17 Poetry Collections to read during Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and we’re back with another curated list of poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends. From Trinidad to Kabul to the Arctic and beyond, through imagined kingdoms, red clay, falling snow, and lemon-scented air, here you will find tricksters and children, grief and desire, intimacy, community, and resolve written by some of the most compelling women poets of our time.


Camille Dungy recommends:



Trickster Academy by  Jenny L. Davis

Jenny L. Davis’s book is so funny that when I first read Trickster Academy during the quiet hour before my family woke, I laughed out loud twice. But it also cuts deep. I thought, Ouch, that’s so true. And then I might have cried. These poems about the experience of being Native in academia are riddled with difficult truths, trickster stories, and the analysis of protective exoskeletons and human remains. Red clay mud seeps around the feet of these poems and keeps them from walking too far from home. This is where so many of us live. Sit down with Davis, Fox, Rabbit, Spider, Crow, Buzzard, and Coyote to learn how things came to be the way that they are. (University of Arizona Press)



Aunt Bird by Yerra Sugarman

In these haunting and haunted poems, Yerra Sugarman conjures the story of an aunt murdered in Poland in 1942 during the Holocaust. In Yiddish, the aunt’s name meant “bird.” Sugarman speaks “the language of falling snow bending in the wind” to tell a story that must be told and retold and told again. Not because there is any healing that can happen after such atrocities, but because, despite this, she must “try to measure the sky,/ the incommensurate, hibiscus-red sky/and look for a voice that looks for its throat.” (Four Way Books)



The Thicket by Kasey Jueds


Entering The Thicket it’s as if I walk into another world, one where things are more vivid and alive. Like the land of fables and fairy tales, the Technicolor wonder along the yellow brick road. Sparrows are messengers, and so are crows. The dog next door grants me x-ray vision. Doors open onto magical kingdoms where girls bite straight into hanging fruit without even bothering to pick it from the tree. Except this magic world is our world, the real world, where snow falls and keeps falling and, long after someone’s been paid to clear out the old tool shed, the ghosts of chemicals once stored there haunt the air. (University of Pittsburgh Press)



Abacus of Loss by Sholeh Wolpé

In poems scented with lemon, almond blossoms, and gun smoke, Sholeh Wolpé counts losses across continents. From a childhood in Tehran to an adolescence in Trinidad and the U.K., Wolpé’s exile and recentering eventually takes her to Los Angeles and Washington D.C. In all these landscapes, the speaker of this memoir in verse meets birds and men and new parts of her own heart as the trees in the book lose, regain, then lose again their leaves. Like the holes she saw workers dig at a resort in Tulum, Mexico, to bury the nightly wash of seaweed coming out of the Sargasso Sea, Wolpé’s Abacus of Loss catches what’s torn up and battered by waves, giving the wrack back to the sands of time and memory. (The University of Arkansas Press)



How to Carry Water: Selected Poems by Lucille Clifton, edited by Aracelis Girmay

Read this book. Then read it again. Lucille Clifton spoke through the voice of the universe, casting as loving an eye on a roach as a fox as the waves from the Chesapeake Bay. Her connection to the many vibrant, unique lives on this planet is unparallel in contemporary American poetry. Her trademark compression and attention and care are as necessary today as they were when she first penned the poems in this thoughtfully selected collection. (BOA Editions)



A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi

In one of this book’s lush, thoughtful, sometimes necessarily jarring poems, Tishani Doshi writes, “the body of earth is the body of us.” Perhaps we care for our own and each other’s bodies with just as much, and just as little reverence as we care for the earth. Throughout A God at the Door, Doshi demonstrates where the divine is at work in the mundane, and places where the world severs the living from the divine. No, she is more specific than that. Doshi writes how humans destroy life, killing the divine inside others. This book’s gaze is global and copious. It moves from lost species to lost coasts to lives lost to gunfire in a maternity clinic in Kabul. But, the witness accompanies a fierce will toward survival. The language in A God at the Door is fiery and mesmerizing, as if sparked by something we might call the divine. (Copper Canyon Press)



 I Thought There Would Be More Wolves by Sara Ryan

When the woman at the center of Sara Ryan’s book moves to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is surprised not to see wolves. This book explains some reasons for wolves’ absence from that landscape even as it reveals how wolves are ever-present in the mind. Not only as metaphor, but also as kin and as kind. I Thought There Would Be More Wolves digs out bones buried by history and looks at the blood and muscle that build our mammalian bodies. “Men become the forest” and a father grooms the wolf in his girl. These poems sometimes have their teeth bared, but they can also be gentle as a mother wolf in a fur-soft den. (University of Alaska Press)



I Live in the Country & other dirty poems by Arielle Greenberg

The first poem in this collection, “I am an Animal,” lays the foundation for all that will come. The double entendre in the word “come” is intended. In this book, Arielle Greenberg never disconnects from the animal body, a body that hungers for sex and the heat of the pack. Dirty and domestic, feral and fresh, I Live in the Country is a wildly grounded and fully embodied book. (Four Way Books)



Magnified by Minnie Bruce Pratt

Observing the world as if through a lens that reveals the closeness of things and also their true contours, Minnie Bruce Pratt describes a neighborhood, its elms and arborvitae, the rain, the snow, the imminent death of a beloved, hedges, and edges, and bitter herbs. Perhaps, through these observations, grief becomes bearable. Or, perhaps, individual grief is amplified by its echoes. One poem in Magnified says, “I am writing the natural history of my world.” Another laments the knowledge that there must always be, for us all, a final word. These taut lyrics measure mourning and memory, embodiment, and embodiment’s inevitable, eventual end. (Wesleyan University Press)



The Curious Thing by Sandra Lim

As in the poems in The Curious Thing titled “Pastoral,” one of which describes “Drinks on a sunny patio” and the fate of a bird who lives inside the house, the poems in this book make clear the dubious division between the interior mind, the external body, and the greater-than-human world. Sandra Lim’s poems use images from the natural world as metaphors for the human mind, the hungry body, but they never co-opt the independent energy of the mountain, lake, stag, or rose with which her vision aligns. As in a lucid dream where nothing and everything is real, Lim writes a world that is both magically metaphorical and fundamentally true. (W.W. Norton)



Recommendations from poet friends:



Shara McCallum recommends Anthropocene Lullaby by K.A. Hays


K.A. Hays is a gifted lyric poet whose body of work has been built out of her enduring focus on and concern for the natural world. Her fourth and newest collection, Anthropocene Lullaby, is emotionally, intellectually, and linguistically charged. In these poems, human-caused climate change, rapid technological shifts, and examinations of the self (including being a mother) intersect and create rifts in the poet’s sense of herself and of time. I’m moved by how matter-of-factly Hays evokes anxiety in the face of environmental catastrophe and stares down grief. I’m equally moved by the poet’s virtuosic craft—the poems’ sonic echoes, sinuous yet taut syntax, and intimate, self-interrogating tone. The book is at times harrowing to read, but it offers solace too. The poet reminds herself, and us, that matter and energy are never created or destroyed. They change form. They transform, as they must and as we must. (Carnegie-Mellon University Press)



Tess Taylor recommends Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

The Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie is one of my favorite living poets, but she’s also a tremendous essayist, and in this book, she examines things as varied as Inuit land where warming is unburying ancient tools, to prehistoric settlements in Scotland, to her own attempts to unbury memories of travels long gone. The ways she moves between the reported, the felt, the seen and the remembered are deft. She’s a compassionate witness to careful leisurely observations like this: “After 30 minutes or so, I could see colors better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.”  For those of us who are—even at this phase of the pandemic—still finding a time that demands that we wait in the slowness, books like Jamie’s offer hope that that time will give us time to imagine, unbury, and consider belonging, history and shard. From there, who knows? We may be able to dream much wiser dreams. In the meantime, Jamie, in her witness, offers us the chance to see more richly. (Penguin Books)



Petra Kuppers recommends Gentlewomen by Megan Kaminski

There’s nothing very gentle about Megan Kaminski’s Gentlewomen, an exploration of a post-apocalyptic feverish sightedness that dances on human ruins. Poems accompany three mythical women, the five-breasted Natura and her sisters Providence and Fortuna, as they walk a drowned land. Women are agents, embracing new uncertainties—“This is how we disappear/walking without hesitation into darkness—”, where a lake “devour(s) with satin tongue.” In Fortuna’s pearlescent train, “my children follow languid/beneath waves and lapsing fauna/singing songs slipped silken.” This poetry raises its prayer voice for cold mercy, and the land receives its dead. At the same time, a cross-species, pan-material aliveness marks Kaminski’s post-capitalistic layered jubilation, when “Instructions (how to hold the world)” tell us “To filter through flesh, through soil, through layers of lung and/bedrock. To siphon off downstream off diesel tank off currency flow.” Grounded in careful environmental observation, Kaminiski crafts riveting spectacles of alchemical survival, where power lines and brush fires, fly buzz and oak blight. become lyric agents in a shifting world. (Noemi Press)



Kasey Jueds recommends Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane

A multitude of silences inhabits Hyperboreal. Around, within, and beneath the poems, the vast silence of the Arctic landscape reverberates, along with the brutal silencings of its Native people. Silence also lives in these poems as a space where something else might come into being: a new way of feeling, thought, or understanding; an openness that wasn’t there before. I love Hyperboreal for its depthless and adamant beauty, mystery, and grief; for its profound intimacy with outer and inner worlds; for the way reading into its speaking and its silences calls up an answering silence in me, a desire to listen harder, listen more. “Listening,” the speaker in “Etch” says, “I began / To know so little.” (University of Pittsburgh Press)



Nadia Colburn recommends Everything Awake by Sasha Steensen

How to sleep in a world that is so full and, at the same time, so fragile? Sasha Steensen’s “Everything Awake” pulses with life, longing, and meaning. A daughter who is allergic to walnuts and has trouble breathing, the hens to care for, food to make, the poisoned river, sex with her husband, the moon in the sky, poetry itself—all the beautiful, richly described everydayness of the poems is at once overmuch and not enough. In the author’s note, Steensen writes, “My hope is that these poems might offer one humble account of care in our deeply damaged world.” This is a world of mothers, children, lovers, and landscapes that, despite insomnia, despite the damage, I want to linger in and celebrate. (Shearsman Books)



Rebecca Gayle Howell recommends Out Beyond the Land by Kimberly Burwick

Out Beyond the Land is the new collection by Kimberly Burwick, a poet of the New England coast. She was raised in Massachusetts, between Worcester and Hyannis, and she writes in the tradition of other Worcester neighbors, like Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop, whose imaginations led them not to the brick and rust of the mills, but to the nearest opposite: the Atlantic ocean. Today Burwick lives on twenty-eight lush and landlocked acres in New Hampshire, and she is the mother of a son who has a life-threatening heart condition. In Out Beyond the Land the poet stands in her New Hampshire, praying to the ocean of her own childhood, that endless, silent God. She prays for the one she most fears might one day, indeed, end. But Burwick refuses dystopia. Her contemplation is not on what might come, but what is. And what is, lives. Dense with flora, fauna, and flight, these poems are ebullient and viney. Biodiversity is unmistakable to the nervous system, and Burwick’s lines are sourced straight from her New Hampshire acres—a place I have not been, but now want to know: Paula Reds, drafts of yellow thistle, cylinders of geese, blueberries bright by variation, tintypes of goldfinch, variable hawthorn. Her poems bust their seams to name and love each creature, each plant, each being that enters the poet’s awareness, as if chanting the word alive, alive, alive to her son. The book itself is slight. It comprises just fort-five expressions—a sequence of tender, subtle lyrics each titled in that extinct, extant language called Latin, each shaped in a formal invention that is nine lines long, one line for every year Burwick’s son was old at the time of writing this book. The coupling breaks move in and out, in and out, like the breath, like the tide. It is a simple, not at all simple, remarkable work of art. (Carnegie Mellon University Press)



Tess Taylor also recommends Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman  


When I first read Brenda Hillman’s stunning book Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire a few years back, I admit I was a bit stumped. There were classical references to Virgil, long dedications, “minifestos” and “microseasons.” Funny symbols sometimes stood in place of letters. But over time, the book—an exploration of fire, set in an area prone to it—became one of my favorite books of the decade. The book is about fire, and language, and landscape, and late capitalism all at once. Most winning is the way it pits those forces as figures of one other, and moves in pleasurable ways between voices and registers of speech. Hillman’s poems embody a heightened, luminous awareness of the languages we speak and the languages that speak us. Again and again, her poems pose urgent questions of how to live ethically now.

In the process, Hillman does things that only a very skilled poet can do well. She writes a poem from the perspective of a pumpkin, litters her stanzas with untranslatable spirals, and weaves together the language of protest, pharmaceutical companies, Valley girls, and, oh yeah, Keats. In a poem entitled “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility,” Hillman meditates on watching policemen beat Occupy protesters. She frames it in terms of a lengthy, almost Virgilian figure of marching, underground ants. In that poem, she writes, “I distrust moral certainty and even distrust the sentence ‘I distrust moral certainty.’” With or without certainty, in search of elements that sustain us, Hillman calls us back to the heat of language, that flickering, necessary lamp. In these odd days when the world seems ablaze, I commend you to this lively, defiant, blazing book. (Wesleyan University Press)


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