Five collections our columnist loved this year.

The Victorian-era “object lesson” was a method made popular in part by “Lessons on Objects,” a book by the English educational reformer Elizabeth Mayo, published in 1830. The book suggests presenting a series of objects to young students, in order to develop their “conceptive powers” — close observation of sealing wax, a thimble or a quill would, in this system, unlock abstract knowledge of the world. (The “idea to be developed” by the lesson on blotting paper was, improbably, “pinkish.” Absorbency was covered in the lesson on the sponge; the important fact about the world that blotting paper holds is ish-ness.)

Much of the poetry I read this year depended on objects, loosely defined. The object might have been a totem animal, a move in gymnastics or a mountain ridge. These books explore ekphrastic possibility and the knowledge unlocked through obsessive attention to a Thing in the World. Here are five of the books I loved most in this mode in 2023.


The image on the cover of AUCTION, by Quan Barry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 83 pp., paperback, $18), is a translucent sculpture of a toilet by Do Ho Suh, made from (bluish!) polyester fabric, which was part of an exhibit of ghostly household objects lit like 3-D X-rays. In her poem about the work, Barry writes: “even an appliance is allowed to remember/that once it was infinite” … “this room is souled, this toilet souled, the stove/souled, beyond good and evil.”

The cover of “Auction” shows a translucent sculpture of a toilet.

This feels appropriate to her project. She takes the crap of existence head-on, and makes art despite it: “these empty and utterly human attempts/to build a perfection among the detritus.”

It’s an inquiry into violence and passivity, the ease of doing nothing (“satisfied that we feel pain”), doors “that we meticulously do not open.” It’s full of shame and disgust, but also unexpected hilarity, as in a sequence of ironic invectives inspired by the “sensational propaganda” of field guides for soldiers in occupied lands, and also salvation, as in “Black Pastoral”: “Who unlocks the gateless gate?” “Who keeps us safe?/We keep us safe.”


FROM FROM: Poems, by Monica Youn (Graywolf, 147 pp., paperback, $17), is a complex of different approaches. There are studies of figures from myth and history, as in “Marsyas, After,” a Glück-ian poem whose speaker identifies with the satyr who was flayed alive: “Dust loves me now” … “I stain everything/I touch, it all stains me;/my raw surface is an unlidded eye.” Another, “Study of Two Figures (Agave/Pentheus),” recalls Anne Carson with its cute wit: “She cleared her dusty throat ahem.”

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The cover of “From From” shows a mountainous rural landscape rendered in pastel shades of purple and orange, with the title words stamped as if by a visa agent.

There’s a series on magpies, parables and lists of “facts” about magpie culture: “Although magpies mate for life, a female magpie can ‘divorce’ a male in favor of one who holds a larger territory./So, upon meeting a single magpie, it’s polite to say:/‘Good morning, Mr. Magpie, and is your lady wife at home?’/Thus to suggest that even if the magpie has been rejected, at least this humiliation is not yet publicly known.” There’s a long essay-like poem about shark teeth, hatred, whiteness, poetry, so much. “The very hungry caterpillar is an exemplar of desire. An object lesson.” “From From” is rich and often deliciously bitter.


NEGRO MOUNTAIN, by C.S. Giscombe (University of Chicago Press, 85 pp., paperback, $18), is a book-length fascination with the highest point in Pennsylvania, whose name comes from “‘an incident’ that took place there in the 1750s,” as Giscombe writes in a preface, when an enslaved man known as Nemesis was killed in a skirmish. An opening sequence of seven dream poems introduces the book’s recurring themes and images: the mountain, movement, wolves or the idea of wolves.

The cover of “Negro Mountain” shows an abstract illustration of mountain peaks against a white background, in layered patches of black, purple and red.

There are levels of framing: In “Second Dream,” he writes, “Typically, I dreamed and at the same time watched the dream” … “as if from a car at a drive-in movie.” So the dream is already in quotes in the dream, and now again in the poem. Giscombe’s “speaker” (an idea he interrogates) glides between dream self and now self, between the scene and “real — that is, waking — life.” These poems have a bardish musicality that reminds me of Nathaniel Mackey: “there was statuary, there was/a mild nausea which, dreaming,/I’d mistaken for evil, and/also a jaguar.”

Later pieces are more like essays, a combination of poetic elision and more prosaic rhetoric, block quotes and citations, gestures like “as noted above.” The sections all comment and expand on one another, a multivocal text interrupting itself (“The mountain intervenes”) with sudden shifts that unsettle and destabilize — small landslides. “What else might a Negro speaker ask?” Giscombe writes, with contemptuous italics, and on the opposite page, “you — meaning the speaker and the reader as well.”

Elsewhere he writes, “the wolves, the Negro ‘speaker,’ and the mountain are not one.” And yet they overlap, in the “transgressing moment.” I found it dazzling.


PHANTOM PAIN WINGS, by Kim Hyesoon (New Directions, 182 pp., paperback, $18.95), translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi, reads like a variety of horror — haunted, grotesque, futureless (“it’s time … for the cymbals of silence to crash, to announce time’s funeral”). It starts with a series whose speaker is, or does, a bird: “This book is not really a book/It’s an I-do-bird sequence.”

The cover of “Phantom Pain Wings” is bright pink, with a swooping feathery image of white outstretched wings situated between the title and the author’s name.

“Doing bird” is an escape from the sick world of people, perhaps, but involuntary, like death. “I end up doing I-do-bird even if I resist” … “I take a step toward where I don’t exist.”

I love the way scale works here; both largeness and smallness can be forms of strength, the tiny and the epic. Large as in the book’s title poem: “My night feathers are infinitely, infinitely large” … “Tonight, there’s no place for me to put down my poem.” And small as in “Little Poem”: “The little story is so little that it just keeps piling up like dust on the postwoman’s desk.”

In Kim’s metapoetics, the apparent futility of poetry is part of its surreptitious power. “You say that you can bash my story whenever you want because it’s so little, that you’ll write my story instead.” And yet: “my little story crosses many bridges inside your brain,” it “sets up house on top of your seahorse and in every dream you scream — that’s how little my story is.”


Timmy Straw’s first collection, THE THOMAS SALTO (Fonograf Editions, 105 pp., paperback, $16.95), takes its name from a “very difficult and dangerous” gymnastics skill that was banned for causing several serious accidents, including Elena Mukhina’s paralysis and eventual death — a move, like this book, that wears a “janus-face of enchantment and terror.”

In moody shades of dark indigo blue, the cover of “The Thomas Salto” shows a gymnast in a leotard stretched horizontally in midair, her legs extending off the cover and her arms bent toward the ground.

Beautiful, shivery, eerie, these poems have a surgical precision of sound, used to convey the vast mystery in an image (“A sun sets in a mirror, sets/in a killed sheep’s eye”), to dismantle time. These are poems about power and the possibility of forgiveness (“Forgiveness, the three-legged chair”) that sound absolutely sure and final, like vessels for a god voice; they filled me with awe. “The wave that will take us is very small/is hiding in the word itself.” (The word!) “The audience is crowded together like husbands in a canoe/none of whom know each other/though they are all married to the same wife.” … “When she dies, it will be quiet/enough to hear pollen falling.”

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