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A Different Day: A 2021 Poetry Preview, Part 2

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

It can never be permanently defeated.

President Biden's inauguration concluded with "The Hill We Climb," National Youth Poet Laureate Amada Gorman's beautiful poem written for the ceremony, which includes the lines above, written after the storming of the Capitol. As recently as yesterday, I could barely allow myself the sort of hope and resolve these lines communicate; I was awash, like so many others, in a miasma of anger, confusion, anxiety and fear.

But today feels like a different day, a new one. Our troubles are far from over, but hope and joy no longer seem ridiculous. This is exactly what poetry is for: to express — through sound, song, form, and feeling — what doesn't fit neatly into regular sentences, the uncertain sprouting of new possibilities. So, once again I am joined by three guest critics to offer a few more glimpses at the poetry that will be here to help us, guide us, and keep us company throughout 2021. We hope that you will find, in these short reviews — our picks for some of the most exciting and imperative poetry collections of the next twelve months — words to beckon you into this strange new year.

/ Night Boat
Night Boat

Divya Victor, April

This is not a year when we need to be reminded how connected we are around the world — or how unevenly power and vulnerability are distributed among us. But Victor's latest collection, in engaging these political realities, does not so much remind us of them as it locates us in them — and them in us — materially, physically, geographically. GPS coordinates pinpoint the site of brutal acts against Indian immigrants to the U.S. and their kin, who may be targeted as "Hindoos," "mistaken for Arab," or conflated with the categories of "Terrorist" and "Illegal Immigrant."

Even as she memorializes victims of nationalist and imperialist violence, Victor draws us into scenes of domesticity and intimacy among Indian American and Indian families. She is in this way amazingly deft at revealing the overlap of the personal and political, as when she describes "the passport photograph/ you once stapled at the edge of a petition/ to anchor her womb/ to your migrating heart." In poems of brilliant aesthetic diversity and haunting imagery ("Stop bath & rinse,/ then hang up this feeling/ by its arms"), Curb illuminates and challenges the boundaries that divide and discipline us. — Evie Shockley

The Wild Fox of Yemen
Threa Almontaser, April

/ Graywolf Press
Graywolf Press

Someone once said that voice was the meter of the late 20th century, and this fixation on tone has often created poems that glow with a luminous paralysis. Almontaser's playing a different game. She's riffing, perpetually spinning out new material and ideas, trying everything to see what happens. Many of her poems unspool over several pages, while other poets might run out of gas by the time they've traversed a solipsistic half page. Almontaser's fecundity comes from the ambition to elaborate an entire social world, one often described in transliterated Arabic. The first half of her wondrous Walt Whitman Award-winning debut investigates Muslim girlhood as a sensuosity: sneaking down a hijab in the Taco Bell parking lot, looping training bras over ceiling fans.

Like Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Almontaser has a gift for fierce metamorphosis; her lines transform concrete reality into abstraction and fantasy in rhythm: "My girliness is the size of a Cerberus./ I unchain it out my body, serpent tail tombing/ a Mercedes ..." The book's energetic coming-of age-narrative, populated by the ubiquitous aunties recognizable to anyone from an immigrant family, belies Almontaser's meditations on religious piety and her transnational politics. Alongside her translations of Abdullah al-Baradouni, the 20th-century Yemeni poet often imprisoned for his politics, this collection chronicles a homeland frequently used for target practice by the British, the Americans, and the Saudis. This is not a book of elegy, however, or even postcolonial melancholia. Written with puckish dexterity and mutating metaphors, this is a book of anti-colonial love letters written between languages. — Ken Chen

Twice Alive
Forrest Gander, May

/ New Directions
New Directions

In Gander's follow up to his extraordinary book of loss and lamentation, Be With, (for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize), this poet of metaphysical abstraction, Eros, and intimate observation — and even adulation — of the natural world finds fresh metaphors for the sudden and uneasy onset of new love in the life cycles of lichen, which is "theoretically immortal," can reproduce asexually, and achieves "a/ contested mutuality," a phrase that begins to describe Gander's sense of new love after grief. Despite Gander's affection for challenging scientific and philosophical vocabularies, this may be his most conversational and accessible book, in which he observes not only "Erogenous zones in oaks/ slung with/ stoles of lace lichen" but also the vision of a new love "when her lavish face turns toward him/ beaming, the corners of her eyes wind-wet."

It's not easy, nor merely fun, to fall in love, especially after loss (Gander's longtime partner, the poet C.D. Wright, died in 2016), and these poems — set in a series of sequences, varied forms, and even a photo essay — never yield to giddiness; rather, they are constantly seeking permission, guidance, even role models in nature, which finds ingenious yet almost always circuitous routes toward coupling and what comes after. "Whoever/ thought anyone was just one thing?" Gander asks, a reminder that nothing could be more natural than, if not conflict, then ambivalence, a strong pull from opposite directions. Though hardly without regrets and uncertainties, these are ultimately hopeful poems, attesting to the human capacity for renewal, the willingness to "take hold/ in a pulse of heat,/ in a yes and no,/ for already we can see/ we are no longer what we were." — Craig Morgan Teicher

Derrick Austin, November

"He reached between my legs, felt me harden./ I stopped desiring him months ago./ My pleasure was in his not knowing. And wanting me still." Austin is a lyrical architect, rendering with urgency and plainspokenness what is arguably the most challenging kind of loneliness: that experienced amidst others. His second collection, Tenderness, channels the unexpected pain that one only knows after having been touched.

But through all of the near misses, the touches that do not connect, or do but for naught, Austin's speaker is sustained by friendship unlike any I've ever seen in poetry. Not only are friends alive and dead named across a myriad of forms (sonnets and a palindrome to name just two), but they are threaded throughout the poems in complex ways that navigate joy, grief, and ambiguity, which is the erotic at its best: knowledgeable, patient, and capacious. "Tend your joy, you whisper,/ As if a charm against eviction or some harm/ We might inflict on each other./ For once, I don't hear you," Austin writes, knowing the risks of tenderness and allowing it anyway. This is a stunning collection for these challenging times when intimacy has escaped us but will, eventually, return. Let this book be your primer. — Phillip B. Williams

Finally, here are a couple of quick takes:

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: Selected Poems, 2001-2021Yusef Komunyakaa, February

Komunyakaa is already a legendary figure in American poetry, beloved for his subtle ear and unflinching confrontations with the traumas of the past and present. This late-career retrospective finds the poet, now in his 70s, recalling the past with a new urgency, savoring the present, and preparing as well as he can for what comes next: "The body remembers the berry bushes// heavy with sweetness shivering in a lonely woods,/ but I doubt it knows words live longer// than clay & spit of flesh, as rock-bottom love." — Craig Morgan Teicher

A Thousand Times You Lose Your TreasureHoa Nguyen, April

Nguyen's latest tells the story of Diệp Anh Nguyễn, the author's mother and a daredevil motorcyclist whose portrait — seductively and maniacally posing on her bike — appears at the beginning of the collection. An investigation of mothers and motherlands, devilry and diaspora, this book chronicles her mother's story but delivers almost nothing in the way of facts or events. Nguyen pulls off a paradox, a biography composed of gestures, the sort of thing that could only happen in poetry. — Ken Chen

Ken Chen is the author of Juvenilia, a winner of the Yale Poets of Younger Series, and is working on a book about visiting the underworld and encountering those sent there by colonialism.

Evie Shockley is a poet and scholar. Her most recent poetry collections are the new black (Wesleyan, 2011) and semiautomatic (Wesleyan, 2017); both won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the latter was a finalist for the Pulitzer and LA Times Book Prizes. Shockley is Professor of English at Rutgers University.

Phillip B. Williams is from Chicago, IL and author of the book Thief in the Interior (Alice James 2016). A recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Lambda Literary Award, and Whiting Award, he currently teaches at Bennington College and the Randolph College low-residency MFA.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, including The Trembling Answers, which won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. His next collection of poems, Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey, will be out in April.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phillip B. Williams
Ken Chen
Evie Shockley