Plume has a number of talented editors, and given the extraordinary year the world faced, I thought asking them for some of their favorite books of 2020 made sense, as a means of creating space for other voices and perspectives beyond mine and Chelsea’s, but also as a way to showcase more books than are typically possible in a “traditional” review. Anyone who has released a book knows just how difficult it can be to stand out from the thousand others that come out in a given year, and the pandemic has meant that the usual strategies, like release events and university and bookstore readings and tours, have been replaced by Zoom readings and online events—which have not, it seems, translated to the same number of sales. So although I dislike “best of” lists, the original idea was to shine a light on new releases, but through email conversations, we decided it would be more fun if we just included books that were important to us in some way, whatever the genre.
So without further ado, let’s say adieu to 2020, with a few books that meant a lot to us. ~~Mark Wagenaar
Yazmina Reza’s Babyone, winner of the 2016 Prix Renaudot. For those who love films in which, really,
nothing happens (L’Avventura, Lost in Translation), or generally abandon novels when the plot kicks in,
this is for you. Oh, yes, there’s a murder, but it’s almost entirely beside the point. The writer’s eye for
detail, the telling word, is astonishing, the writing beautiful, but not too beautiful. Available in English.
Albert Camus, La Peste. Most often read in English, in high school, granted. But for those seeking to
understand the sparring dynamics of the current pandemic (of all pandemics), I can’t think of a better
primer. As Stephen Metcalf writes in the LA Times, “There is no anger or bitterness in this book, only an
immense spirit of forbearance and pity.” And tenderness and resolve, and lacerating horror, and the most profound insights into the human heart. Time for a re-read.
Victoria Chang’s Obit: Let me hop on the bandwagon. I don’t know of a book of poems that has been
more a revelation to me, since, perhaps, Simic’s Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, or Merwin’s
impeccable translation of Jean Follain’s Transparence of the World. In form, it brings to mind a more
intimate version of Claudia Emerson’s exquisite “Early Elegies” poems, almost unbearable in their toting
up of loss. The kind of collection one reads slowly, allotting oneself a single entry per day, a kind of
perverse multi-vitamin that shatters as it, imperceptibly, heals.
Kevin Prufer’s How He Loved Them. I interviewed Prufer for the Special Feature in Plume Poetry Anthology 8 in which poems from his forthcoming (2021) The Art of Fiction are featured.Intrigued by his
use of white space to suggest “moments of unarticulated thought before that thought finds articulation
in the words that follow the white space” and the subsequent intimacy with the reader this fosters, as well
as the speaker’s conflated perspective “of the deeply personal (the little intricacies of my own working mind) and the vastly historical”—a perspective I find helpful in these uncertain times—I turned to his previous How He Loved Them to find more of the above and was not disappointed. As in Prufer’s poems from the Art of Fiction, the tension is taut between the personal and historical “as if one were trying to communicate with the other in ways that were wordless and mystifying.”
Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie. I’m sure I’m not the only one who turned back twenty-four years to this gorgeous collection of sonnets conjuring the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Written in language Geoffrey Wolff claims “dares to stir the dead, to remind us that we are temporary survivors” I found hope in the collection’s arc from the horrifying beginning to end of the pandemic—this will end, right? And, perversely, I found comfort in an indifferent nature which will endure with or without us in And who can tell us where there was an orchard, / where a swing, where the smokehouse stood?—the same odd comfort I find in Louise Bogan’s —O remember /In your narrowing dark hours / That more things move / Than blood in the heart.
Nin Andrew’s The Last Orgasm landed on my doorstep in the early weeks of December 2020 when the U.S. coronavirus death toll began, again, to rise. I can’t tell you how the cover, in all its unfettered, erotic glory lifted my spirits out of downward spiral. O, or Orgasm, the primary speaker in these poems—both homage to and engagement with poets central to Andrew’s writing life—is by turns petulant, wise, witty, wry, wistfully remorseful and hilariously remorseless as “they” look back on a long life. This delicious collection of Ironic Erotica is good tonic for the soul and body in these grim times.
To manage without too much guilt about all the memorable 2020 poetry collections I would have to leave out, I’m narrowing the choice to my December reads. Conflict-of-interest etiquette says I should not be mentioning Michael Waters’s Caw (BOA Editions, 2020), so here, I am not including it among the three, but trust me, whether you are a casual reader of poetry or a wordsmith, this stunning collection on aging, sin, dementia, and love, always love, will not disappoint.
I am re-reading Gerald Stern’s Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000-2018 (W.W. Norton, 2020) so I may carry its blessings into 2021. How we all need, and should heed this singular voice whose ‘humming’ (as Stern has called poetry) never fails us, this seer’s poems and whatever hope and measure of delight they allow.
Like all her previous collections, Pascal Petite’s Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe, 2020), whose ‘hymns […]
burn/at the centre of the earth,’ is fiery, intense. Petite explores her mixed heritage through the lexicons of flora and fauna, through lenses that lend immediacy and intimacy to the devastating effects of environmental exploitation and destruction.
Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2018) returns me and forces me to gaze into the ‘ravines’ of personal and collective histories. Poems of singeing clarity chronicle a father’s immigration to America in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War and the complicated emotional history that shapes and reshapes one’s sense of self.
It was a year of too much and too little. Time was empty and painfully full all at once. I wish I could say I took the extra space and jammed it full of this year’s publishing wonders. In recollection my reading was odd, fitful, and, simply put, all over the place. Here are just a few things I’m thinking about at year’s end.
My disposition inclines me to genres of pessimism, if not outright doom. So, it’s not surprise I, like others, found myself, reading plague novels and climate fiction, which I won’t mention here although not for lack of options or quality. There’s something for nearly everyone in All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. The book is full of prose, poetry, and above all wisdom about our planetary moment. It begins with an Adrienne Rich lyric that opens, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save.” With contributions by more than 50 women in sections titled root, advocate, reframe, reshape, persist, feel, nourish, and rise, it’s clear that it is possible to set aside the disaster porn of the moment and think about small steps toward futures we would rather live in than the current one.
Poets draw not just on the immediacy of the now but from complex histories. The most personal often garner the most attention, but undeniable would be the lure of history for poets. I marvel at 21/19: Contemporary Poets in the Nineteenth-Century Archive, edited by Kirsten Case and Alexandra Manglis who describe the “intimate encounters” a dozen or so poets have sifting the not-so dusty archives for the potencies of the past, which turn out to be resonant and relevant. How usable is a past full of racial violence, settler colonialism, and the haunting disappointments of ideas we cherish, like “Nature”? M. NourbeSe Philip on Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Black Cake.” Bryan Teare on William Cullen Bryant, Margaret Fuller and Tommy Pico. Dan Beachy-Quick on exhumation in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson. Cecily Parks on the evocative privacy of darkness and night, both under siege as street lamps become more common. And a preface by Fred Moten. There should be more volumes like this.
I learned a new word this year, syndemic, used often in medicine to describe the synergistic collision of two or more intense afflictions. Think pandemic plus something else equally terrifying. How things collided this year alone. It may seem like escapism amidst clustering crises, but in my house, it’s sometimes 1983, and I’m reading the catalogue Joseph Cornell and the Ballet. Who can resist Cornell? More, perhaps, that can resist ballet, although I find myself a sucker for both. I like to imagine the boxes not as spaces of confinement but as glorious and self-ornamented worlds in which twist and enthrall Tamara Toumanova, Marie Taglioni, and a host those who keep the glittering universe moving when most it seems to have stopped.
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
“We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose,” writes Maggie Nelson in Bluets, a book that I’m never not reading. Nelson combines lyric essay, deconstructed memoir, and philosophical meditation by means of elliptical lyric prose chunks that she calls “propositions.” As meditations on the nature of desire, obsession, and the divine, these seemingly unrelated narrative strands—her love of blue, her heartbreak, and her friend’s paralysis—begin to intersect thematically and become a means of exploring female agency anad creativity. Although her propositions are numbered to indicate forward narrative progression, her lexical, syntactic and sonic patterning work to counter this forward progression, the ultimate effect of which is a full-on lyric suspension of time.
The Pillow Book, by Sei Shōnagon
Before reading Bluets, I’d never heard of Sei Shōnagon, who served as a gentlewoman in Empress Teishi’s household during Japan’s Heian period, circa 1000. Since then, I’ve noted The Pillow Book has turned up again and again in conversations about the prose-poem form and sequencing. In the introduction, Shōnagon’s translator describes her work as an “apparently crazy quilt of vignettes and opinions and anecdotes” (emphasis added). Her subject matter is as wide-ranging as Nelson’s—she is just as likely to offer lists of things like rivers, plants, and waterfalls as she is to make candid observations about what annoys her or embarrases her, such as “the heart of a man.” The clarity of her commentary, even in her most seemingly mundane entries, recalls for me, too, the incisiveness of the French writer, Annie Ernaux in Things Seen.
I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, by James Allen Hall
It was impossible for me to put this book down, and I have a short attention span. I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well is Hall’s memoir about growing up queer in Florida and within a family whose members struggled with addiction, mental illness, and economic hardship, among other things. Like Bluets and The Pillow Book, Hall’s work is at once prose and poem, and it reminds me why I think poets often write the best memoirs. The book is a series of nine essays, each of which is broken into smaller chunks of prose that are sometimes numbered, sometimes not, and which suggests a kind of compartmentalization—as though by scrutinizing the individual facets of our traumas, we can transform those parts, and maybe those parts of ourselves, into something more whole. At the same time, I find these “nested” chunks of prose to work more like the technique of mise en abyme by mirroring, expanding, and complicating the narrative just enough so that it resists easy answers (if there are any) and those too-easy—and often limiting—distinctions between subject and object.
James Wright, A Life In Poetry by Jonathan Blunk, Farrar Giroux and Strass, 2017
In this ambitious, exhaustive, overdue biography of James Wright, Jonathan Blunk fleshes out Wright’s life in vivid detail from his childhood days in Martins Ferry, Ohio to his final hours in Mount Sinai Hospital, where Wright succumbed of cancer of the tongue in 1980. Blunk writes with commendable disinterestedness about Wright’s tumultuous life and brilliant work, trusting in the lapidary, deeply emotive genius of Wright’s poetry to speak for itself. One comes away from reading this book with an enduring appreciation of Wright’s
poetry and the heroic accomplishments he achieved in becoming sober without losing any of his “memorable speech” or contagious affections.
Atomizer, by Elizabeth Powell, Louisiana State University, 2020
The poems in Elizabeth Powell’s new book, Atomizer, entertain, teach, confess, and amuse. In poem after poem, Powell displays scintillating erudition, leaping from such subjects as Cinema Vérité to Shulamite to the old Yankee stadium to exotic perfumes, to animal husbandry, and these are just a smattering of her topics that emanate from her atomizer. The wild variety of her poems’ subject matter betrays the mind of a polymath who takes exquisite pleasure in engrossing her reader by engrossing herself in topics she loves and plumbs. But
Powell revels in much more than just her favorite things, she transforms them into meditations that transcend description and history by lifting them into lyrical studies that cross over from fascinations to “new things.” Her language flows with refreshing ease, humor, musicality, and probity. Powell not only tells the truth slant about herself as well as her subjects, she asks “how to understand the new sound of beauty: How a young girl disappeared into an idea/ of a person no one can have.”
These Fevered Days, Ten Pivotal Moments In The Making of Emily Dickinson, WW Norton, 2020
Martha Ackmann new biography of Emily Dickinson reads like a compelling novel, unveiling Dickinson’s domestic mysticism in a gripping narrative style. Ackmann writes with a loving perspicacity but also a cold eye, capturing the hard facts of Dickinson’s famous solitude. The quiet yet momentous dramas of Dickinson’s life, including her friendships with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, Samuel Bowles, Charles Wadsworth, and Sue Gilbert, along with her deep affection for her sister Vinnie, her father Edwin, and
her dog Carlo, come to life in Ackman’s chapters with a freshness and import that emanate
from her exhaustive research. The irony of Ackmann’s surprising new details about Dickinson, along with her highly engaging narrative coherence, belies any demystification one might assume would result from her careful research. On the contrary, only deeper mystery and awe for the poet.
Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. For the risks Morrison takes in presenting characters that at first seem strange and improbable and then make wonderful and sometimes revelatory sense. For the thin and sometimes permeable line between what is real in the larger world outside the particular character’s psyche and what that character imagines. For the faith she has in herself and in her readers to find the sometimes labyrinthine way through. And of course, for the wide range and of black and white relations and their accompanying intricacies.
Ellen Bass’s Indigo. For the equally smart and compassionate voice that speaks these poems. For Bass’s willingness to be unafraid and completely open when she is wending her way towards a particular truth. For the breadth of these poems that weave so artfully the tiniest details of our quotidian life to the largest issues and questions facing humankind. If you take the time to memorize a few, you can keep their song and wisdom within you—a comfort in these times.
Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way. If you are tired of the human world and want to be let in on the genius of bird behavior in well-written narratives that bring along the facts but aren’t driven by them, then this book might be for you. There a fine poetic sensibility and attention to fascinating detail to be found in its pages.
THE YELLOW HOUSE; Sarah M. Broom. This memoir by Sarah Broom tells the intricate, fascinating story of Broom, her family, and growing up in New Orleans East, a forgotten part of the city that has been entirely neglected since Katrina. The memoir begins well before Hurricane Katrina, though, narrating generations of relationships and the struggle of their home ownership. Broom deftly articulates the rich symbolic significance of the ways in which a home becomes a kind of second body for its inhabitants. Broom is the youngest of eleven children, and one of the things she does best in this book is navigate the ways siblings define and complicate each other, the ways they provide a sense of wholeness and fracture all at once.
CLAUDE BEFORE TIME AND SPACE; Claudia Emerson. Often in my own writing time, I turn to this book for inspiration. Many of these wistful poems tell stories—patient, lyrical stories, dazzlingly precise in their imagery. These poems are so carefully crafted, the lines fine-tuned and taut, and they do the most wonderful thing a book of poems can do: they yield something new with every read.
What He Did in Solitary, Amit Majmudar:
This poetry collection is an absolute riot. Majmudar pairs a great sense of humor with a wry sensibility, an inventive knack for wordplay and imagery, and a fantastic ear for music—his poems are often intricately layered soundscapes with a variety of internal rhymes (“necrotic Cleveland / suburb-encrusted / equal parts / elegy and punch line / Youngstown with no young / steel-mill-sepulchral, / Painesville painting herself / Pabst blue, O you…” ) The book has a wonderful range, both in terms of form and tone, but in terms of subject as well—ghazals, odes, prose poems, a “Godhra Sequence,” lists and letters and laments for America and the imprisoned (“I Carceri,” “What He Did in Solitary,” “What He Dreamed in Solitary,” and “What He Drew in Solitary” are surreal and sorrowful), and yet there is plenty of room in the book for the fantastic, for octopi and jellyfish and the mythological—even a museum of the supernatural!
How to Carry Water, Lucille Clifton:
Aracelis Girmay edited this book, and introduces it with a foreword, and her curation of Clifton’s poems is wonderful. Across eighteen sections, the poems range from 1965 to 2010, most from prior collections, but many are uncollected poems, some of which, as Girmay notes in the thoughtful foreword, were discovered by her and Kamilah Aisha Moon in Clifton’s papers, housed at Emory. Clifton’s poems are often unpunctuated, sometimes fragmented, sometimes almost effortlessly surreal and yet plainspoken (“my mouth is a cave of cries. / my room is filled with white coats / shaped like God.”), sometimes elegiac, often charged with sorrow and/or beauty and/or joy, or spring from history, or the experience of being a Black woman in America. I was quite taken with her “songs” to Mary, the dream poems, and her fox poems, and “the death of fred clifton” was especially haunting. The book concludes with brief testimonials of writers reflecting on what Clifton’s work meant to them and their own writing.
Motherland, Sally Thomas:
For anyone who feels, as I do, that we’re living in an age of spiritually impoverished poetry, this book is an antidote. Thomas’s poems keep one eye on the beauty and sorrow of this world—both natural phenomena and in the spheres of family and love—and one on the ever-after. This is not a blind faith, however: her poems, and her faith, do not shrink from the toughest questions that a faith must face. “Burial in Holy Week,” for instance, takes place at a burial for a baby, and wrestles with the questions that such an event inevitably raises: “…facing God / Who had given and received in one dread day.” Tenderly wrought, her poems are also formally dexterous—the terza rimas in “Holy Saturday” and “Obscure Constellation in Winter” are cunning, just beautifully done. A centerpiece of the collection is the twenty-part sequence “Richeldis of Walsingham,” which recounts the story of a Saxon widow who received visions of the Virgin Mary, and which, centered on the site of a shrine in England, skips across the centuries to examine the lives of its inhabitants and its pilgrims, often in subtly-rhymed couplets. Each poem within is titled after an Old English word, as well as the year in which the poem happens—from the eleventh century to the present one. The sequence is quite an achievement, and ends with a poem that begins by mimicking the highly alliterative Old English style—“High heaven harrowed a dew-fallow field, / Planted what pleased it.”—and ends with a haunting, almost paradoxical line, that rings with mortality: “My unmaking made this.”
The Temple, Michael Bazzett:
Bazzett is up to his old tricks again in this handsome chapbook (albeit one that feels like a full collection) from Bull City Press. Many of these poems feature God—one that resembles more the character of the same name who haunts some of Jack Gilbert’s poems, one who is full of longing, and regret, and sorrow, but who is nonetheless a willing conversation partner, one who sometimes chews on lost prayers, and loves his dog. Bazzett has a real gift for punchlines—his first poem, featuring God attempting to be a comedian, ends with a punchline about, of all things, both the nature of a joke and the nature of existence itself. “Good timing’s probably tough / when you’re eternal. Jokes, / like most folks, have no idea / what they mean until the end.” He’s also perhaps the most inventive poet writing today when it comes to conceptual set-ups, which are often surreal—in this collection, we encounter a shepherd of stones, a man who is found to have an empty city inside him, a narrator who splits in two at dusk, and a couple who “ditch” their bodies after school and wander away—the grief-beauty of this poem alone is worth the price of admission.
Cardinal, Tyree Daye:
As Danny already spoke for one of my choices, Obit, it’s perhaps fitting that one of my choices would be a press mate of Chang’s. A follow-up to River Hymns, Cardinal is alive with the history of Daye’s family—their lives, their loves, their migrations, and their labor—and the landscape of North Carolina. Most of Chelsea’s family hails from there, so I felt a kinship to places I recognized—just last week I walked the fields of Rolesville, of which Daye writes, “…when my people let the cotton sleep there were no vacations, / the fields of Rolesville belong to my kinfolk, dead and alive, / and I don’t know if my great-grandparents ever saw the ocean / or fell asleep on the beach.” Beyond the geography, I admired Daye’s eye for detail (“…they were so tried they lay there not moving / like flooded field-crickets / his hands still making tombstones…”), his ear for bluesy repetition, and the wisdom in many of the lines, one hard-earned from living close to the bone, from working at jobs that hurt you, working fields that sometimes will not be worked. Absences often haunt these poems—sometimes a body, sometimes the dead, sometimes an elsewhere—Chicago, or Harlem, or an unseen beach—and in one heartbreaking poem, this absence is the narrator’s dead son. The book also features a number of persona poems in the voice of “Miss Mary Mack,” a woman who introduces her feathers, learns to fly, and considers the nature of God.
Hold Me Tight, Jason Schneiderman:
Although the fairy tale-inspired poems in one of this book’s sequences, “The Book of Wolves,” are not without their charms, and the “Chris Burden Suite” is memorable for its interrogation of the nature of art and its presentation of Chris Burden’s art (the suite is also an elegy for the artist, who died in 2015), the real heart of Schneiderman’s book is “The Book of Lasts,” a series of poems that imagines the endling, or last surviving member, of a variety of different people and items: the last book, widow, mirror, baby, etc. This is a playful, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, series of poems that are conceptually inventive. And while I admired and enjoyed a number of other poems, especially “In Memoriam, Fanny Imlay (1794-1816),” and “Voxel” (word-hoarders! please read this poem!), this concluding series was one I returned to a number of times in the past few months.
Dear Reader, and Words Written Against the Walls of the City, Bruce Bond:
I’ve been reading Bond almost as long as I’ve been reading poetry, and these two volumes are worthy additions to his body of work. Dear Reader is a fifty poem sequence, each numbered, each one in seven couplets, a profound, moving meditation on faith, time, love, memory, perception, and the nature of language itself (“Together is darker than the word that takes / its place.”). The narrator often uses apostrophe to address the unseen reader, to ask questions, and offer solace and observations. Think of them as a series of letters to you, written by a thoughtful 21st century Stevens (perhaps with a touch of Wittgenstein) with a good deal more longing and suffering, who often employs a circular syntax and delights in paradoxes (“Who am I / to strike my eye from the eye I strike…”, “His body / an empty bottle he emptied bottles into.”), who opens up countless circles and portals in the world and sometimes closes them, sometimes leaps to another invisible circle of thought—and sometimes talks to a cat that talks back. Words Written Against the Walls of the City is rangier, of course, a slender collection of twenty-five poems, in which we encounter again many of Bond’s primary concerns and interests—the nature of music and film and art and their possibilities (e.g. Ginestera’s The Tree of Forgetting, Cornell, El Greco, etc), the presence of the dead and their demands upon the living. In this volume Bond also drills into the nature of a nation, recalls the nuclear drills in school he experienced as a boy, and traces the nature of American conflicts, from the Cold War to “the new wars.”
The Soul is a Stranger in This World, Micah Mattix:
In over thirty essays and reviews, Mattix offers his thoughts on a wide range of topics in poetry, from the role of the poet in society, to reflections on some of poetry’s 19th and 20th century masters (Dickinson, Rilke, Eliot, the WWI poets, Frost, Bishop, etc), to reviews of contemporary poetry collections. You won’t encounter what people might describe, in a pejorative sense, as “academic language” here—this is lively writing, often written for a general audience, and the diction, and the brevity of the essays, reflect that. Mattix is one of those critics who seems like he’s read everything, and he’s comfortable talking about a poet’s spirituality, someone who is almost as well-versed in theology and philosophy as literature—witness his chronicling of Franz Wright’s spiritual journey, and how Mattix shows this journey across successive volumes of Wright’s work, or his review of a book by A.M. Juster, in which Mattix pivots from the etymology of a specific word, “slander,” to Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the word scandalum, to the apostle Paul. Mattix is a careful close reader as well, and his sense of humor shines throughout the book.
 McKinney, Meredith. “Introduction.” The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. Translated by Meredith McKinney, Penguin, 2006, (x).
 Ibid (ix).