The Best Poetry of 2021

This year of slow and careful re-emergence has felt, to me, like an odd one for books. There was so much abundance that it taxed our attentions, and even highly anticipated titles seemed to come and go quietly. I wish I had more space to highlight all of the books I read and loved in 2021, but these seven collections were personal favorites, and the ones I most want to share.

BLOOD ON THE FOG, by Tongo Eisen-Martin. (City Lights, 107 pp., paper, $15.95.) Reminiscent of June Jordan in their near-embrace of violence, these poems have a powerful ambivalence about what effect they might have in the world; they are very aware of being poems: “A non-future dripping with real people/I mean, real people … Not poem people.” “I write poems today/I kill america today.” “Has the poem started yet?/I will tuck your shirt into the earth.” The language is visionary, sometimes trancelike. “It takes a violent middleman for me to talk to myself.” “I’m sorry to make you relive all of this, Lord … Lord, is that my revolver in your hand?” “I am weak first/Before anything, I first become weak.” “there goes the poet — killing without killing — don’t mind this.” Words are not the revolution itself, Eisen-Martin seems to say, and yet this book disturbed me more than any other I read this year. It reminds me that poetry can rewire our thinking — can actually change our minds — by using nothing like the rote language we’re so used to hearing in speech and in prose. It can jolt us out of patterns, back into intelligence.

LITTLE ELEGIES FOR SISTER SATAN, by Michael Palmer. (New Directions, 117 pp., paper, $16.95.) It was a good year for our older poets, with new books by legends like Frank Bidart and Louise Glück, and this, with its stunning first sequence of elegies that call to mind Rilke, Celan, Inger Christensen — there’s a way that even poetry written in one’s native tongue already feels translated, as though the language of the mind were always foreign. “Oh, body, where are you going,/body of the earth, lost/double, lost copy of the body/mute body of yesterday/in tomorrow’s shredded cloth?” These are poems about confronting the end, the end of one’s own time and time in general, about repetition (“That is why, each day, when I return/to the illegible page/I must begin again/from the beginning”; “Let us begin, let us begin again/not from the beginning but from the end”) and the paradox of poetry, its ability to say the unsayable, to exist and yet remain unsaid, the utility of futility. “When I think of ‘possible worlds,’ I think not of philosophy, but of elegy. And impossible worlds. Resistant worlds.” “Never beg for mercy/from the poem,/since it can offer none./Do not ask/what language it speaks,/since the answer is none.”

LOVE AND OTHER POEMS, by Alex Dimitrov. (Copper Canyon, 119 pp., paper, $17.) A highly pleasurable, heavily Frank O’Hara–influenced collection in love with moments and New York City and the aesthetics of cyclical ephemerality (see “November”: “Is the first snow just snow./It feels like more”), full of exuberance and wistfulness, longing and joy. The poet is present as a self-referential persona. The last long poem, written over the course of two years in the back of different cabs, is a highlight: “Once I was 19/and now I’m 33 … When I was younger/all I wanted was to be taken seriously./A serious poet! Why not./Now I realize being taken seriously/is as arbitrary as how long you live./I would gladly trade wisdom for youth.”

RETURNING THE SWORD TO THE STONE, by Mark Leidner. (Fonograf Editions, 85 pp., paper, $16.) Leidner is a comic genius, which is to say this book is both hilarious and profound. Every time I have attempted to read “I’m Running for President” out loud, I have cried laughing: “I sew closed the neckholes of my sweatshirts/then sew beltloops along their bottom hems/and slide my legs through the sleeves/because I wear sweatshirts like pants—/and I cut the crotches out of all my sweatpants/for my head to go through/because I wear sweatpants like shirts/with my arms through the legs/and I’m running for President.” But then there are also lines like this: “Life is long for a brief time/then brief for a long time.”

THE SUNFLOWER CAST A SPELL TO SAVE US FROM THE VOID, by Jackie Wang. (Nightboat, 131 pp., paper, $16.95.) Wang is working in a kind of combination of the vivid surrealist, fabulist, scary-funny dream logic of James Tate and something more argumentative, theory-laced, dialectical, like Anne Boyer. The poems employ oneiromancy as strategy, because “interpretation itself is always strategic … politically and personally enabling.” Here dreams are spaces of radical possibility, and as in the real world, the possibilities are sometimes magical (Kant arrives at a party, so “drugs are unnecessary”) and sometimes nightmarish (“You have put yourself at the center of the battle of cosmic forces and lowered your sword./Because you were willing to die, you will be spared./But … /But”) and sometimes both, like dress rehearsals for the apocalypse (“In the dream I was someone clear-headed and focused under pressure. The problem didn’t consume me; all there was to do was solve it”).

THE VAULT, by Andrés Cerpa. (Alice James Books, 85 pp., paper, $17.95.) A teacher once told me that a poem should be like a spider web — if you touch any part, the rest of it will tremble. This whole book feels like that, full of delicate resonance, motifs of color, weather as mood. The “silence in the seam with which to break pills” trembles when we reach “three seamless moments,” whenever anything seems. Consisting of two long poems, open and spacious, it evokes a real sense of lived-through time, of time as a problem to solve over and over. “Nowhere compiles with precision/like dust into books.” “I want the past like a harvest again.” “I couldn’t draw my own face if god asked.” “I feel old/like I’ve only been alive today.” Elegiac and clean and cold, “The Vault,” in its trueness, reminds me of Robert Lowell’s description of Plath’s posthumously published work: It “makes one feel at first reading that almost all other poetry is about nothing.”

WINGS IN TIME, by Callie Garnett. (The Song Cave, 98 pp., paper, $18.95.) There was a period last year when, everyone being understandably miserable, it was fashionable to pre-complain about all the awful books that were surely being written during and about the pandemic, to loudly dread the future when these ill-begotten books would be foisted upon us. As it happens I’ve already read several great pandemic books, this one among them. It refers to itself a few times as “scrappy,” meaning both, I think, resourceful/tough, and fashioned from scraps. (I like the way the word “scrappy” connotes something like crappiness, but in an affectionate way.) Both free and exact, the poems identifiably arise from a specific consciousness, or what we sometimes call a soul. “The virus possibility/is heavy today; I sense a reclamation/Of the past occurring, so remotely,/but what past? … I read about a woman whose life in ninety/Seconds changed./Well, mine is changing/slowly.”