Detail from Joseph Stella's "Old Brooklyn Bridge," 1941. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Maybe William Carlos Williams was wrong: it is possible to get the news from poetry. The following fifteen debut collections address the injustices that dominate our headlines and define our cultural moment. Whether it’s the racism that does violence to black and brown bodies, the patriarchal power structures that restrict the rights of women, the homophobia that breeds hostility toward the LGBTQ community, the xenophobia that promotes hatred toward immigrants, the opioid crisis that plagues neighborhoods in need, or the pollution that imperils our oceans, these emerging poets are united in highlighting the most pressing concerns of our time, and they employ a diverse range of techniques to do so. Some respond to specific news stories, while others tap into the emotional climate that surrounds them. Some relay personal narratives, while others rely on the metaphorical. Some utilize traditional forms, while others tend toward an unbounded lyricism. And some shatter dichotomies altogether.

These books of poetry remind us that loss is a natural part of life, but some deaths are preventable; that the human condition is one of vulnerability, but certain individuals are more vulnerable than others. Each of these poets sings in a different key. Each has something urgent to share.

gospel of regicideEunsong Kim (June 2017)

How does political change take place? Through incremental progress or radical upheaval? Eunsong Kim’s debut suggests that “the only way to move the revolution / forward is to / have a man kiss you / and take you to your enemies.” A scathing critique of entrenched powers and lily-livered centrism (“there is no voting white supremacy out of anything!”), gospel of regicide punches back against a racist, capitalist patriarchy. Reflecting on the story of Judas, the poet considers betrayal in a new light: “The traitor isn’t misunderstood ok? / She’s deranged / She’s in love the wrong way.” Christianity, ethnicity, and family all intersect in these poems, as the speaker recalls “hand copy[ing] pages of the Korean bible” under her mother’s watchful eye. Kim expresses dissent in a variety of registers, from the highly colloquial (“I’m sitting in an artist lecture by an Asian American artist who at some point says that aesthetics and politics are separate. I write in my notes: Kant lover <3 <3 <3, whatever loser, you suck die”) to the sharply succinct (“I see how our bodies work / for the same machine”). In both instances, this striking collection insists that “betrayal moves our worlds forward.”

Lessons on ExpulsionErika L. Sánchez (July 2017)

What is speech if not a form of expulsion, of pushing something out of oneself? Erika L. Sánchez’s first poetry collection is a document of both mind and body, meditations and secretions. “I will delight,” she writes, “in the sticky mess, in a swirl / so deep I forget myself.” Her poems tell a story of sexual becoming, beginning in childhood: “I undid my braids too early, I know. / It started when the blood / began to flow, / as if something inside me / kept unraveling.” Lessons on Expulsion does brilliant work blending one sensory experience with another (“the sky’s quiet bruising— / colors as beautiful as the spilled / brains of a bird”) such that the eye and ear never feel far apart. The book also includes a vivid look into Mexico’s history, from the Tepehuán Revolt in 1616 to more recent drug-related crimes where “men / finger golden pistols, whisper, / aquí ni se paran las moscas.” In this intensely visceral debut, Sánchez paints a compelling picture of the human experience, at once cruel and full of tenderness. She is especially interested in how society aims to suppress female sexuality, how “shame clicks / its way toward you / like an ancient insect.”

Testify—Simone John (August 2017)

Where’s the line between telling it slant and telling it straight? Simone John’s debut wastes no time with stargazing and flowery flourishes; as she explains in the poem “Things I Don’t Say to the White Audience at the Poetry Reading,” “There is no redeeming nature metaphor here. / No plot twist to leave you feeling lighter. // Just more names / you have already forgotten. / Just more bodies.” Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland are at the heart of this elegiac collection, which includes poems comprised of courtroom testimony and phone transcripts. Drawing upon personal experience with racism (“I too have been bitten by the bark / of a white man’s voice”), the speaker of John’s poems describes powerfully how a community must endure such injustice, such brutality, such loss: “We wear the faces of the fallen on our t-shirts / leave favorite fitted caps in their caskets.” The poet also proves masterful at interrogating language itself, uncloaking words for what they really mean: “White people use nigga as shorthand / for I’m still mad I can’t own you.” If Testify sometimes seems light on nuance, perhaps the matter-of-factness is out of urgent necessity. “The next black girl they’ll kill,” John declares, “is writing this poem.”

Calling a Wolf a Wolf —Kaveh Akbar (September 2017)

“A poet who is leaping,” wrote Robert Bly, “makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to [one] soaked in conscious psychic substance.” Put simply, Bly is talking about the “ability to associate fast.” Is there a faster mind in American poetry today than Kaveh Akbar’s? With electric tempo, Calling a Wolf a Wolf moves swiftly to execute awesome feats of language, leaving our perception of the world marvelously warped in its wake. “I wish you were here so I could bend a mirror // around your face, pour you back into you.” Rich in wonder and appetite (“God loves the hungry / more than the full”), Akbar’s poems aren’t satisfied sitting in one place for too long, whisking the reader through this museum of curiosities called life. Even when his pace is more punctuated, he can’t help but perform magic: “As long as the earth continues / its stony breathing, I will breathe. // When it stops, I will shatter back / into gravity. Into quartz.” From stone to life then back to stone again. At the heart of this unforgettable collection is a harrowing story of life-threatening addiction (“I charged into desire like a / tiger sprinting off the edge of / the world”) but Akbar’s speaker seeks no bouquets for what he’s overcome. As the poetry leaps, the poet remains lovingly low to the ground: “I stop a stranger to tie his shoe and / end up kissing his knees.”

I Know Your Kind—William Brewer (September 2017)

With the “highest fatal overdose rate in America,” West Virginia is suffering from an opioid crisis of staggering proportions. But statistics alone don’t tell the story—for that, there’s poetry. Much as Denis Johnson illustrated the human impact of drug use in rural Iowa, William Brewer paints a chilling picture of Oceana, WV, where addiction causes real havoc in oftentimes surreal ways: “We were so hungry; Tom’s hand / on the table looked like warm bread. / I crushed it with a hammer // then walked him to the ER to score pills. / Why’d you keep hitting, he asked. / I don’t know. And I didn’t.” Humor is possibly the lone antidote to hopelessness when the very landscape seems inseparable from people’s pain, even “raindrops / becoming pills in their throats.” Deeply affecting, the book showcases Brewer’s prodigious gifts; he assembles arresting metaphors that won’t soon fade from memory: “syringe still hanging like a feather from my arm;” “this ladder / someone will climb down once I’m gone.” A timely work of uncommon craft and artistry, I Know Your Kind focuses our gaze on the addict’s plight while cautioning that we not romanticize what we see. “A broken bone,” Brewer warns, “is never / the source of light we think it is.”

Thaw—Chelsea Dingman (September 2017)

Snow blankets everything in Chelsea Dingman’s debut, a tenderhearted collection about family and grief, pregnancy and loss. In these poignant, finely crafted poems, the past is hard to forget, always popping up uninvited: “I can’t breathe this / morning—my dead father, smoking / at the kitchen table.” Noting that “the door echoes / long after it closes,” the speaker finds herself haunted by old traumas, from the highway accident that claims a parent to the devastating death of a child. “Is there no end,” Dingman pleads, “to the dark’s wanting?” Amidst such mourning, the winter landscape plays backdrop, an ice-sheeted plain onto which memory is projected. In “Winter in Sodertalje,” she describes “build[ing] / a fire in each hearth, large enough / to burn through the black / night.” This desire for warmth is the poet’s driving metaphor. But is domestic life a source of comfort or conflict? “Maybe / our child is the window / and we are merely walls.” Thaw is a book of emotional breadth. The poet empathizes even with the snow, how it “can’t help but reach / for the ground, too heavy to pretend / to fly.”

Electric Arches—Eve L. Ewing (September 2017)

There’s truth, and then what one longs to be true. The gulf between the two might be immense, might be life or death, but Eve L. Ewing’s poetry proposes ways across it. A Rankine-esque gallery of verse and visual art, of narrative and collage, her inspired debut reaches beyond the inscribed to the imagined. When Chicago cops unlawfully interrogate a group of children, she arrives on the scene and dreams of an uplifting end—or is it? “The police…shouting and jumping into the air, grasping at the boys’ shoelaces as they drift…upward into the clear night.” Even as her poetry soars, it remains grounded in the hard realities of growing up in a city where “fire came and licked up our houses, lapped them up like they were nothing.” With references to black pop icons like Prince and LeBron James, Ewing, a sociologist as well as essayist and poet, critically examines the relationship between celebrity and a community’s desire for salvation: “Ever since black people came to this country we have needed a Moses. There has always been so much water that needs parting.” A formally inventive portrait of blackness, of womanhood, Electric Arches delivers both hope and brutal honesty, commenting that “the sun shines, / if not here, then somewhere.”

Begin with a Failed Body—Natalie J. Graham (September 2017)

For a book full of biblical allusions, Begin with a Failed Body is anything but sermonizing. Consider the down-to-earth realism of “Vacation Bible School”: “Outside, there was no verdant expanse / where manna might fall if money was tight, / just a dusty dirt-patch lined with card tables, // where the hospitality committee / sweated over miniature sweet potato pies / and pressed a hundred hot dogs into white bread.” With notes of both Lucille Clifton and Philip Levine, Natalie J. Graham achieves a highly distinctive music. Hear how she ushers each hard-hitting line effortlessly into the next: “American girls are better than cream / spills from the greasy jukebox / as the line cook, scratching / his muttonchops // with the edge of an egged-up spatula, / points to the motel where a girl could stay / if she didn’t mind a parking lot lit / with a couple of ghosts.” Phantoms haunt practically every page in this collection, as memory refuses to go quietly: “When I read “The Idea / of Order at Key West,” / I thought first / of the man / who hacked off / his own leg to keep / from being sold there.” Sit down, Stevens. A wide-ranging, skillfully crafted debut in which Mary Magdalene and Ophelia make notable appearances, Begin with a Failed Body is a luminous place to start.

When Hollywood Comes to You—Vincent Guerra (September 2017)

“Poetry,” per Wordsworth, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This presumes, of course, that we’re still capable of feeling, that we haven’t fallen hopelessly numb to the world around us. Vincent Guerra’s debut presents an America out of touch with itself, a nation of shopping malls and shampoo commercials, populated with “pioneers of routine.” Perhaps this numbness is a means of self-preservation; it can prove painful to invest emotionally in one’s own impermanent existence: “I didn’t care / about stars / but what was close // wouldn’t last.” With a talent for wordplay and wit, Guerra deconstructs the most mundane elements of the everyday, interspersing lighthearted observations (“Some dogs / have haircuts from the 1980s”) with weightier ponderings (“What is the world made of when gravity abandons us”). The meandering nature of When Hollywood Comes to You can lead the reader to less urgent concerns (“The Italian family eating omelets by the window. / Would it matter if they were German?”), but the collection frequently dazzles with its depth of emotional intelligence. “Like nocturnal animals, / our feelings only come out at night, just / there to tear into us a bit.”

Madness—sam sax (September 2017)

Conversion therapy, transorbital lobotomy, chemical castration. The barbaric history of “treating” homosexuality is enough to make anyone seethe and “shout curses into the skeletal / awnings of pay phones.” In Madness, sam sax has written a searing collection that’s as righteously indignant as it is lyrically gorgeous. When he’s not dropping aphoristic wisdom (“you either love the world / or you live in it”), sax is reminding readers to scrutinize every aspect of American society more closely, down to its basest origins: “i have to remember the internet / began inside the murder / corridors of a war machine // each time i link to a poem / or watch two queers kiss.” Even as sax performs the very serious work of dismantling the master’s house, he’s not humorless in his efforts; he proposes that “we should let the locusts / swarm the museums, eat the wheat fields / from all the dead painters’ paintings.” This is a captivating book about family, about lovers, about the self, but in truth, it holds all of us in its embrace. It cautions us to be vigilant or risk losing what matters most: “love at first sight / is only possible / if the government // hasn’t first / taken your eyes.”

Ordinary Beast—Nicole Sealey (September 2017)

Inside even the most chaotic storm, there’s an eye, a spot of calm where one can hear oneself think. With exceptional clarity and command of prosody, Nicole Sealey surveys the mess that surrounds and makes sense of it all. She is both poet and diagnostician: “It isn’t ordinary,” she explains; “the way the world unravels / from a distance, can look like pain / eager as penned-in horses.” These lines are from the cento that serves as her collection’s centerpiece, one of many forms she deploys to great effect. Whether it’s an Elizabethan sonnet about Pepper LaBeija or a sestina featuring the dinner party from Clue, Ordinary Beast shows how the right form in the right hands elevates what language can do. Sealey is the sort of virtuosic writer who begs to be read and re-read, whose quiet restraint renders moments of surprise all the more striking: “They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children. Had you a maternal bone, / you would wrench it from your belly and fling it / from your fire escape.” On topics like race, like mortality, Sealey sees things from a perspective all her own, unpacking even the most basic assumptions. Perhaps the very purpose of skin, she muses, is to “provide / a place, similar to a doctor’s waiting room, / in which to sit until our names are called.”

Unaccompanied—Javier Zamora (September 2017)

Migrating from one place to another marks the end of a journey. But what if the memory of that trip stays with you? Does the journey ever stop? Unaccompanied is an intrepid collection about borders that repeat themselves, about a passage that’s never past. “I’m still / in that van,” Javier Zamora writes, “that picked us up from ‘Devil’s Highway.’ The white van / honk[ing] three times, honks heard by German shepherds, helicopters, / Migra trucks.” With his native El Salvador mired in violence (“Every day cops and gangsters pick at you / with their metallic beaks”) and the US increasingly antipathetic toward immigrants (“I wasn’t born here / I’ve always known this country wanted me dead”), Zamora details a conflicted landscape of a life in-between. Sharp and incisive, these lyrics peer fearlessly into the heart of current hostilities (“Bullet holes / in doors, we can see through you”) and open out into moments of raw brilliance. With a wealth of eye-catching images, the poet is always looking in two directions at once: his family back home and his loved ones here. It’s a wrenching condition, yet Zamora manages to arrive at intimacy nonetheless. “You can’t know what it’s like to have that place / disappear, those brown waves, those bright-orange crabs, / what I really mean when I say I can never go back // is I wish to lie next to you every morning.”

River Hymns—Tyree Daye (October 2017)

Transforming the figurative into the literal—this is the miracle of poetry. In River Hymns, Tyree Daye writes, “I’ve only trusted / four white people in my life / my mother showed me / the ropes early”; he then continues, “I’m afraid / to untie myself get down / from this branch.” Here, the poet takes a common expression (“show me the ropes”) and makes it all too real, conjuring the horrifying image of his own lynching. Every poetry collection is situated somewhere, but Daye’s book is practically rooted in the earth of his hometown Youngsville, NC, where “even the dust that lifted / off the fields had something to say.” Growing up there meant lots of music (the mother sings Whitney Houston; the uncle sings Sam Cooke), but childhood was anything but easy. “Even the water / I was baptized in / isn’t safe.” Fearful of an early death, the speaker turns to drugs and alcohol to dull such anxieties, remarking, “I put enough dope up my nose to bury / any dead folk hiding in my head.” A commanding debut, River Hymns makes the American South come alive on the page. “I kept caterpillars in jars,” Daye recalls; “my mama let them go.”

Some Beheadings—Aditi Machado (October 2017)

Maybe a writer is someone who describes the world while a poet defines it. Aditi Machado has a profound gift for giving new shape to familiar concepts: “When a body desires / its continuance / that is need. / When it desires / its dissipation / that is want.” Her poems are reminiscent of Rae Armantrout’s for their subversive, cerebral quality; she plants an image in the mind, then no sooner erases it. “The whole village was there, minus its people.” The title of her collection, Some Beheadings, stretches a dark shadow over these lyrics. Unrest is always close at hand: “A mirror / brightens the fascist / in me.” And yet, even as things appear grim, the poet finds sensory pleasure in wordplay: “How long before / I walk into the sea remembering / what the kelp felt like: like felt.” Machado not only elegizes the dying ocean but renders her own words water-like; it’s as if that phrase (“felt like: like felt”) is itself a reflection off the sea’s surface. It’s thrilling to read a language poet of such powers. Machado offers a fresh encounter with a world we thought we knew. “Every day I wake I see sun, / it’s blue.”

Subwoofer—Wesley Rothman (October 2017)

To produce sound, much less music, often means performing a kind of violence, whether it’s banging a drum or simply plucking a string. Subwoofer suggests that we listen more closely for the subtle reverberations of our actions, that we first ask ourselves, “Who am I to hear, be heard?” Wesley Rothman’s collection is very much a work of—and about—rhythm. His poem, “The Republic of Beat,” contains cadences that recall Yusef Komunyakaa: “The jumped-up master eyes his maker— / black iris of boomtown—hushes / His woofing & joins the ranks of beat-shakers.” Words like “beat” and “master” echo powerfully for Rothman, whose lyrics testify to an abiding anxiety about America’s enduring legacy of racial injustice. (Baldwin, Ellison, and MLK all find themselves quoted in these pages.) With percussion as backdrop, the speaker examines his own complicity, considering “how I might atone. How history / & the word will fasten my hands / around a post.” At times the gesture may seem a touch heavy-handed (“Brought by the vessel / Historia, I drag ashore my anchor iron”), but ultimately the poet wins the day with the sincerity of his voice, the keenness of his ear. His questions prove particularly sharp and resonant: “If you hold the mic, who holds you?”

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert is the author of the debut novel The Men Can't Be Saved and the poetry collection For the Love of Endings. His work appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He currently teaches creative writing at Rutgers.

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