Glass, Irony & God by Anne Carson
I return to this collection once every year or so, mostly for “The Glass Essay,” a 36-page poem about, among other things, the end of a relationship. Carson writes, “When nude/ I turned my back because he likes the back./ He moved onto me.// Everything I know about love and its necessities / I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me.” I found it thrilling when I first read it years ago, and it’s still just as devastating and clever. It’s a master class in voice and tone.
Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar
Yes, Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is remarkable, but his debut chapbook, dedicated simply “for drunks,” was the first book of his I read, and it never stays on my bookshelf for long. Most of the poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic appear in the full-length collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf, but his treatment of addiction, recovery, and sobriety in these twenty poems is laser-focused. I read it when I need a jolt of the wild, musical, precise language that only Kaveh Akbar can make.
Dear Sal by Jeremy Radin
Jeremy Radin’s poems are very good. With a voice that’s equally fierce and vulnerable, he allows himself playful experimentation with form and language. The epistolary poems in this book have an interesting foundation (see: https://notacult.media/books/dear-sal/), and they sing with longing, tenderness, and surprising imagery.
Bestiary by Donika Kelly
I can still remember sitting at my dining room table, reading this book for the first time. I uttered sounds out loud to no one, I gasped audibly. I had to put the book down and take a breath. Alive with wilderness, beasts, and mythological creatures, Bestiary explores violation, danger, bewilderment, memory, trauma, and much more in the strange and unpredictable language of dreams. It feels somehow ancient and entirely new at once. This is a complicated book, the kind of book I read when I want to work a little, when I want to be haunted.
Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the simplest of terms, this is a book about the Vietnam War. Written mostly from the point of view of the American soldier in Vietnam (Komunyakaa himself served as a combat correspondent), it remains utterly relevant today. These are poems of witness which, through their vivid treatment of the landscape, their imagery (surreal, gorgeous, frightening, at times unbearable), and their sheer humanity, do not turn away from the brutality of war. In “You and I Are Disappearing,” a poem which looks at a girl burning after a napalm strike, the speaker struggles to compare this vision to anything else, and he ends with these lines:
A tiger under a rainbow
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.
Komunyakaa’s empathy and clarity are without comparison.
Chelsea Bunn is the author of the chapbook Forgiveness (Finishing Line Press, 2019). Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Ideate Review, Sky Island Journal, Dunes Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in NYC, she lives in New Mexico, where she serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing for Navajo Technical University.