Every book I read in 2023, with commentary

Elisa Gabbert
30 min readDec 31, 2023

Here we are again, down another year. It’s been a wild one for us, with wild highs and lows and lots of change. John’s memoir came out. We bought a condo in Providence. We have plants, and art, and a nice big kitchen with a little back deck, and books in every room. Isn’t it cozy?

my office at dusk
Our office, the blue hour

I taught at Bread Loaf for the first time. I started writing poems again, this fall, after 2+ years of poemlessness. (In a gap like that, it always feels like you’ll never write a poem again, but the poems are getting smarter, in the gap.) The first six months of 2023 were probably the hardest of my life so far. There’s no good way to talk about that here. I’m happy now, though — not okay forever, there’s no such thing — but happy to be alive, and possibly better at being alive.

I read somewhat less than usual this year, due to the difficulties — I remember, in the summer, a fit of particularly childish self-pity, when I was very tired and started crying because I didn’t have time to read a book I wanted to read. I’m starting to get back into a good rhythm, though; I read what I can in the time I have.

Here are 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. 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.

Here are my lists from 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

Let’s get into it. As always, I’ll share favorites at the end.

FICTION

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

1. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1896) — Lots of writers I love have written about Hardy (Yiyun Li, Tillie Olsen, Ted Hughes), and John loves him too, though he didn’t think this one was quite the one to start with. Alas, it’s the one that wasn’t still packed up in a box in January. It has that Victorian atmosphere of abject misery, for sure, but also a sense of humor about it — as when, at the end of Part I, Jude considers drowning himself by walking out onto a frozen lake and jumping up and down on the ice, which cracks but doesn’t give. When he fails at this, he decides he’s too ignoble for suicide (“Peaceful death abhorred him as a subject, and would not take him”) and gets drunk instead. I’ll remember this forever! Nothing prepared me for just how disturbing the tragedy toward the end of the novel is. C.H. Sisson, in his good but somewhat snotty introduction, writes: “It is intolerable; it is sentimental and grotesque; in the end one has to take it.” Indeed — poor Jude!

2. Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter (2023) — A fast, fun read, with surrealist, even fairy-tale-like elements, about a woman working at a hustle-culture Bay Area startup while wildfires rage and a deadly virus starts to make headlines. The narrator is followed everywhere she goes by a black hole, a menacing or tantalizing void that shrinks and grows and occasionally spins or winks. Bleak, sardonic, but not at all unfeeling. Made me think of Blaise Pascal, who had a recurring hallucination, possibly related to migraines, of a void on his left side. His friends called it “Pascal’s abyss.”

3. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986) — On the first or second day of the year, I took a walk in the woods with John and we talked about that thing that happens when you read too many books by the same author and stop feeling the magic. I worry I might be at that point with Ishiguro; I can’t really feel the strangeness of his work anymore, because the strangeness is familiar; I just start comparing each book to the other novels of his I’ve read. To make matters worse I read this during a period of high anxiety and had some trouble concentrating. It’s good, of course, I just felt I wasn’t bringing my best self to the task of reading it. It’s got all the usual Ishiguro concerns: unreliability, memory, self-conception and self-deception, youth remembered in old age . . . I liked it, I just kind of saw where it was going. It’s not it, it’s me.

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

4. Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (2022) — I liked Pond but wasn’t completely convinced that it felt like a book; I know that is vague but I can’t figure out how else to say it. I had high hopes for this one, and parts of it are really, really great, with such a strong, distinctive voice, but for me it was, again, a bit of a mixed grill. (“Mixed grill” is how I think of books that mix fictive and nonfictive pieces, or poetry and memoir, or whatever, in such a way that feels a little uneven.) (The one time I went to Europe, my friend Robo ordered a mixed grill platter for lunch that turned out to be two or three times more expensive than he thought it was, and it was only okay, and he skipped dinner in protest.) I loved the first-person parts that feel like a kind of intellectual history, a Kunstlerroman, if you will. I liked less so the more fictive parts which I sometimes found tediously whimsical and exasperating. It’s not it, it’s me! (I found myself thinking, I wish she’d write a book of essays — but maybe what I really wish is that I would write a novel.)

5. Calling Ukraine by Johannes Lichtman (2023) — I like Lichtman’s writing — it’s very approachable, funny and humble, with cute dialogue, and authentic moral engagement, by which I mean, the moral questions are actually part of the point of the book; they’re not sort of layered on aesthetically. This novel is stranger and more ambitious, or at least more provocative, than Such Good Work, but that isn’t fully apparent until you finish it. It’s mostly told in the first-person POV of an American working temporarily and semi-illegally in Ukraine, but there are two important shorter sections in third, which shift perspective to other characters, and these sections really elevate the whole book, sort of in the way that the Monika section in Red Pill elevates that novel. Also as in Red Pill, the protagonist is maybe sort of implausibly obtuse. (But who knows? I have a friend who couldn’t believe a college student could be as clueless as Selin in The Idiot, but that didn’t bother me at all.) Anyway, lots of good, interesting writing in here, particularly about culture shock, power dynamics, grief, and self-worth. “Like most of the conversations I’d had in Ukraine, either there were no rules or I didn’t know the rules. The downside was constant anxiety, but the upside was being able to say pretty much whatever popped into your head.” “The only way to describe physical pain was through other physical pain… Physical pain was just pain, insistent and without poetry. Yet when it was present, it was all there was. How frustrating to be consumed by something so uninteresting.”

the infatuations by javier marias

6. The Infatuations by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013) — I deeply enjoyed this novel as a vessel for interesting thinking, on life and death, truth and belief, contingency and inevitability, fear and hope, desire and frustration (it was perfect to read at the same time as Adam Phillips’ Missing Out) via meditative monologues presented as dialogue or presented as thought, a nonrealist style that almost approaches literary criticism (there is much discussion of Macbeth, Balzac’s La Colonel Chabert, The Three Musketeers and so forth) and introduces a kind of unreliability I always think of as Cuskian or Sebaldian, where all speech is reported via a first-person narrator and therefore everyone sounds like the narrator or is bent through the narrator’s prism. I love the way Marias’s novels quote themselves, and the way he handles work — the narrator here, Maria, works in “the idiotic world of publishing,” which enables Marias to get in many jabs at writers. “We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us.” One of my favorite writers. They should have given him the Nobel prize!

7. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet (2020) — I mostly really liked this. It feels like an update on A High Wind in Jamaica (one of my favorite books) or maybe Peter Pan (I’ve never read Peter Pan), a story about youth without adult protection, the threat and the freedom. It’s semi-post-apocalyptic, semi-allegorical. It gets a little simplistic and cheap here and there in the second half. I’m not sure how I feel about all this climate fiction that depicts the world basically as it is (doomed or near-doomed) but with some unconvincing gestures toward hope at the end. Still, overall, it’s funny, sweet, compelling.

8. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor (2016) — The English translation of the title (originally Chanson Douce) is very airport-trash-thriller, but I was hoping for something more literary-noir, or akin to the only semi-realist horror of Days of Abandonment. Unfortunately, this did nothing for me. Relies too much on types and summary; I found it humorless and unsurprising.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

9. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, translated by Leonard Tancock (1867) — What an utterly ridiculous novel, just hilariously over the top. It’s about two lovers who drown the woman’s husband and make it look like an accident, then bide their time until they can get married two years later. But they’re haunted by his water ghost and spend the rest of their lives in torment. Things are always as miserable and torturous as they could possibly be, driving all to the brink of madness and suicide — and then, somehow, it gets even worse! Despite its essential silliness, there’s an interesting psychology of character going on, a surprising attention to the unconscious. Just when it would start to get tiresome, it always won me back. “She was still the indomitable creature who had been prepared to struggle with the Seine and who had flung herself headlong into adultery, but now she also realized the meaning of goodness and gentleness; she understood the meek face and passive attitude of Olivier’s wife, and knew it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.” I have to love the novel that makes that sentence possible.

10. The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker (2023) — A very charming novel, in the vein of The Mezzanine, in which all the action as such takes place in the mind of the narrator during a brief window: in a hotel bed, the night before she, an economist, is mean to deliver a lecture on Keynes and utopias, and is beset by anxious insomnia. She uses the time to sort-of rehearse her lecture, but the mind, of course, wanders, and questions all its previous decisions. A mix of essay and flashback, and the structure makes it work.

11. Lucy by Jamaica Kinkaid (1990) — A short novel about a year in the life of a young woman from the West Indies working as an au pair, thinking about her past and America and art and sex, more of a character portrait than anything else. Enjoyable.

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald

12. Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (1990) — I’ve been reading Sebald’s novels out of order; this was his first, my third. I think it might be my favorite. I find his voice so funny here, but of course also beautiful and uncanny. It just zipped along. A total pleasure.

13. Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek (2024) — A very short, strange little novel with magical/witchy qualities like Lolly Willowes or Leonora Carrington, but also so much to say about the life of the artist, about how we can, or can’t, choose to live. Spiritual/philosophical and lush in its language.

14. My Death by Lisa Tuttle (2004) — Another Weird Novella, this kind of reminded me of Robert Aickman, not horror per se but rather a “strange tale.” A good book for a short flight, though the end rushes up on you a little. It’s about a writer and includes some insider publishing gossip as a bonus.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

15. Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter (1964) — I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of this novel about the crummy, crime-ridden life of an orphan named Jack Levitt, his misadventures and philosophies. At times it’s beautiful, existential, full of tragic insight. I’ll never forget the passage about solitary confinement. I was less enamored with the third part, where Jack gets out of San Quentin on parole, falls in love, gets married, has a baby. Here, the novel’s woman-hating tendencies got to be a little much; it’s doing a kind of Rabbit, Run, everyone’s trapped thing, but Rabbit, Run does that so much better. (I don’t think Updike could write about prison as well as Don Carpenter, to be very clear.) Still, worth it.

16. My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021) — There’s plenty of good writing in here, but I don’t know; for me it’s kind of a structural failure. The first hundred pages are pretty much a woman complaining about her parents; there’s no real-time action, really, just examples of obnoxious behavior. This is all mean but sharp and interesting; it has potential. Then things start to happen in a way that feels more like a novel per se, but it’s not until the end that it really feels complicated enough to be a novel, like it’s more than a character seeking pity/revenge. I don’t care for that trick where a book tries to get much better at the end. You know? I just think really good books are good all the way through.

17. Be Brief and Tell Them Everything by Brad Listi (2022) — A work of autofiction that feels extremely real and direct; I listen to his podcast and could hear this in his voice to the point that it almost felt like listening to an audiobook. Highly readable and enjoyable.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

18. The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd (2014) — Weird Novella. This was reasonably interesting. I found the prose kind of awkward and unconvincing, maybe a translation problem.

19. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Herve Guibert, translated by Linda Coverdale (1990) — A very striking novel, structured as 100 little diary entries or vignettes, about a circle of friends and lovers (writers, artists, intellectuals) dying of AIDS in the 1980s. The first half revolves around the death of the narrator’s friend Muzil, who seems to be based on Foucault (Guibert’s close friend). The second half is a slow fuck you to the titular “friend,” a man who made promises to Herve, the author/narrator, he couldn’t or never intended to keep. It’s a book about itself, about writing and awareness of death, full of surprising and profound thoughts, sometimes cryptic — it gives the impression of having been written in a state of desperate, almost false clarity, a spasm of elegant grief, self-grief. “I was probably wobbly in the legs but I wanted to run, to run like I never had before; a horse in a slaughterhouse, hanging suspended in midair with its throat cut, keeps galloping in the void.” “When I’d learned I was going to die, I’d suddenly been seized with the desire to write every possible book — all the ones I hadn’t written yet, at the risk of writing them badly: a funny, nasty book, then a philosophical one — and to devour these books almost simultaneously in the reduced amount of time available, and to devour time along with them, voraciously, and to write not only the books of my anticipated maturity but also, with the speed of light, the slowly ripened books of my old age.” “I was afraid this new pact with fate might upset the slow advance — which was rather soothing, actually — of inevitable death. Jules had once said to me, at a time when he didn’t believe we were infected, that AIDS was a marvelous disease. And it’s true that I was discovering something sleek and dazzling in its hideousness, for though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life.” “Subtext: I wanted to choose between the medication and suicide, between one or two new books written during the treatment and thanks to the reprieve it would give me, or suicide, to keep from writing them, those dreadful books.” “There’s a point in misfortune, even if you’re an atheist, when the only thing you can do is pray, or fall completely to pieces.” Great.

NONFICTION

1. How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen (2002) — A bit of a mixed bag — there’s some fluffy magazine writing in here — but some of these essays are truly great. I think he’s best when he’s sad (grieving, depressed, even despairing) or otherwise negatively engaged (furious, irrationally and perversely annoyed, intolerant). It’s so refreshing how he doesn’t even try to be a likeable person; he is so fundamentally unchill! My favorites were “My Father’s Brain” (about dementia), “Sifting the Ashes” (about smoking), and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (about revisiting his hometown during his book tour for The Corrections). The two long critical pieces he wrote for Harper’s are also really interesting; I read “Mr. Difficult” years ago but it was better than I remembered.

Missing Out by Adam Phillips

2. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips (2012) — I really loved this. Adam Phillips is so good, with such a distinctive style, I can just imagine him fighting with copy editors — like in this line, he must have had to stet this so hard: “if we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration — and, surprisingly, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do…” (I can’t even guess why he needed “surprisingly” twice, but I believe he had a reason.) So many good thoughts about disappointment, expectation, satisfaction, etc., and the idea of frustration as a form of faith — in that it depends on a belief that you know what you want, that what you want is even possible! “The fact that there are frustrations seems to imply, of course, that there are satisfactions, real or otherwise. The fact of frustration has, that is to say, something reassuring about it. It suggests a future.” “In the psychoanalytic story, if we don’t feel frustration we don’t need reality; if we don’t feel frustration we don’t discover whether we have the wherewithal to deal with reality.” “In order to free ourselves from certain things we have to fake an omniscience about the future …” (we have to pretend we know what it would be like in a counter-reality) … “We live as if we know more about the experiences we haven’t had than about the experiences we have had.” This is great midlife crisis reading. (I read parts of Four Thousand Weeks at the same time, and it’s pretty good but doesn’t compare well.)

3. Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell (2020) — Compelling meditations on the role of the face in art, literature, culture, nature, etc. I especially liked the writing on film (Psycho, Grizzly Man). “The filmic face is a fetish for a sense of human presence and material reality.” “This mop in Psycho — let’s call it ‘the second mop’ — sits just like this, on the cusp between the random and the meaningful … is it a clue or an error?” (This reminded me of the chapter in Missing Out on “not getting it”: “What Zizek calls ‘the attitude of overinterpretation’ is a self-cure for the fear of what I am calling ‘not getting it’. Overinterpretation is getting it with a vengeance.” It relies on a belief or an insistence, an insisted belief, that Hitchcock, Shakespeare, etc., got everything right, they always knew what they were doing, and thus everything can be interpreted.)

4. The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning by Robert Harbison (1991) — I think this is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Incredibly rich and stylish writing on gardens, ruins, monuments, castles, fantasy cities and spaces, architectural paintings. It’s full of fascinating photos and figures and I had to keep stopping to google more images. “Uselessness is the most sublime of all human constructs.” “How sure of themselves yet how entirely fictional most monuments are.” “Ruins are ideal: the perceiver’s attitudes count so heavily that one is tempted to say ruins are a way of seeing.” “Such tininess is a form of alienation.” Made me wish for another life!

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

5. The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner (2016) — I had read chunks of this monograph before, but not the whole thing. It’s very enjoyable, an essay on the gap between capital-P Poetry and “actual poems,” which can never meet our hopes, expectations, desires, because Poetry is heavenly and poets are mortals.

6. Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018) — One for the category I call in my mind the literature of despair. This has a very distinctive, paratactical style that is not very linear, not at all flowery, a little bit vague, but interesting and effective. It often reminded me more of a theatrical monologue, like Wallace Shawn or something, than typical memoir writing. “I lacked form and technique,” she writes at one point, and it certainly doesn’t feel overworked and overwrought, but in a good way.

7. The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (2022) — Another one of those very rich books that keeps sending you outside it on covert assignments — I loved stopping while I was reading to find clips of scenes on YouTube or to watch whole movies. The detailed ekphrastic, if we can call them that, passages on individual acting performances were my favorite part, but there’s also lots of great stuff about what makes art good in general, stuff that feels like accidental writing advice. For example — on justification: “Instead of asking, ‘Why does the character behave this way?’ Vakhtangov wanted actors to ask ‘What do I need to motivate me to behave this way in the scene?’ The actor can thus justify various actions within the play in ways that do not have to relate to the text at all, or even make sense to anyone else.” I feel this way about certain strong writing moves, like changing the subject without a transition — you don’t have to put your justification in the text, as long as you have a reason.

Watch Your Language by Terrance Hayes

8. Watch Your Language: Visual and Literary Reflections on a Century of American Poetry by Terrance Hayes (2023) — Kind of a wild book of prose, a mix of traditional essays and much more formally playful stuff, lists of questions, illustrations, and little biographies of poets in the form of prose poems. Released simultaneously with a collection of poems; I wrote about both in my column.

9. Attachments by Lucas Mann (2024) — Lucas Mann’s essays are so good! So funny and endearing and relentless in their self-examination. These are mostly about fatherhood but you wouldn’t need to be a father to find it interesting. (Duh, I’m not.)

Sink by Joseph Earl Thomas

10. Sink by Joseph Earl Thomas (2023) — I loved this memoir of childhood/adolescence, written mostly in the third person, in highly fictive vignettes, a really interesting and successful move that allows Thomas to write about some fucked up stuff without having to impose an adult perspective that might justify or moralize, as so many memoirs do. Touching and very funny.

11. Woman Pissing by Elizabeth Cooperman (2022) — Named after a translation of a Picasso painting (La Pisseuse), this is like a commonplace book of failure, collections of quotes and notes about self-doubt and self-loathing, creative blocks, ambition, beauty and error. A record of the author’s own struggle to produce this book as well as an indirect defense of the slow, painful process of creation. I found it comforting, in the way of writers’ journals that reveal all their vanity and wretchedness, and very interesting. “It’s clear to me now that nothing can save us from the crisis of beginning.” “When in doubt, cross it out, says the Artist. He finds that the things you doubt just get worse and worse. My response would be, Don’t the things you don’t doubt also get worse and worse?”

12. Daughterhood by Emily Adrian (2024) — A very moving memoir/family portrait, often piercingly, painfully honest and true, about how to be a good parent, or a good child, about risk and faith, feelings of inadequacy, the disappointments of aging (that is to say, life). It’s also about writing, about how other people help us know ourselves, about falling in love, and about how to let the people we love be, and change — to honor them this way. “It doesn’t matter what we’re capable of doing. It only matters what we do.”

13. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton (2015) — An interesting essay on foregone conclusions and how we make peace with them. I’m kind of glad I read this after writing The Unreality of Memory, because we seem to have absorbed similar books and come to similar conclusions. Which makes it somewhat less revelatory for me. Still, worth reading.

14. The Cambridge Introduction to Art: The Eighteenth Century by Stephen Jones (1985) — An interesting little monograph about the prevailing styles in Western Europe: Rococo, neoclassicism in architecture, the contrivance of English gardens, etc.

Winter Solstice by Nina MacLaughlin

15. Winter Solstice by Nina MacLaughlin (2023) — Gorgeous language in these pieces about light and seasons, ritual and change. “Fat sheep made small clouds against green hills, river had sky on it, I couldn’t speak for a while.” “Winter reminds us: the dark was first.”

POETRY

1. Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates (2023) — What an impressively assured debut, with that good Rilkean mix of Things and pain and desire. I love the poem “Sabbath,” which I read when it was published in Image and found so striking. “I’ve missed / feeding all my thoughts through that revolving blade / so thin it could only be felt.” “I knew God listened. And I knew where to aim. / All the time, every second. I lacked / but with aim.”

2. Girls That Never Die by Safia Elhillo (2022) — Some really great poems in here. “My mother is almost my mother now.” “how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic.” “I do not want any of what I’ve lost. / I want only what I have now, to keep it.”

3. Star Lake by Arda Collins (2022) — This was great, full of a sense of wonder (I don’t like the word wonder, but that’s what it is) and a kind of placelessness in time and space, a mind/imagination that can roam through nature, fiction, the past, and many good death poems, e.g. “My Mother’s Face”: “I am afraid / a very strict rule / will come out of somewhere / that says, ‘Now that your mother is dead, / you’re no longer permitted to imagine her face.’” Or “Afternoon”: “We can’t believe it, / how we’re here together; / then we talk about eternity / when the whole thing is, is / we’re already in it: this / is eternity. The air / doesn’t separate us / from anything.

4. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965–2003 by Jean Valentine (2004) — I read this whole volume, which includes nine full books, from front to back, slowly, over a couple of months. The first book and last book (chronologically) are just incredible. Valentine’s poems have this quality that always makes me want to read them again; they are short, but so mysteriously elusive, with an almost unfinished quality that transfers — it feels like you can’t ever be done reading them. I also loved The River at Wolf. “Once or twice, someone comes along / and you stand up in the air / and the air rises up out of the air.” “You know how in dreams you are everyone: / awake too you are everyone.” Love, friendship, being, death, connection. “I have lived in your face. / Have I been you?” “I heard your voice on the radio / thirty years dead / and got across the kitchen to / get next to you / breath and breath / two horses // But it wasn’t you back then / I was liquid to, / it was my life: / I wanted to be you.”

Door by Ann Lauterbach

5. Door by Ann Lauterbach (2023) — Doors again! Makes me think of Bachelard’s line, “A door is an entire cosmos of the half-open.” Or as Lauterbach writes: “The files are / useful; neither fully open nor shut.” Sometimes poetry serves as a catalog of examples of things you can do with language, of possible effects of language. E.g.: “the temporal scansion / is as uninhabitable as a rainbow.” “The long rain of men keeps raining.” “I suspect the delirious omen.” “There is nothing behind the door; there is only / door, a condition, a prospect.” “Waiting is a form of thought.”

6. Little Poems, edited by Michael Hennessey (2023) — A pocket anthology of short poems from antiquity to nowabouts. Very amusing. I wrote more about it, and short poems in general, here.

7. None of It Belongs to Me by Elizabeth Clark Wessel (2024) — I was sent this book to blurb, and I loved it! I read it two days before moving and I’d had too much coffee and it made me cry. “I want it to be over, but also want time to slow down.” “This is the order of things. / First one thing, and then the other. / It’s taken me a long time to understand this.”

8. Childcare by Rob Schlegel (2023) — I loved these poems about family life, time and fear, uncanny, mournful, but soothing and full of the terrible, terribly funny things children say. “I learn to love the blade / By mourning what it cuts.” “I leave when I think he’s asleep. / Minutes later he’s in my room with a journal. / Can you write in this for me, he says, / But no poetry.”

9. Extraordinary Tides by Pattie McCarthy (2023) — Such a lovely little chapbook. Taught me the word “neap,” useful in Spelling Bee!

10. Ablation by Danika Stegeman LeMay (2023) — A book of collage and mixed forms, a “grief box,” written in the wake of her mother’s death, quiet yet visceral. “I recall how it felt to be a person with a mother, but I no longer recognize that person as myself.” “If I’m haunted, then I’m loved.”

April by Sara Nicholson

11. April by Sara Nicholson (2023) — I liked this very much, especially the ekphrastic poems, their method of slow attention, description, reflection (“Therefore Leda’s story / Is the story of interpretation itself”). There’s a sort of essay-poem on poetry, humility, and self-sufficiency that reminds me of Anne Carson, formally, or Wallace Stevens in its aphoristic mode: “Saints and poets have always weaponized their humility.” “Find an obscure subject and learn everything you can about it. Tell no one.” I want to keep these around for re-reading, “divine reading.”

12. So to Speak by Terrance Hayes (2023) — I wrote about this here!

13. I Do Everything I’m Told by Megan Fernandes (2023) — Some really good sounds in these, phrases I wanted to repeat to myself: “epileptic / Dostoyevsky in Siberia.” “It returns, the velvet livingness.” “So okay, I did it. I went for the walk.” I love the poem “Sonnet for the Unbearable.”

14. Fierce Elegy by Peter Gizzi (2023) — Lovely, vibey, wistful, slightly beat/mystical. “I saw a better life, it was far off, / sun on moss next to a friend, / the softening air, the dandelion fluff. / It was kinda real, and kinda not. / Can’t see it today.” “Come into / the intimate distance / of the picture field.” “When the thing itself / becomes the thing itself.”

15. Auction by Quan Barry (2023) — The image on the cover, a sort of translucent sculpture of a toilet by Do Ho Suh, seems appropriate: art not out of crap, but despite of crap? Informed by crap? The crap of the world, I mean, the crap of existence. There is pain and disgust here, and fear and awe, salvation. At moments borderline offensive. I loved it. “Dreamscape after dreamscape, each one / vivid as actual living.” “Then everything becomes a game.” “Who keeps us safe? / We keep us safe.”

16. From From by Monica Youn (2023) — A rich book with lots of different approaches, studies of figures from myth, art, and history, a long fabulist series on magpies, a longer essay-like poem about shark teeth, caterpillars, quantization and quantification, desire and hatred, passivity/complicity, whiteness, poetry, so much. All shot through with a bitter, delicious irony.

The Thomas Salto by Timmy Straw

17. The Thomas Salto by Timmy Straw (2023) — These poems blew me away. Beautiful, shivery, eerie, they have a kind of surgical precision of sound, used to convey the vast mystery in an image (“A sun sets in a mirror, sets / in a killed sheep’s eye”), to dismantle time. These are poems about power, powerlessness, and the possibility of forgiveness (“Forgiveness, the three-legged chair”) that sound absolutely sure and final, like vessels for a god voice; they filled me with awe and something like a holy terror. Let me just quote from it extensively. “As when robber baron wives / feel at their throats for the cameo, // touch the world now in any place / and a pale sand shows through. // A painting licks a thing to its beginning. / A poem grows outward to all edges like a self.” “The world is in its message today. / The world is in its keys.” “And there are things that must be said, I know, / awful and simple as children yelling out / our mother is dead.” “Occasionally, / our freedom intrudes on us // like real sunlight thru a snowglobe / like real sunlight on a painted sun.” “To drink a coke is good and cruel / and readymade // as a white swan / in the mind.” “In summer two kids carry a wading pool / across the grass, eyeing the water // as it wobbles, trying for no reason not / to get their bare feet wet. // The wave that will take us is very small / is hiding in the word itself.” (The word!) “A truck downshifts on the freeway, / a shift whistle blows, / someone else’s emergency makes the poem hold.” “The audience is crowded together like husbands in a canoe / none of whom know each other / though they are all married to the same wife. / She cooks with fenugreek. / When she dies, it will be quiet / enough to hear pollen falling.” “Have the / world, it’s yours: rivers so abstract / only the poor drown in them.” (!!!) “Some say / the world ends in incarnation / but if ever // I ate the apple — green the / circle in the / green dark” … “I sing the fact backwards. / Mother make my bed soon.” Buy this book!

18. Negro Mountain by C. S. Giscombe (2023) — This fascinating book explores (wanders, climbs?) the idea of the titular mountain, the highest point in Pennsylvania, so named because of “‘an incident’ that took place there in the 1750s,” as Giscombe writes in a brief preface, when a slave known as Nemesis was killed in a skirmish between English speculators and Native Americans. It opens with a sequence of seven dream poems that begin to introduce the themes and images that recur throughout the book: the mountain, movement, place, wolves or the idea of wolves, the role of the wolf. There are levels of framing: In “Second Dream,” he writes, “Typically, I dreamed and at the same time watched the dream … as if from a car at a drive-in movie.” So the dream is already in quotes in the dream, and now again in the poem. Giscombe’s “speaker” (another idea he interrogates) glides between dream self and now self, between the scene and “real — that is, waking — life.” There are “several types of argument.” These early, long-lined poems have a bardish musicality that reminds me of Nathaniel Mackey (“there was statuary, there was / a mild nausea which, dreaming, / I’d mistaken for evil, and / also a jaguar”) … (“Voice can get you to it, voice / is wolfish, sugar”). Later pieces are much more like essays, but still a combination of poetic elision and more prosaic rhetoric, block quotes and citations, gestures like “as noted above.” The sections all comment and expand on each other, a multi-vocal text interrupting itself (“The mountain intervenes”) with sudden shifts that unsettle and destabilize — small landslides. “What else might a Negro speaker ask?” Giscombe writes, and on the opposite page, “you — meaning the speaker and the reader as well.” Elsewhere, he writes, “the wolves, the Negro ‘speaker,’ and the mountain are not one.” And yet, they overlap, in the “transgressing moment.” “We don’t have to go to Negro mountain to see that.” (In the final section, “Notes on Region,” Giscombe writes that Nemesis sounds like “a pet’s name,” not a pet name but “the ironic name of an animal.” Yet then he quotes from the OED: “Nemesis was ‘the goddess of retribution or vengeance, who reverses excessive good fortune, checks presumption, and punishes wrongdoing.’” Oh hey.)

19. A Film in Which I Play Everyone by Mary Jo Bang (2023) — It’s funny — I read like two poems by Mary Jo Bang in my first year of grad school and then wrote like her for three years. There’s something about her ear, the tautness of her lines, the interest in meta-cognition, and the highly visual nature of her poetic vision that appealed so much to me. She’s still really good! These do all feel like miniature movie sets or mechanical music boxes (“a quasi-auditory / interior ticking so precise it seems mechanistic,” she writes, of the aura before a trip). The obsessions here are late-life obsessions: the end of being, the end of everything. I love her ambiguities: “The machine’s incessant // needle mimed in and out. For me it was like fucking air.” The way that fucking can be read as a transitive verb or a modifier on air (“I eat men like fucking air”) is so good!

Brother Poem by Will Harris

20. Brother Poem by Will Harris (2023) — Poems addressed to a fictional brother, a “fecund other” as I once heard my friend Kathleen say: “The point of writing is to address / you,” he writes. Quietly beautiful. “A noun is an imperfect substitute for a pronoun.” “All past is equally past. It is simply the opposite of future.”

21. Phantom Pain Wings by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi (2023) — Kim Hyesoon is so metal. This reads like a variety of horror, grotesque, cutesy-meets-evil, death-soaked, in a time with no future (“Future doesn’t exist since farewell has already begun”), utterly visionary. It begins with a sequence of poems in which the speaker is or becomes or does a bird: “This book is not really a book / It’s an I-do-bird sequence” … “Poetry ignores / the I-do-bird-woman sequence.” It’s a way of escaping the sick world of people, perhaps, but still an involuntary way, like death. “I end up doing I-do-bird even if I resist doing it.” “I take a step toward where I don’t exist.” I love the way scale works in this book; both largeness and smallness can be forms of power, both loudness and silence (“it’s time, for the thunderous applause to fade / for the cymbals of silence to crash, to announce time’s funeral”). The tiny and the epic. Large as in the book’s title poem: “My night feathers are infinitely, infinitely large” … “I told you not to cut me off” … “I lift my head as I walk / I shit blood as I walk” … “I walk because my bird house is smaller than me” … “There’s no place for me to hide here! // Please push me off the cliff!” … “Tonight, there’s no place for me to put down my poem.” Or in “Tyrannus Melancholicus”: “I’ll say it again. The woman who’s wearing the skirt as big as the shadow of my entire country is me.” And small as in “Smell of Wings”: “I can even be born through a sweat pore.” or “Little Poem,” from the sequence called “I Sharpen the Forest and Write a Letter”: “The little story is so little that even though it thinks that it is speaking, it’s the same as not speaking at all” … “The little story is so little that it just keeps piling up like dust on the postwoman’s desk, so if you want to read the story I mailed, you’ll need a dictionary smaller than a speak of dust” … “You say that you can bash my story whenever you want because it’s so little, that you’ll write my story instead, that my story is like an animal too small to be seen” … “but my little story crosses many bridges inside your brain” … “it walks for a long time and sets up house on top of your seahorse and in every dream you scream — that’s how little my story is.” (Another thread is her meta-poetics, her spitting at critics!)

22. I Love Information by Courtney Bush (2023) — Enjoyed these poems which have a riffy, out-of-hand quality like drunken conversation, a little of the appealing self-aggrandizement that I miss from my youth, and interesting thoughts about poetry/art/living. “I don’t think language can fail / Fail to do what”

With My Back to the World by Victoria Chang

23. With My Back to the World by Victoria Chang (2024) — Victoria’s last book was a long engagement with Merwin; this one engages with the art of Agnes Martin. I love how she makes these intimate relationships with other artists a kind of formal constraint. Sad and insightful. “Agnes said her grids came / from the innocence of / trees. I’ve always / thought trees were guilty.” “My solitude is like the grass. I become so aware of its presence that it too begins to feel like an audience.” “I betray her brushstrokes by looking at the lines. I betray the lines by looking at the brushstrokes.” “Suddenly, I remember that there is a middle of the day.”

24. Ascent of the Mothers by Noelle Kocot (2023) — A narrow little book of short, intense poems. Very good. “I’m not afraid, / And yet, // My shroud vanishes / In these lines, // I am so wept / Past weeping.” “The unglazed windows, / An afterthought out of perspective, // This is what’s left, / Something difficult, a fragment.” “Now, unguarded, // There is something / I can’t know, // But know.”

FAVORITES!

My most beloved reads of 2023:

Favorite fiction: The Infatuations, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, and Vertigo

Favorite nonfic: Missing Out and The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable

Favorite poetry: Timmy Straw and Jean Valentine

Happy new year, loves!

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Elisa Gabbert

Poet and essayist. Author of The Unreality of Memory, The Word Pretty, and other books. On Twitter at @egabbert. More info at http://www.elisagabbert.com/