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10 December 2022

The best poetry books of 2022

Five exceptional collections published this year.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Faber & Faber, 104pp, £10.99

The NS’s top poetry pick for 2022 is Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s debut collection, which is nominated for the TS Eliot Prize. In it, Bulley explores silence as a means of resistance, examines ideas of black interiority, and wonders how far one needs to let others “in” in order to be understood. She movingly renders these ideas in a letter to “little b”: “some might say you should be louder, bolder, tall./uppercase & camera-ready. but little b, you’re weary,/aren’t you, of being counted in the wrong kinds of ways”. In between sit Bulley’s affecting depictions of everyday moments: Essex schooldays; watching, from an inner-city train, as light “spills from the frame” of a skyscraper; “a streetlamp turning on at/dusk just as you pass it walking home”.

Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong
Jonathan Cape, 112pp, £14.99

“Dear Rose”, a poem written in memory of his mother, is the emotional centrepoint to Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poetry, which follows the TS Eliot Prize-winning Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) and a novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). It threads together many of the motifs that occurred in those earlier works – stories of Vuong’s Vietnamese family’s migration to the US; his father’s abandonment of them; the intense love Vuong, a university professor and MacArthur fellow, feels for his illiterate mother. Elsewhere he wonders how to tell stories truthfully – both to a mother who cannot read, and to a reader who cannot know the extent of his personal trauma, and what it means to be a Vietnamese-American living in the US. “Where was I going/with this? Right –” he writes in “American Legend”, in which the narrator imagines crashing his car in an attempt to get physically closer to his father. It is intimacy that Vuong seeks – at all costs.

Unexhausted Time by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 88pp, £10.99

An otherworldliness haunts Emily Berry’s brilliant third collection. There are the obvious signs of the absurd – such as a narrator who eats an old woman’s lower lip off a plate – and poems that are ridiculous because of their extreme banality: how it feels to find yourself walking down the street at just the same pace as a stranger; a tale of a man who avoids his therapist in public because he does not want to be seen with a person wearing “embarrassing” shoes. Berry’s style is matter-of-fact yet spritely, always poking fun at the reader’s assumption that they will ever totally understand what’s going on. “What more can I tell you?/Oh, everything”, she teases in “No Name”. And of course this knack for frivolity makes the serious moments all the more profound. In “Empty”, a friend tells the narrator that she is pregnant, but will die when the child is born – could they meet up before then? “I thought of my/own womb hanging empty inside me/and was pierced with joy. I’m so sorry, I said,/I’m busy.” 

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Heritage Aesthetics by Anthony Anaxagorou
Granta, 104pp, £10.99

In his second collection, the British-born Cypriot poet cleverly navigates the impact of colonial history on contemporary Britain. State violence, a fascination with boats, and the voices of military men abound, and there’s a real tenderness to the way Anaxagorou combines the personal and the political. In “My Weapons are Working People”, he asks of his father: “What would I add if I could hold him the/way I do these words on a placard”? In “Let Me Say this Again the Way I Mean it”, the narrator is approached by charity workers collecting money to end child poverty: “I’ve been overthinking the silence/between the moment a baby falls/& the second it cries out for help”. Anaxagorou’s approach is scholarly – there is evident archival research at work here, every other poem likely to set you off on a deep Wikipedia trawl – but he wears it lightly, writing in an enticingly warm, conversational tone.

All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran
Penguin, 112pp, £12.99

Paul Tran’s virtuosic debut collection is an act of reimagining. In inventive forms, they remember their experiences of rape and abuse, and chart the ways in which they have built a way out. The Vietnamese-American poet looks to the stories of resilient historic and fictive characters such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Scheherazade, finding inspiration that they twist and remould for the modern day. They investigate their trans identity, imagining they were created by a “Master”: “He held me so close/I forgot I was a body. I became his body/of work.” The love becomes obsession, and then compulsion, as Tran recalls the many men – other masters, “gods”, perpetrators of abuse – they found themself attracted to. At first, language hinders progress, but with time it becomes freeing. As they write in “Endosymbiosis”, “I had to/imagine/the double ll/not as two walls/closing in,/two bodies side by side/in a twin bed,/… but a road/through.”

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Explore our other 2022 book round-ups:

Books of the year 2022

Picture books of the year

The best children’s books of 2022

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