My Top 5 Books of 2023 – Poetry

Poetry books by Zaffar Kunial, Clare Shaw, Paul Stephenson, Maya C Popa and Kathryn Bevis 2023 has been a momentous year for my own poetic journey, but it has also led me to some intriguing poetry collections published by others. These five books were not all published in 2023, but this was the year in which I discovered them.  

In January I took part in Kim Moore and Clare Shaw’s daily writing hours, and that was where I came across Clare Shaw’s fourth collection Towards a General Theory of Love. I am rarely able to say that I liked every single poem in a collection, but this book is an exception to that rule. Shaw’s poems explore the complexities of grief, trauma and love, often through the figure of ‘Monkey’. Shaw’s monkey figure represents the controversial psychology experiments conducted by Harry Harlow on baby monkeys in the 1950s, which proved that we need care, contact and love to survive.

Here is an extract from ‘Monkey and I Discuss the Difficulty of Working Therapeutically with Non-verbal Traumatic Memories’:

If I could put words to it, says Monkey,
that would be half the problem solved.

Poor monkey. All he can do is scream
and that is unsatisfying.

He is not convinced by bodywork
and he doesn’t like dancing.

Perhaps you could draw me your story, I suggest,
but he eats the pen…

The poem continues with an exquisite balance between humour and tenderness that is echoed throughout the collection. In particular, I love Shaw’s repeated use of the simple list poem – a form that feels, at times like a litany, or prayer.

Hard Drive by Paul Stephenson

Paul Stephenson’s debut collection Hard Drive similarly makes effective use of multiple poetic forms, including lists and repetition. The book is an elegy, but it is one that moves back and forth through time, celebrating the presence, and mourning the unimaginable sudden absence, of Stephenson’s partner. ‘The Thesis’, for example, uses repetition to evoke the unease and frustration of trying to focus on the tasks at hand, while knowing that something is ‘wrong’, but being unable to do anything about it. Here are the first two stanzas:

It was June and I had to see a student.
A Tuesday morning and I had to see several students.
I knew something was wrong.
I called and asked a friend for help.
I was far away, and I had to see a student.

She said she’d go round and ring the bell.
I tried to listen to the mouth of the student.
He or she was seeking my approval.
I knew something was wrong.
It was June and I was seeing a student…

Poems like this evoke the uneasiness of that moment between knowing and not knowing, as if life hangs in the balance.

My third choice is Zaffar Kunial’s new collection England’s Green, which I bought after an encounter with his incredible opening poem ‘Foxglove Country’. The poem grapples with the sound and meaning of language, how it can evoke a sense of connection, or a lack of connection, to place:

Sometimes I like to hide in the word
foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves.
The xgl is hard to say, out of the England
of its harbouring word.
Alone it becomes a small tangle,
a witch’s thimble, a hard-to-toll bell,
elvish door to door. Xgl
a place with a locked beginning
then a snag, a gl
like the little Englands of my grief,
a knotted dark that locks light
in glisten, glow, glint, gleam

This play on the sound and sense of language, and our sense of place and belonging (or not belonging), reverberates throughout Kunial’s collection. I also particularly liked the long, resonant prose poem ‘Ings’ which evokes a strange sense of landscape, loss, and the limitations of language itself.

I heard Maya C. Popa read from Wound is the Origin of Wonder at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Her poems tend to begin with a small, delicate moment, and then open out into something more expansive. Here is the beginning of one of my favourites, ‘The Owl’:

Took off from the field again
away from you and back in my direction.

We share an owl now—we did not mean
for this to happen. It hovers

between us, a symbol and debt, sleeps
in a country neither recognizes

until we’re face to face—then, it’s familiar,
and it’s impossible not to laugh.

Of course, there’s an owl. You’re the owl
in the belfry set off by noon bells…

Wound is the Origin of Wonder by Maya C. PopaMy final poetry choice for this year is Flamingo, a pamphlet by Kathryn Bevis, whose first full collection is due to be published by Seren Books in 2024. Bevis’ poems are emotive and striking, particularly those that use metaphor to examine her experience of cancer. ‘My Cancer as a Ring-Tailed Lemur’ is painful and funny in equal measure:

We both know one day she’ll eat me.
But, for now, we dance: a little game
of catch me if you can. Tracking her
is difficult. But specialists are interested
and, bit by bit, they creep inside my body’s

forest, stalk her with their fancy cameras,
take images, write reports. On ultrasound,
she’s punk-rock stripes of white and black.
On mammograms, she sunbathes, downy
as a dandelion gone to seed…

I have read many other evocative and intriguing poems and poetry collections, but these five books were the ones that really stood out for me this year. I look forward to another year of poetry reading (and writing) in 2024.

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2 thoughts on “My Top 5 Books of 2023 – Poetry

  1. Thank you. Great recommendations and I loved the short critiques you give of each. Hope you have had a love,y Christmas and wishing you health and happiness in 2024

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