Best Poetry of 2021

Intimate lyrics, focused visions, and forceful, arresting lines illuminate the best poetry of 2021.

Akbar, Kaveh. Pilgrim Bell: Poems. Graywolf. ISBN 9781644450598.

Poetry editor at the Nation, Iranian Ameri- can Akbar offers a courageous spiritual journey addressing self, history, and power as he captures life in recovery and the challenges of being Muslim in an Islamophobic nation. Intimately honest, superbly focused, and quietly, unshakably forceful: “That the prophets arrived not to ease our suffering/ but to experience it seems—can I say this?—/ a waste?”

Almontaser, Threa. The Wild Fox of Yemen. Graywolf. ISBN 9781644450505.

Presided over by the title’s wily fox, Almontaser’s Walt Whitman Award winner gorgeously blends an understanding of Yemeni culture, Muslim womanhood, post-9/11 discrimination, the Arabic language, and the difficulties of adjusting to America (and to speaking English): “Languages slip into our mouths like second-hand/ smoke. But English grinds Arabic to white sand.”

Benson, Fiona. Vertigo & Ghost: Poems. Norton. ISBN 9780393541861.

Award-winning English poet Benson examines sexual trauma and its aftermath in an audacious series of poems featuring Zeus as mythic and contemporary serial rapist. In the end, the speaker is sustained by small moments of beauty yet is always troubled in ways that will daunt the reader: “Spring broke out but my soul did not./ It kept to sleet and inwards fog.”

Espada, Martín. Floaters: Poems. Norton. ISBN 9780393541038.

For decades, Pulitzer Prize finalist Espada has been crafting the superb aesthetics of protest beautifully illustrated in this challenge to anti-immigrant prejudice, crowned by a response to the viral image of a drowned Salvadoran father and daughter and the suggestion that their death was staged: “may the men/ who speak of f loaters… plunge back to earth,/ a shower of hailstones pelting…the Mexican side of the river.”

Glück, Louise. Winter Recipes from the Collective: Poems. Farrar. ISBN 9780374604103.

From a lioness in winter, Glück’s first collection since winning the Nobel Prize is a measured and masterly meditation on growing older that delivers insight in lambent, unfussy language: “There is no one alive anymore/ who remembers me as a baby,” she observes, while finally concluding, “And I say I’m glad I dream/ the fire is still alive.”

Joudah, Fady. Tethered to Stars: Poems. Milkweed. ISBN 9781571315342.

A former Yale Younger Poet and also a physician, Joudah uses language both rich and fiercely honed, often calling on the terminology of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and biology as he sweepingly considers the universe and our sometimes troublesome place in it: “My lifespan doesn’t clarify my consciousness./ And my revolution is in hours.”

Kelly, Donika. The Renunciations. Graywolf. ISBN 9781644450536.

After the multi-award-winning Bestiary, Kelly advances auspiciously with this emotionally direct work whose luminous language discloses a self ever shifting to rise above the pain of a bruising childhood and marital breakup as an adult. The opening poem sets the stage: “my dad was born to bear, to share, his burden./ I was his dominion, a bit of land/ turned to use.”

Mackey, Nathaniel. Double Trio: Tej Bet, So’s Notice, Nerve Church. 3 vols. New Directions. ISBN 9780811230629.

Rooted in jazz, like all Mackey’s poetry, this three-volume set mirrors the last three movements of John Coltrane’s Meditations—“Love,” “Consequence,” and “Serenity”—to explore contiguities in art and life. What results is luscious in language yet stringently considered, a monumental metaphysics that expresses the “Self’s ensemble sound.”

Nguyen, Hoa. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave. ISBN 9781950268177.

With steel-ribbed delicacy, Nguyen portrays Vietnam before and after the war by recalling her mother, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-women Vietnamese circus troupe in the 1950s and 1960s. Her intimate portrait blends seamlessly with large-scale loss, with bombs “burn[ing] at// 1,500–2,200°F (1/5th as hot/ as the surface of the sun)” to tell a “Mekong moon story/ write water on water// Write country.”

Young, Kevin. Stones: Poems. Knopf. ISBN 9781524732561.

Poetry editor at The New Yorker, Young revisits places and people in his life, reconstructing each captured moment with burnished melancholy and such an acute, pinpointed sense of physicality that readers will be tempted to rub his lines through their fingers to feel what he is describing: “the sky a cold color/ coming on, my son/ one year older// & able, among the letters,/ to find his name.”

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