In his Afterword to the late Larry Levis’ posthumous collection The Darkening Trapeze, David St. John writes: “I continue to believe that poetry remains one of our most vital reservoirs of reflection, solace and outrage within a world replete with horrors.” He wrote those words long before November 8, or the atrocities on the streets of Aleppo, or the year’s final, hard cluster of celebrity deaths, but I believe St. John is right. In a world often draped in the black shroud of greed, bigotry, war, environmental ruin, and hatred, we need poetry now more than ever. The way the words, tailored into truncated lines and stanzas, glow like light-struck gems on the page; the way rhyme and meter make us slow down and take our time strolling through language; the way a poem can go first to the heart and then travel up to the head—we need that reservoir of solace.
In 2016, I drank deeply from that pool of poetry. Nearly 20 percent of the books I read this year were collections of poems (and I’m not even counting The Iliad in that tally). Each morning, I read anywhere from two to five poems, spending time with the words, slowing my darting-squirrel brain, and allowing the compressed gems to tumble through my bloodstream. Here are my favorite poetry books published in 2016, in no particular order. (Sadly, three of these poets are no longer with us: RIP, Jim Harrison, Larry Levis, and C. D. Wright.)
I decided not to provide any commentary on my selections this year, leaving you with a few lines or stanzas selected from the work. I’ll let the poets speak for themselves with their beautiful little puffs of solace and outrage.
Buddy you got no idea how fast it happens,
The tail gunner said to no one in particular,
And flicked the gunsight up with his index finger.
A moment later he turned to a wet rose
Blossoming all at once & too large
For the glassed-in hot house turret to explain—
The bombardier still telling him a joke
Over the now quiet, frozen intercom.
The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.
Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison
Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we’re this close
to the devil.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
your whole body in a photo
your whole body
sitting on a crate
pressing your eyesocket
to the viewfinder
of a bazooka
crouched as you balance
the metal tube on your shoulder
in one you guide a belt of ammo
into the unfiring weapon
your elbow out as if
your frame strong
and lightly supporting the gun
a kind of smile
ruining the picture
Look by Solmaz Sharif
A man at a round table, his work boot
heeled on the rung of his chair,
his head in a black plate of blood.
I could see the bottle and the pan bread
through the blazing pine knots;
I watched the man who just shot him
walk the puncheon floor
bellowing My brother, my blood...
hoist the man onto his back
and stumble into a fine, filthy snow.
ShallCross by C. D. Wright
Refuse the old means of measurement.
Rely instead on the thrumming
wilderness of self. Listen.
Bestiary by Donika Kelly
Beware of things in duplicate:
a set of knives, the cufflinks in a drawer,
the dice, the pair of Queens, the eyes
of someone sitting next to you.
99 Poems by Dana Gioia
A piece of the sky breaks off
and falls into your coffee cup.
It makes you wonder how shabby
heaven might be getting and what will
it look like when you get there, if,
in fact, you do.
Not All Fires Burn the Same by Francine Witte
white butcher paper
the tongue wrapped
separate from the heart
The Door That Always Opens by Julie Funderburk
May you find the words you need. May you mutter in sleep,
and may the talk run over into morning’s pale skirts
and steamed mirrors. May a madness possess your mouth,
and may one day the curses lift, a sudden anthem
of clouds revoked from the hypnotic, blinding sun.
May you see cursive when you stargaze.
Words in the sand and words in the sound of the surf.
When you open your mouth, let hornets swarm. In other words,
may your insults sting. May you wake one day
fluent in birdsong and the Arabic of scattered seed.
Waterlines by Alison Pelegrin