Six must-have poetry books published in 2020

Six must-have poetry books published in 2020

Keeping Count by M Travis Lane

Acclaimed New Brunswick poet M Travis Lane follows up on her 2019 collection A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl (Palimpsest Press) with Keeping Count, a book published late this summer. In clear, witty lyrics, Lane turns her attention to the natural world and to an experience of isolation borne not of a pandemic but of old age. My favourite poem in this collection is “For Ruth,” which brings into soft focus the weight of the everyday: “Days cluster, days clutter – they open, shut, / heap on the bed like feather quilts. / I can nest in them –”

Black Matters by Afua Cooper     

Outgoing Halifax Poet Laureate Afua Cooper published her sixth poetry collection with Nova Scotia’s Roseway Publishing this fall. Accompanied by photographs by German artist Wilfried Russert, the poems in Black Matters centre the diversity of Black experience, spanning continents and centuries. Cooper’s work as an historian is felt in these pages, with poems like “Jupiter Wise” calling attention to the history of the transatlantic slave trade in Canada, while other pieces centre beauty and joy. My favourite poem, “Live With You in a House by the River,” lays gentle claim to enduring love, pairing a scene of contemporary romance with ancient reference: “I love you like Belqis love Suleyman / My love, come recline with me / round my belly with generations of your children.”


Anthesis: A Memoir, the seventh poetry book by incoming Halifax Poet Laureate Sue Goyette, was published with Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press this spring. This collection is a re-writing of Goyette’s only novel, Lures (Harper Collins, 2002), which was shortlisted for the 2003 Thomas Head Raddall Award. A book-length poem written in prose sections, Anthesis captures the feeling and movement of its source text while abandoning the narrative structure in favour of a more liberated form. Rhythmic and haunting, this new collection addresses the ineffable horror of childhood trauma and its aftermath in surprising and evocative metaphoric language.

The Knowing Animals by Emily Skov-Nielsen

The blown-out image on the cover of Emily Skov-Nielsen’s The Knowing Animals, designed by Halifax-based artist Emma Allain, mirrors the heat and wildness found within. Tactile, dense and unrelenting, these poems examine sex, gender, ecology, reproduction, disease, decay and violence—and the myriad ways these categories overlap—through the eyes of a central speaker, who fixes her attention on “the ghoulish, / ambient dim of incubation.” Published this fall, The Knowing Animals is the debut collection by the Fredericton-based Skov-Nielsen. I look forward to reading more from her.

Waking Ground by shalan joudry

Storyteller, ecologist and artist shalan joudry launched her second collection of poetry with Gaspereau Press in early October. Anchored in a keen awareness of colonial history and the fragility of our surviving ecosystems, the poems in Waking Ground are layered in their use of sensory details and lyric introspection. joudry incorporates Mi’kmaw into her English-language poetry, sometimes using individual words, sometimes composing entire poems in the Indigenous language alongside English translations. My favourite poem in the book, “Sipu’l” (“Rivers”), responds to an epigraph from acclaimed Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe, creating the sense of an ongoing conversation across generations.


A House in Memory: Last Poems by David Helwig


“Time; does it demand analysis?” inquires the speaker at the start of A House in Memory, a collection of David Helwig’s unpublished poetry. It’s a fitting question for this contemplative book, which contains a section of work composed in Helwig’s final years. Presented with an introduction by his daughter, Maggie Helwig, who’s also a writer, these poems explore history, memory, and mortality, as well as family life, beauty and the landscape of PEI, Helwig’s adopted province. Musical and rife with literary and artistic reference, A House in Memory is a fitting homage to the late poet’s impressive career.

--Annick MacAskill is a writer, poet and critic based in Halifax. She is the author of Murmurations and No Meeting Without Body, as well as a chapbook, Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos.

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