As a follow up to Monday’s post listing the best chapbooks of the year, here is my list for the best collections of poetry for 2011. In order to challenge myself, I wanted to keep my list to 10 books, and I did, but in doing so, I left a lot of great reads off this list. All in all, I read 42 books of poetry published in 2011 and have several others waiting to be read (I got several poetry collections for Christmas). It should go without saying, that it was hard for me to keep my list to only 10 books!
The Lifting Dress by Lauren Berry (Penguin) Poetic Southern Gothic at its best, Berry’s collection documents a young girl’s flight from the dark fury of her swampy and sultry town. Berry’s narratives are so rich with lyrical language, you will forget that you are reading a collection that explores the unapologetic darkness of violence.
The Book of What Says by James Crews (University of Nebraska Press) Crews’ debut collection explores secret places and hidden lives. The middle section of the book, which chronicles the art and voice of artist Feliz Gonzalez-Torress whose work often acts as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic, is the best sequence of poems I have read in a long time.
She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Kitsune Books) Gailey’s strength is the persona poem, and in her second collection, she invites readers into the stories and fairy tales of the Fox-Wife, Yuki the Snow Maiden, and the Crane Wife – all figures from Japanese folklore. But don’t worry if you think that you will get lost in the collection’s magical realism, for intertwined in these fairy tales, are poems that explore our own precarious relationship with the Atomic Age.
Neighborhood Register by Marcus Jackson (CavanKerry Press) In his first collection of poetry, Jackson chronicles the lives of a working-class city neighborhood. In his narratives, we learn about “the Baddest Kid in the neighborhood,” “Mary at the tattoo shop” and even “Mr Bernard” a teacher assigned to speak about the wisdom of correct grammar to an eighth grade class. Especially wonderful are the odes sprinkled throughout the book – odes that seem to praise relatively mundane things, such as Kool-Aid or scholarships, yet in the hands of Jackson are deemed wonderful and spiritual objects.
After the Ark by Luke Johnson (NYQ Books) Combining the domestic with the spiritual, Johnson, in his first collection of poetry, explores both grief and celebration of life in his elegies (or elegy – some readers may read his book as one long elegy). Johnson avoids sentimentality, and instead focuses on the wisdom of looking for closure in the world around us.
Hurricane Party by Alison Pelegrin (University of Akron Press) Pelegrin’s third full length collection of poems celebrates today’s Louisiana – yes, we get the post Katrina poems, but we get odes about booze and pelicans (not in the same poem), poems about getting the “creeps” (a personal favorite), and narratives where the characters tubing on a river “toss hot dogs/to a coon hound abandoned/on the bank.” I’ve always admired the way that Pelegrin explores place as both a physical landscape and a specific cultural space, and her newest book did not disappoint me.
Predatory by Glenn Shaheen (University of Pittsburgh Press) Winner of the 2010 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Shaheen’s work explores the silent and often forgotten places in America. Minimalism at its best, Predatory chronicles the solitude of what might be considered another lost generation.
A Witness in Exile by Brian Spears (Louisiana Literature Press) In his semi-autobiographical debut collection, Spears documents his religious upbringing as a Jehovah Witness while intertwining his present life in the landscape of the South. Spears’ work shows a deep vulnerability and reminds us that finding peace with our own lives, our own pasts, and our own spirituality is always a struggle – but a struggle that is of great importance.
Wait by Alison Stine (University of Wisconsin Press) Stine’s terrific follow-up to her first book, Ohio Violence, follows a young girl who seems to live in a midwestern Gothic fairy tale, plotting an escape with or without the help of those close to her.
Killing the Murnion Dogs by Joe Wilkins (Black Lawrence Press) In many ways, Wilkins’ first full length collection of poetry is a road trip through the back towns and dusty places in America. Most surely semi-autobiographical, Killing the Murnion Dogs takes the reader through struggling ranches and farms, old bars, and back alleys, all the while questioning what it means to go home, what it means to escape.