Fifteen Poetry Recommendations About Grief and Mourning for our Darkest Nights

This is a simple mosaic of all the list's book covers. Set on a dark blue background.


IN THIS SEASON, lists like this often focus on celebration. And of course we hope you find plenty to celebrate as another year comes to an end, but for many, there will be a great deal to mourn. The books Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends recommend here offer ways to hold grief. Grief for people we have lost or people we might be losing, grief for an imperiled planet, for hardship, and change. “Poetry is the closest grief has to expression in language,” wrote Ilyse Kusnetz. Here are some books to open when nights are heavy and hard.


Camille Dungy Recommends:




Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

In these electric meditations on living while dying, Ilyse Kusnetz reminds us of what it means to dearly love an impermanent world. Kusnetz was in treatment for cancer at the time she wrote Angel Bones. Sometimes, as in “Scientists Prove Chemo Brain is Real” and “Chemotherapy,” she writes directly about those treatments. In other poems (“A Notion of Time According to Physicists (After I Die)” and “I’ll Be Your Sweet Poltergeist”), she speaks frankly about her hopes for “When I don’t have a body anymore. When/ I’m ash and fragmented bone.” As much as this book is centered on the poet’s personal and ultimate loss, it is deeply grounded in the world around her. The universe around her, really, as there as many poems in Angel Bones about the magnificent continuity of stars and space and time as there are poems that center on blue herons, dragonflies, butterflies, bees, sanderlings, parakeets, and “the wild delight of wild things, my Love.” (Alice James Books)



Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

These self-portraits of a woman facing her own mother’s death drop us into a world of grief and recognition. A poet and photographer, Rachel Eliza Griffiths includes both her art forms in Seeing the Body, so there are pages of photographs in addition to all the book’s honest and revelatory poems. Refracting and refining her gaze page after page, Griffiths seems to be working toward seeing her own body, as well her dying-then-dead mother’s, within the changed landscape of grief.  (W. W. Norton)



Brightword by Kimberly Burwick

What if someone you love lives always on the brink of death? And what if that someone is your child? And what if that child worries about imminent and potential disaster, but not so much about their own heart failing as about the wreck we’ve wrought on the world? Brightword writes into the “green unowned awe” of existing in an impermanence that brightens the joy and terror of survival. Each of this book’s taut, five-couplet poems, which Burwick wrote in partnership with her son, convey a mother’s worry about her son’s congenitally precarious heart and the son’s worry about the environment and the many lives humans have imperiled. Not all grief writing has to be about what happens after loss, after death. I love this book for many reasons. One of them is how it handles the complications of being, of staying, alive. (Carnegie Mellon Press)



Prognosis by Jim Moore

Let me begin this brief review by quoting a few of Jim Moore’s lines: “If you are closer to being old / than you would like to be and slowness / begins to redefine the idea of difficulty / into something you would much rather / take a pass on, then it is time for the sky / to grow larger than the earth, than the sea even . . . ” Throughout this book, Moore embraces this matter-of-fact outlook on the world, an outlook that allows him to slow down and see possibilities for pleasure even when the prognosis is dim. Like a man walking through a blizzard with a bright orange snow shovel (“Useless Shovel”), Moore writes and writes again “Poems That Keep Me from Forgetting Who I Am.” Moore wrote Prognosis in Minneapolis during the COVID pandemic, a time of heightened calls for social justice, the turbulence of a presidential campaign, and ever-increasing recognition of ecological peril. All that is in these pages, as are several of Moore’s dead or dying family and friends and his growing awareness of his own proximity to death. And yet, “I am seventy-seven, have no time to waste,” Moore writes. “It is time for me too, even now, to begin again.” (Graywolf Press)



The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse by Sam Taylor

An elegy for the earth and for the poet’s mother. An excavation of the heart. A cry to recognize our culpability. A long cry. A heap of sorrow. This book burns with anger and exhaustion and disbelief and grief. It is at once a collage and a straight-forward narrative. There are images throughout, built of words and photographs and paintings. There are erasures and revisions and gradations of gray and deep blackness. Verse and prose. A short lecture on plastics and a “Fool’s Glossary.” Maybe it sounds like a mess when I describe it this way. The world is a mess and so are most of our hearts. The Book of Fools is one startling arresting effort to make sense of it all. (Negative Capability Press)



Goldenrod by Maggie Smith

Divorce is another kind of loss, which often brings its own kinds of grief. In Goldenrod, Maggie Smith applies her canny attention to the world around her as she learns to recalibrate her life on new terms. She’s not quite alone, the poems make this clear. She’s got her children and, also, there are “beams of light” supporting an invisible architecture all around her. As Goldenrod progresses, we walk with Smith as she learns to lean into this light. (Atria/One Signal Publishers)



When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds by Peter Markus

Here are the last three lines of Peter Markus’s poem “Whatever It Was It Was an Honor, Call It a Privilege”: “The night my father died I had to brake three times / to avoid hitting an animal crossing in front of me. / One was an opossum. One was a deer. The third thing / I could not tell what it was. It happened that quick.” Throughout When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds, interconnections between the human heart and the greater-than-human world sing up from the pages, reminding me that the perception of loss is partially a failure of the imagination. Not to say that this book is intolerant of grief nor that it placates with empty platitudes. No. Not that. There is nothing empty or intolerant about how Markus weaves “the language of leaving” into everything he sees and says about the living world. (Wayne State University Press)



Forever by James Longenbach

Longenbach’s lyric poems hold in them the leaf-lost trees, rising waters, and salt-corroded bricks of a tenuously balanced life. It is hard, sometimes, to differentiate life from loss, love from longing, or Venice, Italy from the stream-strewn coastal stretches of New Jersey. Everything is connected in the taut, interwoven poems contained in Forever. (W.W. Norton)



A Forest of Names by Ian Boyden

In his role as a curator, Ian Boyden mounted a 2016 exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s Fault Line, in which Weiwei reckons with a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed thousands of people, 5,196 of whom were children. To cover up the catastrophe and the shoddy construction that exacerbated it, the Chinese government refused to disclose the names and identities of the dead. Ai Weiwei risked his own safety to uncover the children’s names, ages, and birthdates. Mounting the Fault Line exhibit, Boyden realized, “Each name brimmed with love, the hopes and dreams of parents, and a challenge from the children who bore them to not be forgotten or have the tragedy of their death be covered up.” For a year, Boyden worked with the names of children, names that translated into English as luminous little songs: “Swim the Lustrous Pool,” “Observe,” “Ripple,” “Ocean,” “Golden Duckweed,” “Long Flower,” “Sandbar Lord,” “Lustrous Field,” “Daylily,” “Daybreak Treasure,” “Flower Bud,” “Small Beauty,” “Poem Dream.” He wrote small, bright poems around each name, conveying the urgency of each child’s existence and the horror of each death. A Forest of Names collects 108 of these meditative memorials, ending with “Vast Swelling Waves”: “His absence an abyss. / Today, may his name overflow.” (Wesleyan University Press)



Revolutionary Letters, 50th Anniversary Edition by Diane Di Prima

The ferocity of these poems is intensely refreshing and instructive. One of the common questions in times of deep grief is What do I do with all this rage? Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters has clear and direct answers: “hoard matches, we aren’t good / at rubbing sticks together any more.” First published as part of City Light’s Pocket Poetry series in 1971, this fiftieth anniversary issue is an expanded edition of Di Prima’s life-long project, including poems written from 1968 until her death in 2020. Di Prima grieves for lost friends and lost leaders (by lost she sometimes means dead, and she sometimes means morally bankrupt). She worries about water and rivers and oil spills and both the first and second Gulf Wars. She mourns the fabricated divisions that keep good people from treating each other with mutual love and respect. Revolutionary Letters gives clear instructions about what to do with such grief and rage and worry: there are instructions on how and where to hold a protest, instructions on why guns won’t save the day, lists of what to carry in an emergency bag, instructions on how to train a body to survive with less food, and why it is best to avoid processed food entirely. For the reader who finds themself asking, What do I do with all this grief? These are practical poems with realistic answers. (City Lights Books)



Recommendations from Poet Friends:



Kimberly Burwick recommends The Solace is Not the Lullaby by Jill Osier

The English language, gorgeous as it is, often leaves us stranded. If there is a towline it may come from other cultures—or dead languages—which arrive from the past with an intricacy made fleetingly available as is the case in Jill Osier’s stunning The Solace is Not the Lullaby, winner of the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize in 2020. “Grief” is one of those words. In Japanese, the phrase “Mono No Aware” is closer to a sadness for the passing of time. In Old English, “Wintercearig” (literally translated “winter-care”) whose etymology is more akin to the strength of one’s own sadness as the years vanish. Osier writes, “The years have continued / to drop, like a steady rain, / their tiny stones.” It’s as if, miraculously, she has cocooned within these short lyrics a microcosm of the untranslatable. An elegy to the disappearance of small-town life across America, Osier confesses, “Something else beautiful: / I remembered, the town I’m from, / people there went about their day / and work as if they thought / no one was watching.” (Yale University Press)



Amanda Moore recommends Focal Point by Jenny Qi

Jenny Qi’s debut collection mourns a mother who has died young from cancer, and the focal point of the book’s grief shifts to behold other losses as well: loves and friendships, elements of the natural world, racial identity, the shifting landscape of San Francisco, and even strangers lost to acts of violence. Stylistically varied, Qi’s poems tend to their mourning through deft craft—a satisfying mix of mostly free verse that makes compelling use of the page—and careful recording of the living world: vanilla Chapstick, burning incense, “the spongy tang” of Ethiopian flatbread, neon dance floors, and sunsets over the Pacific, all of which are left to the grief-stricken to hold in memory and love. As both poet and cancer researcher, Qi searches for certainty and comfort by pivoting between the metaphysical and the practical, drawing on biology, literature, dreams, memories, and hope for the future in these exquisite poems that invite us into a transformative experience of our own grief by “teach[ing] us how to hold this weight.” (Steel Toe Books)



Ellen Bass recommends Obit by Victoria Chang

When her mother died, Victoria Chang wrote dozens of poems in the form of obituaries for all that was lost. In Obit she mourns the many and varied casualties of death, such as “My Mother’s Teeth,” “Approval,” “Oxygen,” “The Bees,” and several for herself,  “Victoria Chang.” The sensibility, imagery, strangeness, and imagination of these poems is mesmerizing. I rarely read poetry books all in one sitting from beginning to end, but I couldn’t put this down. I’ve returned to these poems over and over and they grow richer with each reading. In these times when we face so much death and loss these poems are especially meaningful. Victoria Chang turns grief into art.



Kimberly Burwick also recommends Spot Weather Forecast by Kevin Goodan

If Carpe diem translates to “seize the day,” then one must instead attribute Kevin Goodan’s Spot Weather Forecast more appropriately to Carpe omnia, or “seize everything.” In full disclosure, I have been married to Kevin Goodan for over a decade and know first-hand his complex relationship to fire. However convenient that fact, I find this book to be a staggering sixth collection. To Goodan, a former elite wildland firefighter, the body isn’t always metaphor, but a fierce articulation of the ecstatic threshold of pain—every muscle, bone and organ in perpetual scarification. “That is the passion of incineration, / Yes? The scabs they leave, / The scars they own / Are their homes in our bodies” he writes. There is grief yes, but it is a highly specific longing for one’s youth and the “feral, brunt-of-storm” comradery specific to each body in “hotline” against flame front. But Goodan doesn’t stop at the corporeal. The real genius of Spot Weather Forecast is that it also transforms the physical criterion for what a soul and the earth can withstand. “So many names in the smoke / As the inversion sloughs / Toward us, we who torched / this Eden, and will again.” (Alice James Books)



Amanda Moore also recommends West Portal by Ben Gucciardi 

In addition to being a neighborhood in San Francisco, West Portal is, as the book’s epigraph explains, “an entry into the afterworld—the westward motion of the soul after the body dies.” West is also the direction in which these stunning poems gesture, leaning ever-westward toward where sun sets each day, an occasion that, like the book, is marked by beauty as much as darkness. Winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, West Portal is a lamentation, born of mourning but conveyed in song, offering solace as it shines its light on loss. The poems function as portals themselves, providing passage into other lives, landscapes, and griefs, bringing us close to the speaker’s students—young men who bear physical and emotional scars of their youths—and his sister’s ghost, called upon for guidance and insight into the afterlife. Gucciardi’s speaker is both guide and fellow mourner, his own perspective and pain a wellspring for compassion and tenderness as the reader is ferried through a bevy of emotion. (The University of Utah Press)


Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here


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