A Year’s Worth of Poetry
The poets hold my heart and always will.
I house affection for every sort of writer, but poets faithfully seem to love me back. Taking up the tools of language and line, rhythm and song, they shave away what is dense and unnecessary to make me both softer and more seaworthy.
The true beauty of a year’s worth of poetry exists at both micro and macro levels; in 2021, these words supplied countless moments to maintain touch with my humanity—and they will beget another year’s worth of poetry, as I keep chasing the form to enjoy more moments of soul.
Like steadfast neighbors, these 10 books especially lent me the language to get by, then forgave whatever debts I accrued—even though I owe them so much.
I house affection for every sort of writer, but poets faithfully seem to love me back.
Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell exists like a tuning fork for the soul; strike these poems against the surfaces of your life, then wait out the vibrations. A holy hum ensues; once heard, you will long for this timbre alone. Sometimes Akbar’s work, the way he bends language like a drawerful of Uri Geller’s spoons, seems inscrutable. But keep going. Each phrase promises the possibility of knowing God and yourself, though Akbar contends these revelations will come in whispers and laughter, not earthquake and fire.
Amy Bornman discovers God through ancient tradition in There is a Future. A work of quiet ambition, this debut turns to the Jewish practice of midrash, interpreting sacred text by applying the imagination. Bornman and I share a fundamental need—to be found where the Scriptures and poems meet.
“the bible is so often withholding,” she writes in one poem, “its text keeping in a tight fist the / details i crave, the look on a face, / the witty remark, the private moment, / the smells and colors and lilting tune.”
Placing herself within the text, then writing her way through, she stumbles upon the soul within the search: “suddenly, with a pop, / the book bursts open, / and i / step through the door, / and i can see.”
Modern Americans might be more conscientious about what we consume, but we’re as willfully oblivious as ever about the why. Kansas-based poet Danny Caine inches toward the heart of our appetites in his work, including this year’s Flavortown. On their surface, these poems seem like dances with irony—odes to Guy Fieri, Wienermobile sonnets, Waffle House liturgies. But a beautiful sincerity, and genuine lack of judgment, marks Caine’s writing; mapping the country by what we eat, and the terrain of the heart by what it veers toward, he suggests it’s fine to live off comfort food as long as we strive to know ourselves.
Reading The Thicket, I mouthed the same prayer over and again: Lord, lay me down to be swallowed up by the colors Kasey Jueds writes. Jueds’ collection is a many-splendored thing: a song of hope, a meditation on connection, a bridge between our domestic souls and the wildness just beyond.
The Thicket is also nothing less than a glorious palette of shades, such as a yellow “closer to the streetlamp / that comes on just before / night arrives entirely” and “a blue I can’t imagine: past pilot light, past winter / afternoon.” Jueds masterfully paints with these colors, opening eyes to the million hues which surround us and the many names they might answer to.
If I am lost to Jueds’ colors, let me reconstitute myself as an Adrian Matejka rhythm. He comes close to penning a perfect book with Somebody Else Sold the World; its true glory lies in exploding what we mistake for ordinary loves, restating them as melody, countermelody, cadence and chords. In “Hearing Damage,” Matejka writes:
“I had a trumpet shaped / like a downward heart / & I played it recklessly. / All of its dented iterations / of brass & bell. Three - / valve marginality.” Thank God Matejka never sets his instrument down—his supposedly reckless song is the music of coming alive.
Perhaps it’s their common Pacific Northwest setting but Bower Lodge by Paul Pastor reads like a welcome into a secret society—not unlike Twin Peaks’ noble Bookhouse Boys ushering Agent Dale Cooper into their number. Pastor’s world is much like our own, only stranger and more holy. Slipping past the veil of what we think we understand, each plant and animal, sibling and situation whispers its true and hidden name, then asks for a deeper reckoning with its nature—and ours. Pastor proves a more-than-reliable guide to a landscape, physical and emotional, that’s closer to Eden than we might think.
Few poets undo me like Maggie Smith. In her stellar collection Goldenrod, Smith once again holds a mirror before our faces—but she never simply wanders away, leaving us with the honest image. Her writing also places a gentle hand upon our shoulders, whispering messages of affirmation as we stare back at ourselves. Goldenrod is a wonderful collision of Smith’s previous work into a present-tense message; on the heels of the spiritually-grounded Keep Moving, she chases answers for how we might “live / with trust in a world that will continue / to betray us” and shares what can be gained when we tune to the “small hum,” like “an appliance left running” within.
The best writers provoke a longing to live behind their eyes, seeing the world through their flitting blinks and fixed gazes.
The best writers provoke a longing to live behind their eyes, seeing the world through their flitting blinks and fixed gazes. Alina Stefanescu prompts, then sates, such feelings within her collection Dor. The poet plunges readers into her distinct curiosities, sifts familial and national histories and punctuates the language of desire—all while carrying a rare concoction, equal parts confidence and vulnerability.
We are so afraid to know and to be known. Stefanescu acknowledges these truths, yet calls us to come alongside her, together giving ourselves to the beautiful, daily act of investigation. Our steps may be tentative at first, but they will be rewarded. “One day I’ll be old enough to marvel without terror,” she writes. “One day all known stars may come unstuck.”
Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss represents a profound feat of emotional awareness. The poet is, of course, a talented writer; but Seuss also is an unrivaled reader—of the human condition and her own inner scripts. These poems land along nearly every conceivable point on the emotional spectrum yet never seem disparate or divergent; they arrive with honesty, faithful to the myriad feelings we hold all at once. In Seuss’ sonnets, an underlying lesson: if we continue expressing ourselves, we will come to know ourselves in ways that are unsettling but ultimately fruitful and compassionate.
And we must keep expressing ourselves—the stakes are too high not to, Han VanderHart contends in What Pecan Light, the first collection to capture my heart in 2021. VanderHart’s poetry dialogues with their native South, even when the South tries to break off the conversation. The poet reckons with the region’s famously complicated past (and present, VanderHart argues), not by matching volume but through quiet, unflinching persistence.
What Pecan Light majors in two moods and modes. The first finds VanderHart pressing on bruises as if tapping out a painfully compassionate Morse-code message: I love you. You have what it takes to be better. In the second, the poet cultivates an alternative vision for what the South might be. Ultimately, that image has all the contours of flourishing even if, at first, it expresses a more modest ambition. “The aim / has always been: do no harm, in this place.”