Best Poetry 2013, the Extended Version: We’ve Got 12 Top Titles for You

Officially, Library Journal lists five Best Poetry titles in its December issue, along with all the other Bests of the year. But my colleague Annalisa Pesek and I couldn’t stop there. After several rounds of reading and discussion, we found that the following 12 titles sifted out naturally as the works that grabbed our attention and kept pulling us back. Here are celebrated poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Yusef Komunyakaa, newcomers like Dexter L. Booth and Allison Benis White, & more. Enjoy!

Best Poetry 2013
Brock-Broido, Lucie. Stay, Illusion. Knopf. ISBN 9780307962027. $26.
Emotionally charged, baroquely sensuous, serenely gorgeous: Brock-Broido’s extraordinary language asks us to enter a world both strange and strangely familiar. The gorgeousness is edged by darkness, yet even as she reminds us of our frailty in a wayward world (“Your heart was a mess—// a mob of hoofprints”), Witter Bynner Prize winner Brock-Broido works supreme magic as she transforms sorrow into gold. (LJ 9/15/13)—BH

Fried, Daisy. Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice. Univ. of Pittsburgh. ISBN 9780822962380. pap. $15.95.
Winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Fried is a woman of cool observations (“I decide again, not to get pregnant”), accessible wit (“Fifteen responsible children…/ return from Wall Street interviews/ in attitudes of surrender on the Dinky”), and surprise reflections. With her we feel momentarily of one place in the world (“Gusts across bare spaces”), taken by her vivid language and candid thought. (LJ 4/15/13).—AP

Herrera, Juan Felipe. Senegal Taxi. Univ. of Arizona. ISBN 9780816530151. pap. $15.95.
Capturing the tragedy of Darfur in multiple voices—children who survived a Janjaweed attack, a U.S. TV news anchor, even a Kalashnikov AK-47—National Book Critics Circle award winner Herrera isn’t simply as urgent and sharp-edged as the hot African sun. He’s also formally inventive, using typescript for the interviews, for instance, and poems labeled “mud drawings” that give immediacy to the children’s time in hiding. (LJ 4/15/13)—BH

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker. Wesleyan Univ. ISBN 9780819574299. $30 w/CD; ebk. ISBN 9780819574138.
Spanning a career of three decades, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Komunyakaa selects a “flowing, poly-voiced mosaic of lyrical narratives” that honors the life of saxophonist legend Charlie Parker, with a 14-page libretto as the work’s centerpiece. Once inside the poem, we feel like “Charlie,” who “could be two places at once,/ always arm-wrestling himself in the dark,” reading and believing “Everyone/ has a Bird story.” (LJ 10/15/13).—AP

Sikelianos, Eleni. The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead. Coffee House. ISBN 9781566893244. pap. $15.95.
As tumultuous as a lightning storm, Sikelianos’s poetry captures a life lived relentlessly on the edge. Throughout, Sikelianos takes a tough stance—“my little bird-&-meat/…say hello to this time-eating spider”—and that toughness translates into a corrosive honesty about “world the black/ —world the blank/ —margin.” But the poems never feel self-indulgent or even grim. This is defiant celebration. (LJ 4/15/13)—BH

More of the Best
Booth, Dexter L. Scratching the Ghost: Poems. Graywolf. 2013. ISBN 9781555976606. pap. $15.
Booth’s Cave Canem Poetry Prize–winning debut looms large with the weight of the world, with the relentless loss of family and friends and the memories of a dark childhood, “your eyelids folding over [it], how terrible it must be.” But “the decision to give words to suffering/ is still a decision,” and Booth accepts the challenge boldly, writing poems that have an absolutely engaging rawness and urgency.

Carson, Anne. Red Doc>. Knopf. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9780307960580. $24.95.
G, the winged, red, child monster Geryon, first seen in Lannan and Griffin Trust award winner Carson’s Autobiography of Red, has grown up and joins war-damaged friend Sad But Great and prickly Ida on an unexpected journey unlike anything one might have read or imagined one might want to read. The poem is formally inventive, but what really thrills is that a story both bracing and hard to embrace refuses to tell us what to think. (LJ 4/15/13)—BH

Johnson, Roxane Beth. Black Crow Dress. Alice James. 2013. ISBN 9781882295951. pap. $15.95.
In the narrative voices of emancipated slaves Clea, Caroline, and Zebedee, Philip Levine Prize winner Johnson gives us an unforgettable picture of what it’s like to be sold (“though its song is always the same”), to be an owner’s obsession (“She is nothing but my absolute”), and to watch the moon “fill and watch it go…Go like a crow calling, taken like a lamb to the block.” Rare gems, these memories linger, and by the end we feel shaken and forgiven. (LJ 2/1/13)—AP

Kirby, David. The Biscuit Joint: Poems. Louisiana State Univ. 2013. ISBN 9780807151068. $50. pap. ISBN 9780807151075. $16.95.
Delightful if at times maniacal and even masquerading as crass, these humorous observations from National Book Award finalist Kirby turn into tempered wisdom as quickly as the synapses firing from within his attentive and curious mind, fueling our reading until we’re aflutter with anticipation of what drama is next to unfold from this dignified yet funny storyteller: “Why, look, here’s the world again! It didn’t go/ anywhere, after all.” (LJ 9/15/13)—AP

Phillips, Carl. Silverchest. Farrar. 2013. ISBN 9780374261214. $23.
With elegant, majestic mournfulness, Los Angeles Book Prize winner Phillips captures a new-found solitude, when wishing has failed and all his longing is spent. As he strolls alone, he finds “To my left, a blackness/ like the past, but without the past’s precision;/ to my right, the ocean.” But in the end there’s redemption: the stars “have been there, glittering, relentless, all along,” and a single fluttering leaf is “you.” (LJ 4/15/13)—BH

Reeves, Roger. King Me. Copper Canyon. 2013. ISBN 9781556594489. pap. $15.
From below the surface of feelings, Reeves is ablaze with certainty and hope (“In the last moments of a sun, my sister”), upholding the belief that memory is accountable to its past, acknowledging the power to be in the present and the possibilities of the future, and still managing to hold it all together (“I carry the stars of madness home with a pinch/ of honey”). Ambitious and lyrical, Reeves dares us to notice him, and we do. (LJ 11/15/13)—AP

White, Allison Benis. Small Porcelain Head. Four Way. 2013. ISBN 9781935536277. pap. $15.95.
In White’s mysterious, moving collection, a delicately envisioned but indestructibly wrought work that won the Levis Prize, porcelain dolls aren’t so easily damaged—they “dance violently/ without the threat of consummation or injury.” Humans are another matter, though, as White explores the suicide of a friend whose final note poignantly ends the collection. (LJ 4/15/13)—BH


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @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.