This year in poetry was one where certain aspects of the art, certain concepts, we might say, were necessarily challenged and, hopefully, put to rest. What follows next, I don’t know, but it will probably be no small amount of flux and change — especially as a highly talented, younger group of poets emerges more fully into its own. Meanwhile, the year’s best books of poetry feature a number of selected, collected, and new works that offer plenty of everyday wisdom — especially about death and change — and, maybe, a way of looking back and forward at the same time.
I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975–2014, Eileen Myles (Ecco)
One of the most long-awaited and deserving “selected poems” of 2015, I Must Be Living Twice brings together the work of an artist whose formal agility and deceptively plainspoken style has exerted untold influence on the best American poetry over the course of decades — and perhaps never more so than today. Maybe this is why Myles is talked about as a cult icon; in “cult” I hear not religion but “occult” — the magic of material life and the art of divining what matters.
From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, Jorie Graham (FSG)
Graham’s poetry of motion and becoming has established her, over 40 years, as one of the preeminent American artists in any form. This makes From the New World one of the most important books of the year; its contents will spread like a contagion from your hands to your brain, from your mouth to the ears of others.
Heaven, Rowan Ricardo Phillips (FSG)
Phillips’ Heaven seems to contain everything under the sun — from allusions to Frost and Stevens (“It does not not get you quite wrong”) to ODB — and yet I think I could pick one of his poems out of the sky. If, for Kafka, Heaven is the impossibility of crows, then for Phillips it is the possibility of this impossibility. This is to say that the Heaven is undogmatic yet perfectly whole.
Selected Later Poems, C.K. Williams (FSG)
Williams, one of the best and most decorated poets of his era, died just two days before the release of this collection, which brings together his later poems. Fittingly, they reveal a poet at the height of his powers negotiating what he called “the unhealable self,” which, in his case, meant a self that braved death and dying by writing it down.
Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis (Knopf)
Back in September, we called Voyage of the Sable Venus “one of the most deserving books” on the National Book Award longlist. Two months later, Robin Coste Lewis beat a loaded shortlist to take home the award. One of the most impressive debuts in recent poetry history, The Voyage of the Sable Venus is a triptych anchored by an early masterwork — one composed entirely of catalog entries, exhibition descriptions, and titles of artworks — that aims for nothing less than to redistribute the role of the black female figure in Western art.
The Last Two Seconds, Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf)
Bang’s playful yet deadly collection moves thrillingly fast from the cinematic to the language-game, lingering only where it hurts. As much I enjoyed her 2007 National Book Critics Circle-winning Elegy, I prefer The Last Two Seconds. It shows a poet whose mind never stops adding color to the moment of the distinguished thing.
Black Cat Bone, John Burnside (Graywolf)
This collection — the American debut of Scottish novelist, memoirist, and poet John Burnside — won both the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes in 2011 — it’s not hard to see why. The poems hit you like lightning striking a dead branch.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)
A worthy contender for the National Book Award and one of the best poetry books of 2015, Gay’s faultless Catolog is a heterotopia of wisdom and flux, a field guide to gratitude unencumbered by either false sentiment or dread.