2020 Poetry Preview Poet and critic Craig Morgan Teicher presents his annual roundup of the poetry he's looking forward to. This year, he's showcasing a group of poets who he says are holding the darkness at bay.
NPR logo Keeping The Dark At Bay: A 2020 Poetry Preview

Keeping The Dark At Bay: A 2020 Poetry Preview

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This is the third of these poetry previews that I've written in the growing darkness of America. I've maintained that while poets alone can't save us, they can remind us of the necessary virtues that seem to be vanishing from our public conversation — nuance, the ability to hold opposing views at the same time, plain old compassion and understanding. But I won't pretend to feel much optimism. Things are bad, hatred is rampant, and fear mostly seems to be winning.

And so I turn to poetry all the more, for what it still can do, what it has always done: Take action in language, speak the complicated, multifaceted truth, oppose silence and silencing. This year, our poets are singing their many identities, lamenting their lost loved ones and flickering hopes, pointing undaunted fingers, building communities with words, signaling that all's not lost. I've never needed their company so much.

Here are my takes on a handful of upcoming books that keep the dark at bay. I wish it weren't so dark; I know these poets do too. But they're poets because they can hold, to paraphrase Yeats, reality and justice in a single thought. We're counting on them.

13th Balloon: A Poem

by Mark Bibbins

Paperback, 93 pages, Copper Canyon Press, $17, published February 11 2020 | purchase

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13th Balloon
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A Poem
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Mark Bibbins

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Bibbins' fourth and best book is a leap ahead for him and a leap back in time — into the late 80s and early 90s, the heart of the AIDS epidemic that took the life of the poet's first serious partner, a man also named Mark. Early in the book, Bibbins imagines he and his lover's parents envisioning a future for their sons "born into the mess and ferment/ of the late 1960s": "They could not have known/ that our war because everyone/ lands in one/ would be with a virus."

In a sequence of untitled, unpunctuated lyric poems, stripped of all guards and guardrails, Bibbins is guided by memory and longing and the true wish to have back some of what's gone. Of course, this speaker, who is as vulnerable as language will allow, knows these poems have arrived too late; that's the great tragedy the book laments — that, often, our lives' most important feelings show themselves long after their object has gone for good. "I have only language for you now/ a language/ that morphs like a virus/ to elude to survive to connect," Bibbins writes in one of many poems that are at once profoundly touching and bitterly resolved. By the book's end, the poems arrive at something else, or almost do — a means of holding on to the lost beloved, of loving, "a song without words." (February)

Postcolonial Love Poem: Poems

by Natalie Diaz

Paperback, 80 pages, Graywolf, $16, published March 3 2020 | purchase

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Postcolonial Love Poem
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Poems
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Natalie Diaz

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I'm willing to bet this is the collection that will preoccupy us all year long, the subject of countless tweets and Instagrammed pics of pages. In her fervently anticipated second collection, Diaz makes the love poem into a frame, a form for contemplation of the politics and injustices that have oppressed Native Americans since before the founding of our country. How could there be a separation between the personal and the political when every circumstance is inflected by the wars "which started me, which I lost and won — / these ever-blooming wounds."

Diaz locates the battles everywhere, in government-sanctioned violence ("Police kill Native Americans more/ than any other race. Race is a funny word./ Race implies someone will win,/ implies I have as good a chance of winning as --"); in skill at basketball ("We know how to block shots, how to stuff them down your throat, because when you say, Shoot, we hear howitzer and Hotchkiss and Springfield Model 1873"); in bed with another woman, where her hands "moved like rivers --/ like glory, like light --/ over the seven days of your body" and finds no small sense of triumph.

But, as in her first book, her most important muse — and the subject of her best poems --remains the figure of her brother, a childhood hero, "a beautiful, muscular boy." His failed struggle against addiction wrecked his own life and drew his family into a swirling storm from which they can never quite break free: "he'd keep calling, hour after hour, day after day,/ lifetime after miserable lifetime, until I answered." He beckons Diaz's best, strangest, and most timeless lines, a dark reminder of, a metaphor for all that Diaz is fighting for and against. (March)

In the Lateness of the World: Poems

by Carolyn Forché

Hardcover, 112 pages, Penguin Press, $24, published March 10 2020 | purchase

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In the Lateness of the World
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Poems
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Carolyn Forché

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The first poetry collection in almost two decades from Forché (whose monumental memoir What You Have Heard Is True was one of the best books of last year) is an undisputed literary event. Forché's poems — ever earnest, forcefully compassionate, often solemn — bear witness to the suffering of others, to "children who make bulletproof vests out of cardboard," among many other open wounds left by wars, often looking beyond America's borders, while holding America to account for the global consequences of its actions.

She writes in many modes: elegies to the present day; lamentations over our wrecked environment ("In the sea, they say, there is an island made of bottles and other trash"); and first person confessionals. Cast in long-lined couplets, free verse sequences, and jagged stanzas, Forché's best poems — and this new book contains some of them — speak as a kind of generalized conscience, "someone standing in the aftermath," heavy with guilt, but also lit by a strange hope that stems from an unshakable belief in human goodness and perseverance: "Come the morning, launch your boats." (March)

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry

by John Murillo

Paperback, 88 pages, Four Way Books, $16.95, published March 2 2020 | purchase

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Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry
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John Murillo

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In this self-conscious reckoning with his inheritance — familial, musical, political — layered into a meditation on poetry, Murillo takes stock of what's been left to him by a father ("a strange boy with my father's forehead, same sullen eyes."), by his idols ("Some nights, Yusef, the serpents curse my name./ Some nights, they tell me secrets"), by his country: "TV reports some whack job shot two cops/ then popped himself." What is one to do with it all? How can it be synthesized and accepted? Perhaps it can't, but, as Murillo writes in the title poem, "What's inside is burning,/ burning." (March)

Seeing the Body: Poems

by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Hardcover, 128 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, $26.95, published June 16 2020 | purchase

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Seeing the Body
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Poems
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Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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Poet and photographer Griffiths' fifth book is a searing, fathomlessly deep elegy for a mother who died long ago, after years of an illness that held her family in its thrall. With astonishing frankness and detail, Griffiths anticipates, experiences, re-experiences, and works to meaningfully incorporate her mother's memory and death into the everyday fabric of her life.

In long, swirling poems and shorter lyrics, Griffiths' grief goes far beyond the mourner's typical self-questioning ("I kept asking: / Could I have ever saved her?") into far more complex realms of inheritance (I remember/ her voice like a thorn I never want/ to pull out of my heart") and mythmaking: "When a nurse in Philadelphia/ says my mother can no longer speak/ six blackbirds in the Oxford cemetery/ arrive."

The final poem, "Good Death," is one of the most convincing prayers I've read, speaking "Of the pronunciation of sorrow, forever mine, each astonishing summer." It's hard to explain in such a short space the ways in which this book is, in all its pain, deeply life-giving. An elegy to — which takes the form of a recalled encounter with — recently deceased jazz legend Cecil Taylor, for instance, is a celebration, albeit one tinged with heartache. And, as with all of these books, it's impossible not to read this one as an elegy to something great that is being lost in our time, a loss we must nonetheless endure. (June)

For Now

by James Richardson

Paperback, 86 pages, Copper Canyon Press, $16, published June 2 2020 | purchase

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For Now
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James Richardson

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Richardson is an unsung genius, America's great living aphorist and a poet of profound compassion, wisdom, and humility; permit me to sing his praises for a moment. Or let me quote one of those aphorisms: "The unbeliever's prayer: Help me so subtly I don't notice. Be the luck I can take credit for." Self-deprecating, yes, and softly sad, and also so knowing — this is what it's like to live a human life from inside a human mind. In long meditative lyrics, haiku, koans, and lines of shining brilliance, Richardson says a quiet, love-filled goodbye to every minute, and I find myself, reading this book, standing right beside him: "I remember a thousand days --/or to be candid,/ I remember them all as one — / when the hundred elements in the room/ were all one/ to me, because the feeling Oh, that this day/ would never end// had ended." (July)

Guillotine: Poems

by Eduardo C. Corral

Paperback, 72 pages, Graywolf, $16, published August 4 2020 | purchase

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Guillotine
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Eduardo C. Corral

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Corral debuted in 2012 with Slow Lightning, a collection of astonishing sensitivity, artfully mixing English and Spanish and utilizing novel formal devices in poems that subtly express a consciousness that feels itself to be on both sides of many cultural and societal lines. It was a breakthrough for queer and Mexican American writing, and is one of the enduring books of the last decade — definitive, to me at least, of the state of contemporary poetry. I've been eagerly awaiting this second book, following Corral's Twitter updates on its progress for years.

Guillotine, is, among other things, a horrified — though perhaps not surprised — coming to consciousness, and conscience, in today's America, a place intolerant of anyone not one thing or another, and where Mexicans are the scapegoats of the moment. In these poems, Corral remarkably turns America's own words back on itself, casting its hate-speech in Spanish: "It's easier to hurt Centro-/ americanos. Those Indios. Those putos snatching trabajos --/ trabajos that belong to our gente."

The effect is dizzying, confusing, and says something, I think, about the self-hate America is projecting on our neighbors and allies. The border — once a poetic cliche, like roses or "the heart" — is now a poignant multipurpose metaphor throughout these poems, in which America is becoming a police state and "the [body] could have been trying to avoid a checkpoint." A series of impossible-to-quote visual poems offer a (forgive the pun) concrete response to President Trump's border wall. There's a lot else here — many poems don't even look in the direction of the 45th president — but I suspect that this book will be remembered, with all its blurred lines, as one of the clearest poetic statements of this era. (August)

Here Is the Sweet Hand: Poems

by francine j harris

Hardcover, 96 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25, published August 4 2020 | purchase

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Here Is the Sweet Hand
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Poems
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Entering mid-career with her extraordinary third book, harris (who chooses to write her name without capitalization, and often eschews punctuation and other grammatical conventions in her poems) fully emerges as one of the best and most relevant contemporary poets. She writes with a historical and linguistic reach — and a way with a lengthy, multi-part line — that puts her in a lineage with D.A. Powell, the poet who, for my money, is her most important near-contemporary predecessor.

She is also in league with some of the great practitioners of poetry that makes no distinction between the personal and the political, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Adrienne Rich. Yes, I believe she's that good, writing with a timeless rhetorical force and a finely tuned ear for contemporary speech, about race, queerness, love, and grief. She "unbridle[s] that s***." She can take a city's pulse ("A hush in festival, night and how the bus rows the street/ over stoplights") and take America to task ("We are losing/ our democracy") in a few breaths, making the familiar strange enough so that everything stands out.

Here are love poems, poems that riff on the forms of classical compositions, erotic adventures, lamentations for a world going to ruin, and a poem about Kanye West that swerves into an accounting of America's darkest history: "The seating/ charts of airplanes look like the middle passage." (August)

Underworld Lit

by Srikanth Reddy

Hardcover, 224 pages, Wave Books, $35, published August 4 2020 | purchase

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Underworld Lit
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Srikanth Reddy

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How to describe Reddy's strange and remarkable third collection? An academic's nightmare? A hilarious exercise in invented autobiography? A guided tour of hell? In it, Reddy imagines a dark college course, an answer to all that is wrong or lost or growing dim, a curriculum for just before — or perhaps during — the apocalypse: "students will be ferried across the river of sorrow, subsist on a diet of clay, weigh their hearts against a feather on the infernal balance, and ascend a viewing pagoda in order to gaze upon their homelands until emptied of all emotion." It's a harrowing, Danteesque journey, a class that, perhaps, should be required for all; thankfully Reddy has provided all the necessary materials for us to take it from home. (August)

Blizzard: Poems

by Henri Cole

Hardcover, 80 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $24, published September 1 2020 | purchase

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Blizzard
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Poems
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Henri Cole

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Over the last 15 years, beginning with his book Middle Earth, and continuing through two more sublime collections, Cole has invented and mastered his own version of the sonnet, a compact lyric utterance that drills down on a single experience, moment, or startled vision, and surprises with every line. Not because the lines try to be surprising, but because observation — mixed with memory and pain — turns out to be, articulated at Cole's particular pitch, stunning as a snake bite. After a book away, Cole returns to this form (mostly), which seems to be the true shape of his thought.

The pain that Cole's poems report is deep and old and common as the pain in Robert Frost's great lyrics. This little box can hold politics ("You said you would always / tell the truth, Mr. President, but that was a lie, so I'm/ pressing my white face to your White House door."); fear of the self and its dark capacities ("I want my life to be borrowing and/ paying back. I don't want to be a gun"); and the confusing vagaries of love ("A man is very nearly a god, a kitten nothing./ A man is self-praising, answering to nobody./ A kitten chooses slavery over hunger") with grace and a weird kind of heart-sick humility.

I won't say this is Cole's best book — I won't condescend to rank it against his others; he's a master and simply one of my favorite poets — but it's true poetry, the thing we mean by that word — "whatever the faults of life,/ the merriment of it" — and I, for one, need it. (September)

Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems

by Valzhyna Mort

Hardcover, 112 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25, published November 3 2020 | purchase

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Music for the Dead and Resurrected
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Poems
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Valzhyna Mort

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Born in Belarus and now a resident of the United States, Mort has re-emerged from a relatively long period of silence (her last book came out in 2011) into a moment that desperately needs her.

Mort is well-known in Europe as a crusader on behalf of Belarusian language and identity. In English, cast in rapid-fire free verse lyrics and sequences, her poems seem to channel her country's complicated and highly pressurized history into a voice that is simultaneously strange, intimate, lonesome, hilarious, surreal and all too real: "Here, history comes to an end/ like a movie/ with rolling credits of headstones, with nameless credits of mass graves." She is whispering into our ears, but doesn't quite believe we're listening as she tricks us into facing atrocity head on. She bears the weight of a tortured and torturous world by means of humor: "Yuzefa crunches members/ of broken households, she budgets/ children and relatives, subtracts the dead/ carries over the missing./ It's a math problem/ she buried herself with."

So many of her lines and images are just so funny — "a street opened my mouth like a doctors spatula"; "a letter addressed to lost letters"; "the priestesses who preserve/ the knowledge of sausage prices"; "having climbed into my lap, the accordion's/ heavy breathing/ceases." And yet they are precisely tuned, boring into us at the moment our consciences are at their heaviest and we need some serious levity to help us carry them. (November)

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection The Trembling Answers and a collection of essays We Begin In Gladness: How Poets Progress.