A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

6 month birthday for THE STATE SHE’S IN (time does not exist)

I recently ordered a 2021 calendar–I favor a portable Moleskine number–but, with heavy-handed symbolism, the order keeps being delayed. I’m a planner by temperament and I SO wish I could anticipate my future doings again. Not possible. It’s all clouds.

For the near term, all a calendar-minded person can do is brainstorm short-term ways to mark the passage of time, because around here, the cooling air and spots of yellow at the tops of trees strongly imply that the fall equinox is near. I keep daily work rhythms, even on sabbatical. On Saturdays, we take walks somewhere outside of this small town, hiking in the woods if we can. I’m applying for writing-related opportunities that might bear fruit next spring or summer. Other people are desperately trying to layer multiple workdays on top of each other right now–work, homeschooling, other responsibilities–so feeling lost in blurry weeks means I’m getting off easy, but to a surprising degree, it’s still a stressor.

Here’s a small anniversary: my fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, was published on March 17th, 2020, so if it were a baby, it would be a chubby little person rocking forward onto its hands and trying to figure out locomotion. I bought it flowers and arranged a photo shoot to celebrate the occasion. It actually IS a book about time, among other subjects–the history of my region but also the approach and arrival of my 50th birthday, an event that I could watch descending like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the anvil. Processing age and change, I wrote many poems that reference the dreaded number explicitly (as in “Fifty-Fifty”) or use 50 as a formal constraint: poems of 50 syllables, 50 words, 50 lines, and more. I’m sure much of that formal play is invisible. It worked, though. Attacking a number every which way gave me some control over its meaning. I wonder if I could do some version of that by writing poems about 2021? I refuse to give 2020 that honor.

Here’s the last poem in the book, published in Gettysburg Review but never online. “L” was a title I contemplated for the whole book (50, Lesley, Lexington); for this particular piece I researched events that happened in 1967, my birth year, as well as having a conversation about ambition with the mountain that looms over my town. The weirdest thing about the poem, though, is that all of its 50 lines are 50 characters long–a persnickety constraint you can’t even see without using a monospace font, which neither the magazine nor the book does. I might always have to hedge optimistic claims like “I’ve stopped counting”–nope, haven’t yet!–but that’s one of my aspirations, to let go of measure and comparison. To “avoid mirrors except the page” and spend these blurry days as best I can because everything ends sometime and I can’t, in fact, control when that is.

L
 
1967 was on fire: Apollo 1 waiting to launch / Jim
Morrison on Ed Sullivan stoking it higher / Mekong
Delta / Newark riot hurling out sparks / summer of
o sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock /
pulsar first glimpsed black hole first named / far
south Deception Island’s volcano in flames / while
an infancy rages / some recently extinguished soul
was slotted in my pigeonhole (Oppenheimer Coltrane
Magritte) / but I’m no reincarnate star not even a
meteor tail (Toklas) / just a minor cloud of space
dust reborn to squall anew / Four decades & change
accrue & a big birthday looms / half & half golden
jubilee 5-0 code for pigs closing in & also atomic
number of tin / Mystery heat rises to scald / What
is it I’m reaching for over this terrible wall / A
relocation / destination / permission for ignition
because beauty burns low / potential guttered long
ago / I don’t know / So I avoid mirrors except the
page and work / burn the fuel of myself in words /
program words to change this space & time / Recall
Cobain & Philip Seymour Hoffman dissolved to smoke
/ Does it even matter how in that year of our new-
born howl Lou Reed crooned heroin into the cradles  
/o it was a Warhol year surreal bananas / From my
room painted like late-in-the-daylily / I can gaze
across a blank tin roof pocked by finch claws past
snow-packed sockets of a desolate maple toward the
lavender brow of House Mountain that for this poem
let’s personify as Ambition / the blaze considered
discourteous to mention especially by women / Well
shouldn’t I be striving? / Talk to me Mountain / &
with a higher perspective than mine Mountain cries 
/ You are a conflagration / Adrenaline singes your     
capillaries / Let the anniversary of your ardor to                 
be born cool you like a shadow / Desire leads only               
to more desire even were your sororal motives pure              
and they are not / Mountain has spoken! / It meant
cease building with borrowed stones unless to lift
somebody else / message over bottle / O & hey says
Mountain one more thing / All poems may be ash but
some shelter small hot hopes / their seed swaddled
in earth’s velvet / What strikes me now like flint
on tinder is how talking to mountains or to you is
the same as talking to myself / just as impossible           
& just as hopeful / either / or / both / & / Maybe
we’re all alpine & none of us is / disconnection a  
gift of language we are supposed to hand back / No
presents please what’s yours is mine already / But    
come in & have a drink on me / Today’s everybody’s
birthday & I’ve stopped counting / well just about