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Five books of poetry I loved in 2020

Millie Tullis

My year opened with a writing retreat in the Appalachian mountains. One day, my friend Sarah and I got caught in a snow storm while trying to bring home groceries. It took us hours to drive a few miles, and we wouldn’t have made it without the help of bundled, local, strangers. Some gave us directions, two others pushed our car up a hill, while another quickly raked up the snow before us. When we made it to the cabin, I thought I would puke out the car door, like I had so many times in my childhood after driving through the mountains with my parents. 

My year is ending with, again, in snow. The Wasatch mountains around me now are younger and sharper than the Appalachian mountains were then. At the end of this year, I find myself hardly driving at all. I’m fortunate to be able to work and study from home and when I go out, it is mostly to go on walks. I walk towards the mountains and then back again. It is a reason to go outside. It’s a reason to be in my body. 

In December 2020, I’m struggling to remember January and February. The middle of this year seems endless, even now that I find myself nearing the end of it. In the other direction, it’s getting harder and harder for me to picture 2021. I’m flinging some vague hope at it, but nothing sticks to take shape. 

I read a lot of poetry I loved in 2020, and that reading, in its obvious, astonishing way, helped me stay in the world I was physically trying to stay away from. So I’ve made a list of five books I read and loved and am grateful to have read this year. There are many other books that could or should be on this list, but here are five, which feels like a nice, certain number. Just enough to hold in your hand.

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1956-2010

Lucille Clifton

I came to Clifton to learn about form. In particular, how to maximize language by eliminating capitalization and punctuation, and valuing intense concision. The force of Clifton’s work never failed to astonish me throughout this monumental, essential collection. One of my favorite poems, and a wonderful place to start, is “poem to my uterus”:

you      uterus
you have been patient
as a sock
while i slippered into you
my dead and living children

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

Michael Ondaatje

While I find I never really have anything interesting to say about “imagination,” I think about it all the time. This book, to me, was incredibly permission giving in its expansive imagination. In the afterword, Ondaatje talks about his process, “this was the first book I wrote where I swam into the deep end. It began as a flurry of poems supposedly by the outlaw Billy the Kid… I attempted everything.” Knowing almost nothing about Billy the Kid (as almost nothing is known about Billy the Kid), he began writing poems not only in his voice, but in a multitude of voices from the 1880’s New Mexico. Ondaatje wrote them one by one and placed them in a drawer each day, not looking at them again or revising until he was done. Formally, the book moves between prose and line, song, interview, and imaginary photographs, exploding out from any preconceived notions I had about what sort of genre this book could/should be filed under. Here is a snippet from the book, showing Ondaatje’s powerful image-making:

Poor young William’s dead
with a fish stare, with a giggle
with blood planets in his head.

The blood came down like river ride
long as Texas down his side.

Book of Minutes

Gemma Gorga, translated by Sharon Dolin

Gorga’s mystical prose poems in Book of Minutes speak to the power of the miniature form. These poems are meditations on jars, bells, the body, time, and silence. Each poem is interested in revealing the wonder and surprise that underpins lived experience. For example, “17” explores the strange, “bright and hollow,” nature of a jinglebell. One of my favorites among favorites, “13”, was published by Poetry Daily earlier this year, and begins:

They weighed the body a few minutes before death. They weighed the same body a few minutes after death. They used simple arithmetic—subtraction—to determine the weight of the soul. 


Mary Szybist

Szybist is a writer that many friends had recommended to me. Reading “The Troubadours Etc.”, the first poem in the collection, I understood why. This was one of those books that I felt frustrated with myself over not reading sooner, and I was overwhelmingly grateful to be reading it now. This poem and collection open with:

Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.
Not their curtsies or cross-garters
or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
promising, promising.

At least they had ideas about love.

Collected Works

Lorine Niedecker

A master of condensing language, Niedecker’s work also holds an astonishing amount of variety. While I came to Niedecker in part looking for poetry that came out of and engaging with research (Lake Superior is a beautiful example of this, beginning, “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock”), I also found Neidecker to be an experimental, highly restrictive poet. For example, she wrote poems on the small windows allowed by paper calendars (you can see a few examples of these “Calendar poems” here). A favorite of mine is on December 29-31 1935:

Jesus, I’m 
going out
and throw
my arms

One more favorite, miniature, is “Poet’s work.” Where Neidecker writes, 

No layoff 
        from this

Millie Tullis

Millie Tullis is an MFA poetry candidate at George Mason University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Rock & Sling, Cimarron Review, Ninth Letter, Juked, and elsewhere. She serves as the Assistant Editor for Best of the Net and Poetry Editor and Social Media Manager for Phoebe. You can find her on twitter @millie_tullis.

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