LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Spring 2016 Poetry: Top Picks

From Frank Bidart’s contained drama and Rita Dove’s blazingly heartfelt exploration of self and history, to the engaging openness of Campbell McGrath and Maureen McLane, to the shape-scallyshifting formal verve of Tyehimba Jess and Brenda Shaughnessy, to the sheer burning wit of Kim Addonizio and Bob Hicok, poetry today is so rich and varied that, as Ben Lerner says in The Hatred of Poetry (see “Picks”), “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is.” One thing it’s not is boring or difficult or irrelevant, as the following list of 36 key spring poetry titles reveals. See also “Ginsberg, Macdonald, Seidel, Young | Barbara’s Poetry Picks, Feb. 2016” for four more important February 2016 titles and “Best Books 2015: Poetry” for don’t-miss titles to get now.

Collected Works

Bidart, Frank. Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016. Farrar. Jun. 2016. 624p. ISBN 9780374125950. $35. POETRY
Multi-award-winning Bidart (e.g., the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award) represents a high point of contemporary America poetry, with dramatic, focused writing that explores human need. That’s evidenced in the very title of his new collection, Thirst, included in this Collected for a comprehensive look at his work.

Dove, Rita. Collected Poems: 1974–2004. Norton. May 2105. 400p. ISBN 9780393285949. $50; ebk. ISBN 9780393285956. POETRY
Dove proves why she is a Pulitzer Prize winner and served as U.S. Poet Laureate in a collection richcovering 30 years and seven books. She’s always fresh and precise, whether she’s writing about Greek myth, child raising, or civil rights struggle.

Rich, Adrienne. Collected Poems: 1950–2012. Norton. Mar. 2016. 960p. ISBN 9780393285116. $50; ebk. ISBN 9780393285123. POETRY
From its first poem (“Between foreseeing and averting change/ Lies all the mastery of elements”) to its last (“The signature to a life requires/ the search for a method”), this magisterial collection captures all the works of the multi-award-winning poet who superbly assessed our world. With an index of titles and first lines and an introduction by Claudia Rankine.

Smith, Stevie. All the Poems: Stevie Smith. New Directions. Feb. 2016. 704p. ISBN 9780811223805. $39.95. POETRY
As poisonously funny as Dorothy Parker and a popular, accessible poet of life’s absurdity and pain (“I was much too far out all my life/ And not waving but drowning”), Britain’s Smith is represented here by a new and updated edition of her work that includes hundreds of poems and her witty, squiggly drawings as well. Edited by Will May (Stevie Smith and Authorship).

Core

Hejinian, Lyn. The Unfollowing. Omnidawn. Apr. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781632430151. pap. $17.95. POETRY
While the 77 elegies collected here are all 14 lines long, you can’t fairly call them sonnets; they unfold beyond formal borders in elegantly elaborated lines that reveal thought physically set. “Thoughtsound, background/ for the painter had grown wild,” says one poem, and the always daring is both wild and a superb crafter.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. The Roots of a Thousand Embraces: Dialogues. Manic D. Apr. 2016. 64p. ISBN 9781933149967. pap. $13.95. POETRY
Published in 1994, this early work by the current U.S. Poet Laureate is a terrific addition to most collections, whether as a new title or a replacement for a battered copy. In 40 cantos, olioHerrera untangles the ties binding together Frida Kahlo, her art, and her shattered broken body.

Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Wave. Apr. 2106. 256p. ISBN 9781940696201. $25. POETRY
“O, sing…undo the world with blued song/ born from newly freed throats” opens this daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture (e.g., poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, and Booker T. Washington) to capture the African American experience from the Civil War to World War I. An impressive follow-up to leadbelly, a National Poetry Series winner and LJ Best Poetry Book; note that the final work will have 10″ X 16″ foldout pages.

McGrath, Campbell. XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century. Ecco. Mar. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9780062427359. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062427373. POETRY
In fluid, scene-setting poems, McGrath marches us year by year through the 20th century, with each year capturing an important individual (including many artists) or moment. We encounter “Picasso” in 1900, “The Atomic Clock” in 1939, “Sylvia and Ted” in 1963, and “Jobs v. Gates: The Mind-Body Debate” in 1997. Ingenious writing from a MacArthur fellow.

McLane, Maureen N. Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes. Farrar. May 2016. 128p. ISBN 9780374218874. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780374714796. POETRY
A crafter of poetry that’s both accessible and musically propulsive, multi-award-finalist McLane turns out a sharp, witty, deftly telescoped new collection that has the edgy, questing Mz N at its center: “Mz N embarks one day upon a sonnet/ attracted by the knowledge that it’s dead.” Accomplished mzncritic McLane’s My Poets crisscrosses literature and memoir; is this another self-portrait?

Murray, Les. Waiting for the Past: Poems. Farrar. Apr. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780374285920. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780374714734. POETRY
Winner of the Gold Medal for Poetry, presented by Queen Elizabeth II, Australian poet Murray remains earthy and resonant in this 13th collection, even as he nears 80 and feels the pull of time. As Derek Walcott has said of Murray’s work, “There is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness, so broad-leafed in its pleasures and yet so intimate and conversational.”

Neruda, Pablo. Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda. Copper Canyon. Apr. 2016. 160p. tr. from Spanish by Forrest Gander. ISBN 9781556594946. $23. POETRY
Discovered in June 2014 by researchers at the Pablo Neruda Foundation in Santiago, Chile, these previously unknown poems prove to be quintessential Neruda: warm, bold, witty, and for pretty much everyone. “Before I turned twenty I received, amid the blows of police cudgels,/ the throbbing/ of a vast, subterranean heart”—and it shows.  Bilingual but not en face; the Spanish nerudaoriginals follow the translations.

Shaughnessy, Brenda. So Much Synth. Copper Canyon. May 2016. 88p. ISBN 9781556594878. $22. POETRY
James Laughlin Award winner Shaughnessy, who can tilt the world like a cubist painting while remaining fierce, calm, passionate, and totally in control, here revisits the music and madness of adolescence, then carries herself—and us—through to wiser middle age. “Late is a synonym for dead which is a euphemism/ for ever,” she says, keeping us ever off balance.

Waldman, Anne. Voice’s Daughter of a Heart Yet To Be Born. Coffee House. Jun. 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781566894388. pap. $17. POETRY
Waldman, a major force with more than 40 books to her name, has roots in beat poetry and remains committed to experiment, cross-cultural and countercultural engagement, and verse that simply sings. Here, to clarify the role of artist-activist, she wrestles with William Blake’s unborn spirit, Thel: “Thel a figment in the mind of becoming-in-life, of potential, of not-becoming-yet in-mind, just got dreamed up, a proposal is Thel’s gambit for one who would be cautious.”

Waldrop, Keith. Selected Poems. Omnidawn. Apr. 2016. 312p. ISBN 9781632430205. pap. $19.95. POETRY
Described in an afterword by Ben Lerner as “a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet,” National Book Award winner Waldrop here offers the most striking poems from 18 collections published between 1968 and 2013. A great introduction that doesn’t freeze out his ongoing work; as he says in an early poem, “I will not set my house in order.”

Wright, C.D. ShallCross. Copper Canyon. Apr. 2016. 140p. ISBN 9781556594960. $23. POETRY
Ever pushing the limits of the long form, National Book Critics Circle Award winner Wright here offers seven poetic sequences that range over journalistic writing, film narratives, photographic documentation (exploring murder sites in New Orleans), and more to touch on the shifting borders of our own lives.

Meditative

Koethe, John. The Swimmer: Poems. Farrar. Mar. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780374272326. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374713775. POETRY
Kingsley Tufts Award winner Koethe explores the quotidian—clothes, cats, lumps of clay—and “the arrogance of physics” to show us a crazy-quilt physical world that ultimately can’t be tamed. And even if it could, “a lot of good it does you, existing as you do/ At no place in particular, smeared out everywhere/ Until swimmersomeone sees you and your wave packet collapses.” Almost like a conversation.

Levin, Phillis. Mr. Memory & Other Poems. Penguin (Poets). Mar. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780143128113. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780698196964. POETRY
Winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award of the Poetry Society of America, as well as numerous fellowships, Levin here tries on a wide range of styles and voices to explore how the personal meets the social and historical. Not every poet can write about Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, a demitasse cup from Dresden, and the pre-Socratic mathematician Zeno.

Lux, Thomas. To the Left of Time. Mariner: Houghton. Apr. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780544649651. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544649668. POETRY
After a long career, the multi-award-winning Lux luxuriates in a chance both to dredge up memories (“What we were thinking/ was bombing the cows with dirtballs”) and reflect on the present (“Always nervous around the cheerful,/ though drawn to them, always leery/ of the happy, I now find myself cheerful,/ and that makes me nervous”). With 50 new poems.

Mayer, Bernadette. Works and Days. New Directions. Jun. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9780811225175. $15.95. POETRY
A longstanding and prolific progressive poet who once served as director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Mayer offers a collection that acts as a springtime journal (“why are there thorns?”) while also leaping into heady topics like the Catholic Church, Sir Thomas Browne, language, local politics, friendships, property development, dogs, and Hesiod.

McMichael, James. If You Can Tell: Poems. Farrar. Feb. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780374175184. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374714901. POETRY
National Book Award finalist McMichael does something unexpected here, exploring issues of faith within a Christian context as he imagines a child born of a verbal exchange who grows up poking and prodding his belief: “I’m not awake to God as the father of Jesus./ (God remains// God to me/ and not a person)”. Neither strictly devout nor strictly doubting.

Identity & Culture

Girmay, Aracelis. The Black Maria. BOA. Apr. 2016. 104p. ISBN 9781942683025. pap. $16. POETRY
Girmay, whose Kingdom Animalia won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, works broadly here as she considers the African diaspora, racism in American culture, and the question of human identity. “Great storage house, history/ on which we rode,” says a poem called “the sea,” and the book’s  title comes from the moon’s shadowy playdeadplanes, thought to be seas by early astronomers.

harris, francine j. play dead. Alice James. Apr. 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584251. pap. $15.95. POETRY
After debuting with allegiance, a finalist for the 2013 Kate Tufts Discovery and PEN Open Book awards, Cave Canem fellow harris risks all with a collection that’s raw and punchy as a street fight: “I carried a clit, in case/ in case it wasn’t rape. in case the kiss was your lovely.” Already attracting interest.

McElroy, Colleen J. Blood Memory. Univ. of Pittsburgh. Feb. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9780822964087. pap. $15.95. POETRY
Professor emeritus of English and creative writing at the University of Washington and winner of a PEN/Oakland National Literary Award, McElroy draws on clear and steady recall to arch over several generations’ worth of her extended African American family and its cultural surrounds. As she says in the first poem, “call it blood memory for I am the only/ one left to identify by name the ancestors.”

Majmudar, Amit. Dothead: Poems. Knopf. Jun. 218p. ISBN 9781101947074. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101947081. POETRY
When he’s not working as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Ohio, Majmudar writes award-worthy collections like 0’, 0’ (a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award) and Heaven and Earth (winner of the Donald Justice Prize). His new collection pointedly offers commentary on those who aren’t always at home in America, “my dark unshaven brothers/ whose names overlap with the crazies and God-fiends.”

May, Jamaal. The Big Book of Exit Strategies. Alice James. Apr. 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584244. pap. $15.95. POETRY
May’s first book, Hum, won a Beatrice Hawley Award and an American Library Association Notable Book Award and was an NAACP Image Award nominee. His second book deepens his mission as he parallels his exploration of the hard-edged world with more attention to the personal: “I tried to paint an ocean/ across my bedroom wall/ but my blood reddened/ as soon as it hit air.”

Sex & Love & Anger

Addonizio, Kim. Mortal Trash: Poems. Norton. Jun. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780393249163. $25.95. POETRY
Author of the National Book Award finalist Tell Me, Addonizio deploys her usual sharp-tongued semi-despair to greet a world that’s both beautiful and absurd, replete with lawn gnomes and wind-up Christmas crèches. She does surmise, “It may be helpful to hold the hand/ of someone as lost as you.”

Bernard, April. Brawl & Jag: Poems. Norton. Mar. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780393351736. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393351743. POETRY
“I always lie when I always say/ I didn’t know the gun was loaded,” says Walt Whitman Award brawl&jagwinner Bernard in her newest collection, and there’s plenty of vibrantly bald openness, even anger, in this new collection. But homey moments surface, too, and in the end story really matters.

Hicok, Bob. Sex & Love &. Copper Canyon. May 2016. 80p. ISBN 9781556594755. pap. $17.POETRY
Bobbitt Prize winner Hicok manages to be at once witty and colloquial, observant and insightful in poems that capture the odd angles of the everyday. He’s no different in this new collection, where he shows us love & sex beyond the fleshy predictable: “The sexiest thing a woman has ever done/ to or with or for me—while wearing the loose breeze/ of a dress or standing inside its red zero on the floor—/ …is tell the truth.”

Hix, H.L. American Anger: An Evidentiary. Etruscan. Feb. 2016. 215p. ISBN 9780989753241. pap. $19. POETRY
T.S. Eliot Prize winner Hix isn’t talking about his anger but our anger, as in “This one here is my just-in-case gun./ This one is my what-the-hell gun” and “America has ‘special global responsibilities.’/ We’ll keep veto power, but we won’t sign your treaties.” The poems’ titles range from “Anger as rule rather than exception” to “Invasive Species Love Song.” Instead of being downbeat, though, this dried-eyed collection is positively energizing.

Newman, Amy. On This Day in Poetry History: Poems. Persea. Feb. 2016. 80p. ISBN 9780892554706. pap. $15.95. POETRY
Newman has a wicked and wide-ranging imagination. Dear Editor, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award, used the conceit of desperate letters to a nameless editor as a way of newmanexploring self, while this new book imagines what was happening on a particular day to great American poets like Berryman, Bishop, Lowell, and Plath to give us a larger picture of American culture. My favorite poem title: “By the Time John Berryman Bails Delmore Schwartz Out of Jail After the National Poetry Festival in Washington, DC, the Trees at Court Green Have Uttered Their Leaves All Over England.”

Landscape/Space

Meek, Sandra. An Ecology of Elsewhere: Poems. Persea. May 2106. 120p. ISBN 9780892554737. pap. $16.95. POETRY
Meek, author most recently of the terrific Road Scatter and recipient of the 2015 Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, here captures her travels through Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to honor her recently deceased mother, even as she traverses the American Southwest with her sister and ailing father. Observing things like 1,500-year-old Welwitschia plants, which suck up the fog in the bleak, landmine-studded African desert, helps her heal.

Nadelberg, Amanda. Songs from a Mountain. Coffee House. May 2016. 112p. ISBN 9781566894340. pap. $16. POETRY
Nadelbergs 2012 Bright Brave Phenomena was a book with bright, brave sparkle and some riskiness that proved its author to be a comer. This new collection sweeps us through panoramic narratives built variously from imaginary forms and daily strolls to show us something different, outside or inside: “Rubber wood bone silk/ hemp or ivory I will cut my own in June/ but in May endured the next yesterday/ I’ve already now forgotten what all the/ men I’ll ever know smelled like.”

Volkman, Karen. Whereso. BOA. May 2016. 104p. ISBN 9781942683087. pap. $16. POETRY
Winner of the National Poetry Series, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the James Laughlin Award, Volkman explored abstraction in her recent Nomina but here is most interested in the body and how it moves in space. Dance, performance, position—all become language: “Part, turn. Deflection in a space, a twist:/ the beat’s swarm, the multiplying determine.// Inflect, deform.”

Debut Poets

Chai, Eleanor. Standing Water: Poems. Farrar. Apr. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9780374269487. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374714918. POETRY
A young woman comes face to face with Head of Sorrow, Rodin’s study of the dancer Little Hanako, and immediately recalls the mother who for reasons unknown was expunged from her life at an early age: “Her disaffection stains the intimate/ objects found years later/ among her things of everyday.” That’s the story behind this debut by Chai, founder of the Pierrepont School, but it doesn’t begin to sum up the quiet, stately beauty and sorrow of this book.

Joseph, Janine. Driving Without a License. Alice James. May 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584183. pap. $15.95. POETRY
What is it like to live as an undocumented immigrant in America? Joseph, raised in the rapturePhilippines and then California, shows us—“They pointed// at my throat, bobbing, and said disclosing/ too much would make it explode”—even as she clarifies how the uneasiness is braided into ordinary events like going to school, learning to drive, and simply longing: “I didn’t know, but wanted it, and wanted it/ fast. My blood was twenty years of that/ waiting.”

McCray, Sjohnna. Rapture: Poems. Graywolf. Apr. 2016. 72p. ISBN 9781555977375. pap. $16. POETRY
Selected by Tracy K. Smith as winner of the Walt Whitman Award, the distinguished first-book award of the Academy of American Poets, this collection deals achingly with identity. McCray’s mother was Korean and his father an American serving during the Vietnam War, and here he articulates both their burdens and his: “Because I can never say anything/ plainly. Because I always stutter, politely. Because there’s always the chatter// before the kiss.”

 

Share
Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

Comments

  1. Another new collection of poetry worthy of checking out is “The Woman in this Poem.” It is organized into five thematic sections centred on the topics of Motherhood, Love, Work, Balance, and Family and Friends and contains work by Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, Marilyn Chin, and many more…
    http://www.amazon.com/Woman-this-Poem-Womens-Voices/dp/B0147HVIBG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449579541&sr=1-1&keywords=the+woman+in+this+poem