Presenting: Adroit’s Best Books of 2016!

Every year, we have the privilege of publishing and teaching the works of talented and diverse authors of poetry and prose from around the world. Though in many ways 2016 was a degrading and difficult year, it was also a year of profound and intense art. We asked student members of our staff and mentorship communities what their favorite books of the year have been. Here’s what they had to say…


Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press

There are poets you love and poets you envy. Safiya Sinclair certainly possesses the intelligence and lyric innovation that I envy. After every page of Cannibal, I felt the urge to kneel and bow to the queen of haunting imagery, arcane and innovative vocabulary. Cannibal is a fervent book that shackles me to read, reread, read out, and perform its poems. A truly magical, hypnotic, and devastating re-imagination of Shakespeare’s The Tempest focused on the perspective of colonized Caliban, who happens to be one of my favorite characters by the bard. But Sinclair’s words reach beyond the transmogrification of an old play—her poems bend the boundaries of the English language itself: “All night the world bled on my fang / like a language and we unsmiling // our narrow gape / our space unslanging…” If language is a house, Sinclair has built a linguistic palace of delicious, lush and opulent architecture. Her style, which Cathy Park Hong aptly identified as “afro-futuristic,” bubbles with feminism and mythology. Every poem, every line even, feels like a mirror house seething with secret plants and selcouth music while exposing the vulnerability of womanhood. In an interview, she mentions her belief in Lorca’s duende. There are only a few contemporary poets who showcase the spirits of duende, and luckily, Cannibal is seeped in it. My life was awaiting her genius. If only Sylvia Plath were here to read this.


Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

I don’t know if I’ve ever anticipated a release as excitedly as I did Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Simultaneously expansive and gorgeously taut, the book shattered my lofty expectations and established itself as one of the most gripping poetry collections of 2016. Vuong writes bravely and clearly about his experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant and a gay man, both of which are incredibly important in the wake of (and amidst) the bigoted violence which swept & sweeps the country this year. In the first poem of the collection, “Threshold,” he recalls a man he overhears singing in the shower: “I didn’t know the cost//of entering a song—was to lose/your way back.//So I entered. So I lost./ I lost it all with my eyes//wide open.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is my shower-song, the music throbbing constantly in my head. It’s the book I can’t, and don’t want to, leave behind. 


Solmaz Sharif’s Look
Graywolf Press

Solmaz Sharif’s Look is a reminder of why poetry matters and my favorite book of 2016. It’s about the way that war settles into the people who experience it, both immediately and at a distance. It’s about seeing violence, and about the violence people refuse to see. In one poem, a military dictionary defines “Destruction Radius” without considering “the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter.” Everything ripples outwards. In addition to military vocabulary, the poems bring in Wikipedia articles and redacted letters and family conversations. Records stand in for people who have been killed. There are Prince songs, and there are cluster bombs. “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made // of our language”, says one poem. “Each photo is an absence,” says another. For me, reading Look made me witness some of the worst things that people are capable of and also understand the ways that seeing or refusing to see makes me complicit in them. The poems never settle into a single style or a predictable tone. Instead they are always shifting, requiring their reader to constantly renegotiate their own assumptions, perspective, and responsibility. Look is amazing and heartbreaking and necessary and imperfect and, I think, the best book for a very bad year. It doesn’t turn from the evil in the world, and it doesn’t give in. It ends “We have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter. // I am singing to her still.”


Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You

I wish I had read What Belongs to You in the first month of 2016. After a year of overexposure, of feeling flayed and sunburnt from unrelenting reminders of the election, climate change, sexism, car crashes, kill-shelters, celebrity deaths, Islamophobia, all at once, all the time—this slim novel felt like life as we want to be living it. Deliberate, considerate contemplation. On the first page, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher in Bulgaria, meets a man named Mitko in a public bathroom and pays him for sex. The rest of the novel unfolds in real time along with their relationship, which Mitko calls priyateli—a word that the narrator loosely takes to mean “friend,” but just as easily could mean “lover” or “acquaintance.” The language barrier between the two men serves as an active metaphor for the paradox of desire: the endless, valiant, futile attempts to exactly translate someone else’s life into your own. What I loved most about What Belongs to You was the intense focus of the prose; one significant moment could take up pages, and years of insignificant action takes place off screen. As Greenwell himself wrote, What Belongs to You reads like “a peculiarly lyrical account of the past, free of the usual narratives of triumph and loss.” It supersedes a thick plot for the intricacies of one man’s thoughts and words about another man. It is simple, fluid, alive. It is what we should be doing right now. 


Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much
Button Poetry

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut collection is heartrending and raw. In a Juniot Díaz-esque style of blunt, sharp prose poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much explores the pain of black souls and black bodies: how blackness shapes memories and how memory shapes blackness. Willis-Abdurraqib crafts a map of Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, in stunning, tiny stories. His poems talk of mouths and concerts, beer and high school, lust and pervasive death. The titles – “DUDES, WE DID NOT GO THROUGH THE HASSLE OF GETTING THESE FAKE IDS FOR THIS JUKEBOX TO NOT HAVE ANY SPRINGSTEEN” or “THE GHOST OF THE AUTHOR’S MOTHER HAS A CONVERSATION WITH HIS FIANCEE ABOUT HIGHWAYS” – will hit you with an unyielding urgency. These poems are as fragile as they are piercing, unraveling the author’s grief for and devotion to his mother who passed away when he was only 13 (“I saw my heart in the eyes of my mother. it was too small to save her”). With imagery of graves, blood, and micro-aggressions as commonplace as the barbershop or Fall Out Boy, Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry sparks a craving for change. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much will knock you on the floor, raise you back up, and knock you over again.


Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased
Penguin Random House

Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased is an absolutely gorgeous work of lyric prose. Rather than thresh the lyric from the narrative, Boy Erased works towards their intersection, blurring the two into a thriving result. The memoir focuses on Conley’s struggle with his sexuality in a Missionary Baptist family and small Arkansan community, and the way conversion therapy affected his relationship with his family and himself. The book interrogates the queer condition—particularly its connection to religion, shame, and self-acceptance—and is a testament to queerness as a forced subterranean state, as well as the strength and power it takes to elevate oneself out of said landscape. If you must read only one book of prose in 2017, Boy Erased should be it.


Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn

The epigraph and dedication to Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years convey Another Brooklyn’s quiet brilliance very well. The dedication has its own page, and rightly so: “For Bushwick (1970-1990) / In Memory.” Woodson’s narrator, August, recalls growing up as a girl in the neighborhood, remembering all the companionship, love, and trials she experienced. She says in the first paragraph: “I now know that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It’s the memory.” Yet the memory seems healing for Woodson, who creates a poetic and moving vision of August’s adolescence. The limitations of gender, race, class, family, and August’s own grief remain as she grows up, but through the act of telling her story, she faces her memories: her dad turning to women and religion, her friends supporting her and then drifting apart, and her own dangerous navigation through Bushwick as a young woman. The epigraph, a quote from Richard Wright, rings true: “Keep straight down this block, / Then turn right where you will find / A peach tree blooming.”


Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human
Brooklyn Arts Press

I am always on the prowl for Latinx writers, and when I saw The Performance of Becoming Human among the winners of the National Book Award winners I knew I would have to read it. From the sudden codeswitching and cultural references to every gruesome detail, each line contains a bullet. The book draws from the author’s relationship with Chicago and Chile, but its themes are purposefully universal. Borzutzky’s world is full of broken borders: the border between bureaucracies, the border between countries, the border between one neighborhood to the next, the border, the border between life and death, or between two different kinds of living. An ape can become human by learning “how to spit and belch” while a Jewish man can be dehumanized by having his insides forcibly stuffed with horsehair. But while the ape’s transformation is merely a performance, the speaker and those around him are stripped of their humanity by the violence they face, transformed into mere bodies:

Was I a disappeared body, tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-soldier-
compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration while
crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another

Borzutzky believes that poetry can act as a means of resisting “the kind of thinking that seeks to destroy the humanity of individuals by turning them into nameless, faceless numbers that can be quantified and disaggregated into minute bits of data”, and I think he has certainly accomplished that in these poems.


Solmaz Sharif’s Look
Graywolf Press

Before the poems of Solmaz Sharif’s debut book Look begin, the reader is given an important epigraph, a definition:

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine
circuit is receptive of an influence.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
United States Department of Defense

This frame and its obvious and subtle multiplicities begins a promise with the book’s readers—and I don’t mean, plainly, the premise: a book of poems which seeks to present, define, decode, and vary words of warfare with colloquial language, for such a premise offers a play on politics and poetics. Sharif’s book contains no theater whatsoever. Instead, the promise made upon entering these pages is that language is not to be trusted. When in poetry the directive is listen (to the voice of the speaker, to the oral tradition of reciting and hearing poetry, etc.), from the onset, Sharif and the speakers of her book instead demand that we look. That each word is a mine—an object receptive to influence, or an object that can cause destruction, leaving a pit—a vacancy that cannot be filled. And that each word can be mine—can be claimed or reclaimed by a given speaker. So when the book itself begins with the title poem, “Look”, and the speaker begins with “It matters what you call a thing”, the reader must meet the speaker and the book with such rigor. Every location from Iran, to America, to Guantanamo, must be seen anew. At every turn, something could be lost. Every word used to describe war is a weapon used to shroud and normalize how gravely it threatens to end the period of time in which we exist.

            Look and the poems in it will be long taught for their political veracity, ability to advance the discourses of docupoetry and poetry of witness, and for their deft criticisms of contemporary issues such as war in the Middle East and America’s role in it. These claims about Look have already been made, perhaps. They are true, already, because the poems know better than we do that politics are noise, but death and art have a space between them, which becomes history. If we are so lucky to read this book at its prophetic word—to look at each page and the words on it, to reflect upon our languages and our selfhoods, then perhaps we may receptive of its influence. And if we do—if we finish this circuit—perhaps we will land in the same place we began, changed by such currents therein.


Jennifer Givhan’s Landscape with Headless Mama

Jennifer Givhan’s first book, Landscape with Headless Mama, transports its reader into a world where the lines between real and imaginary, literal and mythical, and individual and generational are blurred. Set in the desert southwest, this collection builds a landscape of many forms: physical, temporal, cultural, mythological – even the body becomes landscape, “a dwelling from which he never / came.” With deep wit, kick, tenderness, and humor, Givhan deftly navigates both familiar and alien terrain: girlhood, memory, marriage, miscarriage, adoption. At its core, Landscape with Headless Mama explores the journey of motherhood – and so intimately, for Givhan interweaves the voices of girl, young mother, and miscarrying artist before settling on a final form whose presence has already been felt throughout: Ariel Mama, a woman who gives “us song as gesture / for the pain.” It’s a world both welcoming and dangerous, starved and lush with love. Lines and stanzas twist in the most daring ways – “call it home, bellyache, unsafe” – and bite before nursing each tender wound. And through it all, you’re left with the unshakeable feeling that these are more than poems – these are ways to stay alive.


Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs
Nightboat Books

Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs is nothing short of a masterpiece, the best kind of fever dream. Without a doubt the most striking feature of this book is Rebele-Henry’s ability to quite literally embody an incredibly wide range of characters, in a way that doesn’t feel appropriative or forced. Reading Fleshgraphs had me in a sort of trance, every fragment flowing into the next, pages turning constantly. I read the whole book in one sitting, and it would be difficult not to—with themes ranging from addiction to religion to sex and sexuality, Fleshgraphs is visceral. I found that I could relate to some of the emotions and ideas explored within these fragments, while some were completely foreign to me. I suspect that there is something about Fleshgraphs that really hits home for a lot of people; I’ve already lent my copy to friends and they’ve sent me iPhone photos of their favorite passages. The book strikes a perfect balance between emoting and storytelling, two perfectly complementing aspects of poetry.  Its range is broad enough to make it appealing to most readers, yet its specificity demonstrates a particularly strong poetic voice. Rebele-Henry doesn’t hesitate to take risks, often inching towards the taboo (“Catholic school is like one long gangbang, Lisa says”). Her tone is composed and sophisticated, yet also raunchy and cutting, which I find has an often humorous but humbling impact on the reader. Fleshgraphs is definitely one of this year’s books to remember.


Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Still Be Flowers
Civil Coping Mechanisms

I first encountered Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poetry in The Offing, while procrastinating on a paper on a book written by a dead white man. As I generally do when reading poetry to procrastinate, I scrolled swiftly to the bottom of the page in an attempt to convince myself that I was merely taking a very brief break from my work, and instead wound up reading Espinoza’s work at least fifteen times over.

I wear my clothes. ends the poem. I wear my body. / I walk out in the grass and turn red / at the sight of everything. 

This vulnerability– baldly presented, without a sign of there ever having been hair– characterizes much of Espinoza’s second collection, There Should Be Flowers. Every poem startles; here, more than ever, the experience of trans humanity is presented so viscerally, so delectably, that it is impossible to regard it as though an outsider. All that womanhood / caught in the roof / of my mouth was like honey, Espinoza writes in ‘FIRST LOVE’. I knew it would never / go bad / so I never / said anything about it. And again, in ‘I HATE THE POEM’ she writes, end-stopped and enjambed, The moon eats itself. 

Espinoza performs her sadnesses with such artfully shameless clarity that it is easy to worry that the collection will devolve into wallowing at any moment. However, the sorrows of Flowers belong as much to Espinoza as they do to her people and her land, and this galvanizes the book to its triumph. How long can I keep tricking you into thinking what I’m doing is poetry, Espinoza writes, and not me begging you to let us live?


Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations
Milkweed Editions

There is no doubt in my mind that Max Ritvo’s first and only poetry collection is among my favorite books that I have ever read, to say nothing of only 2016. Harnessing the full magic of language, the poems in this collection contain a multiverse of small weirdnesses, which range from the outwardly absurd (such as the fake memory of a man feeding birthday cake to his goldfish) to intimate and heartbreaking addresses to the speakers’ beloveds. I can honestly say that while reading (& re-reading) Four Reincarnations, I felt intense joy and sadness side by side with one another, a feeling I’ve only ever gotten from a handful of things in my life ever – though Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, comes to mind. In terms of poetic comparisons, the only one that I feel does Ritvo’s poetic mind justice is Emily Dickinson. Four Reincarnations is a book of brilliant meditative thought, engaging with subject matter that ranges from mortality in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis to the small ecstasies of love and laughter within our relationships to one another. Ritvo’s voice in these pages is beautiful, charming, darkly hilarious, and deeply wise. If you’re anything like me, you will gasp, giggle, weep, and have your mouth fall open in awe of what he has created here.


Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry
FSG Originals

Ben Lerner’s enthralling new book, The Hatred of Poetry, is one of the best pieces of criticism I read this year. Written in an approachable style, the book discusses many questions I have as a poet: Where does non-poets’ contempt for poetry come from? What makes poetry so special? Why should a poet be a poet and not something else? Lerner fills these questions out, mapping (and critiquing) the hatred of poetry from Plato to contemporary times. Using examples from Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Rankine, Lerner explores arguments common to the anti-poetry camp before dismantling them. Lerner handles his subject with both nuance and humor, and in spite of our culture’s prevailing hostility towards poetry, his book persistently searches for (and finds) poetry’s gifts. It’s a great (and quick) read for anyone interested in poetry criticism—or for a poet who wants to defend themselves from accusations that they don’t have a “real job.”

Peter LaBerge

Peter LaBerge founded The Adroit Journal in 2010, as a high school sophomore. His work appears in Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. He is the recipient of a 2020 Pushcart Prize.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply