The 10 Best Poetry Books of 2013

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 4 2013 7:01 AM

The Best Poetry Books of 2013

Ignore the haters. It was a great year for poetry.

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Silverchest, by Carl Phillips

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Silverchest feels haunted from first to last. Hinging many of his most beautiful lines in a complex grammar that often subjugates them to plainer truths, Phillips convincingly struggles with the way life requires us to knowingly invest in erasable meanings—and the ways that going on living after a beloved dies undermines past meanings, too.

Incarnadine, by Mary Szybist

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Szybist has built an entire book around the coincidence of her name, using the overlap with the mother of Jesus to articulate her hunger for something more than human and her desire to find it in a comfortably human form. The result, winner of this year’s National Book Award, is incredibly enticing—a book that always seems to be on the brink of revelation but that allows for neither easy answers nor easy evasions.

Companion Grasses, by Brian Teare

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Teare combines careful observation (much of the book grew out of his hikes with a field guide to grasses in hand) with an intricate awareness of all the people who accompany our seeing, be they lost loves, Transcendentalist philosophers or the authors of field guides. The resulting poems are both remarkably companionable and deeply elegiac. “Who wouldn’t wish to linger in the material world,” he asks in one poem, “that won’t spare me or let me hold a living hand to him :/ all spring I’ll return/ to bring grief to the field.”

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A collection of dramatic monologues revolving around the murder of Medgar Evers, Turn Me Loose never lets Evers speak. Instead, the star here is his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, whose speeches arrive at a reality of violence and hate that doesn’t require our sympathy to be plausible. Walker’s ability to create a human voice of inhumanity—and to place it alongside other voices that struggle to remain human in the face of such devastation—revitalizes our history at a time when too many want us to live as though it were merely a thing of the past.

Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to publish some of these poets—Campion, Phillips, and Teare—in the magazine I edit, and Campion is an advisory editor to that magazine.

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Jonathan Farmer is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.

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