December 17, 2019
Here are some of my favorite books of poetry I read in 2019:
Hala Alyan’s first book of poems is both lyrical and honest, two of my favorite things about a collection of poetry. I love the way her poems echo what it means to be a woman, to own your body, to take your body out into the world and examine it against both your personal geography and your familial geography. Overall, I found it to be a meditation on the self, on desire and on womanhood.I’m not sure what I loved more, hearing these poems, before I bought the book, or buying the book, reading it, and remembering her reading of these poems at the 92nd St Y, earlier this year. I love this book so much and have bought it for so many friends.
This new book of poems from this wonderful debut poet is both inquisitive, powerful and haunting. It is a book that stays with you for the way it revolves around memory, family, identity and the push to rise up and over and through every struggle life gives us. If you’ve seen Camonghne read, or listened to her read, her voice, her presence is quite remarkable. (I’m also so in love with this cover).
I love Dorianne Laux’s work so much and was so excited when this new and collected book came out. So many of my favorite poems are in it, as well as new ones, which are truly, and I hate to sound cliche, but cliches are based in reality: real gifts. I teach so many of her poems to my middle school and high school English students because they are relatable, heartfelt and real. Her poems have no pretense, they are what they are and they sit with you. I go back to them constantly. She could write a poem about a bottle on the road, and it would turn into a long meditative poem about what it means to be human, and I would love it, and share it with my students, and then I would try not to cry when reading it aloud to them.
What can I say about this breathtaking new book by Ilya Kaminsky that hasn’t already been said before? I devoured it in one sitting when I got it. I couldn’t believe how relatable it was for these awful times we are living in. I loved its message of hope, its message of resistance and its cry out to humanity. I loved it so much and want everyone I know to read it. This book also changed the way I viewed poetry, with its form being in two acts, and two voices, with a list of “characters.” I’ve suggested the book to everyone I know and so here, I am suggesting it again. I never read a book of poems like this one. It left me scared, it left me hopeful and it also left me questioning every passing day after. I am grateful for it.
If you’ve seen Ilya Kaminsky read before, or if you’ve seen him read online, or have listened to him in a podcast, or follow him on twitter, or even know him real life, you know that the power he wields not only in the words he places on the page, but also in his voice, and in his kindness and generosity in all things.
This anthology is one of the best I’ve bought this year and one I’ve already started using in the classroom. Not only is there a diverse group of poets here, ranging from Patricia Smith, Ricardo Maldonado, Dante Di Stefano, Rich Villar, Jan Beatty and Danez Smith, Caroyln Forche and Maria Mazziotti Gillan, but there is also, in this anthology, a diverse cry for hope, for freedom, for equality and for kindness that culminates in a desire for something better: a better way to save ourselves and each other. I’m a big fan of Espada’s work and have been for years, but the collection of poems and voices, he’s put together here are really something else. I attended the launch of the event in NYC and the spirit, the magnitude, and the presence of some of these voices on stage was really something else. I don’t know if anything will save us as we head headfirst into the unknown of 2020, but it could be poetry.
*I’m breaking the rules here, because that’s what poets do, we break the rules! My first thought when asked about putting together a short list of some of my favorite poetry collections of 2019 was, can I somehow include Ocean Vuong’s beautiful novel, and obviously, the answer was YES. I loved this book so much; it reads like the most tender, the most heartbreakingly beautiful prose poem and the most intimate of novels I have ever read. This book inspired a new poem of my own because though so much of what this novel is about is the love for family, and the quest in understanding the stories of our family, it is also a book about beauty -- what makes life beautiful, gorgeous if you will. When I finished this book, I wanted to instantly re-read it and that’s part of what makes a good poem, no? You want to immediately re-read it and savour it all over again.
Leah Umansky is the author of The Barbarous Century, and Domestic Uncertainties, among others. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and is the curator and host of The COUPLET Reading Series in NYC.
also at Largehearted Boy:
previous lists at Largehearted Boy
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comic Preview (weekly comics recommendations)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
LIbrairie Drawn and Quarterly Books of the week (weekly book recommendations)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews