Twenty-One Recommended Poetry Collections for Orion Readers

As National Poetry Month comes to a close, we asked Orion’s poetry editor Camille Dungy and her community of poets what recent collections they’d recommend to Orion readers. Because, let’s face it: good poetry is necessary year-round. Here’s what they came up with. 

 

Camille Dungy’s Five Recommended Poetry Collections:

 

 

The Carrying by Ada Limón


“Imagine you must survive without running,” Ada Limón writes in one of The Carrying’s (Milkweed) early poems, and for a while I can imagine nothing but that. But then, a few pages later, she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our bodies toward/ the thing that will obliterate us . . .” and I think, yes, I imagine that is also true. On and on this book goes, making me imagine the world in one way and then another. Consider her poem “American Pharoah,” in which the speaker is quite literally sick and tired but is forced to leave the house to see some horse “not even race, but/ work.” She’s a grump, the poem’s speaker, just like I am so often grumpy and tired and sick of it all. And so too is “some horse racing bigwig” who is certain this horse must be overrated. Isn’t so much of what this world sells us overrated? The blooming trees and the dogs and the dandelions and the tomatoes and the dreams we have of the people we love or the people we hope to love or the people we hope will come back or will never leave us? Aren’t all of these overhyped, destined to disappoint us one way or another? Limón’s poems know how skeptical we are. How skeptical we should be. How we have every reason to doubt the stories we have been sold. She’ll start a poem letting us see a gorgeous layer of snow “outlining the maple like a halo.” Then, in the next line, clarify that the snow actually looks like “a fungus.” The world, she is not afraid to say, is full of ugly. But, even later in the poem, she’ll “stare at the tree and the ice will have melted, so/ it’s only the original tree again, green branches giving way// to other green branches, everything coming back to life,” and I will begin to understand, again, that the stories we tell ourselves about the world are important because they make things more beautiful than they really are, and because they make things more terrible than the really are, and, here’s the really crucial thing, because they make us see things as they really are, as well. Like the grumpy horse racing bigwig who couldn’t believe in American Pharoah’s splendor until he saw it at work with his own eyes, thanks to the way Ada Limón sets the world galloping before me, I am invited to reconsider my doubts. I stand next to Limón gaping in wonder. The contradictions that are the diastole and systole of nature do their work on my closed-hearted, one-track thinking until, like the horse racing bigwig, I say, “I take it all back.”

 

 

Asked What Has Changed by Ed Roberson


I am always eager for a new Ed Roberson book. Long before the average poet was calling this kind of work ecopoetry, Ed Roberson was thinking critically and carefully about the ways human behavior was shaping the planet and the ways the planet works to sustain itself. Consider the title of his 2000 collection, Atmosphere Conditions, or of the collection he published in 2010, To See the Earth Before the End of the World. A limnologist by training (meaning a person who studies bodies of fresh water), Roberson has had his eye on our planet’s disappearing glaciers and compromised lake and river systems his whole life. While his poems are not always directly informed by such science, environmental concerns are always in their veins. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Roberson about his newest collection, Asked What Has Changed (Wesleyan University Press), and when I asked how music informs his lyrical, syncopated lines, he said his favorite music came from Cuba, or Mali, or is what he called the “stoney lonely,” music played in the hollers around the Pittsburgh portion of the Appalachian Mountains where he grew up. Roberson said that 5/4 music is “music with a limp.” When I laughed (I often find myself laughing at Roberson’s surprising insights), he said, “Think about it,” (I also often find myself drawn up short and reminded that the thing about which I have just laughed is actually intensely serious) “those deserts are vast, the camels must get tired,” and all of a sudden something clicked that I hadn’t been able to explain about what I love in Roberson’s work. The tempo of his lines, but also their ideation, reveals the exhaustion and tenacity of someone who has walked and walked and walked this terrain always watching and looking and thinking about the damage we are doing and the fleeting beauty that is all around us. 

 

 

Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez


This book has graphs in it. Actual graphs: “Global Carbon Emissions from Fossil Fuels,” rising water levels, “Global Mean Surface Temperature (Land & Ocean)” over time. Charts make facts more legible. That’s one reason we use them to document data, and Craig Santos Perez understands the necessity of making data more legible. Yet his charts are not straight forward. He adds unexpected data points along the x- and y-axis. He removes vowels so that you have to look more closely to understand what the charts describe. He recycles commonly received information and makes it new. He replaces words with pictures, and he puts his family into places objective science might suggest they do not belong. In Habitat Threshold (Omnidawn), Perez requires readers to look and then look again. He includes useful epigraphs from famous and clarifying sources (Rachel Carson; Thom Van Dooren, the author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction; Alison Hawthorn Deming; The International Union for Conservation of Nature), but he puts these clarifying quotations at the end of his poems. For the duration of his poems, you have to wade through the words (the world’s) worries without assistance, just like all of us do. But, also, there is beauty and delight on these pages. The comic relief of the poet’s witty mind, the peace of his babies’ breath on his skin and his page, the insistence on centering his native and current homes in Micronesia (Guam and Hawaii), the intergenerational love and will toward survival at work in his family. In his final poem, “Praise Song for Oceania,” he writes, praise your capacity for hope…//praise your activist kayaks and traditional canoes…//praise our common heritage// praise our pathway and promise to each other// praise our most powerful metaphor . . . and the list goes on, because, Perez reminds us, there is as much to praise as to fear about where we live now, on this habitat threshold, at this moment when the balance of life on this planet will be determined by whether or not we all look at how we are living, and then look more deeply, more carefully, again and again and again.

 

 

The Donkey Elegies by Nickole Brown


Reader, I will admit, I never really thought too much about donkeys, have you? This is a book about donkeys. And this is an entire book about donkeys (okay, a chapbook, just thirty-three pages, but still!). Perhaps if you were raised in the Christian tradition like I was you know that old story of Jesus and the donkey. Let me tell you, after you read Nickole Brown’s The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press), you’ll know that story anew. Perhaps if you’re a WWI and WWII history buff you’ll know some of those stories about donkeys. I am not, and I did not, but now I do. Perhaps if you are the type of person who believes in the inherent beauty and nobility and sentience and grace of all living beings you will already have understood the ways these traits are alive in the eyes and the ears and the flanks and the hooves and the souls of the donkey, but if you did not, Brown’s donkeys will present a new way of seeing to you. At one point in this collection, Brown asks, “Do we dismiss sturdy useful beings because we despise what we’re afraid we’ll become?” and there, as in other places, she leaps into a world of simile and metaphor that almost makes me dizzy as I watch her connect this to that and the other to me. (It’s okay if you have to go back and track the logic of that sentence. Take your time.) But I don’t get dizzy or lose my place or feel left out of these poems because Brown is ever welcoming and ever patient and ever graceful and forthright and honest and clear. This is a book about donkeys, yes, and you will quickly learn as you enter its pages, donkeys are and always have meant just about everything.

 

 

Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon


The poems in Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon Press) oscillate between quotidian honesty and honest alarm. And isn’t that just how we live our lives these days? Don’t we live, now, in a “country of too much everything,” of environmental catastrophe after environmental catastrophe and broken wishbones and wilting moons (“SOS”)? Each of the seven sections in this book is named after a light ship, a floating structure set in water too rough or deep or inaccessible for a permanent structure. “Cross Rip,” “Scarweather,” “Shambles,” some of these are called. And isn’t that, also, just like what it often feels like to get through our days? We know it is treacherous out there, and we know we could benefit from some sort of guide. In this book, Kelli Russell Agodon throws her light around the roiling waters. These poems are keenly attentive, and witty, and wise. They don’t shy away from revealing the dangers this ship we’re in is heading toward, but they’re also not afraid to tell us that they love us. They’ve been constructed to help us. If you let them, they might save you today.

 


 

Recommended Collections From Established Poets: 

 

Paisley Rekdal recommends The Galleons by Rick Barot

The Galleons (Milkweed) is a collection that examines a broad sweep of colonial and family history. I’ve long admired Barot’s writing, and this is his strongest work to date: the poems are psychologically and emotionally complex, while never losing their essential lyricism. The couplet form allows him to create propulsive poems that still think deeply about art, history, family, and migration—it’s a wonderful book.

Patrick Rosal recommends {#289-128} by Randall Horton

Few contemporary books of poetry achieve both the intensity of feeling and distillation of thought as Randall Horton’s {#289-128} (Kentucky Press). Let’s say it plain: carceral ideology is a brutal deprivation and destruction of ecologies, for the body is the land, incarcerated or not. With gorgeous linguistic compression and epigrammatic force, Randall Horton finds give in the gravity to transcribe something like the earth separated from the earth—and still it sings.

 

Nickole Brown recommends Kind by Gretchen Primack

One book at the top of my stack this season is Gretchen Primack’s Kind (Lantern Press). First published in 2013, this collection of poems is now a classic for advocates of animal rights, and its reissue this spring is testament to how relevant and necessary its subject matter still is. This new volume includes ten new poems, a foreword by Tim Seibles, and gorgeous color plates from painters Dana Ellyn, Jane O’Hara, and Gus Mueller. What keeps this book in my blood is just how its title reveals the word kind both as noun of kinship and of tenderness, and kindness stitches this book together. Each poem is an aching missive written to and for animals; they are poems of love and protest that refuse to bow down to our ideas of which animals are worthy and which are less than, to separate what is “born for love or commerce.” Each poem dissolves and reshapes these divisions with inexhaustible empathy and a ferocious determination that pleads—even demands—kindness for all living beings.

 

Craig Santos Perez recommends A History of Kindness by Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan is one of the most important environmental writers of our time. In A History of Kindness (Torrey House Press) she weaves themes of the body, family, ecology, and animals into a spiral that traverses time and space. In this troubled and dark world, I am grateful for the wisdom, light, and love found in these poems.

 

Joseph Legaspi recommends Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez

To simply refer to Deborah Paredez’s Year of the Dog (BOA Editions) as a poetry collection is to deny its imaginative powers and visceral multiplicities. A whirlwind of a book, it spirals together history lessons, archival documents, collages, photography, Greek mythology, ekphrasis, personae, and memoir. Anchored in the year of the poet’s birth in the throes of the Vietnam War, Paredez takes a splendid leap in storytelling. Seen through the lens of a Mexican-American daughter and citizen, the poems narrate the ever presence and scarification of war on the family, and expose the American systemic harm on a marginalized community. Through exquisite wordplay, Paredez breaks down images to mine deeper truths. She excavates events and exhumes bodies linguistically. A juggernaut performance, Year of the Dog can only be orchestrated by a poet possessed with staggering vision, craft, and empathy.

 

Elizabeth Bradfield recommends Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

One of the books I keep returning to and thinking about is Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK Press), by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. While not poetry, it has a poet-mind behind it. Gumbs is a poet and scholar, and in this book she offers both deep research and understanding of whales, seals, manatees, and more alongside metaphoric leaps of understanding about breath, community, vulnerability, ferocity. Her lessons grow from personal and ancestral history, from the legacy of the Middle Passage and her Black foremothers. The marine mammals hereand this is what I so appreciate!are not just vehicles for personal understanding. Gumbs seeks to understand their worlds and bring herself into relation with them. It’s a heart- and mind-opening book that includes a critique of scientific language and practices that is very necessary.

 

Donika Kelly recommends The Taxidermists’ Cut by Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermists’ Cut (Four Way Books) is a book of poems that cut like a river through the landscapes of childhood, emergent sexuality, and immigrant experience. The Ganga, Econlockhatchee, Hudson, Coretyne, and Thames mark the backdrop of longing, of wondering who gets hunted and who preserved. 

 

Keetje Kuipers recommends Vantage by Taneum Bambrick

Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage (American Poetry Review) explores the intersections of ecology, class, and power through the eyes of the only woman on a six-person garbage crew working the reservoirs of two dams on the Columbia River. These poems are tense, tight, and utterly devastating in their clear-eyed examination of the harms we commit against the land and each other.

 

Michael McGriff recommends Pardon My Heart by Marcus Jackson

Marcus Jackson’s second and latest book, Pardon My Heart (Triquarterly Books), which was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, is framed by two lines from Gwendolyn Books: “Your pulse must not say / What must not be said.” This imperative demands that truths be rendered into language, regardless of literary fashion, regardless of who’s doing the speaking or the listening, regardless of the cost to self or other. In this way, Pardon My Heart is a book of an unrelenting witness. I can think of few recent poetry collections that address race, class, and gender with such nuance and generosity. In the tradition of Philip Levine and Rita Dovetwo fellow singers of the rustbeltJackson carries truths into a kind of messy clarity, where meaning is found in the lived, the everyday, the loved.

 

Gabriel Gudding recommends Stereo(TYPE) by Jonah Mixon-Webster

Jonah Mixon-Webster’s Stereo(TYPE), is a recent favorite of mine. It was chosen a few years ago by Tyrone Williams for Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, and it subsequently won the Pen/Joyce Osterweil Award. Stereo(TYPE) is one of the most inventive and necessary books I’ve ever read. I find something new inside every time I open it. Look for a reissue from Knopf this summer.

 

Sahsa Steensen recommends Years, Months, and Days by Amanda Jernigan

T.S. Eliot, the most notorious thief of literary Modernism insists, “the good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique; utterly different than that from which it is torn.”  Amanda Jernigan’s Years, Months, and Days (Biblioasis Press) is a rewriting, an unwriting, a borrowing, a theft, of Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung, a 19th-century Mennonite hymnal. Reading this small, quiet book mid-Pandemic, I entered a time-space largely overlooked during our normal, rushed existencethe day eternal, the month and the year flying by in slow motion. “No sooner the morning,” Jernigan writes, “the shadowing night.” Tearing, as she does, the hymn from the hymnal, Jernigan sings a new song with words she inherits from a tradition not her own. It feels to me that this is one of the many gifts poetry has to offera return to something we never experienced, somewhere we have never been, some time we have never lived.”
 


And finally, we leave you with a handful of short recommendations from Brenda Hillman:

Trophic Cascade by Camille Dungy

While not brand new, Trophic Cascade is a timeless collection — an incredible book that brings together studies of earth, species and parenting. (Wesleyan)

Twice Alive by Forrest Gander

Forthcoming this May, Twice Alive is a stunning innovative collection by a great writer — his work constantly reimagines relations between mind, language, planet. (New Directions) 

Bionic Communality by Brenda Iijima

Bionic Communality is a forceful new collection of radical ecological poetry by a beautiful poet who brings environmental grief into alignment with desire for functional human systems. (Roof Books)

Counter-Desecration by Linda Russo and Martha Reed

Counter-Desecration is a really fascinating glossary of inventive terms for recognition and repair during the climate crisis. (Wesleyan)

The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems by Arthur Sze

One of our finest poets has put together his collected poems. The Glass Constellation brings the whole planet into the pages. (Copper Canyon Press)

 

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Camille T. Dungy has authored an essay collection and four poetry collections, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature. Dungy is a distinguished professor at Colorado State University. Dungy is also Orion’s poetry editor.