted and intellectual poet with a sharp eye, finely hewn linguistic sensibility and a thoughtful, tender heart who often explores the delicate and devastating facets of love and grief. The title of the collection underscores her curiosity about life and her delight in language, and the contents within prove her considerable talents.
From the title poem:
“A cross-breeze between this life
and the imagined one.
I am stuck in an almost life,
in an almost time. If I could say,
but I cannot, and so on. Sunlight
dizzies through the barren trees,
the skyline, a blue fog against
a yellow light, and on the highway
every Westward car blinds me.
Every surface reflects
that quiet understanding: decisions
have been made, irreversible decisions
to upend beauty for something
approximate—the airport hotel,
its Eiffel Tower on the roof,
a playground near the public storage.”
The Wanting Way: Poems
By Adam Wolfond
Forthcoming November 2022
Adam Wolfond’s The Wanting Way will be the second book in Multiverse, a literary series launched by Milkweed Editions focused on a diversity of languaging practices, curated by neurodivergent poet Chris Martin. A nonspeaking autistic artist, poet, and university lecturer, Wolfond is also a founding member of dis assembly, a neurodiverse artist collective based in Toronto. His poetry is linguistically rich and questions language, forms of expression and gestures as we “navigate” meaning. How do we move beyond traditional—often exclusionary—forms of communication and “open our way(s) of thinking” to expand what and how we experience humanity and connection?
From “Tall Ideas” (Poem-a-Day, October 2019):
“are the open way of thinking
that use the patterns of the way
I motion with language
operate the machine
landing the thoughts amazing
that they don’t fall apart”
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing appears in a wide array of publications, and she serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.