WE CAN IMAGINE IMPOSSIBILITY OR WE CAN READ WOMEN: 25 Poetry Collections

The year 2018 marks the halfway point through one of the most misogynistic presidencies in American history. This year was equally full of women’s voices and the attempted resistance, erasure, and violence to those voices. More than ever, it is necessary to advocate for the existence of the marginalized in the arts and in our lives. Here are twenty-five full-length collections and chapbooks published within the last two years. For their music, their muscle, their craving, and their carving, these twenty-five collections are vital and incredible constellations.

2018

1. Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller (Orison Books)

Carly Joy Miller’s debut collection is sustenance that creates its own hunger. Lines like “Hallelujah I’m purposed. / My bits lording the dirt” fill me, but fill me equally with a new need. Miller has the incredible ability to fable, but takes the reader so much deeper than the safety of allegory. Every line carries urgency by feeling that the lines cannot be any tighter without snapping in the hands—a gleaming harp string. From “Ceremonial: Heart of the Trottered Beast”:

The animal needs room,
unchurched

yet beautiful. I never
considered the cathedral

a body needing to break.
I laid the trottered down.

Pestle the eyes, opaque
in vision. As soon as

I take the cloth to clean
the sockets, the organs play

their last bright notes.

2. The Möbius Strip Club Of Grief by Bianca Stone (Tin House Books)

The Möbius Strip Club Of Grief was an entirely uncharted dimension until Bianca Stone. The space this collection occupies both interrupts and critiques the world we know. Bianca Stone’s humor and intelligent attention to wonder create a lyric uniquely her own:

I think everyone’s glad I’m dead, said the stripper
with the caved-in face. Her fingers were bone and no
sinew. She flapped her arms at the two wrens
caught up in the rafters, staring down
on the empty dance hall. Chirps rained like sparks
from the electric saws in their hearts.
No one here is glad anyone is dead. But
there is a certain comfort in knowing
the dead can entertain us, if we wish.

There is hope in The Möbius Strip Club of Grief. The most important thing this collection gave me is the understanding that part of being a feminist is reconciling how grief can pass down through generations. We have our grief, and the grief of our loved-ones before us, and these cycles will continue if we do not disrupt them. Thankfully, we have poets like Bianca Stone carving a space where we can confront these cycles with wit and love.

3. I Think I’m Ready To See Frank Ocean by Shayla Lawson (Saturnalia Books)

The poems that make up I Think I’m Ready To See Frank Ocean belong equally to our present and our future. They hold and reach—they record, and they demand.

From “NIKES”:

Just as the President
who could only say, “If I had a son
he’d look like Trayvon”

instead of, “If I had a son
he’d look just like me.” So often
the body is used

as a way to mediate chaos.
Just like the Statue of Liberty
looked “just like Trayvon”

but America couldn’t not swim
under the body of a black girl
& still feel free. And yes

this is a vulgar elegy. I ask:
What is it in you, that they
don’t want to look like you?

Lawson’s line is constantly flexing with surreal and unapologetic music. Part of loving our generation is accusing our generation. Lawson in a thirteen-part poem titled “OLD TERROR” writes:

The black man blooms, the body
a fruit inescapable—its provocation either
too ripe
or
to rot.

Keep I Think I’m Ready To See Frank Ocean close—this collection is for the America we have been, the America we are, and the America we cannot lose hope in. Shayla Lawson’s music will stay in your ears and spin you until the ocean inside you is inseparable from the ocean around you.

4. House Is an Enigma by Emma Bolden (Southeast Missouri State University Press)

Emma Bolden explores how careful the language of loss is—what we can gain from it, and what we can lose because of it. Again and again, “House” is a subject confronted. Investigated. Explored. The collection has poems titled “Even If You Aren’t, House Is Listening” and “House Is a Mirror.” Uneasiness builds on uneasiness, and just when the reader feels lost and alone in the House, Bolden draws up a curtain in the poem “House Is the Word My Doctors Used for My Body”:

My doctors couldn’t make themselves tell me
that I couldn’t have children until they made me

into a metaphor, into a house happy in the kind of story
they’d tell their own children. And in the story I became,

the house I was cried.

House Is an Enigma argues against the language of fickle security. The vulnerability of the speaker rattles the reader’s foundations. The House of the collection “has held / you inside its rooms and seen you there naked.” Emma Bolden knows the way; through everything we have built to make us feel safe, to genuine completion.

5. Empty Clip by Emilia Phillips (The University of Akron Press)

Empty Clip is a collection of lethal lyrics. Like so many years before, 2018 has been a year of normalizing violence in America, but Emilia Phillips’ poems jar the reader from their sleepwalk with hyper-conscious language:

<

p style=”text-align: left;”>Afterwards, he gathered the dog’s shadow
in black garbage bag
and stuffed into the trunk to heave
into the church
dumpster. For a moment, I
was only animal,

<

p style=”text-align: left;”>not because of any excess
projected point blank into me,
but because I’m almost always
animal anyway.

        — from “Hollow Point”

Empty Clip is divided into two sections: “HOLLOW POINT” and “SPLIT SCREEN.” In this way, the act of violence and the voyeurism of violence are made two halves of the same problematic body politic. Many of the poems in Empty Clip reach across several pages, building significant movement within themselves, but it should be noted that Phillips’ shorter poems equally shine with their lyric compactness. “Pica of Unsaid Things” dances through sound and lexicon:

    A soapy mouth learns other ways
to speak: homonymic hymns
of lye & lie. The awful offal
becomes my loden, stinking.
Anger uncomplicates. But I gulped
the wrong way.

6. Sons of Achilles by Nabila Lovelace (YESYES Books)

Anyone who reads Sons of Achilles will find lines that burn into the brain for much longer than anticipated. “I am an apprentice in a city named, / Kiss The Hands Who Kill”—the self in Lovelace’s poems is wonderfully aware of how past violence lends violence to come. Every pair of hands in Sons of Achilles has the ability to hurt or help preserve the self:

show me his blood /I’ll point
you to the corner where edge
meets edge/& head
meets wall/that fist
parts the mouth
His God/ His God/ His God

      — from “Moses II: The Lunchroom”

Sons of Achilles erases the line between bold declarative statements and revelatory questions—questions we should be asking of this year. Questions we have been asking of this year:  

Once
I knew a man
who fought a river,
& kept
both hands. Once
I was called
Anwar’s little
cousin.
Once, I didn’t have
a name
at all. Who are you
if not boy
& brazen?

     — from “For Songs & Contests”

Sons of Achilles is a collection of unrelenting questions, some with fists and some water cupped in both hands.

7. Bad Anatomy by Hannah Cohen (Glass Poetry Press)

The speaker in Hannah Cohen’s chapbook is simultaneously damning and dignifying. Bad Anatomy offers a dimension of introspection that re-calculates its ability poem to poem. In “Body As An Alberto Giacometti Sculpture,” Cohen takes the loneliness and distance of desire and gives it a language to breath with:

If you’re a museum,
call me
a standing wreck,
god, yes,
I’m yours.

Like the title Bad Anatomy suggests, there is a feeling of autopsy, of surveying the body and its endings:

It was a good destruction.
Like mosquitos in orbit
around a citronella wick.
When all the men died
I asked for more.
More men until I’m happy
again. I myself am half-hell
and half-morning.

     — from “Self-Portrait as Grendel”

If a reader lets Bad Anatomy do its careful work, they will find themselves captivated, “immovable in their blue.”

8. I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood by Tiana Clark (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Tiana Clark’s debut poetry collection is lush with the laughter of ghosts and miracles. I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood reads like a catalogue of what is owed what is never forgotten:

I see trees, but they look like men,        hanging.

I see men, but they look like trees,        walking

(on fire.)

       — from “What the Blood Does”

Clark’s verse is all at once meditative, locomotive, and muscular. Throughout I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood, there are contrapuntal lines that give the reader the feeling of moving forward into new space while simultaneously keeping them halted on the same stanzas, like this stanza nestled in the long poem, “The Rime of Nina Simone”:

Look, if you can write about anything         you want,
Then write. About. Anything                           You want.
Why do you keep panting & hunting           black hurt,
black scars like a slave-breaker?                   Why scratch
the white page, a master,                                  for old blood?
Like a god, you are                                                so thirsty,
hell-bent on carving beauty                             from dead bodies
from sacrifice                                                          on the altar. 

There is so much to gleam from Clark’s contrapuntal lines: the feeling of moving forward without moving forward is the trick of a word like progress. The refusal to leave an image until it has been read as many ways as possible; to memorize and memorialize the moment is what so many in American history have had to do in order to preserve their history and the history of those who came before them. I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood is a collection of beautiful reckoning.

9. Wade In The Water by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press)

Wade In The Water is a multitude. No document, no testimony is so sacred that it cannot be made more sacred by Smith’s poems. In an erasure poem of The Declaration of Independence—”Declaration”—Smith reduces one of the most significant American texts to a brilliant lyric witness against whitewashing:

               He has plundered our—

                                                        ravaged our—

                                                                             destroyed the lives of our—

              taking away our—

The speaker in Wade In The Water takes on many I’s and sees through many eyes with unapologetic clarity: those in the margins targeted by hate in the present day, and accounts of African-Americans in the Civil War era are given space to speak collectively. Even in the collective noise, however, Smith’s speaker still will settle into moments of singular meditation where every word has the warmth of honest light:

I feel ashamed, finally,

Of our magnificent paved roads,

Our bridges slung with steel,

Our vivid glass, our tantalizing lights,

Everything enhanced, rehearsed,

A trick. I’ve turned old. I ache most

To be comforted by the real

      — from “Annunciation”

10. Virgin by Analicia Sotelo (Milkweed Editions)

Analicia Sotelo’s poems explore uncertainty and turmoil in Mexican-American life. Virgin’s reach is tremendous, starting with family and childhood, and then exploring personae of myth and fable. In “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful,” the speaker shows how the subject of girlhood is often argued as not being worthy of a poem:

And I couldn’t think of anything to
say in her defense. Some people said I should take her
out of the poem. Other people said no, take her out of
the lake and put her in a bedroom where one man is
saying I can’t help you, and another is saying, You waited
too long. The men sounded like cynical seabirds. When
they said Virgin, they meant Version we’ve left behind.
I didn’t trust them. So I took her out to the rush of the sea.

Sotelo’s Virgin moves into persona with beautiful ease, taking on the identity of Ariadne, the Cretan princess of Greek Mythology. Sotelo uses Ariadne’s narrative to investigate the complications of love and heartbreak between the sexes, with verses that haunt in their beauty as much as their torment:

When a man tells you he’s a monster,
believe him.

When a man says
you will get hurt,

leave.

       — from “Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation to the Minotaur”

Virgin is a collection of narrative and lyric excellence, full of startling revelations for the reader to turn back to over and over: “Now I have three heads: one / for speech, one for sex, / and one for second-guessing.”

11. Bound by Claire Schwartz (Button Poetry)

The longing in Claire Schwartz’s luminous chapbook is a longing for completion. Not just wholeness of self, but wholeness of people. Over and over the poems remind us that unity is the highest accomplishment. In “Birds,” the speaker asks us to remember and return:

I am trying to tell you: I miss wonder. I wonder
if nostalgia is what we invented to name ourselves species

and mean: we once stood on the same shore.

Classification is a country. If the pens of white men had fallen

differently, we might share a homeland.

Bound’s conversation in the age of violent anti-Semitism is honest (“Like any good American, I am holding a pillow over History’s mouth”), and contains in its language the refusal of erasure:

Who counts
you?

At night, I dress in silt. This way I am closer to my grandmother.

In this version, the minute is hollowed. We enter it—& live.

When I say We, I mean: everyone who hauls their dead
up the mountain called day.

       — from “Shards with Diffuse Light”

Claire Schwartz’s poems bring an offering of clarity, “like, no, not smoke, / but a single, shimmering note.”

12. Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Copper Canyon Press)

Oceanic is a bestiary of a collection. Any poem in Oceanic leaves the reader feeling more grounded but somehow lighter. Poems like “Sea Church” shave me down to my most basic self and convince me this is the self worth keeping:

I ask for the grace
of a new freckle
on my cheek, the lift
of blue and my mother’s
soapy skin to greet me.

Nezhukumatathil writes in praise of the body and the joy capable because of the body:

I will shape my fingers into sarpasirassu—my favorite,

a snake—sliding down my wrist and into each finger:
Just look at these colors so marvelous so fabulous

say the two snakes where my brown arms once were.
See that movement near my elbow, now at my wrist?

      — from “In Praise of My Manicure”

Oceanic speaks to the whole body—submerges the whole body in wish and wonder.

13. Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm (Milkweed Editions)

It is hard to forget the enigmatic otherness and sameness Wilder contains in its verses. Many of the poems feel like calm preludes to an unknowable chaos:

We were out of songs to hum. Our throats were boxes
of soot. In our orchards, no more insect thrum,
no swallow quaver.

How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?

If we closed our eyes, the falling apples
Sounded like heavy rain.

      — from “Advent”

Wahmanholm’s style varies remarkably from suspended fragments of erasure, to single-paragraph prose poems but never lose their dream-like lyric ambition. In “W,” the lines of association are blurred and the distance between subjects of nature and destruction is made more intimate (and dangerous):

W is for the war that washes us wear and wordless, that wipes the
woods of its whip-poor-wills, waxbills, and wrens. We wade in the
deep weeds, whip-wild and writhen by the wind. The woad wilts.
War warms the water, weeps onto the leaves of the walnut trees and
withers them.

Wilder is a luminous almanac of weariness. The reader must board Wahmanholm’s verse like an ark capable of describing the flood it floats upon.

14. Cease by Beth Bachmann (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Cease is part command, part plea. Most of the poems in Cease are as short as a fourth of a page, reading like S.O.S. messages or hurried (but perfect) instructions. Bachmann’s form is an innovative balance between prose and lyrics that establishes and never loses its restlessness:

the battle has many parts you’re it I’m it too many people too many people not
enough looking each other in the eyes before shooting cut the armor off your
whole body without flinching or leave it to me don’t pretend you are innocent

      — from “shame”

Every poem feels like a room to investigate and run through, and to help enforce this idea, Cease is framed by four poems titled “wall:” “to keep the peace / we need a wall to fall to our knees before.” The word “wall” in all four poems is insistent—repeated over and over much like the campaign rhetoric of 45. When the reader reaches the final “wall,” the speaker has made it clear how impossible the notion of boundary or border truly is:

we meet here commit the path to pathway

if no land                  water                      if

no land no burial where you can’t reach me.

15. If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar (One World)

Fatimah Asghar’s poems call out, charge, and protect what they love. If They Come For Us is a shield of a collection. Asghar’s grasp on displacement, diaspora, and the otherness thrust upon her family is unflinching and unapologetic: “you’re kashmiri until they burn your home. Take your orchards. Stake a / different flag. until no one remembers the road that brings you back… you’re american / until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back” (“Partition”).

When tenderness happens in If They Come For Us, it is just as much an act of resistance as a practice of happiness:

when the sadness comes
my sister tells me a story—

a man buried in pakistan
a woman buried in new york city

when we sleep they wake
opposite sides of the world

the planet opens a tunnel
where they meet

      — from “Lullaby”

If They Come For Us contains the anger for the mistreatment of human beings by our presidency, and is a testament to the love that claws against silence: “my country is made / in my people’s image / if they come for you they / come for me too.”

16. From by Jill Osier (Bull City Press)

Most of the poems in From begin and end with one careful breath. The compact space of the chapbook is amplified with how slowly and meditative the poems read. Poems like, “They’re Saying Now that Feathers are Mostly Light, that Wings are Mostly Not There” create and give careful attention to quiet observances. The poem begins:

But sometimes it’s warm enough for the neighbor
to stand in the field

and brush out her horse’s tail. She knows the sun
slips through it.

The horse, two-toned, is losing a winter coat, the day
a world

slipping through its own hands.

Osier’s strongest quality in her poems is the use of line break. When Osier breaks the line, she breaks the reader:

over an hour in the cold,
Waiting, I think,
for them to love me.

Then I walked home.

       — from “Shell Rock Song”

From is a chapbook of quietude, a catalogue of tones breaking silence gently.

17. The Tender Between by Eve Luckring (Ornithopter Press)

“how can I rebuild what I’ve never known whole?” The Tender Between asks, as the collection itself is building. Eve Luckring’s lines resist the need for closure, but sometimes close what the reader wasn’t aware was open:

swallowtail
swallowtail
we all fall down

< a cat
> a carcass
28 flies

Moments float near each other like specks of light, and whether they will ever touch is not the concern of the poems. Sparse lines lie on the page like strands of hair—each one containing the full weight of everything that makes The Tender Between. The logic the collection establishes is wonderful and awe-making:

the cold times the dark doorway

* * *

until trees can be landlords

The Tender Between is a collection to be read start to finish in a single sitting, followed by readings from any and every direction as one flips and revisits moments, letting different lines alchemize together and rebuild.

18. Terrible Blooms by Melissa Stein (Copper Canyon Press)

Terrible Blooms presents the whole world in such a way that even its violences can be deemed beautiful. Enter each poem with notion that anything is possible, and anything is dangerous. Poems like “Cave” begin both with the element of lyric enchantment and distress:

So baroque the way
he looked at me
like meat
like last night’s
remains on the spoiled
slab.

Stein works language down to the bone and brawl, finding the fight in every line:

I asked a soldier about the camouflage
and he said nothing. Kiss that soldier,
place your hand over his heart.
He has been reinserted with missing
pieces and extra pieces.

      — from “Jigsaw”

Terrible Blooms is a collection to startle and remind—this a world hell-bent on making and un-making, valuing each with diligence and time.

19. The Bluest Kali by Scherezade Siobhan (Lithic Press)

The Bluest Kali is a collection of displacement and processing. Scherezade Siobhan’s speaker unpacks depression through the lens of a woman of color. Siobhan’s verse is dense with meticulous imagery—every word brings the reader further from themselves and closer to the danger of subject:

girls with bodies pronounced like explicit quasars. girls with nails, a cloister of hyenas soliciting the ebony prairie out of its colonial pitfalls. girls with dreams paling to anemia. girls with aspens knitted into their fingerprints. girls with guns gardened beneath their Tongues.

         — from “grrls”

The Blues Kali is a collection wherein every single poem has its own moment of private brilliance. Siobhan’s form is strange in its loveliness, and lovely in its strangeness:

its scent of                  cinnamon and psalms
and these miniature  tyrannies where touch
must come        contoured       with language,   where
the heart can’t be       sketched back     into its own

black horse

      — from “after cordoba”

20. Tunsiya Amrikiya by Leila Chatti (Bull City Press)

“I’ve begun to / wonder what it is like for her / to have four hearts / outside her body” asks the speaker in “Motherland,” a poem which feels very much like the heart of the chapbook. Leila Chatti reconciles with God, family, and girlhood in extraordinarily compassionate verse. Tunsiya Amrikiya turns wonderfully to faith and the accountability that come with being a believer when the world is at its most hollow:

where are you to refuse those
who call out to you, who undo
what you’ve made in your name?
I am not asleep and they are
not waking. Again there is blood
on the floor in your name
and there is no god
but you, so answer.

       — from “While Reading the News About Orlando, I Hear the Call to Prayer”

Leila Chatti’s poems contain the beautiful essence of a 21st century Muslim childhood in American: “Sometimes, I thought / my father was a god, I loved him that much. And the news thought / this was an impossible thing—a Muslim girl who loved her father” (“Muslim Girlhood”). The faith in Tunsiya Amrikiya is something every person in the 21st century should encounter.

2017

21. The New Nudity by Hadara Bar-Nadav (Saturnalia Books)

The New Nudity is a collection of intense object studies. Hadara Bar-Nadav focuses and brings to life everyday objects from telephone poles to spoons, from fountains to mouths. Each poem is its own wonderful revelation:

Animal bent
by a cage.

Lion at the knees.

Song of bone
and wire.

      — from “Piano”

The New Nudity lets readers enter the lives of objects and value these objects beyond their simple function in our lives. In “Ladder,” ideas of purpose blend with ideations of beauty:

She steps us closer to God.

The farther we are
from heaven, the more we desire.

Someone opens her,
someone holds her down.

The iron bite of her cry
winds through the streets.

We would not touch
the light any other way.

All at once, Hadara Bar-Nadav’s poems are both still and un-still-lives.

22. The Dead Girls Speak In Unison by Danielle Pafunda (Bloof Books)

The Dead Girls Speak In Unison is both a collection of poems and a whole song. The sections of the book number up to “35” with chants, fragments, hymns, and fables scattered in between to create a world that feels older and at the same time, timeless. The first lines of the collection immediately cut through the meat of the music:

We get nothing but the center
of each o eaten by a worm
relinquished by a worm

travelling the country
by way of worm, or sorry conduit.

The powerful, collective presence of the speakers is overwhelming but strangely harmonizing. This is the voice of every dead girl speaking at once, and it is shocking, bewildering, and absolutely gorgeous. The fragments throughout the collection capture the divine and incomplete spirit of Sappho, and anyone else whose entire voice has been erased down to a matter of words:

Our maggots more charming
than any of your statesmen.

        — from “Fragment”

The sense of despair from the speakers is thankfully in a language we the living can understand. The Dead Girls Speak In Unison is a surreal glimpse of how the dead are in fact speaking, every day.

23. Thrust by Heather Derr-Smith (Persea Books)

The everyday violence and survival of southern girlhood is the heart of Heather Derr-Smith’s fourth collection, Thrust. Derr-Smith has a rare gift for showing the wildness equally present in the lives of animals and children. In “Girls, Guard Your Hearts, Cover Your Heads,” she captures these different wilds intersecting and the wonder that come from being close to something dangerous:

our feet tracing the hidden fault line, no one knew was there until it shook.

I held his daughter’s hand in mine, and a coyote crossed our path

so large, it caught our breath: The kind that long ago
mated with wolves and grew to the size of a myth.

We sang a hymn of awe from our shut mouths as it passed and stopped
and looked straight into us.

The most defining movement of Thrust is its critiques of patriarchal culture, and how even adolescence is not immune to its dangerous reach:

The past is connected to the present like a man’s arm to his shoulder,

the punch that breaks the jaw in pieces, the hit that leaves you speechless.

        — from “Glass Jaw”

24. Some Beheadings by Aditi Machado (Nightboat Books)

Some Beheadings is language at its most organic and revelatory. Machado’s syntax and form reinvigorate English and remind readers that language itself is a coiling, ever-moving thing. The poems themselves negotiate extra dimensions of being, like in a section from “Prospekt:”

When one enters a room one becomes its audience. One audits its
dimensions, decides whether to reverse the dynamic of keep it. If
one keeps it one remains that most mysterious of facts: a furnishing.

Some Beheadings does incredible work with refrain and the idea of refrain, the language working towards the notion of revisiting instances and how, in the tenses, there is uneasiness. Movement is not a singular direction but an all-at-once-ness that Machado’s lines render with inimitable tact:

Sun bounces off railway tracks:
ancient ritual of geometry.

By the tracks opens a flower:
Refrain.

The flower is general & particular & ancient.

It satiates the erasure of a palm.

There is a richness in saying everything we know.
There is a richness in saying everything, we know.

         — from “Speeches, Minor”

25. Set to Music a Wildfire by Ruth Awad (Southern Indiana Review Press)

“I’m learning to love, in a land that won’t love me” is how the opening poem, “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion,” in Set to Music a Wildfire ends. Ruth Awad’s speaker never tries to negotiate the various narratives that make the Lebanese-American self, but rather claims all of the self, taking every victory and defeat as a giftful inheritance:

America, I see through your glass—
I reach my hand and my fingerprints
are everywhere. Like leaves the gust blows in.

I don’t have money to feed your fountains
or enough water that it’s never a wish,

       — from “My Father Dreams of a New Country”

What Set to Music a Wildfire does beautifully is piece together reason and consequence from meditation, memory, and passed-down stories:

Men can run—
what else?
What else
will save them from
the world they’ve burned?

         — from “Gulls”

Set to Music a Wildfire is a collection determined to love the world, even when the world wages wars.

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