Now more than ever, poets and prose writers have been creating work that advocates for social justice, provides a space for important voices to be heard and moves readers with their powerful language. Queer voices, voices of color, immigrant voices and women’s voices all provide crucial perspectives into the complexities of identity and social progress. Each of the collections featured below amaze in both their craft and their urgency, and all of these stunning voices deserve to be read this summer.
Erika Sánchez’s debut collection Lessons on Expulsion explores what it means to be a woman in borderlands of all kinds: Her poems feature immigrants on the Mexican-American border, girls bordering on womanhood, people living on the borders of society. Her subjects live between misogyny and resistance, and she gives all of them a space to speak, from sex workers to growing girls exploring their own bodies to unseen girls grinding corn in Nicaragua. Sánchez writes of immigrants crossing the border and of her own parents’ displacement as undocumented Mexican immigrants. Her language immediately arrests in its precision and care, its composed and quiet confidence. “I am only a girl / with this brilliant black / nest of eagerness,” Sánchez writes in “Lessons on Expulsion.”
Sánchez both draws from and morphs her poetic precedents to produce poems that are completely new while also honoring their poetic past. American poet Larry Levis appears in both the collection’s epigraph (“Love’s an immigrant, it shows itself in its work. / It works for almost nothing.”) and in “The Poet at Fifteen,” inspired by Levis’ “The Poet at Seventeen,” as do the influences of William Carlos Williams and Manet. The ways in which Sánchez uses these influences to create a work that showcases such crucial and original voices are skillful and striking. One of my new favorite poetry collections, Lessons on Expulsion is a beautiful debut work of history, womanhood and love. Out July 11.
Jess Arndt’s debut collection Large Animals strikes at the heart of the boundaries imposed by the social world—the distinctions of gender, the classifications of sexualities, the differences between dreams and reality—and challenges their limitations with the engrossing voices of her speakers. A collection of twelve short stories, Large Animals explores the changing definitions of a body and the way people’s physical transformations and existences manifest themselves in the intimate relationships between bodies. Arndt’s characters defy the insistences of others on classification, creating a space for the voices of the queer and the gender-nonconforming. While in one story a speaker fumbles when a lover reaches for their chest binder, in another a couple struggles with a shared STD and a degenerating garden.
The vitality of Arndt’s prose propels the striking observations of each story’s speaker. In “Jeff,” Arndt writes, “I go on a wine tour. We stare into the big sweaty vats of red. ‘Wine fermentation,’ the expert says, ‘happens when all of the individual grapes explode against the walls of their bodies.’ How nice, I think, for them.” The funny, incisive voices of Arndt’s characters cut to the core of physical existence, what it means to connect and the extent to which labels fail us, and all of it is both haunting and heartbreaking. Out since May 9.
“All violence is a violence toward women,” Aja Monet writes in the Author’s Note of her debut poetry collection, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter. A book of poems fueled by fiery hope, anger and solidarity, Monet’s collection is a portrait and an ode to the women, mothers, sisters and daughters who fight for freedom. Divided into three sections, “inner (city) chants,” “witnessing” and “(un)dressing a wound,” the collection spans wide distances—from her childhood in East New York to prisons to Palestine, Monet writes the poetry of our time that also honors the battles of the past. Poems look to James Baldwin and Mahmoud Darwish as guiding inspirations, and poems are dedicated to people like graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez and Johnny Cash, to friends and family. Monet’s subject matter spans police brutality, women in prison, intimate sisterhood relationships and black joy. And, as Monet writes in the Author’s Note, what unites these harrowing portraits of humanity is their “risk and ruthless radical love.”
The power of Monet’s words and activism extends beyond the page, too. Monet read the collection’s title poem, “my mother was a freedom fighter” at the Women’s March on Washington. Several poems address and pay homage to activist campaigns, like “#sayhername” and “the giving tree.” A bold, intimate and powerful collection of poems, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter honors the women who fight and have fought for their liberation, declaring, as she does in “#sayhername,” that “black and woman, is a sort of magic you cannot hashtag.” Out since May 1.
Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, edited and introduced by Amit Majmudar, is a forceful collection of 50 contemporary poets writing about the current American moment. In its introduction, Majmudar writes, “We poets are the absolute antithesis of Trump…He spits out every coarse thing that crosses his mind, as it occurs to him; we agonize over and refine each phrase we put out there, wondering if it rings true and serves the truth.” And all of these poems resist, in some way, the false narratives perpetuated by common stereotype and our own government leaders through their poetic probing for the truth.
Resistance has a stellar and diverse lineup of poets: Ada Limón, Kay Ryan, Solmaz Sharif, Sharon Olds, Kevin Young, Richie Hoffman (an old poetry teacher of mine!), Juan Felipe Herrera. While I admire all the poems in this collection, a few of my favorites are Alex Dimitrov’s “The Moon After Election Day,” Eduardo C. Corral’s “Border Patrol Agent” and Ada Limón’s “Killing Methods.” The collection’s final poem, Majmudar’s cento of lines or phrases from all the preceding poems, forms a uniting sense of resistance binding together these diverse perspectives. And it leaves the reader with the task of making of America what they will, what they must. Out since May 23.
Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing probes the history of an artist in the Bauhaus school who had witnessed its shutting down by the Nazis in 1933 to try to reconstruct a past that resembles our own present. Xenophobia, political oppression and the struggle of the artist to make meaning out of tragedy all pervade the voice of the book’s speaker in this compact collection of prose poems. Bang’s discerning speaker notes the danger of inflexible systems and stereotypes through a keen observance of the patterns of both the everyday and the incomprehensible scale of history.
Inspired in part by the life and work of Bauhaus artist Lucia Moholy, whose negatives were lost and unauthorizedly used by Bauhaus school founder Walter Gropius, A Doll for Throwing also explores the restrictive expectations placed on women that makes the female artist both object and creator. “Every image of a woman speaks of a theatrical body performing a script,” Bang writes in “You Have to Be Uncompromising as You Pass Through.” “I can see that they, meaning we, are meant to be objects: small scale, fragile, unassuming.” But despite this status of objecthood, a woman is also “an almost fully realized artwork repaying the viewer with attention.” A haunting exploration of a past world whose terrors still ring true today, A Doll for Throwing testifies to the permanency of art, the value in creating, for “Unlike the law, architecture lasts.” Out August 15.
Julie Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession blends the genres of prose and poetry, the lyric and the epistolary, in her wide-reaching exploration of confession. Written over a ten-year span, Carr’s book continuously surprised me in its wonderful insights as a work that defies genre and offers a novel way of examining language, selfhood and the purposes of expression. Comprised of several different sections, including an epistolary novella, an exploration on the nature of confession through the letters of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and an experimental memoir, the hybrid, undefinable nature of Objects from a Borrowed Confession places Carr in a line of work similar to that of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—and it is exciting and innovative and captivating.
The nature of Carr’s book is confessional, though it also analyzes the nature of confession within it, and in confessing and reflecting on her own life, Carr offers us valuable insights on motherhood and womanhood. “I am a woman…shielding the specificity of being female,” Carr writes in the book’s first section, a series of letters to an ex-lover’s ex. And through these reflections on womanhood, Carr creates a moving exploration of the beauty and troubles of being seen and our undeniable desire for the connection that makes us feel alive. Out this July.