If you’re looking for some fresh front and backlist poetry titles for your shelves for poetry month (and beyond!) ABA’s resident-poet-on-staff, Director of Membership & Affinity Partnerships, Daniel O’Brien, brought Bookselling This Week some suggestions. We also recommend checking out the Edelweiss list of poetry collections curated by Danny Caine, co-owner of the The Raven Book Store, and supplemented by our marketing meet-up session panelists. Whether contemporary, modern, or classic, there’s something for everyone, which is the primary way we like to talk about poetry: expansively, as a genre containing all the variability, experimentation, and novelty you might find in fiction and beyond.
Read on for Daniel’s insight and poetry recommendations.
The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang (Nightboat, 2021)
I’ve been savoring this collection for a few weeks now. These ruminative (mostly) prose poems from this National Book Award nominated collection are both inquisitive and self-assured, tackling the big questions, like how to defeat big tech (“Did the GOOGLE men make it rain on all the plebs? / Did they finally figure out how to control the weather?”) while other times providing intimate portraiture (“They / say / young sun / flowers turn toward / the sun even in the / absence of sun / do you remember the imperiled / sunflower at the end of the world”) or moments of haunting honesty (“The threat of death calms me…The safety I feel in this structure is false”).
Surreal, imaginative, expansive, and meditative, these poems carve out a space for a better collective future while also coming to terms with past and present catastrophe. Jackie Wang is also the author of Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2018).
Philomath by Devon Walker-Figueroa (Milkweed Editions, 2021)
“ ‘Love of learning,’ is what / Philomath means,” opens Walker-Figueroa’s collection of sprawling portraits of small-town American life. Perhaps the most striking thing about this collection is the cast of characters ("The neighbor is eating locusts again, / as if a plague is just another / point of view”), though it predominantly centers the family (“ ‘Find / your father’ she commands, so I run / through yellow meadows, yelling his name / his name”).
These ghostly Oregon poemscapes have a tone I might liken to an inland chill, despite the heat of their language, and the sharpness of their lines: “Have you ever watched a person burn / what’s left of the person they love / I have”. God, and faith, too, loom like clouds above; in a childhood play the speaker recalls: “‘Don’t / forget to shout forgive them, / Father, ‘cause they don’t know / what they're doing…I said, ‘I won’t forget.’ ’’
And in so doing, Philomath declares its own motifs: memory, reckoning, forgiveness.
The Shore by Chris Nealon (Wave Books, 2020)
I’ve returned to this collection by Nealon countless times over the past two years. Made up of five long reflective poems, in “The Victorious Ones,” Nealon imagines a world where “high-value objects become nearly worthless.” He goes on:
It gives me a rest from the squirrelly huddling near the outlets feeling
That well if a catastrophe hits at least my phone will be charged
So maybe just leave it on the toilet for the next guy
Maybe just delete all your contacts and go.
The collection is full of stunning lines, humble honesty, literary criticism, and keen political observation. Nealons’ greatest gift is delivering these things in quick, powerful juxtaposition, and turns: “Hetero/Homo // Cis/Trans // Just as a matter of lanauge? // I’m not the same as myself // I’m not the opposite of myself // I’m downstream from the value of some ancient warrior class that got to decide what men and women are.”
Similar to Wang, Nealon’s reckoning with the world-as-it-is (“You can’t think your way out of this”) and imagination for the future (“There was finally something real to be afraid of // There was finally no reason to fear”) provide a light through political and personal uncertainty that, I believe, we all need.
Cyborg Detective by Jillian Weise (BOA Editions, 2019)
This collection from disability activist and performance artist The Cyborg Jillian Weise is a wild ride of sharp, cutting, and humorous critique and observation. I first came across a poem from this collection called “Attack List,” which is a collection of cut-up headlines: “Search continues for missing woman in Paradise / Disney is sued over rules for disabled / Disabled woman ‘raped’ in Parsa / Pope stops his Ford Focus and gets out / so he can bless disabled woman.” The poem is hard to read, but that’s the point. It chronicles everyday catastrophe; but the collection is far from all heartbreak — it is also deeply funny. In “Should You Send That Text,” the speaker’s friend gives advice: “ ‘There’s nothing in it for you…Set an alarm for two weeks // and then see how you feel.’ / Great advice, I said. I waited / two hours. All my alarms // were going off.”
Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016)
Duplan’s fourth book, I Need Music, is recently out from Action Books. Since I haven’t secured a copy yet, I’m not officially recommending it. I am, however, officially recommending their first collection, Take This Stallion — a treasure trove of playfulness, intellect, and music. I return to this collection every time I need to be reminded that language can always be made new: “I wear gloves to dinner. / A mortician’s blue / nitrile gloves. I wear / mortician’s gloves / to dinner and I’m still smacking / of balm.”
Duplans’ lines even reinvent themselves within the space of the poem. “I met God. He was my dog. We laughed about it. / Hello, my loved one, I am drunk…I will die / here on this planet here on this blur, me.” The collection’s opening poem, “On a Scale of 1–10 How Loving Do You Feel,” is a, yes, phenomenal meditation on the complexities of Kim Kardashian, the cosmos, GMOs, blackness, mental health — or in other words, contemporary life: “How could your inbox be full, it is made of stardust…I’m so relevant I’m disappearing.”