Year-end features typically focus on “bests,” a consideration that I shy away from, perhaps a scarred memory of always being picked last for dodgeball. Because many hundreds of books are published each year, most are only very briefly in the spotlight. That always feels so inherently unfair, like having one shot at getting a driver’s license photo, and how many years afterward, people will squint at it, at you, at it, at you.
Our relationship with books lasts longer than a launch, a month, a year. And the books on this list are just a few I wish I could have had the opportunity to write about this year, and couldn’t, as well as another handful I’m looking forward to in the first few months of 2023.
My Hollywood and Other Poems
Paul Dry Books
As a permanent New Yorker—spread my ashes in the Hudson River and Riverside Park for fish and squirrels to frolic with, respectively—Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood might appear to be a foreign language. But as Dralyuk is a prominent editor and translator as well, these poems speak to me as a fellow immigrant, if on the colder coast of this country. He captures the essence of major anchor cities which are as much mythology, held together by dreams and wounds, as they are true facts. One of his vantage points, that of immigrants who carry their own hopes and hurts wherever they land, is particularly evocative. The collection adds further levels of intensity in each of its four sections, with the third devoted to translations of modern poet-emigrés. From “The Catch: On Translation”:
“I draw you out, faint voice, from rippled pages:
a famished angler reeling in a fish,
the kind that, in the folktale, grants a wish—
a golden thing, imbued with living magic.
Between us is the taut line of attention,
imperiled by the current and the wind.
Slowly but willfully, I reel you in.
We hold each other, for a moment, in suspension.”
Fiona Benson’s newest, Ephemeron, was published by Penguin Books UK under the Jonathan Cape imprint, so this isn’t one I’ve gotten my hands on yet. Given her mesmerizing approach to the Zeus myths—among other themes—in her last collection, Vertigo & Ghost, the middle section of Ephemeron, a “re-telling of the Greek myth of the Minotaur, as seen from the point of view of the bull-child’s mother…the betrayed and violated Pasiphaë” is sure to be gripping. Here’s a bone-piercing excerpt from “Hide and Seek”, from Vertigo & Ghost:
“The trapdoor is always opening, the women and children
are herded into the yard — and I ask myself if,
when my daughters were pulled from me,
I would fight and scream to keep them,
or let them go gently, knowing
there was nothing to be done?
If we were pushed into the showers
would I pretend it was only time to get them clean?”
A Shiver in the Leaves
It’s hard to believe that this is Luther Hughes’ debut poetry collection, but his commitment to craft, and the poetry world in general, is nothing new. He does it all, as a writer, editor, podcaster, founder of Shade Literary Arts, and of course, practitioner of this particular art. Is it fair to say that I can’t wait for his next collection when this one is so new? Read this gorgeous excerpt from the poem “Mercy,” and then read the entire collection:
“When asked this by the woman in front of us
on the night President Obama was elected,
my mother and I in Walmart—Isn’t it a great night
to be American—the cashier just nodded,
but my mother yelled, Yes, it really is, thank God.
And yes, yes it was, a great night to be American
there between the bags of Lay’s and plague
of batteries, to be Black in America, thank God!
But, oh, mountainous beast, who am I to thank now,
years later, walking home from the bus stop,
surrounded by mid-winter-eaten trees and new-rise condos
that my Love wasn’t shot by cops at work today
mistaken as someone else? Is there a song for this
strain of mercy?”
I cannot overstate how much Bernadette Mayer’s work, and the poetic ethos and play she championed, means to me and to the poetry community at large. She celebrated the ordinary as extraordinary, equal parts funny and revolutionary, and dare I say, an iconoclast, though I bet she’d laugh at me for using that word. Her passing this fall is still difficult to accept, let alone write about, and the fact that we have a new collection of her work at the same time, is bittersweet. But reading the pieces within is all joy. (And if I can slip another request: read or re-read Midwinter Day, written during the course of December 22, 1978, at 100 Main Street, Lenox, Massachusetts. ‘Tis the season to do so, much like it will always be the season to rejoice in this unforgettable, irreplaceable poet.) From “I IMAGINE A POEM by bernadette mayer”:
“… i dare you to make this a real poem, half
as wide & with all the sounds of the angelic choirs
of poetry, or, of the homelessness of poetry, or the wild
thyme-ish-ness of poetry. i wouldn’t say this of many
words but the word poetry would be stupid if it didn’t have
such a good etymology.”
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press
Everyone knows the great Patricia Smith as multi-hyphenate, multi-award-winning writer and one of the best practitioners and educators working in contemporary poetics today, as lyrical as she is political. This is sure to be another collection to savor. In Unshuttered, she uses photographs of Black Americans she has accumulated over decades as source material, inspiration, incitement, and I suspect, divination. An excerpt from Northwestern University Press:
“We ache for fiction etched in black and white. Our eyes
never touch. These tragic grays and bustles, mourners’
hats plopped high upon our tamed but tangled crowns, strain
to disguise what yearning does with us.”
Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
If you haven’t yet explored the work of the brilliant poet Adam Zagajewski who died in 2021, why don’t you start with this collection, first published in 2019, and soon to be available to English-speaking audiences. A leading light in Poland’s New Wave of poetry, as well as a celebrated poet of any country or time, his “poems about the past, cities, and movement” will be a welcome addition to every library, especially through the care of award-winning translator Clare Cavanagh. From the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website:
“. . . I think I sought wisdom
(without resignation) in poems
and also a certain calm madness.
I found, much later, a moment’s joy
and melancholy’s dark contentment.”
Standing in the Forest of Being Alive
Alice James Books
Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is Katie Farris’s first full-length collection, after several well-received chapbooks, which allows me to repeat my constant urging to read chapbooks, those compact tiny homes of the poetry world. Her explorations of love, illness, and resilience are profound, but it’s her use of language, candor and engagement with the present that will stay with readers. From “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World:”
“To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.
Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world
to offer poems of love to a burning world.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
Collected Poems, edited by Harold Bloom
Library of America
Do you keep a document with quotes you return to time and again? Do you have a bookmarks folder for authors you read as much for guidance as pleasure? Ursula K. Le Guin holds an irrevocable space in each of those places, as well as my bookshelves and other need-to-be-dusted locations in my small NYC abode. She is perhaps best known as a fiction writer and essayist, which is why this forthcoming Library of America collection is such a welcome addition, and for National Poetry Month no less. Here’s her poem “Leaves:”
“Years do odd things to identity.
What does it mean to say
I am that child in the photograph
at Kishamish in 1935?
Might as well say I am the shadow
of a leaf of the acacia tree
felled seventy years ago
moving on the page the child reads.
Might as well say I am the words she read
or the words I wrote in other years,
flicker of shade and sunlight
as the wind moves through the leaves.”
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. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.