Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong’s poetry is weird. Good weird. The kind of weird that makes you go back again, and again. Engine Empire is split into three sections in three time periods: the wild west, contemporary Shangdu, and some high-tech dystopian future in the World Cloud. The book has murderers, ballads, factory workers, Oulipo vowel limitations, a man who has painted 10,000 Rembrandt self-portraits, and the holiest of all things: “people who eat alone.” I have read this book about five times, and I find it enjoyable every single time.
ARK by Ronald Johnson
There are some books that stick with you because of that one essay you wrote that one time about them. Where you continually feel like you ought to go back to that essay, polish it, and then publish it. ARK is that book for me. Every time I read it, I find myself writing about it. A book about everything and nothing, Johnson weaves physics, Greek myth, handprints, and concrete poetry into a 99 section, 3 book triptych, where you’re just as likely to find math equations or cell mitosis diagrams as you are to see references to Cezanne or Blake. The book opens up under the eyes of “186,282 cooped up angels tall as appletrees” and ends with rockets thrusting us toward the moon. Fair warning though, after page 91 the book contains nothing even resembling a complete sentence (a point in its favor, imo).
[one love affair]* by Jenny Boully
Like most contemporary poetry books, [one love affair]* can be read in one sitting, but unlike most poetry books, as soon as I finished it I flipped back to page one and read it all over again. I’ve read this book to lovers in bed, talked to my therapist about it, and unsuccessfully proposed to teach it in a class on contemporary experimental poetry (alas, only two people signed up for my course “Experimental Women Poets”). The book is written as a series of prose poems and meditations on love, relationships, writing, and mental illness. Boully takes a long and difficult look at the question: what do you do when you love someone who can’t love you back the same way? If you read one book on this list, read this one, the lyricism of these prose poems is impeccable.
Nox by Anne Carson
As an experimental poet interested in book art, the intersection of the textual and the visual, and the impossibilities of translation, Nox is everything I’ve ever wanted to do. The “book” itself is an accordion of numberless “pages” that comes in a box, and can easily stretch from one end of a room to the other. Nox translates Catullus 101 word by word, while recounting the strained relationship that Caron had with her brother. This was the first book I ever read by Carson, and one of the few books that has made me go “I must read everything this author has ever written” (the only other authors on that list are Beckett and Woolf).
Driven to Abstraction by Rosemarie Waldrop
My copy of Driven to Abstraction is dog eared, torn, and worn out. It has more of my marginalia than any other book of poetry I own by a living author. Yet, it remains one of those books that is difficult for me to properly articulate why I like it. The book contains an extended meditation on nothingness, an homage to John Cage, an alphabetized list of (non)-random words, a set of prose poems about Columbus, and the vague feeling that this is what Wittgenstein might have written, had he been a poet. It is not an easily quotable work; it cannot be reduced to soundbites or questions. It is meditative, philosophical, and disjunctive, in that fascinating way that everything by Rosmarie Waldrop is.
Evelynn Black is a trans writer from Seattle. She received her MFA from Cornell University. Her work has been published in The Seattle Review, Requited, Empty Mirror, Peculiars, and other magazines. She tweets at @poeticambiguity.