Let’s get 2021 started right, with some amazing poetry books! Here you’ll find poetry about grief, love, heartbreak, hope, and everything else you need to start building your poetry reading list for the new year. All the books in this list are publishing this month (January 2021).
If you’d like to purchase any of these poetry books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. Animal Days by Joshua Beckman
Enacting both the pain and heightened awareness of a body in crisis, Joshua Beckman’s latest collection of carefully assembled poetic fragments seeks to elucidate the synthetic reality of being sick and being medicated. Written from inside of illness and gathered over several years, these fragments or moments invite readers to contemplate how the compromised body transforms our conceptions of selfhood and our sense of the world. With a sincere reaching curiosity, the poems present a record of daily experience, but with the constant undermining presence of decay, memory, and death.
2. Mama Phife Represents by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
Award-winning poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor pays tribute to her departed son Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor of the legendary hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest in this intimate collection.
Mama Phife Represents is a hybrid-story that follows the journey of a mother’s grieving heart through her first two years of public and private mourning. Told through a tapestry of narrative poems, dreams, anecdotes, journal entries, and letters, these treasured fragments of their lives show a great love between mother and son. Artist and artist, teacher and friend. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s gift includes drawings, emails, hip-hop lyrics, and notes Malik wrote to his parents beginning at age eight. Both elegy and praise song, there is joy and sorrow, healing, and a mother’s triumphant heart that rises and blooms again.
3. Stay Safe by Emma Hine
At the center of this stellar poetry collection are three sisters and their imaginative fear of grief. Their great-uncle was bitten by a shark, their mother has a brain tumor, their neighbor hangs himself from a tree–and to cope with these very real terrors, the oldest sister creates an intimate fantasy world. We hear stories of a mountain lion that slaughters a deer, a transparent body washed up on a beach, a selkie who ventures to shore and becomes their mother: “On land her pelt was heavy / like stewed velvet, so she taught herself / to take it off.” The sisters’ environment of ocean and sand, forests and farmhouses, forms a lush backdrop to many of these poems. But later, as the speaker ages, we find ourselves in the mountains, in an art museum, in a spacecraft where a recorded voice “has the soft accent of someone only a generation or two removed from Earth.” The voice in these poems is the perfect mix of grief and imagination, quiet and explosion. Stay Safe is delicate and extraordinary, a powerful debut.
4. Behemoth by Bruce Bond
In the poetry collection Behemoth, Bruce Bond explores the metaphysical imagination, both in its secular and sacred forms, as something universal, endemic to consciousness, embedded in our longing to capture a lost past and stave off anxieties about the great forgetting to come. As such the book figures as both a critique and empathetic analysis of idolatry, broadly understood and equally universal, problematic as a failed strategy intent upon possession, at odds with values embedded in its symbols. Figures critical to our identity—including those associated with race, nation, and religion—become most prone to unmindful projection, fears and vulnerabilities and our subsequent potential for cruelty and exclusion. Central to the book’s inquiry is the legacy of the holocaust as something that persists, recognized or not—a critical element of cultural memory that both eludes our language and summons our need to speak.
5. Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch
The poems in this collection investigate trauma to the body with soft, quiet, and masterful precision.
In Lynch’s fourth collection, we carefully navigate the fine line between terror and beauty as we face palpable trauma, heartbreak, and wild astonishment through raw and personal poems. The genuine, delicate voice works to examine who we are, after everything.
6. Maafa by Harmony Holiday
A myth in which a black female epic hero who is the African holocaust personified has killed her father and been granted eternal life.
The book begins in Duat, or what the egyptian Book of the Dead calls ‘the boat the carries the sun’ and moves toward ‘A Paradise of Ruins’ which is the last section, where our tragicomedic black female hero dances a series of poems as gestures, everything from the cut pitch of a single drum lick to the frenzied but detached look on memed faces to the way a dancer waves while walking backwards. Through the existential absurdity of the accumulation of these images she exorcises her own haunts, and Maafa is healed into complete being. It’s a book of poems about a kind of rebirth of feminine consciousness and cultural consciousness that was trapped in patriacracy and erasure.
7. Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok
Bob Hicok’s Red Rover Red Rover is joyous and macabre, hopeful and morbid, caring and critical. These poems are apocalyptic in tone but tender in their depiction of dying animals, disappearing water, raging fires, and the humans to blame. He calls attention to the dire costs of modern conveniences and begs for our willingness to change. No subject is too high or low for his wide-sweeping gaze, a comfort with extremes that gives his work the quality of an embrace. Threads of humor, romance, and kindness suggest America’s capacity to transcend the disastrous present: “heaven’s everywhere / someone needs a place to rest // and someone else says, / Come in.” Hicok presents a high-stakes game of survival and connection.
8. The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang
The poems in The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void read like dispatches from the dream world, with Jackie Wang acting as our trusted comrade reporting across time and space. By sharing her personal index of dreams with its scenes of solidarity and resilience, interpersonal conflict, and outlaw jouissance, Wang embodies historical trauma and communal memory. Here, the all-too-familiar interplay between crisis and resistance becomes first distorted, then clarified and refreshed. With a light touch and invigorating sense of humor, Wang illustrates the social dimension of dreams and their ability to inform and reshape the dreamer’s waking world with renewed energy and insight.
9. The Wreck of the Fathership by W.N. Herbert
When Bill Herbert was made Dundee Makar (or City Poet Laureate) in Dundee, Scotland, he intended to write about his home town in both its native tongues. Then within six months, his much-loved father died, and that civic idyll was thrown into crisis. This is his Dundonian Book of the Dead, in which he explores both his own grief and the encroachment of a new intolerance.
10. Sleep Preceded by Saying Poetry by Jacques Roubaud
These restless poems meditate on sleep, night, darkness, and silence. And on sleeplessness, on waking up in the middle of the night, and on silence interrupted. Making tight loops and insistent returns, the words split and dissolve into silence, just as everything falls quiet and still, just as sleep begins to wash over you—when the light comes on, or the faucet drips, or a branch scratches the window. A slightly different pattern emerges as the words are reassembled, one with its own unique pattern of interruptions. Saying Poetry… is a brilliant reflection on this state of distraction, which, Roubaud suggests, is essential to poetry.