We’re back with more poetry recommendations. Here’s a run-down of the very best poetry books I read from July to December 2020.
Jack Straw’s Castle by Thom Gunn [Faber]
Platos de Sal by Matthew Hittinger [Seven Kitchens Press]
Cain by Luke Kennard [Penned in the Margins]
Working Animals by Liam Bates [Broken Sleep Books]
MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello [zimZalla]
Crush by Richard Siken [Yale University Press]
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts [Carcanet]
The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse [Penguin]
The Rain Barrel by Frank Ormsby [Bloodaxe]
Thank You for Being a Fiend by Matthew Haigh and Alex Stevens [self-published]
The Permanent Wave by Siobhan Campbell [Blackstaff]
After the Miracle Season by Melissa Atkinson Mercer [Seven Kitchens Press]
Queer poets, as usual, feature highly. I have been – very slowly to savour it – working my way through Thom Gunn’s bibliography and Jack Straw’s Castle is one of my favourites (although my absolute faves are probably Boss Cupid and Fighting Terms, his last and first, almost fifty years apart).
A true find earlier this year was The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. Books Upstairs posted on their social media that they had a copy and I got up and legged it into town to buy it (beating someone else who was apparently gutted), as it’s a legendary text, and very, very out of print. And it lives up to its status. A wonderful, wide in scope, incisive and informative introduction accompanies the most expansive selection of gay poetry, from (essentially) the beginning of writing right up to its publication (the 1980s), and a lot of it was translated by the editor himself. If you can find a copy, do not hesitate (and it absolutely needs to be reissued!).
Crush is the book that made American poet Richard Siken’s name and is one of the likely contenders for gay poetry book to see in a bookshop, and with good reason. This nervy poetic text is a dense treat of anxiety, eroticism and confusion. Leading on from this, in a way, is the more surreal Thank You for Being a Fiend by poet Matthew Haigh and illustrator Alex Stevens. Revolving around The Golden Girls, Matthew’s surreal prose poems are a perfect complement to Alex’s trippy acid-like visuals. Siken would enjoy this, I feel.
Pamphlets/Chapbooks continue to feature highly in my reading, and recommendations. Platos de Sal by Matthew Hittinger, who has gone on the publish many full-length collections is a short, perfectly executed slice of narrative poetry; one to read and re-read. Also published by Seven Kitchens Press, like Platos, is Melissa Atkinson Mercer’s After the Miracle Season and good god, the command and control and variety of her poetry is astounding; a real, genuine talent. Rounding out our chapbooks are the always excellent Broken Sleep Books whose chapbook, Working Animals by Liam Bates was a fantastic meditation on work and drudgery. I still think about the line-breaks in opener, ‘That’s All’ (which you can read here).
Other highlights that stood out this year: Rebecca Watts’ Red Gloves was a quantum leap forward from her first collection, The Met Office Advises Caution, and one I read a few times; Luke Kennard’s CAIN is a tricksy, visually gorgeous collection about a man whose marriage disintegrates and ends up sharing his flat with the biblical Cain – strange, deft and moving; two Irish poets whose collections stood out this year were Siobhan Campbell’s darkly funny The Permanent Wave and Frank Ormsby’s lush collection The Rain Barrel.
Finally, this year I read MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello. An experimental work of poetry collected in a giant 796 page book, based on texts from historical archives and news reports about the Mother & Baby Home scandal. Never has experimental poetry felt so direct, so vital and so moving. I was in tears by the end, overwhelmed by the sheer sense of loss. You can watch Kimberly read the whole collection (all three hours of it) here, and I recommend it immensely.
Boats for Women by Sandra Yannone [Salmon Poetry]
Night Feed by Eavan Boland [Arlen House]
Beethoven Variations by Ruth Padel [Chatto Windus]
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz [Faber] – ROUNDUP PICK
Nary a man in sight this time! All four of these collections are, frankly, masterpieces and it was extremely hard choosing just one roundup pick – any and all of them could be one.
Sandra (Sandy) Yannone’s Boats for Women is an astonishing collection. At first I thought it would be solely about the Titanic disaster but it is so much more: there is a whole universe in this essential and awe-inspiring first collection (and points for it being the only first collection out of these four).
A confession: I had never read much Eavan Boland when she was alive, but I’m making up for it now. Whilst her first few collections fell short of the mark for me, Night Feed more than makes up for it. Starting with poems about feeding her child at night, it widens out into something miraculous, with the most inventive, multiplicitous and poetic language. Essential.
Beethoven Variations is a collection about the life of Beethoven. Another book that had me in tears by the end, this collection – in the way that only poetry does – seems to hold his entire complicated life in these few lines. A major achievement, and one that everyone should read.
And so, the roundup pick. Postcolonial Love Poem was a book I ended up reviewing for a Poetry Reviewing workshop and as such, perhaps might not have been something I would have picked up, particularly since the title, I feel, doesn’t do the scope of the book justice. But it is, quite simply, one of the best poetry collections I’ve read in years and years. The level of craft and polish on every line is astounding, and it’s clear how she’s been spending the eight or so years since her first collection, When My Brother was an Aztec. A stunning collection about the body, her lover and being other, I could go on about this all day, but I’ve already written a long review of it elsewhere, so I’ll link you to it there!
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed our fourth poetry roundup, and we’ll be back in July with our fifth!