1. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, brims with lines at once powerful yet raw in their vulnerability. Vuong writes with lyrical elegance and almost brutal intimacy about identity, Otherness, history, war, family, grief, sex, violence — this is a truly haunting collection that illuminates with impressive emotional depth all the love and loss that tinges human life.
Read a poem by Ocean Vuong here.
2. Look by Solmaz Sharif
A finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, Solmaz Sharif’s brilliant debut poetry collection, Look, is a lamentation for the suffering and horrific loss of human life in war that exposes the steep toll of violence and its aftermath. Sharif incorporates her family’s own experiences with grief and trauma as well as language from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to illustrate the shocking contrast between the grim reality of war and the sterilized terms and euphemisms used by the military to desensitize us to violence.
Read a poem by Solmaz Sharif here.
3. Odes by Sharon Olds
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds’ collection of odes is a brazenly honest, humorous meditation on the body, sex, love, and death. As irreverent as we’ve come to expect from Olds, Odes tenderly sings the praises of those parts of the body that often go unappreciated — stretch marks, cellulite, even period blood — and other taboo subjects. The result is a bold yet charming celebration of both the poetic form and the imperfection of our humanness.
4. Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
What does it mean to be Other? What does it mean to have a female body? These are the questions Safiya Sinclair’s debut poetry collection, Cannibal, seeks to answer with lyrical poems as provocative and brutal as the title Cannibal would suggest. With beautifully rich imagery, Sinclair examines Jamaican identity and culture, womanhood, blackness, history, memory, family, and exile.
5. The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
The winner of the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry, Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human is a poignant critique on systems of bureaucracy and capitalism, connecting the political violence that the US and Latin America have in common. Borzutzky’s intensely dark poems imagine the fate of refugees and immigrants in a not-so-distant future dominated by banks, the government, and the private sector of the economy — a vicious, nightmarish world of strict borders and stark economic disparity. A highly disturbing (in the right ways) and thought-provoking read.
6. Garden Time by W.S. Merwin
Pulitzer Prize–winning former US Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin wrote Garden Time while he was in the process of losing his eyesight, dictating the remaining poems to his wife when his vision grew too poor for him to continue writing. Garden Time is a beautifully accessible book of poetry that contemplates aging, mortality, nature, love, loss, human existence, and, ultimately, living in the present. Old and new fans of Merwin alike will appreciate this eloquent collection.
7. Collected Poems: 1974–2004 by Rita Dove
Rita Dove’s Collected Poems: 1974–2004 spans three decades of her career as a poet and seven of her books. This highly lyrical collection transports the reader through Dove’s life as well as the world between 1974 and 2004 — reminding us again of the immense talent that earned Dove her numerous awards and honors (including a Pulitzer Prize in poetry and being named the US poet laureate in 1992).
8. Blackacre by Monica Youn
In Blackacre, Monica Youn uses her background in law to make abstract concepts concrete — “blackacre” is in fact a 17th-century legal term, a placeholder name for fictitious or hypothetical pieces of land. Youn uses the term to explore legacy and both what is left to us and what we will leave behind — especially in the context of childbirth and infertility, and her own personal struggle with conceiving.
9. Bestiary by Donika Kelly
In her debut poetry collection Bestiary, Donika Kelly summons creatures real and imagined — some even legendary — to reflect on self-identity, emotion, and life experience. In considering both animals and monsters around us, Kelly forces us to reckon with those also inside of us, and to question what exactly it is that sets us apart from beasts and makes us human.
Read a poem by Donika Kelly here.
10. Collected Poems: 1950–2012 by Adrienne Rich
Collected Poems: 1950–2012 memorializes the work of one of the most influential American poets. This collection showcases Adrienne Rich’s evolution in form and content — which in later years boldly pushed boundaries and critically examined politics, society, race, gender, and class.
11. So Much Synth by Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy returns with So Much Synth, a collection that looks back at her adolescence as she enters middle age. Moving and nostalgic, So Much Synth revisits Shaughnessy’s youth and past romances, perfectly capturing the familiar confusion and embarrassment of those formative years of growth, while also contemplating the inevitability of aging and mortality in the present and future.
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