The Definitive List of Must-Read Poetry Books from 2016 (So Far)

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We’re starting a monthly column that will feature short reviews of new poetry collections, although, as in this case, not all of those collections will have been released during the month in question. Here we’re playing catch-up. Many of these books were released earlier this year. Still, the reader will be none the worse for considering each of them in their entirety. — Shane Barnes and Jonathon Sturgeon

The After Party, Jana Prikryl, (June; Tim Duggan Books)

“Reality’s my kind of metaphor,” Jana Prikryl writes in The After Party, to my mind the year’s most impressive debut. The speaker of the poem imagines herself as Claudia Quinta in a “real” painting by Benvenuto Tisi, only the painting depicts a quasi-mythological scene: the Vestal Virgin is tugging a massive boat into harbor by herself. It’s a strong metaphor for what Prikryl does throughout The After Party, a book that finds projective power in a pervasive tonal loneliness.

This is to say that Prikryl seems preoccupied with the ratio of the personal. How much self to give the reader? Though the autobiographical moments here ring with the tone of the poems (“So childhood was one long influenza / and I made reparations to myself in the form / of a terrible sympathy with each new fact”), they never dominate the reader, who is otherwise offered images that transcend any reasonable expectation of the debut collection: “His feeling is metaphor so complete / it’s the hum alone on loan from the hive.”

The sealed emotion of The After Party leaves room for humor, too. “The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs Interspersed with Some of My Dreams” escapes surrealism because it’s exactly what it purports to be. It’s effect on me was weird and new, and I laughed even when I wondered if I was supposed to. And Prikryl’s guardedness reveals itself as a mode of delayed gratification. In “Ars Poetica,” one of the collection’s more anthology-ready entries, the speaker begins by suggesting that what we’re “most easily seduced by” tells us something about ourselves; it ends with her own seduction: “Goodness that shows / every sign of being also / resourceful has always been / difficult to refuse.” A genuine if not overpowering moral passion guides the collection to shore. – JS

Scarecrow, Robert Fernandez (February; Wesleyan)

Robert Fernandez’s third collection of poetry overflows with mentions of food. The flapjacks, cabbage leaves, spaghetti, and whatever else fill this thing up with viscera that embodies a basic existentialism in such physical terms that the work, as a whole, makes a case for life not only as a thing that must be lived, but one that can be easily wasted through inaction. It is as motivating a work as a book of poetry can be. – SB

Dianoia, Michael Heller (April; Nightboat)

After publishing more than twenty collections of poetry, it’s no longer a surprise to read Michael Heller’s grandly romantic lines. Here, he turns his wisdom most effectively to moments of quiet tragedy, such as when one realizes the disappointment of life (“Allotments”) or when a child’s innocence is lost (“Funereal”). By Dianoia’s end, Heller embraces the Platonic title in full, blowing up the form established in the preceding sections and infusing his melodic prose with graphics to create a portrait of an artist (or the idea of one) as unique as any other you’d see this year, in poetry or otherwise. – SB

Double Zero, Chris Hosea (April; Prelude)

Chris Hosea’s second collection — and the first from the editors at Prelude — is excellent, and it recalls John Ashbery’s assessment that in reading Hosea’s poems, “[o]ne feels plunged in a wave of happening that is about to crest.” (Ashbery selected Hosea’s work for the 2013 Walt Whitman Award.) If Hosea’s work is a cresting wave, it’s one that is composed of the porous matter of a philanoiac American life. More than once, I felt as if I had tuned into a radio broadcast of subconscious cosmopolitan chatter:

say afterlife pastel castle sigh sigh spoilers fall there so few was it lust chivalry undead learned shorthand late her shoulder buzz cuts afternoons

Just as often the poems are clear and philosophically argumentative; or maybe a moment of narrative lucidity refreshes the page:

You missed out, you know it. You in fact just are this missing, sodden archive of unlogged roads traveled. Where were you two weeks ago this past Friday. Who saw you. What was spoken. Hit record, though, you may as well turn your back away. You have to turn your back to look forward to what you haven’t heard, to crouch toward that.

If there is a pre-millennial hyper-modernist mode of contemporary American poetry, one that offers a refined vacancy — or in some cases, a film of art-damaged spirituality — Hosea could be its most formally precise purveyor. – JS

The Laughter of the Sphinx, Michael Palmer (June; New Directions)

The Laughter of the Sphinx is Michael Palmer’s nineteenth collection, and he’s still best when mining minimalism. “All the secrets of my work/ reside/ in the languages I’ve forgotten/ I can’t remember/ who it was/ whispered this to me,” reads “All,” one of the few works here that doesn’t address love but which manages to cut deep into the unknowable appeal of the best poetry, some of which Palmer can claim to have written. – SB

Works and Days, Bernadette Mayer (June; New Directions)

Hesiod’s Works and Days has the distinction of launching Western literature, but it’s worth remembering that it’s really a funny book about a guy who gives his stupid brother life advice. It’s also not-so-secretly about the bullshit that comes with the writing life. Bernadette Mayer’s new book of the same name is about the same thing, even if its hilarious opening note offers “Thanks to Hesiod for providing the title, Works and Days, and to my sister Rosemary for pointing it out to me.”

Even as it disavows tradition, it mirrors it. “Did Aristotle do irreparable damage to us souls?” she writes in the brilliant “Soule Sermon.” “All of Western culture?” Just as quickly the poem turns to the quotidian:

Scram, get outta my face! Did the mail come? Will you get the mail? Is having shoes red & not having shoes green? Alec Baldwin looks a lot like Alec Baldwin.

In keeping with the title (and theme) of “the original” Works and Days, Mayer includes calendar poems that double as wry, poignant notes on her life and condition. From “May 28”:

Cold for now. This must be a parallel universe (consult T. Berrigan). It may feel cold. I don’t have a cold. Blustery, dark. I wish I was a sensitive briar. I made lentil soup and cornbread. Welcome back winter. Winter forgot its car keys, phlox, columbines. Cold4May.

These entries reminded me that Mayer first came to be known for her Memory, an important artwork/gallery show from 1972. This description comes from Maggie Nelson’s Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions:

When [Mayer] was twenty-seven, she exhibited her first major work, Memory (1972), at the 98 Greene Street Gallery in SoHo. She describes this work as follows: “1200 color snapshots . . . processed by Kodak plus 7 hours of taped narration. I had shot one roll of 35-mm color film every day for the month of July, 1971. The pictures were mounted side-by-side in row after row along a long wall, each line to be read from left to right, 36 feet by 4 feet. All the images made each day were included, in sequence, along with a 31- part tape, which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking up points for digression, filling in the spaces between…

The experience of reading Works and Days is exhilarating; it’s like encountering a new, never-before-seen contemporary artwork you know will stand the test of time — like it must have felt to see Memory in 1972. Or maybe it is this. It reaches back to the beginning of art by way of its political economy of the everyday, its honest humor about the ridiculousness of the writer’s experience in 21st century life, its emphasis on solidarity with the exploited. There is no other book from this year I’d more like to read again. – JS

Standing Water, Eleanor Chai (April; Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Standing Water, which is Eleanor Chai’s debut collection, works to tell a childhood story of discovery, and in its humming lines manages to do so in a way that balances the intellectual with the academic. Chai’s mother was institutionalized shortly after Eleanor’s birth, and, through the poems here, she grapples with the fact that she’ll never know her. In “The Death,” she catalogs just how absolute — and blasé — that fact is. “Your mother is dead./ ‘She choked on her morning egg.’/ They offered to keep her alive by machine/ until I could arrange a trip to ‘encounter/ the body before her death.’” – SB

Rapture, Sjohnna McCray (April; Graywolf)

I had never before read a beautiful poem about glory holes, but I’d secretly yearned for one my whole life. And now I’ve got it: Sjohnna McCray’s “Glorious Holes,” eight lines that express no shame and have all the unabashed gnarl of What Belongs to You. The titular poem is maybe one of the most moving poems in a book this year, a multi-sectioned meditation on the stages of a gay man’s life. Like the rest of McCray’s work, it’s moving and tragic and plays with the grotesque beauty of the mundane. This is his debut collection, but you wouldn’t believe it. – SB