I hesitate to say that it’s been a hard year for the third year in a row; surely after three years, that’s just how your life is? It was a bit of a hard year for reading, though; I moved across the country and my whole life changed, my schedules and routines. Also, and probably more significantly, almost all of our books are still in storage (because we haven’t found a permanent place to live yet) and I’ve had no access to a good library. I’m extremely motivated to change my life, my reading life, for the better in 2023.
The usual bookkeeping notes: This list (which is organized into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, each list in the order that I read them, from January to December) only includes books I read in full. I read parts of a lot of books that I don’t finish — not necessarily because I don’t like the books; sometimes I just don’t feel the need to read the whole thing at that juncture, or ever. (Our time on earth is finite! Get what you need from books.) On the other hand, if I finished a book, I probably liked it or at least found it interesting to think about, which is almost as good as liking it. Finally: If you sent me a book and it’s not on the list, I’m sorry! — But please don’t assume I didn’t like it or that I won’t eventually get to it.
Here are a few other things I wrote/published this year:
I wrote a close read of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (probably the most widely read thing I’ve ever done; thanks to everyone who shared this or sent me a nice note about it, it really meant so much to me).
I wrote about what poetry is.
I wrote about why writers write.
Now, on to the list!
1. Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis (2022) — One night everyone on Earth has the same dream, and comes to understand that the world is going to end in November. What then? This novel asks what happens when we give up on the world, or at least humanity, but maybe not ourselves; what it means to live with No Future; how we can be good and what we might deserve. It’s a book about habit and love and fear and morality, about dreams and fiction and the ways we make our own reality, “the many benefits of the end of the world.” Something about the sense of humor reminded me of Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead, one of my all-time favorites. Both cute and heartbreaking — I really loved it.
2. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (1910) — I love Rilke and a poet’s novel and yet, for some reason I was surprised by how much I adored this, maybe because no one has ever recommended it to me. It’s a gorgeous pseudo-nonfictional fiction that is also on some level pseudo-fictional nonfiction, Proustian and pre-Sebaldian. An almost random collage of the kinds of passages that make novels worth reading, but without the connective tissue of plot or even some form of linearity: The first entry of the “Notebooks” has a date, but that’s the only date; are we meant to believe all these pages spilled out in one day? It would suit the sensibility of the novel, one in which time spills out of time, in which “it was really afternoon and remained afternoon and never stopped being afternoon,” in which “Everything is here. Everything forever.” Memory locks time into an object, “one of those moments that are eternity.” I love the urge in this book to reach out to the childhood self, that poor creature all crouched in its fear and trembling, and offer the sympathy it could never get enough of, and recount the experiences it couldn’t understand while they were happening, though the child was not wrong — life is terrifying and mysterious still.
3. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002) — A short, poetic novel, with an interesting construction, about a Japanese family’s experience in a Utah internment camp during WWII. The perspective changes in each chapter, but is never quite close. The chapters that follow the children were my favorites. The end was a bit of a letdown; it kind of seemed to take the easy way out.
4. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926) — A strange, rather lopsided novel that uses most of its length to illustrate the dullness of a single woman’s life, and then the last quarter or so on one available escape route from familial servitude: you can serve Satan instead! Goes in the canon of novels about women who use magic to escape their awful families: The Vet’s Daughter, The Hearing Trumpet. As radical feminist texts go, it’s very cute.
5. The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein (2015) — An apparently autobiographical, formally very memoirish short novel about an outsider’s childhood. (I don’t think these genre distinctions are hugely important outside the U.S.; the author is Mexican.) Reminded me of Natalia Ginzburg. Quite funny, I enjoyed it a lot.
6. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991) — A totally wild premise that seems impossible to sustain for the length of a novel — the narrator is something like the soul of a Nazi war criminal; with no memory of his past he is forced to live through his life again, from death to birth, backwards — but I thought it was great, very funny and quite profound, with many beautiful sentences, as we used to say. A meditation on the strange correspondences between before and after, the senselessness of consequence and causality. Once you’re alive, in backwards time, you can’t get out until you’re born; there is no suicide. “I don’t get it. Are we all slaves? Are we somehow less than slaves?”
7. Not I by Sebastian Castillo (2020) — A very fun procedural book, poetry-like, in the vein of Edouard Leve: a series of statements beginning with I and using only the 25 most common verbs: “I see the future as a long, dim line. I come out of it dead.” “I will be known for my sad charisma.” “I will be wanting a cookie.” “I will have known thirty unpopular poets. I will have taken it for granted.”
8. The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen (1935) — This started kind of slow for me but then I got really into it. It’s interesting structurally, beginning in “The Present,” with two children, a boy and a girl, strangers to each other, forced to spend the day together in a strange house. Then in the middle, we go into “The Past,” when the boy’s mother was young, before he was born. Then back into “The Present”: What will happen to the boy? It’s interesting narratively too, with an unusual, experimental-feeling (for the time, I mean) kind of free indirect. Quite romantic and tragic; I liked it a lot.
9. The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames (2019) — A book about the intimacies and intensities and complexities of long friendships, about betrayal and derangement and lies and secrets and forgiveness, full of nice moments of insight into how strange and terrible even “normal,” “good” people are.
10. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated by Irene Ash (1955) — A French classic I have been meaning to read for years, a lightly philosophical little beach read about the right to be frivolous. Kind of reminded me of The Parent Trap, but sexier and on the Riviera and missing the Hollywood ending.
11. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) — Part of a re-read project. When I’m defensive of this novel, people have often told me if I read it again as an adult I’d like it less, but I liked it for much the same reasons I did when I was 15. It’s funny and sad and good. I’m glad I read it when I did.
12. The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li (2022) — Like everything I’ve read by Yiyun Li, this novel is so strange, aphoristic, riddle-like, interesting, beautiful and chilling. A woman, Agnes, looks back on a childhood friendship after hearing that her friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. Their relationship in a small French town, post-war, was intense, full of lies and unspoken dares and schemes, games that became dangerous. Out of boredom of a sort, they enlist an old widow in their village to help them get a book published, then betray him. This ultimately separates the girls. The questions of devotion and betrayal are complex, and the friendship, or their love, over time proves impossible. While reading this I was also following the saga of a stray cat, Tiger, who lives in my mother-in-law’s backyard and environs, coming to the back door once a day for a plate of food and often lounging in the sun by her pool. The house cats, originally strays themselves, stare at Tiger through the glass door; it’s all very Dickensian. Tiger often shows up with an injury, a bloody scratched nose or an eye — there are all kinds of wild animals around her house, raccoons and possums etc. — and one week he looked especially piteous, limping across the deck, with perhaps a broken leg. The house cats are afraid of Tiger, so my mother-in-law thinks he’s mean. But wouldn’t you be mean? Fabienne is like that, an orphan, poor and unattractive and menacing, yet Agnes is devoted, and happy to let Fabienne criticize and control her. It’s Fabienne who writes the book, but they claim it was Agnes, because Agnes is pretty and docile and more likely to get famous (like Francoise Sagan, who comes up at the end). Agnes never thinks of herself as a writer, but this book, the story we are reading, is written by Agnes. Was she as passive and stupid as they seemed to believe, or was that another game? Or did their mysterious union give them both power, these grieving, powerless girls, trying to escape? “True blind rage is like true blind courage.” What was real for them was the world they made themselves, and nothing would ever be that real again. (As Mary Gaitskill recently wrote, in a piece about the ineffable “viscera” of fiction: “what’s hidden is most real and we may never truly see it.”)
13. Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960) — I read this for the first time in high school and immediately felt it was my favorite book, but never re-read it. (I did read all the rest of the Rabbit novels and a few other Updike books.) It was harder to get into, and much more different from my memory of it, than Catcher in the Rye. On this read I felt there was a strangeness and sophistication to the point of view I could not possibly have understood at seventeen, but who knows? Books work in mysterious ways. In any case, it’s much more nuanced and complex, in its morality and its perspective on women, than most people now give it credit for.
14. Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri (2022) — Interesting enough short novel about an Indian writer, like the author, with a visiting lecturer gig in Berlin, and how we confront history, or time at all. “Was it possible to separate then and now?” I liked it, but there wasn’t quite enough there there for me; it kind of went in one eye and out the other. (It made me feel like I could write a novel, which isn’t much of a selling point, is it?)
15. Winter in the Blood by James Welch (1974) — I loved this short, episodic novel from the point of view of a man in his thirties, living on a farm on a reservation in Montana with his mother and her second husband and his mother’s mother, his experience of the present always somewhat overlapping with his memory of the past, his father and older brother, both dead. The passages of memory are especially beautiful. It reminded me of Denis Johnson (also also a poet).
15. Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso (2022) — A memoiristic novel about a girl growing up in a small New England town with few friends and a mother she hates, about gender and class conflict, about the passage from the “innocence” of adolescence into young adulthood, the laying bare of all that never was truly innocent. It’s visceral, specific, a little gross in the way that skin close up is gross, and funny in the way that Louise Gluck can be funny, the bitterest humor. I enjoyed it.
16. The Novelist by Jordan Castro (2022) — Cute and funny metanovel about procrastination and ambition, the two modes of the novelist, with a kind of intentional ineptitude (since the narrator is someone failing to write a novel). Reminded me of Marshlands; they share a hilarious contempt for the average reader. (Castro’s narrator-double fantasizes about “alienating myself permanently from the so-called literary world, who famously did not like jokes, did not understand jokes.”)
17. Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson (2022) — Interesting combination of the third-party/frame story (as in Rachel Cusk, where the narrative is transmitted via a necessarily unreliable interlocutor) and what Adam O’Fallon Price has called “the Waiting Room structure,” where events in the past are recounted from a present in which almost nothing is happening (in this case, during an airport delay). The narrator is barely visible, almost like the weird narrator character in The Time Machine, but more present than that, and as a kind of moralizing presence, as if only to remind us that the main character of this novel is probably a bullshit artist (but then only in the way that all people are bullshit artists, adjusting their life stories to be self-flattering). I can’t decide how I feel about the ending. I think I wish it was a little more morally ambiguous.
18. My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett (2009) — I’m not sure why I decided it was time to read Knausgaard, but I’ve certainly been dabbling with my share of problematic men, and after reading Crossroads last December, I think I may start a new ritual of reading long novels around the holidays. This got me thinking about a certain mode in literature that I love, a literature of desperation, where the “sentences” per se don’t really matter — it doesn’t matter if the sloppiness is Knausgaard’s or the translator’s, because the formal concerns are not sentence-level, the point is volume and speed, like a waterfall, or vomit, and any meaninglessness at the micro-level still serves the macro-level meaning: the whole point of a life story is that it must be told, now, before it’s too late, and the life story contains all of the life. This seems to me one of those books in which the parts makes sense only in the context of the whole; an excerpt wouldn’t really tell you much about the overall effect. The truly essayistic passages are minimal compared to the detailed narrative parts, but important. I find his viewpoints on art very moving, and his idea that passion, ambition, and stamina have more to do with greatness than talent, that greatness is something you can choose, and that he cares about this, about art as a purpose, more than happiness. “Joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me?”
19. The Easy Life by Marguerite Duras, translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan (1944) — Given the massive success of The Lover, I was never prepared for how strange Duras is — when I read it in my twenties, I expected straightforward smut — and it’s taken me many years to understand the nature of her strangeness. I had a breakthrough while reading this early novel, recently translated for the first time into English: she writes as though drunk, and reading her is an addling experience. (Raymond Queneau at Gallimard apparently found it muddled and uncontrolled but published it anyway — because it is still good!) I mentioned this to my friend Sebastian, who told me the only thing he had ever read by her was a short essay called “Alcohol,” in which she admits to drinking all the time for many years. It explains so much! The timelines in this novel are impossible, and as in all Duras, the concerns are often odd, but the prose can be so beautiful, so like a poem! “It’s far too late to begin to live, or to die, or to marry Tiene. You are more than old, more than death. It’s much too late.” “White beacon of my death, I recognize you, you were hope.” “In the distance would gleam that black future.”
20. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) — An affecting little novel about the goings on at a women’s hostel at the tail end of WWII. Full of Spark’s signature flashforwards, which are more like life spoilers, light-touch reminders that everyone dies.
21. Trust by Hernan Diaz (2022) — This is one of those books-within-books type books (it starts with a fictional novel, then a fictional memoir by one of the characters the novel is supposedly based on, etc.), and as such it took a while before I felt like I was actually reading the book, if you follow me, like I had to reserve any feelings about the first “book” until I understood how the rest of the book felt about that book, and so on. I resent this kind of set-up; it kind of tricks you into throwing good time after bad, to see if the book will save itself. And I have reservations, in general, about the current vogue for books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives; they tend not to be as morally sophisticated as they think they are. I know I’m going against the critical consensus here, but truth be told I found this book tiresome, condescending, calculated, and ultimately soulless.
22. Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater (1862) — This is, of course, the novel whose title is usually translated as Fathers and Sons. (I wish there was a translators’ note in this new translation but there isn’t.) I read this while I had covid, and found it surprisingly jolly, even silly — much of it operates like a rom-com — but it is also tragic. It’s very emotional. The author-narrator is present here and there in a way we recognize now as directorial — like an auteur! (“The end, it would seem? But perhaps one or two of my readers would like to know what each of our characters is doing now, at this very moment.” Ha!) It’s practically a ready-made movie, like movies got all their tricks from it. Really charming and compelling.
23. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (2011) — I know people who really love Dana Spiotta, and our paperback copy has pages of quotes from rapturous reviews, but this felt pretty mediocre to me. There are these essayistic passages that are good, and the structure is interesting, but the switching between first and third POV is totally unnecessary (nothing really changes in the style or degree of awareness or anything between them), and the dialogue is bad, quite bad, like she just doesn’t know how to put two people in a room and get them to talk to each other. To me it kind of felt like a worthwhile meditation on aging, memory, and how we deal with “reality,” or history as it happens, that doesn’t integrate well into a standard-issue book-club novel needing characters and scenes. I don’t usually worry about shit like this, but something about the construction got me hung up on why on earth this narrator would write a book, a book-length thing, when she apparently doesn’t read books, only news: “When she woke up at three a.m., she lay there but knew she wouldn’t be able to fall back. She was awake, dreadfully and fully awake. Awful to be awake and alone at this time. The only things were the computer or the TV.” The only things? How about fucking Middlemarch? I’ve joked before that the ultimate fiction hack is to make your first-person narrator a bad writer, so you can blame any flaws in the novel on them, but that doesn’t explain the third-person parts. Anyway, I don’t recommend this book, but apparently everyone else does.
1. Dear Memory by Victoria Chang (2021) — A collage of epistolary prose and image, reminiscent of essay-memoirs by Mary-Kim Arnold or Brandon Shimoda, in the way they use family and personal history to access general history, and as a form of elegy. Something about the rhythm of the sentences, I really think, and not just the content, kept making me almost cry, and actually cry, like it was beating something out of me. A remarkable experience. “Some days, I want to tell everyone I meet that my mother died. Sometimes I do tell them, just to see who reacts. Most people don’t. Most people probably wonder why I am still writing about my mother. I want to tell them that it is because my mother is still dead.” “We often say night falls. I think the night rises. I think the bright falls.”
2. At Home by Bill Bryson (2010) — A delightful history of domestic life (“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up”), structured around the floorplan of Bryson’s own house, an old rectory, full of fascinating facts and anecdotes about all kinds of things. I always regretted that my history classes in school didn’t spend more time on this day to day stuff, what people ate and wore and did all day, instead of devoting 95% of class time to war. (Sent my dad a copy and he loved it too.)
3. Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther (1949) — This is a classic, but I wasn’t really very aware of it until I heard someone, Dwight Garner maybe, talk about it on the NYTBR podcast. It’s about a seventeen-year-old kid, a wonderboy called Johnny that everyone loves, in his last year of life–he had a brain tumor, and all the treatments at the time were still experimental. I read that the author, a journalist who wrote some bestselling books, believed, as his publisher believed, that this wasn’t really publishable as a book per se, because memoirs of personal tragedy weren’t the done thing at the time. But they decided to do a small print run, and it was a runaway hit. Accordingly it doesn’t really follow the conventions of memoir as we know them today. It’s mostly a straightforward account of the events as they happened, and of his son’s character, with only a few reflections interjected, closing with some excerpts from Johnny’s letters and diaries. A brief afterword by the mother, Frances, is kind of the best part of the book:
Since Johnny’s death, we have received many letters from many kind friends from all parts of the world … through most of them run a single theme: sympathy with us in facing a mysterious stroke of God’s will that seemed inexplicable, unjustifiable and yet, being God’s will, must also be part of some great plan beyond our mortal ken, perhaps sparing him or us greater pain or loss.
Actually, in the experience of losing one’s child in death, I have found that other factors were involved.
I did not for one thing feel that God had personally singled either him or us for any special act, either of animosity or generosity. In a way I did not feel that God was personally involved at all … During Johnny’s long illness, I prayed continually to God, naturally. God was always there. He sat beside us during the doctors’ consultations, as we waited the long vigils outside the operating room, as we rejoiced in the miracle of a brief recovery, as we agonized when hope ebbed away, and the doctors confessed there was no longer anything they could do. They were helpless, and we were helpless, and in His way, God, standing by us in our hour of need, God in His infinite wisdom and mercy and loving kindness, God in all His omnipotence, was helpless too.
I thought that was pretty profound. (That “Actually”!)
4. Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson (1982) — I loved this memoir that almost feels like a group biography — Simpson was John Berryman’s first wife, and this is a meandering portrait of Berryman and the other writers they spent time with in the ’40s and ’50s — Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell (nicknamed “Cal,” I only finally learned from this book, after Caligula!), Jean Stafford, Richard Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Edmund Wilson, etc. — so many of whom had intense and tragic lives, the kind of life Simpson finally decided she wanted out of. It made me so happy and sad, as life does.
5. Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky (2003) — An essay, published as a chapbook, that I heard Daniel Hornsby refer to several times. It showed up in the mail one day. It’s about time in film, the interplay between shot and cut, the skull as a dark theater, “self-symbols,” poetry and meaning. “Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core. It is as basic as life and death, existence and nonexistence. My own instinct is that the poles of existence and nonexistence alternate at an extremely fast speed, and that we float in that alternation.” This makes me think of Rilke, life as a moment on a narrow ledge. “For film to be true, it has to trust this intermittence.” “Transformative film rests in the present and respects the delicate details of its own unfolding.” “Beyond everything else, film is a screen, film is a rectangle of light.”
6. A Horse at Night: On Writing by Amina Cain (2022) — Lovely, spare little book of thoughts about reading and writing and the self as reader/writer that I think I would have enjoyed more if not for the fact that Cain thinks about so many of the same kinds of topics that I like to think about, to the degree that it felt vaguely familiar, like I’d already read it. Strange how that can happen. At times the spareness felt almost withholding, and I wished she would go further. Still, I think a lot of writers I know would like this. High in mood.
7. 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger (1987) — Funny, grouchy, often fascinating little essay on translation, a comparative study of many different versions of the same four-line poem, almost none of which Weinberger thinks are any good. “Of particular difficulty to the Western translator is the absence of tense in Chinese verbs: in the poem, what is happening has happened and will happen. Similarly, nouns have no number: rose is a rose is all roses.” “Every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation.”
8. Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (2022) — Formally inventive memoir in essays (she commands herself, to avoid boredom with the self, “Stretch your range”) about important artistic figures in Jefferson’s life: Ike and Tina, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Willa Cather. Pleasantly grouchy (what is the canon of grouchy books?) and suspicious of the zeitgeist and yet, “Can any of us fully escape the language of our age?”
9. Notes from the Road by Mike Ingram (2022) — I love book-length essays, and this is a really good one, funny and wistful and poignant, straightforward at the sentence level but indirect in its method, sort of spiral-jettying around the subjects of disappointment and possibility. “I didn’t know what I wanted. That was one problem. The other was that I didn’t know how to figure it out.”
10. Lecture by Mary Capello (2020) — Another book-length essay, and a meta-essay at that, on the overlap between essays and notes and lectures, that space between writing and sketch and performance, which allows for a kind of co-thinking between the lecturer and lecturee. “No fog, no lecture: in attending a lecture, I am hopeful to exchange one fog for another, sometimes a brighter fog.” “The lecture is essentially lazy.”
11. Climate by Julie Carr and Lisa Olstein (2022) — A form of epistolary essay, by way of an exchange of emails. I loved spending time with these two women thinking and feeling through life, the news and personal matters; it made me feel less alone during a very lonely week. “The strange thing about disasters is that they are so local.” “I write to talk to you and so you’ll write back and I can listen.” I used to get more personal email, less email about work, and I often wish I got more of that kind of email, the kind that’s like a letter, but if you say that kind of thing about loud, you might hear from the wrong people.
12. Thot by Chanté L. Reid (2022) — A hybrid essay that I wouldn’t call “lyric” exactly — it’s spatially poetic, using space on the page the way poems do. The book begins with the author distracted from work (a thesis on Beloved) when her downstairs neighbor gets shot. The form makes these little cascades of meaning by showing its history of self-revision (clarification, expansion), e.g. when asked “What’s the paper about”:
I don’t know
Time and space
I don’t know — stuff
Books and shit.
Interrogates academic language and attitudes, juxtaposing lit theory with chat/conversation, showing (revealing! illuminating!) friction between these different but overlapping worlds. Really good, and deserving of more attention methinks.
1. Innocence by Michael Joseph Walsh (2022) — Meditative, alternately lulling and troubling — seems to take place in the discrepancy between our imagined futures and the brutal, real present, or their uncanny overlap: “some golden / coherence // which is the violent perception / of a mistake.” “It is eerie to live.” Intimate and distant, haunting and estranging. “This is what it means to live without figure, between oneself.” “Time flows // into the sleepless joint of the poem, / the small life of these words.” “I count the birds, // The beautiful birds / Who agree with me. / There’s no such thing as prose.”
2. Path of Totality by Niina Pollari (2022) — Startling, tragic, a mix of verse and essayistic prose poems about the shame of grief, about grief in time, infinite love, the difference between pain and suffering: “The suffering seemed to come from me, but it was everywhere … I have already forgotten the pain.” “I choose not to give away any more of my life force.” “Behind everyone who walks into a room is a centipede of their pasts. If they walk onto a train and ride, so do their pasts.” “Dust landed so hard it made holes.” “We will feel this way again.” “I could keep going like this. I could keep being taken from.” “This poem is not insane.”
3. Yes and No by John Skoyles (2021) — Skoyles was my graduate thesis advisor! I really liked these melancholy poems about change, time, death and divorce, old dogs, lost friends, sobriety, the continual invention of the self. “I was someone in the distance / who never got closer. // I lived in the past, so the present / was my future.” “The birds taking flight // make you think / you can live / in that standoff // where the past and future / cross swords.” “These questions abolish time.”
4. Demystifications by Miranda Mellis (2021) — A notebooky book of small fragments and half-poems and quotes. Easy to read but does not really stick.
5. Return Flight by Jennifer Huang (2022) — Poems about childhood and selfhood, pleasure and pain, that try on different forms, as first books often do, but feel cohesive. “I could almost / touch you. I did // by not.” “In a dream, / I am not in a dream.”
6. What Is Otherwise Infinite by Bianca Stone (2022) — If late-career, late-in-life poets tend to write about death, us middle-career, middle-of-the-life poets (such a long middle) tend to write about the difficulty of living, “the way you can waste your life / trying to fix your life,” and “the usual unbearableness of the body,” as Stone does in this book which is alive with the past, with myth and philosophy and the dead. “I am bored as an elegy.” “It’s like / there are the canonical gospels. / And then there’s the oral tradition of screaming.” “You can grow old this way. / What of it?” I tend to like to read poetry in the mornings, fiction at night, and these are excellent morning poems.
7. Lay Ghost by Nathaniel Mackey (2016) — I love this bardish little book, a Coleridge-esque dream-tale full of delightful rimes, so often about thinking and thought, and song and poetry. “That / it / was ‘like’ this or that went without say-/ ing… There was an I that wasn’t me” … “Least thought, / last / thought, I mock made-believe I / believed.”
8. We the Jury by Wayne Miller (2021) — Quiet, subtle poems about life in America: money, love, pain, death, weather and brushes with violence. I appreciate their refusal to wallow in white guilt. My favorite poem was “Parable of Childhood,” about a boy who keeps digging up his dead dog.
9. The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang (2022) — Many short poems in Japanese syllabic forms, each with a W.S. Merwin title, “as a way to subconsciously avoid preconceived subject matter, in hindsight, and as a way to inhabit another person’s mind,” Chang writes in the notes. I love this constraint, this triangulation with a spectral voice. They made me think of that line from Slaughterhouse-Five, about being “unstuck in time.” “Today is cheerful, / it has overshot itself / and is tomorrow.” “The months fit better than days.”
10. Human Resources by Ryann Stevenson (2022) — This is really good, not flashy but creepy, creepy in the way of Ex Machina or Black Mirror, but about real life, which is similar! There are creepy robots and stuff is generally ominous and not okay! “Nothing was questioned. / And when we came upon a war, / it didn’t feel inevitable, like an outcome, / just the next landscape to cross.” “Jobs quickly disappear, / and therefore the news, // and therefore the war.” “Little patterns of things I hate / that I’ve grown comforted by.”
11. Good Actors by Sommer Browning (2021) — I love reading books of poems by friends — you can hear the poems in their voice! These are so funny and destabilizing, poems about names and friendship and sex and the randomness of our only lives. “Frankly, I hate opinions; opinions cause a lot of pain. I also hate when someone asks you, Do you have an extra cigarette? Because cigarettes are things that can never be extra.” “When I was pregnant, I practiced safe sex just in case there was the littlest, tiniest, teensiest chance I could get more pregnant.”
12. The Writing of an Hour by Brenda Coultas (2022) — A good book to read right after Sommer’s, these too embrace randomness, here through the lens of practice, as in a writing practice at the same hour every day–the hour becomes an aperture, and you write whatever it captures. “A random sentence hour ensues from a bag of fragments.” “And when I die, will it be inside the act of writing? The occurrences within an hour, the gamut … the complexity it took to get here.” The voice of a lovely, quiet but active mind.
13. All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran (2022) — Impressive, very elegantly structured debut about the transformation of pain into beauty, a book that questions beauty as “propaganda” and can’t help reveling in it anyway. “Ambivalence wasn’t indifference. Ambivalence was irreverence.” “I chose what wasn’t a choice.”
14. Mothman Apologia by Robert Wood Lynn (2022) — I thought this was great, Levis-esque, elegiac and witty, with a series of persona poems based on the Mothman, a West Virginia cryptid who appears as a warning. “It was the sort of thing I didn’t / believe was possible but // also the sort of thing I figured / would probably happen to me.” “I am trying, I am, but it’s not the kind / of thing that trying solves.” “The never / of going back.”
15. [To] the Last [Be] Human by Jorie Graham (2022) — A collected version of Graham’s last four books (Sea Change, Place, Fast, and Runaway). Graham’s occasion during this era, you might say, has been the climate crisis, and her subject human consciousness. I wrote a lot more about it here.
16. There Must Be a Reason People Come Here by Brian Foley (2021) — I love the slightly skewed or warped or inverted way that Brian Foley’s poems use words and syntax: “At the driveway’s edge is an edge infinitely moving / a way.” “It’s spring & sex isn’t thinking about you.” “And there is / no personal face.” “Why be great? // The soul is disgusting. / Do not imitate it!” “Soon there will be a past.” “We are born alone in the middle of a life.” “Think of it: / The day breaks. / Think of it.”
17. Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe (2022) — There’s a register I like in poetry, which is just a little more alive and attentive than regular life, like a lens clicked one more step into focus, and this book has that feeling. “Time was running out / of hands. Of faces.” “Even in paradise I was dying.” “I remember thinking, my body is a lens / I can look through with my mind.”
18. Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso (2006) — I’ve read a lot of Manguso’s prose but never a whole book of her poetry before. I really liked these. I’ve often said I seem to discover my influences while I’m writing or after the fact (suggesting, of course, indirect influence and/or a common ancestor), and these poems reminded me formally a little bit of Normal Distance. “My favorite euphemism for death is the future.”
19. Hyperphantasia by Sara Deniz Akant (2022) — One of the wildest, most thrilling poetry collections I’ve read in a while, so topsy-turvy I thought the printing error in my copy (it was printed backwards, so page 1 is the last page; the first page is the acknowledgements) was intentional; I started reading from the back (the front) and then started again at the end (the beginning) and read it all again. I wish more poems were this irreverent and disorienting, this haunting and cursed, full of “garbage texts” and “empty code.” “I ask for total transformation and receive a vacuum-packed museum what the fuck.” “In the end, our future flies itself backwards into history / just like another angel, perfect slut.” “My soul flies up and down.”
20. Coloratura on a Silence Found in Many Expressive Systems by Alice Fulton (2022) — I’ve been a big Alice Fulton fan since college, her poems are really sharp and interesting and nuanced. “Emotions like this / should be painted / with a single-hair brush.” “There’s this memory / fugue that brings me to my grief.” “All my life he’d be with me / but he wouldn’t be with him.” “After I said it I felt the best I’d ever felt / while feeling bad. When I glanced out the window / the wind was asking. And the mist was answering.” “Why would silence exist?”
21. Please Make Me Pretty, I Don’t Want to Die by Tawanda Mulalu (2022) — This is so good, wow. I love the title and cover (this wild painting!) a lot. I think it’s rare to be able to make short, simple words sound this startlingly new: “So, I’m part of this thing where fish learned to walk.” But then it can also be Plathian in its extravagance (and there’s a fascinating engagement with Plath across several poems): “The stars also suffer. Immense and dead, their gases burn / distant like castanets of antebellum teeth.”
22. Beyond Belief by John Koethe (2022) — These poems constitute a kind of plainspoken philosophy, insofar as poems can be thought of as plainspoken, endlessly questioning, or attempting to answer the questions of what life is, and what poetry is, which for this particular consciousness are related problems. “A life is just the sum of its details, but for a while it’s all there is.” Poems “are simply life articulated”; “When I’m asked / What my poems say, I say that it’s whatever’s on my mind–for life / Means having something on your mind, whether you understand it or not.” In a poem about John O’Hara’s stories: “They sometimes sound the way I like to think life feels, full of / Nuances and nothing, in which nothing’s ever heightened / Or exaggerated, and something unspoken and unrealized remains. / I even like the way they’re disappointing.” Which turns into a poem about poetry and life again: “Sometimes I think I’m terrified / That it was all a style, like John O’Hara’s or a restaurant’s or a way of talking / That’s had its day, and I’ve wasted my life.” And “life isn’t particulars but possibilities / And ideas of particulars, more real in the abstract / And in memory than they were when they were just alive.” “I know it sounds so second-rate, which is how the present always feels / By contrast with the potential of the past and promise of a future.” Poets are people who hear these voices that must be a part of their own mind, and feel the need to make a record of this mystery, of being both the source and the witness. “O you I conjure up, to whom I speak as to myself” …
23. Border Vista by Anni Liu (2022) — Inviting, dark, and quiet, like a museum at night, a book about memory and remembering (noun vs. verb), about change and transition. Always highly attentive to language (“Slink, if you wish, clinking your scales like tiles in a quake”) but also usually holding back, keeping something in reserve, as dreams do, so that “astonishments of insight” (in William Meredith’s words) are especially striking: “(Why document this, as if forgetting were the worst thing.” “Strangers pass around me, they to whom I have no obligation.” “Loneliness: having no one to tell you stories about yourself.” “My entire life, / I have been afraid of the wrong things.”
24. Dead Winter by Matvei Yankelevich (2022) — These poems, each of which includes the word “winter” in the first or last line, have a kind of reluctant quality that I like and relate to, they give a sense that the poet would almost just as soon be done with poetry (almost!). “Such little things make life / and buttonholes let it seep out.” “What have I learned from you, poem? / With steady hand, I ‘move to trash.’” Melancholy, interesting.
25. Midwood by Jana Prikryl (2022) — These poems seem to describe experiences, but the events become new experiences in the mind, in the poem — hazy, dreamlike, missing information — they describe the indescribable. “Down there the pebble beach / our friends, comparing their finds, worried I’d solve this / the easy way, unaware one thing constantly / enters another, becoming not one with it / but taking its place, and on and on, a current.” “Nodding their pages at you / at night they turn into / the first, the earliest trees / when everything you didn’t know was darkness in the woods / and now it looks / like darkness was the form / of knowledge, / you can’t unsee it again.” Reading many in a row is both calming and unsettling.
26. Blocks World by Emma Catherine Perry (2023) — While reading these poems, I thought the word alarming, and then wondered, do I mean disarming? No, alarming! Then the word “alarm” showed up in the book. I swear poetry can skip ahead in time this way, can telegraph words into your brain. This feels related to Human Resources by Ryann Stevenson — an emerging poetics of the uncanny valley, the autogenerated world. Includes two great long poems, “The Mountain” and “The Sign of the Self,” that feel like the heart of the book. “Little lick / of intelligence, lovely strangeness, if I don’t kill you / will you kill me? If I don’t kill you will you live / like a coiled idea in the ground?” “It’s evil to hope.” “How can you survive this deathless crap? // What is your kingdom to you?” “Imagination’s not my problem.”
I normally name one or a few faves in each category, but I think I will only name one this year: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which transcends genre and is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.
Happy new year! xoxo