A checkerboard pattern of wood and book covers

14 Recommended Poetry Collections for Winter 2022

Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends are back at it, bringing you recommendations on some of the best recent books on animals, trees, time, refugees, place, bewilderment, grief, and Babyn Yar.

The cover of "The Century"

The Century

by Éireann Lorsung 

This is a remarkable book for many reasons, not the least of which is how it navigates the murky interplay between the world we live in and on and the world humans have consciously and brutally made. I opened The Century expecting to find page after page of poems about human atrocities and what remains of what some might call “resistance.” The book is full of such accounts because Lorsung enacts an ethos of attention, refusing to exercise the privilege of creating poetry focused solely on “beauty.” But I also encountered cherry trees growing through kitchen walls, “bright red birds” and “a twig covered in yellow lichen,” and black currant and sorrel and eels and icebergs and “bodies in the fields becoming fields.” Lorsung writes into the human-fabricated horrors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To apprehend these is also to witness “scrim the fog is, between here and the river.” (Milkweed)

The cover of "Village"


by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs

Part instruction manual, part celebration, part dance party, part garden tour, Village refuses compartmentalization, demanding engaged and engaging ways of looking at and talking about difficult shared experiences. Rather than embalmment, these poems want mushroom suits. Winged relatives are welcome as much as two-legged ones. This is an urban book, and an international one: Harlem, Rio Vermelho, New Zealand, the Carolinas. Places far afield and closer to home. Village focuses on the human animal and those we live alongside (grizzlies, caterpillars, mothers, rattlers, shopkeepers, rats). Cross-hatched and sideways, gray-scaled, staggered, variously aligned, and direct. In English, Portuguese, Tsalagi, Māori, Arabic, Yoruba, and more. These poems by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs reveal the richly diverse ecosystem of what a limited imagination might sideline as a “marginalized” life. (Coffee House Press)

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The cover of "[To] the last [be] human"

[To] The Last [Be] Human

by Jorie Graham

A tetralogy collecting books written between 2002 and 2020 (Sea Change, Place, Fast, and Runaway) Jorie Graham’s urgent and despairing [To] The Last [Be] Human stands as a thick and insistent testament of our time—this time of human-driven ecological crises. Armageddon of our own making. Graham’s eye has ever been alert to the “cadaver beginning to show through the skin of the day.” Her poems are often lengthy, heavy with import and truth. In “Self Portrait at Three Degrees” she writes: “here you take it, I can’t hold it anymore—you don’t want it—I/don’t care—you carry it for now—I need to catch my breath….” That poem, like many others in this book, appears simultaneously straightforward and outrageous, with long lines like a prose poem’s punctuated first by dashes then with arrows, then periods and, nearly at the end, with one question mark: “Are we ahead of/time or too late?” Other poems are constructed with Graham’s cantilevered lines, some stretching from the left margin full across the page and others starting from the middle, as if racing to catch up to the rest. Visual enactments of what the poems describe. “Tipping point, flash/ point” she writes in one poem, and in another, “It cannot be undone.” (Copper Canyon Press)

The cover of "Calling from the Scaffold"

Calling from the Scaffold

by Gary Gildner

Let me let Gary Gildner’s poems speak for themselves for a moment. Take this sentence from a crushing prose meditation on life and death and love and horses (of the wild, the basketball, and the narcotic varieties): “All around, the firs hold still, their limbs laden with cones clustered thick as swarming bees.” Or these lines, which are only a small part of a long, languorous sentence from the book’s titular poem: “the yolky sun is running over/ a soft gray sky, that shade of belly/ a trout can flash flipping la-/ di-da near my floating fly…” The poems in Calling from the Scaffold unfold with sensual attention—the pure pleasure of sound and space and presence in this world. This book is a trove of astonishments. He makes me hungry for poems as a bear is hungry at the end of winter for sweet fat meaty nourishment. See Gildner’s poem “Hungry” and so many others in this book for more on how such hunger could be a fact turned into metaphor and returned again to fact. (University of Pittsburgh Press)

The cover of "The Trees Witness Everything"

The Trees Witness Everything

by Victoria Chang

In Colorado, where I live, aspen trees thrive best in groves, clustered tightly with their kin—a community of trees all connected to each other. I thought of this when I opened Victoria Chang’s newest collection, The Trees Witness Everything. These poems are packed tightly, sometimes four poems to a page, in a manner that feels surprising given the way contemporary poetry is so often packaged. But it feels right for this book—because this clustering preserves the trees we use for paper, and because it mimics that feeling of walking into a tightly growing aspen grove, one tree connected by a continual root system to the next. The witnessing these poems undertake is both inward into the mind of the poet and outward into the mind of the world.  (Copper Canyon Press)

The cover of "Sounding Ground"

Sounding Ground

by Vladimir Lucien

Vladimir Lucien’s keen observations draw on sound, song, sorrow, survival strategies, and the full scope of the lives and landscapes surrounding his poem’s subjects. One poem demands that readers “look to the hills,” while another describes “ears that hear the soft voices of fruit/ and find their humility/ in small unassuming seeds.” One of my favorites, an elegy composed at the grave of the great writer and thinker C.L.R. James, begins: “The epitaph is slightly faded/ as though the rains had stopped/ for a moment inside his name and cried.” Lucien is also a screenwriter, documentarian, critic, and Ph.D. candidate. It’s no wonder he’s able to live all these roles. The wide-reaching intelligence at the center of Sounding Ground holds many consciousnesses—human and greater-than-human, living and ancestral, and still yet to be born. (Peepal Tree Press)


The cover of "There are Still Woods"

There Are Still Woods

by Hila Ratzabi

It helps to walk outside sometimes and remember how beautiful the world still is. Not how beautiful it was (which is also important to remember) or even how beautiful the world could be if we made better decisions, if we were kinder to the planet and the ones we live alongside. Those—a past that’s irretrievably gone and a future that may or not be ours—are important to consider as well, but to go outside sometimes and consider the world as it is, right now, without metaphor or embellishment, this can be a kind of magic too. The stripped-down, clear, and present lyrics in Hila Ratzabi’s There are Still Woods, transform me with just this kind of magic. Despite her willingness to speak directly of horrors that can’t be ignored, reading the poems in this book, I am aghast at the splendid goodness and beauty that is still all around. (June Road Press)

The cover of "Wind, Trees"

Wind, Trees

by John Freeman

The poems I like most in John Freeman’s new collection come in the book’s second section, focused on trees. These seem to operate within the same rooted, deliberate grandeur of a grove of old-growth hardwoods. Freeman, a careful arborist, attends to each branch and leaf, describing what we might learn from the world by learning to read the messages communicated by the many vibrant living beings surrounding us. (Copper Canyon Press)


The cover for "General Release from the Beginning of the World"

General Release from the Beginning of the World

by Donna Spruijt-Metz

In some ways, this is an odd collection to include in an Orion round-up because the poems are often not overtly focused on the greater-than-human world, but this is without a doubt a book deeply steeped in questions about nature and culture and place. In General Release from the Beginning of the World, Donna Spruijt-Metz grapples with growing up in the silence surrounding her father’s suicide. He died when the poet was six years old, and it has taken her almost fifty years to excavate the facts around his sudden absence. The southern California light shines in these poems more menacingly than welcoming. Rabbits listen for hawks. “Or is it this—// the rabbit hears the hawk/ and then listens for distance,/ for danger?” A docupoetic unearthing, this book presents photographs and legal papers and transcripts of conversations full of long stretches of no speaking. Entering its pages, I enter an environment of grief and confusion and wave after wave of loss. As she writes in one poem, “the tides are strong.// Teach me how to crest the white waters.” (Parlor Press)



More recommendations from poet friends:

Matthew Zapruder recommends:

The cover of "In a Few Minutes Before Later"

In a Few Minutes Before Later

by Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman’s poetry is majestic, intimate, strange, clear, necessary. Over several decades, she has carved out an inimitable style, one of the greatest achievements of contemporary poetry. Searching, she writes into the most pressing questions of modernity, intermingling the civic with the personal, the sidereal and diurnal, the ecological with the human. A Hillman poem is immediately recognizable: everything in it gets a voice. Her most recent book is a masterpiece, composed of six sections, each organized around a large theme reflective of her long-term concerns: landscape, activism, feminism, the challenges of writing poetry, and 21st-century American Weltschmerz, the overwhelming depression of our age, “a feeling of being/ unhinged, or if not unhinged, one/ screw taken out of the door” (by the way, surely because of the ambition of her subject matter, Hillman’s humor is severely underrated, and appears often to great effect in this book). One of her finest achievements in her long, distinguished career as a poet is the final section, a series of poems dedicated to her husband Robert Hass, which take as their concerns the threat of wildfire, and her love. “Get it right/ Get it right, sang the vowels/ & live with your love in time,/ & thus they lived among/ breathtaking forces …” They did live there, as we all do, and these poems are simultaneously a comfort and a cry of despair, a confession of inadequacy and a spur to further action, a hopeful darkness in the unrelenting digital light. (Weslayen Univesity Press)


Julie Choffel recommends:

The cover of "Let the world have you"

Let the World Have You

by Mikko Harvey

Mikko Harvey’s Let the World Have You is a catalog of (im)possibility that makes the dead world new again, its poems like alarm clocks tuned to the funk and pluck of our most awake days. Offering a language for our shared bewilderment in this life, this is a vulnerable work, equally brutal and gentle as it keeps turning toward the most remarkable things. I felt humbled by this book and its insistence that the world continues to unfold before us with endless surprises, including that of its own generous care. (House of Anansi Press)


Ann Fisher-Wirth recommends: 

The cover of Refugee


by Pamela Uschuk

The first line of Pamela Uschuk’s extraordinary new book Refugee throws down the gauntlet to all who are guilty of less than full attention to the blood-drenched, war-torn contemporary world: “So you think you can live remote…” The poems grow not only from our collective suffering caused by political indifference and greed—war, gun violence, the plight of refugees incarcerated at the border—but also from grief at the loss of a sister and brother, and from her own excruciating fight against ovarian cancer. “What will she remember years from now…?” she asks of herself in “Pathology Report.” “The way she was gutted by strangers who scrubbed her abdomen / of any trace of woman. Her all-too-human grief.” Still, she concludes, “she is alive,” and wonders, “what kind of creature will she finally be?” The answer, in these poems, is that she becomes a creature full of passion for the beauty and astonishing profusion of nature, and full of strength and tenderness. Finally, these are wisdom poems, written by a woman at the height of her power. “The path through the labyrinth is forgiveness,” she writes in “Fox Sighting in Phoenix. “Each pain is a sword hacking open the self.”  (Red Hen Press)


Todd Davis recommends:

The cover of "The end of Michelangelo"

The End of Michelangelo

by Dan Gerber

In his tenth book of poetry, Dan Gerber declares at the outset that he is “Walking toward the End.” But at 82, the poet writes his way forward with intention and vitality, offering a beautiful and wise meditation on what it means to live with an understanding of one’s own mortality, the inevitable movement from presence into absence. After a lifetime of poems that attend to and celebrate the greater-than-human world, Gerber confesses there was a time when “I had no sense / the trees and animals / I walked among were something / I was not.” It’s this kind of intimacy and humility—a recognition we are one among many species, all related to one another—that informs such aphoristic lines as “Ages ago, I surrendered to nature so this / page could be here and not be blank.” This is a book of gratitude that bows to the miraculous mystery of existence, the poet’s heartbeat “chanting thank you, thank you, thank you without quite / caring who you was.” (Copper Canyon Press)


Matthew Zapruder also recommends:

The cover for "The Voices of Babyn Yar"

The Voices of Babyn Yar

by Mariana Kiyanovska,
trans. Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky,
with an introduction by Polina Barskova

Babyn Yar is the name of a ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where 33,771 Jews were shot and killed on September 29-30, 1941, by the Nazis. In the subsequent two years, nearly the entire Jewish population of Kyiv, between 70,000 and 100,000 people, was murdered there. What could poetry possibly add to those facts? What witness could any poetry bear that does not merely reflect on itself, or worse, glorify the poet? This book is an answer. Kiyanovska has collected the imaginary testimony of individuals entwined in these unspeakable atrocities. Now they speak. As Barskova, herself a major Russian poet who lives in the United States, writes in her introduction, the poet “takes upon herself the immensely complicated mission of talking for the dead.” It seems like this should not work, but it does. In a dangerous time where historical truth is constantly, deliberately contaminated by deliberate falsehood, this artistic strategy feels enormously risky. Paradoxically, because the poems are presented as poetic communications, permeated with interjections from the poet herself, they do not further rend the fabric of reality, but have an utter authenticity that can only be explained by vision. Kiyanovska herself explains: “When people ask me what pushed me to write this, I answer, my father’s sudden death. That was the first trigger. And the second trigger was the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The most striking poems are ones spoken by the dead, which penetrate a reader with inevitable clarity and deep mystery: “I know I’ll rest in the ravenous darkening hole/ the women walking alongside are young and pretty/ some hold their children and others what’s left of them/ the roads are all mud and the guards are walking on water/ on water we walk to the yar oy lele oy nene.” (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute)



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