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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that 2020 has been tough on everyone. And with the holidays just around the corner, we’re hoping to make the added stress of choosing that perfect gift for a special someone a little bit easier with a series of gift guides. 

This list is curated by Alexa and Helena (booksellers and poetry experts) and features their pick of the best poetry – and some short story collections – in 2020.

Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge

Life Without Air is the poetry debut we can’t stop talking about talking about. Nominated for the 2020 TS Eliot prize, this collection teems with a bewildering confluence of life forms, from mystics to parasites to “ugly lakes” and more. Absorbing and sense-altering, this work of dark ecology feels especially prescient in these pandemic times, offering a field manual of sorts for navigating our most intimate relationships with the non-human world and with each other.

“have you ever festered / in your own quarantine, afraid / that your toxins would spread …?”

For your friend who loves foraging and identifying plant minutiae / loves poetry that stirs the brain as much as the heart.

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

ZONG! by M. NourbeSe Philip

Thanks to a striking new edition from feminist publisher Silver Press, Philip’s momentous long poem is at last finding a wider UK readership. Originally published in 2008, ZONG! is a haunting fusion of history, memory, and song, taking as its source text the legal documents of an eighteenth-century court case regarding the murder of 130 African people on board a slave ship. What results is an earthshaking hymn for the dead that will enlarge any reader’s notion of what poetry might be and invoke in the world. 

“water parts / the oba sobs”

For readers who “have already read everything” / are in search of a life-changing experience. 

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

A Sand Book by Ariana Reines

Winner of the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Reines’s contemporary epic has garnered significant attention this year with its apocalyptic poetry (in both the revelatory and cataclysmic sense). Fizzing with, at times, a saint-like ecstasy, this book lingers with its reader as both a protective grimoire — against corporate greed, fascism, and systems that diminish life in any form — and a stubborn lovesong to art, nature, friendship, queerness, and the divine. 

“KNOWING THAT THE WORLD HAS ALWAYS SUSTAINED / AND WILL ALWAYS SUSTAIN THE MAXIMUM / OF DESTRUCTION POSSIBLE / IS WHY THE OTHER WORLD HAS ALWAYS / AND WILL ALWAYS NEED TO BE CREATED”

For the friend who’s always asking to read your birth chart or knows what the Nag Hammadi is or claims they don’t “get poetry.”

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

Poor by Caleb Femi 

Holding Caleb Femi’s debut collection in your hands feels like a gift. The poet’s own photographs of the buildings, scenes and people that populate the book complement the poems, which turn the North Peckham estate into a poetic dreamland. But the sense of wonder and possibility floating over the expansive “paradise of affordable bricks” is fused with the reality of violence and poverty. Femi skillfully navigates the thin thread between the hopeful energy of young people and socially imposed barriers, managing to offer his readers both a critical look and moments of creative potential and light.

“The inside of a hoodie is a veiled nook where a boy pours himself / into a single drop of rain to feed a forest. Each tree grateful for the / wet boy, unaware that the outside world sees this boy as a chainsaw”

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles

With its eye-catching blush pink cover, Magnolia foregrounds the rich sensory field across which its poems draw their emotional force. Powles is a deft welder of personal and cultural memory in this exploration of her mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, through which readers encounter references to a “Map of Haunted Places in Shanghai” , flowery blooms of Miyazaki films, and figures from Chinese myth history, such as Hua Mulan and Zhang Ailing. A Poetry Book Society Recommendation, this textured, vivid collection is difficult to put down. 

“During the seventh lunar month, when people here feed their hungry ghosts at dusk, I cut off pieces of my hair that still smelt of smoke. / Maybe there is a word for this. I knew it once.”

For the friend with a flair for the formally inventive.

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

RENDANG by Will Harris

Will Harris’ debut collection gathers different journeys through self-exploration, social interactions and family ties (from London to Indonesia), guiding the reader with an intimate voice and anecdotal casualness. Harris has an unusual talent to jump from passages marked by essayistic precision to moments of acute emotional depth. Marked by a tendency towards thoughtful reflection, RENDANG builds up its emotional intensity to open outwardly in the moments where the poems explore the speaker’s relationships with loved ones with generosity and vulnerability.

“Thoughtful as / moss or black coffee, or as the screen of a dead phone. That’s what eyes / look like when you really look at them. Inanimate. Moss, though, is / alive enough to harvest carbon dioxide, to grow.”

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

The Air Year by Caroline Bird

Caroline Bird is the poet we turn to when life feels listeless or shot through with hopelessness (so perhaps the ideal poet for this Covid year?). Her work is energetic, immediate, and charged with a truthfulness about love and desire that comes at you slant-wise, and often with a dose of dark humour. A worthy winner of this year’s Forward prize for best collection, The Air Year is a beautiful antidote to the perils of self-isolation, reminding its readers of what it means to be fully human in a difficult world. 

‘Our mouths midway / across the same / inhalation like robbers mid-leap between/rooftops.’

 

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

The Actual by Inua Ellams

The title of every poem in Inua Ellams’ first full collection opens with the word that’s been elegantly crossed out with golden foil in the book’s striking cover. Ellams’ poems start with the assertiveness of the word to then open up into a rich catalogue of emotions, showing he is as comfortable with subtlety as he is with strong statements. Navigating the personal and the political, the poet’s paragraphs, where verses are separated by slashes, play with rhythm to sometimes flow forward and sometimes arrest the act of reading when a moment of thought is required.

“I carry them into the water / I carry choir hymns and calls to prayer / I carry the body impaled / I carry its bleeding / I carry the moon the star and the black stone / I carry the pastor’s wandering hands and the Imam’s stiff visits”

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

Grand Union by Zadie Smith

The first ever collection of stories from the phenomenal novelist and essayist crosses genre and perspective and interweaves some of Smith’s best-known stories with eleven brand new ones. Nobody does it better.

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Gift Guide: Poetry and Short Stories of 2020

The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories, selected by Sinèad Gleeson

This anthology of Irish short stories selected by writer, editor and broadcaster Sinead Gleeson is radical in its revision of the Irish canon. Including both traditional stories with tales from the new generation of authors, this is an exciting insight into the Irish literature scene as it is today.

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