In celebration of Image’s thirtieth anniversary, we asked three writers—a poet, novelist, and essayist—each to pick their top ten books of the past thirty years.
Although I HAVEN’T BEEN reading poetry for quite thirty years yet—I began in earnest around 1994—like everyone else, I know what I like. I want a little mystery. I don’t want to hear the obvious stated, even if I agree. I want to be awed. The awe might come through precision of diction or image, the jolt of a good metaphor or rhyme, the grandeur of a powerful, well-paced, twisting sentence. When I fall in love with a poem, it’s because an idea I’d never thought of shines forth, one that can only arise from the poet’s idiosyncratic way of combining all these elements.
The past thirty years have been my coming-of-age journey through poetry books. They’ve also been a journey toward claiming a faith, and then its loss, though not the loss of interest in faith. As with most of the poets on this list, my journey has been and is a series of attempts to articulate the holy—if it might exist. Not being sure doesn’t mean I won’t try, and the poets I love best also never stop trying.
Here are ten poetry books from the last thirty years—chosen from among many worthy others—that have inspired me and shaped me in my attempts.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg, A Gilded Lapse of Time (1992)
I didn’t read this book when it came out; my nineteen-year-old brain was not ready for the majesty of Gjertrud Schnackenberg. And although I had definitely read this book before 2004 (I fell for Schnackenberg pretty hard in the late nineties, a love affair that continues), A Gilded Lapse of Time resurfaced for me that summer, just when I needed it: when I was (improbably) one of three adults leading a youth pilgrimage to the Taizé community in France. Although I had been part of a wonderful lefty church in Atlanta for six years, and had worked with the youth group nearly that long, the bottom had fallen out of my faith a few months before the trip. I no longer believed what I had once held to so strongly. I tried to recoup my faith, but I couldn’t; I haven’t. But I was already committed to the trip, and it was life-changing, though not in the ways I had imagined when we started planning and fundraising the year before.
The title work, a long poem in twenty sections, traces Schnackenberg’s own pilgrimage to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, Italy. As she twists and turns through lines of loose blank verse, grappling with her own lack of belief as she grapples with legacies of war, history, and poetry, I was twisting and turning with her—in the labyrinth we walked at Chartres, through the lines of the Taizé chants I robotically sang.
“You are the God / Of a word we have not learned,” writes Schnackenberg, and it’s hard to imagine feeling a phrase more deeply as I sat, benumbed, unable to pray with the group. Yet her book is not despairing—it’s full of wonder, even as it does not turn a blind eye to pain. We have not learned the word for God; but we could learn it. Or we could try. A life lived in seeking, Schnackenberg seems to say—twisting, turning through poetry—is an attempt to learn it, and no attempt is wasted.
Louise Glück, The Wild Iris (1994)
I first spied this book in the poetry section of my college bookstore at the University of Tennessee, and I bought it the year I graduated, 1995. Like most undergrad poets, I hadn’t read much; every trip to the bookstore was an opportunity for revelation. Once I saw that it was composed of complaints to God in the form of “matins” and “vespers,” God’s often cold responses, and, most intriguing, persona poems from the points of view of flowers and plants, I couldn’t resist. This might be the first contemporary poetry book I bought on my own, unassigned by a teacher.
“Forgive me if I say I love you,” begins one of Louise Glück’s “matins” poems, all of which are agonized prayers. The speaker continues, “[T]he powerful / are always lied to since the weak are always / driven by panic.” I was thrilled by Glück’s fearlessness: she dared to articulate the relationship between humanity and God in a darkly honest way I’d never seen before. In her most famous “vespers” poem, a complaint to God about her failed tomato crop, the speaker disavows God’s supposed supreme control over all life:
______________________________ All this
_____ belongs to you: on the other hand,
_____ I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
_____ like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
_____ broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
_____ multiplying in the rows.
In this poem and many others, I was floored by what Glück was doing with the Garden of Eden story. As a young poet experimenting with persona poems, I was giddy with possibility once I read her wildflower poems. I loved how her flowers had agency and wisdom, how they talked back to the humans in their midst. More than a dozen years later, when I started writing poems from the points of view of various weapons, I could see the trajectory between my own experiments and my discovery of The Wild Iris. Glück gave me permission to try something crazy in the hope that it might work.
Scott Cairns, Figures for the Ghost (1994)
“The Holy Spirit,” the second poem in Figures for the Ghost, begins, “Don’t worry about it.” In his trademark wry style, Scott Cairns both admits the great mystery of Christianity and gently pokes fun at our desire to know, rather than (as Iris Dement sings) to “let the mystery be.” Because we are human, we have incomplete knowledge, but this doesn’t stop us from sifting through metaphor after metaphor to try to describe God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or any number of moments when peace is a “shuddering stillness” that we can’t put language to.
Scott Cairns wasn’t my first poetry teacher, but I’ve worn his influence most visibly. When I arrived at the MFA program at Old Dominion University in 1995, he had just published his marvelous Figures for the Ghost the year before. I had read his two earlier books, but Figures for the Ghost threw me for a loop. Here was a poet doing theology—in a ten-poem sequence called “Disciplinary Treatises.” There were poems called “Sacraments,” “Angels,” “Grace,” and “Blood Atonement,” among others. I couldn’t believe this was allowed, and I decided very early on to emulate his example. The way Cairns lovingly interrogates Christianity is quite different from the way I crash and rage, but from this book, and from Scott Cairns as a person, I learned the valuable lesson that it’s okay to ask questions of our faith, or even of our lack of faith. Cairns always says that “Christianity should not be afraid of a conversation.” It’s a statement I’ve never forgotten as I’ve written my own questioning poems.
Andrew Hudgins, Babylon in a Jar (1998)
I could probably choose any book by Andrew Hudgins for this list, but Babylon in a Jar holds a special place in my heart. Many of its poems are about death and destruction, and the image of ashes weaves throughout. Given my own obsessions, I love all of these dark poems, but one stands out. Like “A Gilded Lapse of Time,” “The Bottle Tree” is one of my touchstones, not just for poetry but for life, and for wondering what forms devotion to something unseen might take.
The poem is about a man who inexplicably hangs bottles, soda cans, chicken bones, dead mice, a live crow, and more from the branches of a tree in his yard. The poem investigates our tendency to judge others’ expressions of faith—to find fault with anything that doesn’t conform. The tree horrifies the man’s neighbors, who eventually complain so much that the city chops the tree down. “We were the Romans,” Hudgins writes. “Our little town was Rome. / And Rome, / where is it now?”
The poem’s last two lines are among the most powerful I’ve read in the last thirty years: “For there are many kinds of altar, and glory / beyond the confines of our longing.” I sometimes repeat this line to myself like a mantra. I’ve written it in my journal countless times. I once wrote it out on a strip of construction paper to make a link in a paper chain for a Christmas tree decorated with quotations.
As I write this, I am returning from visiting a friend who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. She loves this poem, too. For reasons I can’t understand, but that she understood perfectly, she wanted to celebrate Hanukkah despite not being Jewish, and her way of doing this was to create an altar with a menorah from Target surrounded by whatever she felt belonged. She plucked objects from her apartment, which is in utter disarray due to her hoarding: a mirror, a salt lamp, a string of beads, a greeting card, some magnets, the lid to a container of vegan cheese. My friend pronounced it beautiful, and I agreed, stricken though I was by the new forms her longing for glory is taking.
Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets (2000)
At theology school at Emory University in the early 2000s, I took a class on Job with Carol Newsom, a famous Job scholar. One day we were discussing God’s treatment of Job at the end of the book, where God doesn’t answer any of Job’s accusations and smacks Job down with glory until he repents. One member of the class was doing his level best to justify God’s behavior. Professor Newsom gave this student a look I’ll never forget and said, “At some point, you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go to let God off the hook.” I thought of this a year or two later when I read Unholy Sonnets for the first time. Here’s the start of Unholy Sonnet 9:
_____ Someone is always praying as the plane
_____ Breaks up, and smoke and cold and darkness blow
_____ Into the cabin. Praying as it happens,
_____ Praying before it happens that it won’t.
When the unthinkable happens, and the plane explodes in the sky, Jarman imagines this moment in stark imagery: “Surely, someone was praying. And the prayer / Struck the blank face of the earth, the ocean’s face, / The rockhard, rippled face of facelessness.”
I love how this poem doesn’t let God off the hook. How the sonnet’s turn is not to consolation or more prayer or even to asking why. No, the turn is to nothingness: the “blank face” of the earth standing in for God’s blank face, and the ocean’s “rockhard, rippled face of facelessness” standing in for the spirit moving over the waters, a God whom the prayers of the dying cannot penetrate. I couldn’t believe a sonnet could do the theological work Mark Jarman was doing, but here it was. When I began writing the poems about pigments used in illuminated manuscripts that would eventually anchor my second book, I knew I wanted them to be sonnets, because I wanted to be in that number of religious sonneteers I admired so much: Donne and Herbert and Hopkins and, most definitely, Mark Jarman.
Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard (2007)
My copy of Native Guard is annotated to the point that it’s hard to read the actual poems. No matter; I have many of them memorized. I’ve read it more times than any other book on this list, and yet I find something new to admire each time I open it. As a southerner, I find myself nodding in agreement when I read Trethewey’s poems about feeling both estranged from and native to a landscape. As a poet interested in history and social justice, I am continually floored by her insights, particularly into issues of cultural memory and forgetting. And on a craft level, I am inspired when I read Trethewey’s blues sonnet about the burial of her mother, or her crown of sonnets about the Louisiana Native Guards, a regiment of southern African American Union soldiers in the Civil War. I could go on. My first draft of this section was three times as long as it is now. Maybe don’t get me started on Native Guard if you are only interested in a casual conversation.
In a recent interview with the Paris Review, Trethewey observed, “Because a poem can create a sort of opening in time, it feels like there are moments of resurrection that I can live fully inside of, like a memory of my mother that brings her back.” The idea of a poem creating an opening in time feels especially powerful in the title poem, which sends us back through time into the experience of an unnamed ex-slave turned Union soldier. Trethewey’s elegies for her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, are similar moments of resurrection. Considering his experience at the end of the war, the speaker of “Native Guard” says, “Beneath battlefields, green again, / the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone / we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.” The poem ends with burial, but in the act of writing this poem, Trethewey has opened that packed-down ground. This is obviously not a Christian resurrection, yet it comforts and galvanizes me in a similar way. A life that has been consigned to darkness has been brought out into the light; the dead return to instruct the living; what has been forgotten is remembered. If a poem can do this, it’s worth a thousand attempts.
Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (2008)
God vs. Hurricane Katrina with a heaping helping of voodoo thrown in: there is a great mystery of power and destruction in this book that is deeply religious and also profoundly chilling. Composed mostly of persona poems—some of the most affecting of which are from the point of view of Katrina herself—this book is devastating.
I’ve been reading Patricia Smith since my MFA program in the mid-nineties; my teacher Tim Seibles assigned her Big Towns, Big Talk in the first poetry workshop I took with him. I remember him saying to the class, “You all need to take your feet off the brakes. Write a poem that will shock me!” I love remembering this advice and thinking of Blood Dazzler, a book in which one of the first things Hurricane Katrina says is, “I will require praise.” Rather than an “act of God,” Katrina has become a god in these poems. Smith shocks us early on and never lets up.
In the poem “Their Savior Was Me,” Katrina is frustrated that the drowning pray to God, instead of to her: “I have never heard a prayer / that began with my name,” she complains. And like a jealous god, Katrina will have her vengeance:
_____ I was all the seconds they had left.
_____ They should have smothered me with kneeling.
_____ Instead, in their old scratched voices,
_____ they begged the wet air for salvation. They called
_____ Lord, Lord, Lord,
_____ until I was forced to show them my face.
But Katrina isn’t the only deity coming in for critique. Like Jarman, Smith is a poet of theodicy, which is part of why I love her. In “Voodoo VIII: Spiritual Cleansing and Blessing,” Smith warns those who put an easy trust in God’s mercy:
_____ …we are comforted until the sun
_____ blazes the stench forward, rebirthing rot
_____ and workdays. Then His eyes are dry,
_____ threaded with lightning and hurt,
_____ and we are reminded, again,
_____ just what He’s capable of.
Kimberly Johnson, a metaphorical god (2008)
I heard Kimberly Johnson read from this book at a writers’ conference and nearly fell out of my chair. Who was this person reading these amorous, musical, downright playful poems about God? In the little poetic circles I ran in at that time, I was used to being the only religious poet in the room. But here was someone live, in the flesh, my own age, sounding like a metaphysical poet reincarnated (I would later learn that Johnson is a Donne scholar), reading lines like these from “Ash Garden”:
________________________ I’m planting
_____ stonecrop, and rockmat, and if the fireweed
_____ insists on sowing itself in cinders
_____ I’ll truckle it to my lenten aesthetic
_____ or pluck it out.
Such delicious language (in a poem about Lent, no less) runs all through the book. Later, Johnson complains in “On Divination”: “What a maddening, metaphorical / God you are, all frills and periwigs / when plainclothes would do.” Show yourself to me, Johnson asks God, here and elsewhere, in these poems of religious desire. Yet the inability to find God, to see God in “plainclothes,” is what spurs Johnson to these baroque and beautiful poems. In a poem simply titled “[ ].” Johnson prays, “O fugitive God, my glorious jilt, / my heart has learned a tempest’s grammar / in your pursuit.” Perhaps all religious poets have our own version of this “tempest’s grammar,” the words we learn for the word we have not yet learned.
When I heard Johnson read these poems, I had no steady job, no place to live (a friend was lettting me stay in her apartment), and no health insurance. I had eighty dollars in the bank. I was only at that writers’ conference at all because another poet friend (a saint on this earth) had paid my way. But I bought this book, because I knew I needed Johnson’s words—that her words were worth doing without all the other things fifteen dollars could have bought me.
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)
In “Félicité,” Robin Coste Lewis speaks of
_________ . . . this sensation
____________ I’ve had for years:
_____ that of another body
________ hovering inside me
____________ waiting for address.
While in this poem the other body belongs to an ancestor, there are many other bodies in the book, most belonging to black and brown women. Lewis addresses them all: ordinary women, saints, goddesses, and, most notably, women as they are represented in several thousand years of art. The title poem is a seventy-page experimental ekphrastic epic composed of the titles and catalogue descriptions of art about the black female figure, with the epic hero as the “Sable Venus” herself, whose name is taken from the title of an eighteenth-century painting. Lewis uses enjambment and punctuation to create meaning from her found texts, and the result is mind-blowing. For an example of her invention, take these lines from “Catalog 3: The Womb of Christianity”:
_____ Solomon worshipping idols, black
_____ laborers on the quays
_____ of Venice. Black African figure
_____ at the edge of the canal, miracle
_____ at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, O Lymp!
_____ I, a miracle of the Black-Leg-Birth of the Virgin,
_____ The Black Bride of the Song of Songs—
_____ Black African Diana the Good
_____ Woman of Color Saint Lucy Before
_____ the Magistrate, Pregnant
_____ Eva the First
Here, the speaker both witnesses and becomes a miracle. That the miracle is black and female is important to this section of the poem and to the book as a whole.
The poem “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is bookended by more personal narrative and lyric poems, all of which are reverential and spiritual—not to mention difficult and dark, yet also full of, as Lewis puts it, “deep black joy.” In what could be her ars poetica, she writes:
_____ The World wants to know
_________ what I am made of. I am trying
_____________ to find a way
_________________ to answer Her.
Aren’t we all? Lewis’s bold invention shows me a gorgeous way of trying.
Derrick Austin, Trouble the Water (2016)
The way Derrick Austin weaves together the erotic and the devotional is irresistible. This is a book of love poems on many levels: to lovers, to God, to beauty, to blackness, to queerness, to art, to place. Multiple kinds of devotion swirl through the book, and the juxtapositions are divine, as in the line “I believe in art more often than your cock” from “San Souci,” and the line “Come, take chrism from these waters” in the poem “Deepwater,” which is about the devastation of an oil spill off the coast of Louisiana.
The book is also beautifully ekphrastic, with many poems about religious art: illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, church architecture, and even the paintings in tombs, as in one of my favorites, “Catacombs of San Callisto,” in which Austin studies a fresco of Jesus on the stone:
_____ He’s never Himself in the earliest frescoes:
_____ the shepherd boy guarding the sallow lamb
_____ whose fleece might hide the god. Or the fish
_____ and bowl of loaves. Or the phoenix.
_____ He isn’t Himself, yet I trust Him.
Who is this Christ? Elsewhere, in “St. Mathew’s Pentecostal Church,” Austin will say of God:
_____ Who says the Lord bears white roses and song?
_____ Expect a fire to the heart. He will press His light
_____ into our bones and mouths, wear out our simple faces.
_____ Bless the fool who enters the Lord’s country
_____ expecting Him to love like any man.
Love is what Austin is investigating—God’s love, human love, those intersections—and it’s absolutely stunning when, at the end of “Catacombs of San Callisto,” the speaker of the poem imagines what it would be like to look down on his lover with a love as big as Christ’s:
_____ I would be the good shepherd
_____ above your body in its cold, stone niche
_____ not only because I believe
_____ in the resurrection of the body, but because
_____ I want to be the face that welcomes you
_____ to that inordinate dark.
It’s fitting to end here, with dazzling and incomprehensible love—fully human, fully divine—one more word that we haven’t fully learned. I trust poetry to move us toward it. For me, at least, a poem is as close as we can get in this life.