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A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo

If you were pressed to categorize a book of poetry on your bookshelf as fiction or nonfiction, would you choose fiction? Most people probably would. Poetry has a reputation for being airy and fantastical, for dwelling in the realm of emotions and dreams, not in the “real world.” Yet there is a strain of poetry that is explicitly concerned with informing readers about real events: documentary poetry. Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, $16, 9781934639191) is an excellent contemporary example, using statistics and phrases pulled from the news to trace human responsibility for the outcomes of devastating “natural” events like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Lo compares ecological processes like seasonal migration with the movement of evacuees in response both to the destruction caused by a storm and the failure of systems expected to provide help. At the same time, Lo points to the recovery of nature as a model for community recuperation through mutual aid. This is a great collection to read alongside Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler—another powerful documentary book of poems that chronicles state failure and human resilience during and after Katrina.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

I was introduced to The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, $19.99, 9781419718786) in a college English class, which admittedly isn’t the most exciting way to find a book. But as a 20-something with lots of emotions about parenting and intergenerational trauma, I found author-illustrator Thi Bui’s story at exactly the right time. This graphic memoir flows between present and past. In the frame story, Bui is anxious that her flawed relationships with her parents will define how she interacts with her newborn son. In an effort to alleviate her anxiety, she sits down with her parents and attempts to figure out how they became who they are, journeying with them through their childhoods in war-torn Vietnam, their harrowing migration as refugees and their imperfect restart in America. Told through beautiful watercolor illustrations and sparse, emotionally-wrought text, Bui’s memoir does not offer easy answers to questions about trauma, immigration and family. However, The Best We Could Do is a tremendous lesson in empathy and a testament to healing through human connection.

—Jessica Peng, Editorial Intern

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Casey McQuiston’s sophomore novel, One Last Stop (Griffin, $16.99, 9781250244499), is a clever, emotionally resonant take on a timeslip romance with an utterly dreamy love interest: 1970s punk feminist Jane Su, who is mysteriously trapped outside of time on the New York City subway. As they proved in their already-iconic 2019 debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, McQuiston understands that in order for readers to wholeheartedly invest in a heightened scenario, it helps to have characters who are going through things that are eminently relatable. And so, recent New Orleans transplant August Landry’s quest to rescue Jane is balanced by the travails and triumphs of her job at Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes (one of the best fictional diners ever?) and the slow blossoming of her relationships with her roommates into something like family. It’s an achingly sweet portrait of a closed-off loner finding community for the very first time, and an ode to being young, broke and happy in NYC. It all culminates in a perfect finale, where August must draw on her new connections to pull Jane free and secure their happily ever after.

—Savanna, Managing Editor

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

Our whole planet is migrating in the title story of The Wandering Earth (Tor, $19.99, 9781250796844) a collection by Cixin Liu, renowned author of The Three-Body Problem. Faced with proof of the sun’s imminent death, humanity collectively seeks to escape obliteration by installing giant plasma jets to propel the Earth toward a new solar system. As mankind’s home is transformed into one massive spaceship, an unnamed protagonist watches decades of his life pass, narrating with straightforward melancholy as he witnesses tragedy and chaos. As changes to Earth’s orbit cause boiling rain to fall and oceans to freeze, the cataclysmic, sublime journey of “The Wandering Earth” will batter you with alternating waves of immense beauty and terror. And don’t expect a chance to surface for air after finishing this first story: The next nine continue to pummel the reader with Liu’s staggering imagination and rare talent for combining grandiose backdrops with personal stories suffused with aching emotion, such as that of a man climbing a mountain made of water, or a peasant boy growing up to become a space explorer. Liu’s eye for detail and mind for the poetic add a profundity to The Wandering Earth, elevating it to stand among the best science fiction.

—Yi Jiang, Associate Editor

Does warmer weather and the approach of summer have you feeling restless? Pick up one of these stories featuring journeys great and small.
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Award-winning poet Diana Khoi Nguyen traverses deeply personal emotional landscapes in her second collection, Root Fractures. Nguyen’s poems, as the title suggests, trace her family’s fractures, from their origins in Vietnam, to her father’s attempts to resettle and assimilate in California, to her brother’s self-erasure from the family. Movingly read by Nguyen herself, the audiobook offers a close approximation of attending a poetry reading. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of producing this audio version was that Nguyen, who’s also a multimedia artist, often incorporates photographs and unique text treatments in her written work. The audiobook of Root Fractures comes with a PDF of these poems, whose visual forms are also described on the recording. Clever techniques, such as muted sound to approximate grayed-out text or multiple tracks to replicate overlapping text, make the auditory experience a beautiful complement to the visual one.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Root Fractures.

Movingly read by author Diana Khoi Nguyen herself, the audiobook of Root Fractures offers a close approximation of attending a poetry reading.

Each of the poems in Victoria Chang’s latest collection responds to a painting with the same title by abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). If you aren’t familiar with Martin’s work, or typically feel unmoved by minimalist paintings, this conceit could seem like a barrier. But turn to the first poem in With My Back to the World and the magnetism of Chang’s language will convince you of the power of her project. “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world,” Chang writes, “The best thing about emptiness is if you close your / eyes in a field, you’ll open your eyes in a field.” Should you be suddenly filled with a desire to see that emptiness swarm on a canvas, you can find the titular painting online.

Many of the poems directly reference their painting’s shape, color and structure. Martin was known for painting grids, and Chang’s accompanying illustrations evoke this: scraps of poem arranged in a grid, or obscured by ink drawings. To organize a book of poems so tightly around a concept and a form isn’t new for Chang. In her 2020 National Book Award-longlisted Obit, written after the death of her mother, each poem took the form of an obituary. Chang’s father has since passed as well, and the middle section of With My Back to the World is a guttingly specific grief sequence.

As the collection unfolds, Chang lets us in on the intense relationship an artist can form with another through their work. Some poems deliberate on Martin’s dictates about solitude, while simultaneously longing for attention, connection and an audience. Other poems describe the risk of violence that comes with being visible for women, especially Asian women. “On a Clear Day, 1973” responds to the 2021 murder of eight people, six of them Asian American women, by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta.

Like Martin, Chang etches meaning into her chosen structure down to the smallest detail. Again and again, there’s the moment of recognition that readers come to poetry for: Here is a feeling you know well, but have never been able to witness outside of yourself. Isn’t it liberating to put these words to it? Don’t you feel less alone in your loneliness?

From the first poem in With My Back to the World, the magnetism of Victoria Chang’s language will draw you in: “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world.”

In her latest spellbinding collection of poems, The Moon That Turns You Back, Hala Alyan renders rich, intricate landscapes of heritage and place that arise from her own experiences. A Palestinian American novelist, poet and clinical psychologist, Alyan is familiar with diaspora and displacement. Born in America, she moved to Kuwait with her Palestinian father and Syrian mother, then returned to the American Midwest after the Iraqi invasion in 1990. She completed some of her education in the U.S. and some in the Middle East.

These poems reflect not only the countries that make up Alyan’s identity and history, but also the range of cultural ideals and differences that exist within that history, exploring the perspectives of family members such as her maternal grandmother and her mother. Alyan’s poetry draws the reader in through form, including interactive poems styled in a choose-your-own-adventure format.

Alyan tackles complex, even disturbing, topics. She writes of everyday objects using striking, vivid descriptions: “underwear the color of the summer, of the ocean, of the dead.” “In Jerusalem” employs the recurring image of a woman’s hair. It’s sensual, feminine and powerful, but it can also render the speaker vulnerable: “In Jerusalem a man blocked the door of a hostel // to tell me to unpin my hair. I did, / but then kept the story from anyone for years.”

While her succinct and candid language, arresting imagery and bold approach to form are effectively disquieting, there is also a very organic sense of hope and renewal in these poems, even in the darkest hour. There’s a hint of this in the titular line from, “Interactive Fiction :: Werewolf,” where Alyan writes: “In the / darkest dark, I wait for / the / moon // that turns you back.”

The Moon That Turns You Back is a bountiful collection of poetry, especially for those interested in diaspora and the complexity of multinationalism.

Hala Alyan’s The Moon That Turns You Back is a bountiful collection of poetry, especially for those interested in diaspora and the complexity of multinationalism.
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In Root Fractures, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s second collection of poems, the speaker is haunted by echoes of the past that reverberate into the present, and by generational, individual and collective traumas. In deft and surprising ways, the forms of the poems interact with their content, both shaping and breaking it.

The poems center on the speaker’s interrogation of her memory, which is inherently tied to a pattern of displacement and disappearance in her family history, through her parents’ emigration from Vietnam, Vietnam’s reform movement (Dổi Mới) and her childhood in California. Root Fractures begins in Vietnamese, and, as a non-speaker or reader of the language, I found myself drawn in, curious to see what I would discover even in moments where I was not the intended audience. The poems are deeply affecting. There’s a balance between fragmentation—both at the level of individual lines and of whole poems—and accumulative moments where the fragments coalesce. Some poems are layered over photographs, some are cut and rearranged, recalling how the speaker’s brother cut himself out of family photographs before eventually taking his own life. The spaces left on the page provide pauses that make the words sing in new ways, while the repeated formal motifs create patterns for reading and meaning-making that mirror the speaker’s experience of a desire for wholeness and understanding that can’t be fully realized.

These are poems worth returning to; each reading brings discoveries of new pathways of tension and connection.

The poems of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Root Fractures center on the speaker's interrogation of her memory, which is inherently tied to a pattern of displacement and disappearance in her family history.
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Forgiveness, memory, loss and the vicissitudes of love are among the recurring themes of A Year of Last Things, Michael Ondaatje’s exceptional new collection of poetry. More than a decade has passed since Ondaatje, who shared the 1992 Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, published a book of poems. The return is welcome, as he demonstrates yet again that he is a master of the genre.

Most of the poems that appear here are in free verse, with a few others written wholly or in part as prose poems. Each piece displays not only Ondaatje’s gift for the lyrical phrase but also his peripatetic nature, as the collection travels across various countries, most notably Italy, England and his native Sri Lanka. The book is divided into several sections, with the first centering on forgiveness and memory. It’s difficult to single out highlights when every poem is so accomplished, but particularly moving is “5 A.M.,” a tender piece on the restorative beauty of memories and the way they return unexpectedly, “like a gift / from forgetfulness, / as a desire can wake you.”

Later sections include ruminations on unfulfilled lives, such as “The Then,” in which Ondaatje writes of being struck by the urge “to erase this life, and desire what I might have known / in photographs of you before we met.” There is also a group of erudite love poems, including the witty “Leg Glance,” in which he employs a cricket metaphor referring to “not bothering to move / from the path of the dangerous ball,” to parallel one’s behavior in the midst of a love affair.

Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, with references to painters, novelists, playwrights, jazz musicians and even W.G. Sebald’s technique of incorporating photographs into the text, A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes.


Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes, reminding us that he is a master of the genre.
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For a collection titled Modern Poetry, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Diane Seuss spends a fair amount of time communing with the past.

In the title poem, named after a textbook she studied in college, she reminisces about how she and her roommate referred to William Carlos Williams as “Billy C. Billygoat,” and how she managed to fake her way to an A on a paper about Wallace Stevens despite “having no clue / what he meant by ‘The deer and the dachshund are one.’” That fake-it-till-you-make-it approach has apparently served her well, because she has not only become a highly regarded poet, but also gone on to a two-decade-plus career teaching poetry to other young people with impostor syndrome.

While the spirit of the avowedly modern ‘60s poet Frank O’Hara hovered over her last collection, 2021’s frank: sonnets, which won her the Pulitzer, her guiding star for this outing is a poet who is decidedly not modern: John Keats. In fact, the final poem of the volume, “Romantic Poet,” is at once an homage to Keats and a comment on the contemporary tension between loving an artist’s work and having mixed feelings—or outright disdain—for the artist. After being told the many reasons she would not have liked the unnamed “him” at the poem’s outset, she rejoins with a simple “But the nightingale, I said.”

Ah, the nightingale, the bird that sings. Seuss’ song is not the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme that was pounded into our middle school heads. It’s more subtle, and evinces itself when read out loud. “Rhyme,” Seuss said at 2023’s Great Lakes Poetry Festival, “can just do a thing that nothing else can do; it appeals to our bodies, not our minds.”

In “Romantic Poetry,” Seuss writes, “I was twenty three when I sold off / Modern Poetry and sailed to Italy, seeking / Romantic poetry . . . and found my way to Rome, / and Keats’s death room. / His deathbed, a facsimile.” Feel it, in your body, as you read it? Twenty three, Italy, poetry, facsimile. It’s all there for the taking. To co-opt the famed slogan from the unsung McCann-Erickson ad agency poet who created it for milk, “Modern Poetry: it does a body good.”

In Modern Poetry, Diane Seuss reminisces on faking it through poetry classes in college and on the complicated legacy of John Keats.

When a Scot Ties the Knot

There’s unlucky, and then there’s “Surprise! Your fake pen pal is actually a real person!” Madeline Gracechurch dreamed up Captain Logan MacKenzie, an honorable Scottish soldier conveniently stationed elsewhere, to get out of making her debut and continue her work as an illustrator of naturalist texts. Maddie writes letters to Logan for years before she finally decides to kill him off, thinking herself safe from matrimony forever. And then, of course, Logan shows up on her doorstep, letters in hand, intent on getting married for real so that his battle-weary men can settle down on Maddie’s extensive property. When a Scot Ties the Knot is an absolute sugar high of a romance, complete with digressions on subjects such as why some men look hotter in glasses, how to seduce women by bathing in mountain lochs and the mating travails of Maddie’s lobsters (their names are Rex and Fluffy). Tessa Dare’s great talent as an author is her ability to root farcical silliness in emotional reality: Logan’s quest to give his men a life where they can heal and flourish is treated with utmost seriousness, as is the paralyzing social anxiety that led Maddie to start writing him in the first place. 

—Savanna, Managing Editor 

The Bee Sting

Was ever a family more unfortunate than the Barneses, the dysfunctional crew at the heart of Irish writer Paul Murray’s masterfully crafted fourth novel? Dickie Barnes is barely holding on to his auto dealership; his glamorous wife, Imelda, resents their fall in status. Their daughter, Cass, who plans to attend university in Dublin, may be jeopardizing that future thanks to too many nights at the pub, while 12-year-old PJ’s plan to escape his bullies is only leading him into more danger. Beginning with Cass, each family member takes a turn telling the story as they see it, unveiling layers of damage, secrets and bad luck. What keeps this tale of woe engaging across more than 600 pages is Murray’s tenderness for the Barnes family, despite their flaws. The voice of each character is refreshingly distinct, and there’s much satisfaction in seeing the puzzle pieces of their perspectives click together to create a full view of this fractured family, who love each other deeply but rarely manage to communicate that love in the right way or at the right moment. A heartfelt tragedy with a bravura ending, The Bee Sting is a strikingly human and empathetic read.

—Trisha, Publisher 


Surely there could be no greater misfortune than that which befalls Major Brendan Archer, who, near the end of J.G. Farrell’s Troubles finds himself buried up to his neck in sand, awaiting drowning as the tide comes in. Troubles is the first in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, a series of masterful, bleakly hilarious eviscerations of British colonialism. After returning from World War I, the Major goes to Ireland to be with his fiancée, Angela Spencer, a woman he hardly remembers. Angela’s Protestant, Anglo-Irish family runs a once-glorious hotel called The Majestic. Even through the scrupulously polite Major’s eyes, it’s clear that the Spencers are in denial about the state of the hotel and the precarity of their political situation, as tensions with the majority-Catholic people of the surrounding area rise to a deadly pitch. Still, none of them manage to bring the danger into focus, to the point that the Irish Republicans go nameless and faceless throughout the book, even as they pack rocks around the Major’s body and leave him to die. Sadly, Farrell himself met an unfortunate end: At only 44, he was swept out to sea while fishing. We can only imagine what other great novels he would have graced the canon with, had he lived longer.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

The Odyssey

I never realized how often Odysseus wept: as Polyphemus the Cyclops wet the floor with the brains of his friends; on Aeaea when the clever witch Circe transformed his men into pigs; on the shore of Ogygia as Calypso’s captive; in the halls of the Phaeacians, as he bemoaned his misfortune. After two decades of trying and failing to read The Odyssey, I picked up Emily Wilson’s translation and saw myself in this most unlucky of men. I had long wanted to read Homer’s epic, but I found it unbearably dull and the verse too difficult to unravel. I could never even get to Scherie, let alone back to Ithaca. Wilson, the first woman to publish a translation in English, brings Homer’s epic alive. She writes in her translator’s note that other English translations render Homer’s text in “grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English.” But the poet’s verse was not “bombastic or grandiloquent.” It was accessible, performed around the ancient world to people from all walks of life. Wilson opts instead to use straightforward language and syntax, along with good old iambic pentameter, to present a story that is full of suspense and pathos. I lost myself in The Odyssey, I found myself in Odysseus and I wept for his misfortune. 

—Erica, Associate Editor

There’s something weirdly engaging about a character who’s down on their luck. Fortunately (or not), their loss is our gain.
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★Personal Best

Even well-loved, familiar poems can be mysterious. What if you could ask a poet to walk you through the why of one of their poems: why it matters, why they chose to share it, what’s at stake? Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips do just that in their delightful anthology, Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most. Including a remarkable and diverse array of contemporary poets, Phillips and Belieu assemble a collection of singular poems, each selected by its poet and accompanied by an explication of how it came to be written, illuminating the choices that make each poem sing. With poems by Danez Smith, Victoria Chang, Ada Limon, Jorie Graham, Ocean Vuong, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ilya Kaminsky and many more, there is something to appeal both to novice explorers of poetry and to writers and students hoping to deepen their appreciation for others’ work.

The anthology is full of gems. It was a welcome gift to reencounter poems I knew in fresh contexts, and it was equally enjoyable to explore poems and poets new to me and discover what I might read next. If someone you know is looking for some guidance in reading poetry, or seeking a deeper understanding of the poetic process, Personal Best would make an engaging, thoughtful gift.


Poems of faith and doubt, wounds and wonder: The moments collected in Kazim Ali’s Sukun: New and Selected Poems are surprising and approachable. Ali moves between subjects—from prayers, fairy tales and myths to baggage claims, yoga classes, boats and rain—with an honest, searching voice. Equally engaging is the formal range of the poems. From sonnets to prose poems, from open-ended lines that propel you forward to tightly compacted end-stopped lines, the form and content come together. Mundane details are made surprising in new combinations: “a black and white film” in which “the water glows white.” Part of the wonder comes from Ali grounding these details with a sense of place, setting them against large scale images of the natural world.

“There’s an old line of Robert Frost’s—that a poem ‘begins in delight and ends in wisdom.'”

In “Exit Strategy”—part of the triptych that opens the book—Ali writes “Here’s the hardest geography quiz I’ve ever taken: / How does one carry oneself from mountain to lake to desert / without leaving anything behind?” This collection reveals the answer, taking us through real and metaphorical landscapes as the speakers gather images, moments and ideas, letting each build on the last, collaging something wholly new.

The Asking

In the first poem of Jane Hirshfield’s The Asking: New and Selected Poems, she begins: “ My life, / you were a door I was given / to walk through.” This beautiful opening is the door we readers walk through to discover and rediscover this retrospective collection of Hirshfield’s poetry. Throughout, her attention to and celebration of minute details brings readers into a space of awareness that continues even after our eyes leave the page.

The new poems that open the book examine our fractured planet and imagine better possibilities. Next, beginning with 1982’s Alaya, we move through 50 years of Hirschfield’s work, observing the ways that our planet and the interrogation of our relationship with it have evolved. Hirshfield writes in awe of the world, of science and of imagination, and she threads these ideas together with a specificity and power of observation that demands our attention. She notices the nuance of the world; so must we. There’s an old line of Robert Frost’s—that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Hirshfield’s The Asking moves through both together, compelling the reader to wisdom and delight at interlocking, interconnected turns.

All Souls

All Souls, the posthumously published final volume of poems by Saskia Hamilton, conveys a richness of stories in beautifully captured vignettes. As Hamilton writes, “Why retell the stories of those before us? They already spoke them, or held their tongues—fell silent. . . . To say something sincerely yet inauthentically is the danger.” In this work, she avoids that danger, telling each poem in a way that is searingly authentic and resolved.

Hamilton takes bits of history and image, of story and sensory experience, and weaves them together to express something new. The poems organize around the painful, impossible moment when a mother must leave her young son. This devastation circles through the collection, asking the reader what is remembered, retold, forgotten. Remarkable shifts occur between seemingly fragmented moments—between the lyric and narrative, past and present. As you continue to read, the disparate images connect and begin to speak.

Razzle Dazzle

Traveling through Major Jackson’s Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2023 opens a new window to his work. The poems are vibrant and engaging, examining life in America, racial injustice, and the ways that humans and nature intertwine and connect. The poetic influences and legacies that echo through the poems are clear, and there’s a rich sense of community and conversation.

From the fresh images of Jackson’s latest work, like “My mouth puckered whenever lemon-colored / arches appeared five stories above the city / like golden gates to an unforeseen heaven,” we travel into the past to excerpts from Leaving Saturn (2002) before moving forward through the 21 years in between. In addition to the subjects and questions that complicate as they recur, Jackson’s voice and sense of form are impressive. Each line is carefully chosen; each stanza break opens up something new. Selections from Jackson’s The Absurd Man (2020) prove to be particularly compelling as a bookend to the opening section of new poems, titled “Lovesick.” To see Jackson’s recent poems surround and grow out of the earlier ones is a joy.

In each of these collections, from the wide-ranging anthology Personal Best to career-spanning looks at some of today’s most prominent poets, there’s something to surprise and delight every reader, as well as chances to gain insight into the writing process.
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When we think about how life will look in 10, 50 or 100 years, we might not consider the poetry that those societies will produce. But if we think about how those societies will look back at us, here in 2023, I would argue that these poetry collections are the perfect snapshots of our world. Ranging from joyous odes to lamentations, the poems in these five collections speak to us and challenge us. They provide answers to our most pressing questions when the future seems uncertain. They remind us that poetry is the only refuge from life that, upon closer examination, is actually just life itself.

★ Promises of Gold

What is love? José Olivarez has the answer in Promises of Gold. In both English and Spanish, these poems explore the facets of love that pop songs rarely do—the gritty, painful parts that everyone sweeps under the rug. In these verses, Olivarez primarily explores the presence and absence of love in Chicano and Mexican communities, creating sparkling, nostalgic portraits of family and friends. Many of the poems also have a political angle, tackling religion or masculinity and ensuring that the forces that continue to shape Mexican culture are thoroughly critiqued. This is not to say the collection is overly analytical, as it is often in Olivarez’s most earnest moments that he is able to pierce the culture, arriving straight at its heart. 

Read our review of the Promises of Gold audiobook, some of which is performed in front of a live audience.


Poetry has always existed in a state of tension: What does poetry have to look like? What should it look like? Should it rhyme? Can it be prose? In Couplets, Maggie Millner replies with a sweeping “Why does it matter?” By employing two forms, the couplet and the prose poem, Millner suggests that these questions don’t need answers and that, within uncertainty, there is room for personal complexity. A love story through and through, this collection uses poetry to document the personal struggles inherent in falling in and out of love. Sometimes love can be uplifting, giving you butterflies; other times it can be obsessive and neurotic, leading you down rabbit holes of insecurity. Millner’s words occupy both forms and feelings, giving the collection a back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they quality. It’s in this liminal space that Millner settles, showing how writing is transformational, both for the self and the world around us. 

★ Above Ground

In Above Ground, Clint Smith proves that, in the words of William Wordsworth, “The Child is father of the Man,” as his poems explore the beauty, fear and sacredness of being a child and then raising his own. Written to and for his kids, Smith’s verses build a nonlinear narrative of his journey into fatherhood, including health difficulties and his attempts to teach his children how to exist in a troubled world. Wonder and joy are prevalent throughout the book, with Smith writing many odes to his children’s quirks and the idiosyncrasies of child rearing, including first smiles and hiccups. In a time when the future is increasingly uncertain, such a touching and profound statement on parenthood is desperately needed. Smith provides the shot in the arm, reinvigorating our ability to love and nurture.

Trace Evidence

For a second it seemed like American culture was approaching a racial reckoning. Though that moment has passed with few tangible results, Charif Shanahan takes advantage of the still-burning embers in Trace Evidence, speaking to the country in sharp, unifying language. Despite perpetual division, or perhaps because of it, Shanahan is able to produce answers to racialized questions of belonging through these poems, emphasizing how humanity goes beyond such constructions. His words are moving and muscular, with each line pulsating with wisely crafted feeling and thought. Poems like “Talking With My Boss About Diversity and Inclusion” allow Shanahan to really shine, showing not just how a person is impacted by race but also how race is shaped by all of us, individually, in every moment. 

a “Working Life”

It is important to stay happy, to maintain daily reminders of goodness and wonder, and in a “Working Life”, Eileen Myles helps us do just that. With their streamlined style and singular devotion to mundane wonder, they show how life can still be surprising despite the inevitability we may feel each day. Contradictions and coincidences, joy and despair, the intricacies of life and death are all captured in these brief, fleeting poems, told in tight verse and with some lines only a word long. They reflect how quickly time goes by and how each second provides something deep and new, creating an infinite loop of meaning—a message that is helpful and frustrating, uplifting and perplexing. Really, it’s life.

New poetry collections show the truths of our world—right here, right now.
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Promises of Gold (5.5 hours), written and narrated by José Olivarez, delivers slice-of-life poetry about growing up in Chicago with Mexican parents and finding love of every kind: familial love, easy romantic love and unspoken love from buddies who will never let you down. 

A portion of the audiobook is performed in front of a live audience, which is such a smart choice for a collection of poetry. The audience’s reactions and laughter lend a sense of community you can only get from a live reading, and Olivarez feeds off this energy, delivering a strong performance. His disarming sense of humor clears a path for him to address heavier subjects including class inequality, alcoholism and where we go when we die. He has a clear love of language but keeps his word choices simple, making this collection an accessible entry point to modern poetry. The second half of the audiobook contains a Spanish translation by David Ruano, making Promises of Gold a rewarding experience for Spanish and English speakers alike.

Also in BookPage: Read our starred review of the print edition of Promises of Gold.

A portion of the Promises of Gold audiobook is performed in front of a live audience, which is such a smart choice for a collection of poetry.
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How to Not Be Afraid of Everything

At a reading in 2022, I heard poet Jane Wong describe her obsession with time-lapse videos of rotting fruit. Her poetry collection, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, is full of the physicality of food, informed by Wong’s research into the Great Leap Forward, which was a stage of Mao Zedong’s reforms that led to the starvation of 36 million Chinese people. Wong’s great-grandparents died during the Great Leap Forward, and several poems ring with their voices. In others, the speaker reckons with the contrast between the relative abundance in her life—the apples “rotting on the ground,” an egg thrown onto pavement just to hear the “sumptuous splat”—and the false promises of the American dream for herself and her parents. Lucky for me, and you, Wong has a memoir coming out this month, so you can pick up Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City when you finish her breathtaking book of poetry.

—Phoebe, Subscriptions

A Burning

Megha Majumdar’s debut was one of the most important social novels of 2020—highly political, furiously propulsive and ruthlessly unsparing—but if you, like so many readers, spent that year sticking to lighter fare, now is the time to go back and see what you missed, because A Burning still hits hard. In contemporary India, a young woman named Jivan unthinkingly voices criticism of the government in a Facebook post, and she is immediately labeled a terrorist and sent to prison, where she awaits her trial. Two other main characters provide additional perspectives on these events: the luminous wannabe Bollywood star Lovely, a transgender woman who was learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s resentful former gym teacher who gets involved in nationalist politics. Each character is ambitious in their own way, but within this world marked by the tyrannies of rampant corruption, racism, poverty and inequality, their fates are often outside their control, and the few choices available to them are murky at best. This novel is a short shock that leaves a lasting burn.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho each made their publishing debut in the first week of 2021 with Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, a radiant picture book that became an instant bestseller and launched both creators’ successful careers. To read it is to immediately understand why. Its first-person narrator is a girl who explores, via gorgeous, lyrical prose, how her eyes connect her to her mother, grandmother and little sister and to their shared heritage. Meanwhile, the book’s digital illustrations positively glow as every spread seems suffused with sunshine. Read this aloud to savor similes such as “my lashes curve like the swords of warriors”; then read it again and pay special attention to how the characters in every spread look at one another. You’ll see one of the most moving renderings of love made visible on the page that I’ve ever encountered. 

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Speak, Okinawa

Elizabeth Miki Brina’s form-bending memoir starts with her personal history—contending with her mother’s alcoholism as a child, feeling ashamed of her Japanese heritage in her predominately white hometown, expanding her horizons on the West Coast as a young adult—and spirals out to engulf not only her parents’ story bu also the history of Okinawa, the island in Japan where her mother grew up before meeting Brina’s father, a white American stationed there during the Vietnam War. After years of conflict with her mother, Brina found compassion as an adult for the trauma her mother experienced when she left her homeland for a culturally and linguistically isolated life in a hostile new country. As Brina spells out Okinawa’s past, from an independent land to a pawn in Chinese-Japanese-American relations, readers get a sense of the generational trauma that has shaped her and her mother’s lives as well. It’s a story that encompasses both the broad horrors of colonialism and racism and the deeply personal details of forgiveness and familial love.

—Christy, Associate Editor

This Burns My Heart

Heartfelt and emotional, Samuel Park’s moving debut novel is a must-read for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or the K-drama “Crash Landing on You.” Set in 1960s Korea, This Burns My Heart features a resourceful heroine torn between love and duty in the wake of partition. Soo-Ja meets Yul and immediately feels a connection to him—a confusing development, since she has just decided to marry another man. Unwilling to disgrace her family by going back on her promise, Soo-Ja rejects Yul to marry Min, a decision she will revisit and regret for the next 20 years. Yul and Soo-Ja see each other only periodically and usually by chance, but their fraught encounters are tense with the passion of unconsummated love. Full of poetic observations and memorable lines, This Burns My Heart will leave you pondering the “what ifs” in your own life.

—Trisha, Publisher

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! To celebrate, we’re shining a spotlight on some of our favorite stellar reads by Asian American authors.
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These six outstanding volumes of verse will remind readers of the magic of language and the marvels to be found in everyday moments.

A gift to celebrate growing older: Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Book jacket image for Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame is an inspiring celebration of the self. The book’s 50-plus pieces are alive with wit and wordplay, as Cisneros takes stock of the past, reflects on her Mexican American identity and ruminates on the experience of growing older. “I am Venetian, decaying splendidly. / Am magnificent beyond measure,” she writes in “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

Despite the passing years, Cisneros, now 67, displays an attitude of proud defiance. In “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” she bemoans the humdrum undergarments designed for older women: “Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night / wearing sensible white or beige.” Ignited by flashes of humor, the poems in this buoyant collection find Cisneros accentuating the positive, living without regret and setting an example for us all.

A gift to provide comfort and encouragement: And Yet by Kate Baer

Book jacket image for And Yet by Kate Baer

Kate Baer shares dispatches from the domestic front in her accessible, inviting collection And Yet. In poems that explore gender dynamics and the day-to-day grind of family life, Baer’s voice is that of an intimate, confiding friend.

Across the collection, she takes her own measure as a parent and a wife, toggling between self-acceptance and self-loathing, triumphs and trials. “The weeks are long, and all my son / wants is a new skateboard and a different / mother,” she writes in “Late Summer in a Global Pandemic.” Baer rounds up snippets from horrifying headlines in “Daily Planet”: “Return to school deemed not safe for / Un-vaccinated protests rise as / Hospital beds at capacity in these seven.” To flustered mothers, the internet-weary and anyone bewildered by contemporary life, Baer’s collection will be a balm.

A gift to illuminate the poetry-writing process: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light by Joy Harjo

Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years is a splendid survey of the career of three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo draws from a rich well of family stories and myths in poems that explore the Native American experience and emphasize the importance of place.

In many of her poems, the landscape emits a kind of language, such as in “Are You Still There?”: “hello / is a gentle motion of a western wind / cradling tiny purple flowers.” In “Somewhere,” she writes, “Our roads aren’t nice lines with numbers; they wind like bloodlines / through gossip and stories of the holy in the winds.” Notes on the genesis of each poem can be found at the end of the book.

For Harjo, “history is / everywhere,” and the past is always present. Her vision and versatility are on full display in this majestic retrospective.

A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts: Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The poems in Rio Cortez’s bold new book, Golden Ax, center on a foundational concept—what the author calls “Afropioneerism” or “Afrofrontierism,” in reference to her ancestral connections to Utah and the ways in which Black people have shaped and were shaped by the region.

Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the otherworldly landscape of the American West. In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” she wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons . . . how do you come / to be where there are no others, except / science fiction?”

Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.

A gift to stoke a fire: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi

Book cover for The World Keeps Ending, the World Goes On

A marked attentiveness to craftsmanship and the niceties of language enlivens the poems in Franny Choi’s urgent, stirring The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. A fearless shifter of form, Choi switches moods and modes to tackle such topics as social unrest, climate change and her Korean heritage. In “Toward Grace,” she laments the digital landscape: “Online, blondes chirp tips, spin fidgets, get follows. / Old story: unequal distribution of grace.” Formidable themes like the nature of tragedy and the human capacity for renewal lend a timelessness to her work.

Choi’s collection will awaken and inspire readers. “I want a storm I can dance in. / I want an excuse to change my life,” she writes, and her attitude is contagious.

A gift to transform darkness into light: Balladz by Sharon Olds

Book jacket image for Balladz by Sharon Olds

“Who says the forms of art require joy?” Sharon Olds asks in Balladz. While joy does feature prominently in these poems, Olds’ mood is one of unease and ire as she explores national upheaval, life during quarantine and the need for intimacy. As the collection’s title implies, the ballad is her favored form, a vessel for contemplating the past and celebrating everyday pleasures.

“Amherst Ballad 6” shows the precision of her poetic vision: “The Sill Imbued with Dust – Gave Up / A Maple Wing – of Brussels Lace.” In “Grandmother, with Parakeet,” elderly women have hair “fixed in / small breaking combers, battleship / curls like works of art.” Again and again, Olds surveys the world and, through the filter of her poems, renews it for the reader. Filled with sustaining moments of recognition, Balladz is revelatory.

For a fresh way to spread glad tidings this holiday season, we suggest a collection of poetry.

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