2020 in Review
The New Yorker’s Year in Poetry
By Hannah Aizenman
December 28, 2020
Illustration by Min Heo
“Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes,” Ada Limón declares, in “The End of Poetry”—a fitting poem to mark a year that words largely seemed to fail. For all the coinages and clichés that have proliferated in these uncertain times—“social distance,” “flatten the curve,” “an abundance of caution”—what combination of letters could truly describe, much less mitigate, the grief and absurdity that 2020 hath wrought? “Enough of the will to go on and not go on or how / a certain light does a certain thing,” Limón laments, exasperated by the lyric’s simultaneous overabundance and insufficiency, its inability—or refusal—to reach beyond itself. Yet even after “enough of pointing to the world, weary / and desperate,” after “enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,” there remains an inextinguishable need, a spark of yearning that returns us to a purpose, a point of origin, the other end of poetry: “I am asking you to touch me.”
The poetry that The New Yorker published in 2020 reflects a year of unprecedented challenges and calls for long-overdue societal change. Many poets responded directly to current events, capturing the pervasive sense of precariousness, isolation, and loss that descended with covid-19, and joining their voices to the mass civil-rights uprisings that ignited amid the pandemic’s ravages. But poetry can speak beyond the present moment, as well as to it; whether topical or not, these poems insist on language as a renewable source of resilience, ingenuity, and human connection.
2020 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.
Along with offerings from widely beloved writers such as Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Margaret Atwood, and Yusef Komunyakaa, we welcomed several first-time contributors to our pages, including Camille Rankine, Maggie Smith, Saeed Jones, Nicholas Goodly, and Kim Addonizio. We presented a new poem by Louise Glück, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. We featured translations of poems originally written in Chinese, by Yi Lei (translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi); in Polish, by Tadeusz Dąbrowski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones); and in Basque, by Kirmen Uribe (translated by Elizabeth Macklin). And we published two poems by the late Irish poet Eavan Boland, whose “Eviction” (which, coincidentally, appeared in print on the day of Boland’s death) is a trenchant, timely tribute to the particular lives and struggles that are too often effaced from official narratives of history.
A glance at our year in poetry follows; to read these poems in full, and to find many others, visit the complete poetry archive.
From the Catalogue of Cruelty,” by Donika Kelly (January 6th)
Once, I slapped my sister with the back of my hand.
We were so small, but I wanted to know
how it felt: my hand raised high across
the opposite shoulder, slicing down like a trapeze.
Her face caught my hand. I’d slapped her in our
yellow room with circus animals
on the curtains. I don’t remember
how it felt. I was a rough child.
The Body,” by D. Nurkse (January 13th)
Before we were born
we found ways not to exist,
happily, playfully,
thriving on no-fish
a billion billion years
before the universe exploded.
No one missed us,
we didn’t miss ourselves.
There was no absence.
Pregrets,” by Anselm Berrigan (January 27th)
I spent a certain amount of cash at Forbidden Planet
Tower Records, the corner store on 9th & 1st, southeast
corner, the corner store on 9th & 1st southwest corner
the corner store on 7th & 1st, northwest corner, the
candy shop on 1st between 7th & 8th with the Mr. Do!
standup video game, the pizza parlor on St. Marks &
A, southwest corner with Moon Patrol, the candy shoppe
on A between 8th & 9th with Double Dragon . . .
March 3,” by Eileen Myles (March 9th)
The quick
exchange
of emails
between
the former
lovers creates
a soft hole
in the day
and the
night
before.
Shelter,” by José Antonio Rodríguez (April 6th)
I was already a grad student in upstate New York
And down in South Texas for the winter break
Between semesters of reading Adichie and Alexie
And risking words together to find something
Like the point of this, some search for the reason
For the speaker’s love of poems, that pull
Of the written word as artifact, as a kind of tool
Against the sometimes overwhelming sadness about all of it—
Transpirations,” by Arthur Sze (April 13th)
you ride the surge into summer—
smell of piñon crackling in the fireplace—
blued notes of a saxophone in the air—
not by sand running through an hourglass but by our bodies igniting—
passing in the form of vapors from a living body—
this world of orange sunlight and wildfire haze—
At the Ruins of Yankee Stadium,” by Campbell McGrath (April 27th)
I remember the parties we used to throw on Jane Street,
shots of tequila and De La Soul on the tape deck, everyone
dancing, everyone young and vibrant and vivacious—
decades later we discovered a forgotten videotape
and our sons, watching with bemused alarm, blurted out,
Mom, you were so beautiful! She was. We all were,
everyone except the city. The city was a wreck and then
it was a renovation project and now it is a playground of privilege
and soon it will be something else, liquid as a dream.
The Fire Gilder,” by Eavan Boland (May 11th)
My subject is the part wishing plays in
the way villages are made
to vanish, in the way I learned
to separate memory from knowledge,
so one was volatile, one was not
and how I started writing,
burning light,
building heat until all at once
I was the fire gilder
ready to lay radiance down  . . .
Our Days,” by Rae Armantrout (May 18th)
They say they’ve come
to establish order,
but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.
Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—
close enough to spread a virus.
In Quarantine, I Reflect on the Death of Ophelia,” by Elisa Gonzalez (May 25th)
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Time to stay indoors, the doctor says, all the doctors say,
but the open window betrays that not everyone’s voice dies to solitude.
Shut up, shut up! the window slams.
Time to embrace the virtues of boredom, the price of happiness again, after.
The window shows men digging a place for survivors of the future, the rich ones.
It will be a condo tower, glass walls for better envy.
They’ve built the frames, I see, around the holes where doors will someday go.
Capitalism! So full of holes and hope.
Pastoral,” by Melissa Ginsburg (June 8th)
I was unincorporated
I was without a body
I was lots
Not lots yet parcels
I was ground
Where the pipes will go
I was shrubs I was
Brush and the space
Between shacks I lacked
Governance  . . .
George Floyd,” by Terrance Hayes (June 22nd)
You can be a bother who dyes
his hair Dennis Rodman blue
in the face of the man kneeling in blue
in the face the music of his wrist-
watch your mouth is little more
than a door being knocked
out of the ring of fire around
the afternoon came evening’s bell
of the ball and chain around the neck
of the unarmed brother  . . .
Pigeon and Hawk,” by Marilyn Nelson (June 22nd)
October. Evenings were getting cool.
The walk over the bridge downtown
felt dangerously long when it was dark.
Did the young man who offered me a ride
tell me his name? What was it about him
that made me say Yes thanks, like a damn fool?
When we were in his car and he said oops,
he had forgotten something at his place
he had to pick up, and asked if I’d mind
if we stopped there, why did I say O.K.?
The Field,” by Rick Barot (July 20th)
The field is askew with untended grass, except where
they have flattened it. Have they been here the full length
of the night, or just the previous hour?
Who are they for whom the grass is a bed? Who are those others,
elsewhere, sleeping in the open back of a truck,
or on the ground behind a guarded fence?
I am walking in the countryside, so maybe they are people of myth.
Or they are people of a labor I know nothing about.
We Are Gone,” David Baker (August 3rd)
Where are you gone, who loved me so long
one summer far from home? Days are long.
Even the heat is lovelier there, as memory is.
We make lemonade from powder. Little wonder
the years are less than a breath, like a song
on the radio heard as the rhythm of languor.
Ode to Patrick Kearns, Funeral Director of the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home, in Queens,” by Diane Mehta (August 24th)
By blood we go into the fabric of what once felt hymnal at worst;
we are tuned to higher pitches now, in languages invented,
not imagined rites of spring but last rites in strange establishments.
Trucks collect the dead and roll uptown to bury in a potter’s field
corpses we knew, and loved, their long solemn graves
together, better here than bodies shelved or stacks of flesh
shipped out of state to cremate or left to rot.
To Antigone, a Dispatch,” by Valzhyna Mort (August 31st)
Antigone, dead siblings
are set. As for the living,
pick me for a sister.
I, too, love a proper funeral.
Drag, Dig, and Sisters’ Pop-Up Burial.
Landlady,
I make the rounds of graves
keeping up my family’s
topnotch properties.
“​Rauschenberg​,” by Maya Phillips (September 21st)
Our first concern might be did the artist consider the impossibility of defining
nothing without speaking of absence without speaking
The white paint of the artist carefully selected and applied so as to seem
an uncreased space unwrinkled unnippled a whatever indefinite nondescript discreet
But even without a mouth without figure or form or face the canvas if it were to speak
as we the viewers imagine would it not speak of powdered sugar and cocaine,
chalk, marshmallows, and salt
and even that a betrayal of substance
Would it not privately murmur something about the white simmer of stars
Would it not speak of something not nothing would it not
Spoiler,” by Hala Alyan (September 28th)
I imagine it like a beach. There is a magnificent sand castle
that has taken years to build. A row of pink seashells for gables,
rooms of pebble and driftwood. This is your life. Then comes the affair,
nagging bloodwork, a freeway pileup. The tide moves in.
The water eats your work like a drove of wild birds. There is debris.
I Sit Outside in Low Late-Afternoon Light to Feel Earth Call to Me,” by Tracy K. Smith (October 5th)
Is the world intended for me? Not just me but
the we that fills me? Our shadows reel and dart.
Our blood simmers, stirred back. What if
the world has never had—will never have—our backs?
The world has never had—will never have—our backs.
Our blood simmers, stirred back. What if
the we that fills me, our shadows real and dark,
is the world intended for me?
The Great Beauty,” by Toi Derricotte (November 2nd)
In the movie, flamingos migrate over Rome and rest
overnight on the terrace of Jep Gambardella, so that,
in the rose light of dawn, he walks out to find his saintly
old guest, Sister Maria, meditating among a flamboyance—
a hundred stand on pink stilt-like legs with roseate plumes
and beaks sturdy as lobster crackers. Some rest on one leg
or sit with legs tucked under them; some halfheartedly peck
at stone—as if they might find bread crumbs from last night’s party.
Mt. Rushmore,” by Clarence Major (November 9th)
George gazes into an endless distance.
Tom’s sight is set high, bravely staring down the light.
Teddy’s in sombre introspection
and Abe’s in a trance.
Is George daydreaming his youth at Popes Creek
or age eleven getting his first slave,
a man called Trumbull, or is George daydreaming
the comforts of Mount Vernon
or the future of America?
Spumante,” by Colin Channer (November 16th)
I know what it’s like to be mammal
filled with deepest ocean sounds:
oblivion, solitude, stillness
intermitted by quake roar,
tectonic slipping, lava fissures,
ship propellers drilling,
the human croons of whales.
There is slave in me, fat heritage,
no fluke I’m invested with hurt,
echo of the hunted, located, natural
rights redacted, meagered to resource.
Betye Saar’s ‘Mystic Chart for an Unemployed Sorceress’,” by Patricia Spears Jones (November 30th)
It is a wonder that I worked as long as I could. Incantations
Memorized and recipes for spells written in an ink too pale
For visibility—each item sourced, the medicine worked and then
It did not. Was it the well of stories drying up? The fish scales
Stinking the kitchen table. The cat wandering away, while
Spiders spread their cosmic maps unreadable to all but
The other spiders. They cheer me. Again, I read the signs.
Winter Song for One Who Suffers,” by Brenda Hillman (December 7th)
The stars stand up
behind the day. A known dove balances
on its claw
at the window. A cosmic incident
of darkness has begun
   & a mild excess of beauty
  will be offered to the dead,
 which they will eat.
2020 in Review
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