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Best poetry books of 2020: New discoveries and final gifts

Martina Evans and Seán Hewitt share their favourite collections of the year

Martina Evans: Grief and wicked enchantment

Grief, never far from poetry, was an integral part of the truly terrific books of 2020. Poems written before Covid became chillingly prescient, as if poets had known what was coming.

The hard-working, real and mythological horses of Moyra Donaldson's fierce book of grief, Carnivorous (Doire), have stayed with me since January. Native American Natalie Diaz's Post-Colonial Love Poem (Faber & Faber) was exceptional – a joyous, tough, tour de force heralding the issues of race that were to become unavoidable this year.

Terrance Hayes did fine justice to his mentor, the African-American poet Wanda Coleman, editing her selected poems for Black Sparrow Press – Wicked Enchantment showcases one of the most exciting, original, deliciously dangerous voices of the 20th century. Everything Coleman said about race from the '60s until her death in 2013 is still true, still pressing.

Colette Bryce surpassed herself in The  M Pages (Picador), a striking, original memorial to her sister, "M". Bryce's lyrics, dazzlingly dark as ever, evoke a tremendous sense of our period and what it is to mourn in the 21st century. Rita-Ann Higgins's Every Pathogen Loves a Patsy (Salmon) riffed spectacularly alongside the pandemic as it unrolled while Julie O'Callaghan's heart-rent grief delivered her deep inimitable surprises in Magnum Mysterium (Bloodaxe).


In Shadow of the Owl (Bloodaxe), Matthew Sweeney's dark fabulism takes his readers right up the mouth of death: "Golly, a nice man wants to put a tube/ into my stomach, and his colleagues/ are pleading with me to simply let him". Sweeney has never been so funny, the darkness never so seductive and terrifying as here in the stream of poems that poured out between his diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease in 2017 and his death ten months later.

Newcomer Rachel Long's My Darling from the Lions favours the surreal too, her original funny British voice haunted by her mother's rich storytelling Nigerian background has more than a little "wicked enchantment". Leeanne Quinn's second collection, Some Lives (Dedalus), was worth the wait. Her voice has leaped in the eight years interim, still lyrical, delicate yet strong – but even more muscular with a new narrative drive highlighted in the terrific long title poem.

The late Eavan Boland's last collection, The Historians (Carcanet), covers her old familiar ground – women's lives, Irish history  – with an ethereal grace so fresh it could have been for the first time. Her Broken, shocking in its vatic sense, "I looked down and saw my face there/Underwater, broken", is strongly reminiscent of Cocteau's Orpheus – true heart-breaking poetry.

Cocteau also comes to mind in the stunning forests of Seán Hewitt's dream-like Tongues of Fire, while John McAuliffe's The Kabul Olympics erupted in shiveringly prophetic, place-driven, history-driven poems. Finally and absolutely not to be missed for any lover of Irish poetry: from Gallery, Dedalus and Carcanet come three comprehensive retrospective collections by our finest poets: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Collected Poems, Paula Meehan's As if By Magic: Selected Poems and Sinéad Morrissey's Found Architecture: Selected Poems (Carcanet).

Seán Hewitt: Reminders of how rich and varied poetry is

Looking back over 2020, I am most grateful for a number of new discoveries which reminded me just how rich and varied the world of poetry is. One of the stand-out collections, for me, was Eamon Grennan's Plainchant (Gallery), which use prose forms to move skilfully between the understated and the sacred. I still remember Grennan's image of a lark: "long silver ribbons of song the bird/ braids as if binding lit air to earth".

Bhanu Kapil's How to Wash a Heart was another stand-out collection of 2020. It's a book that reveals itself over multiple readings. In this brilliant and complex long poem, Kapil explores the difficult, complex relationship between an immigrant "guest" and a citizen "host": the result is a vibrant poem that manages to be both exacting and tender.

Like Kapil's book, Wayne Holloway-Smith's second collection, Love Minus Love (Bloodaxe), is a stunning long poem (or poem-sequence). Holloway-Smith images can be surreal, nightmarish, traumatic and hilarious. Best of all, among the book's heart-rending honesty, he is relentless inventive and surprises the reader, catching us off-guard.

Danez Smith's Homie (Chatto) showed once again that Smith is a powerful and intimate poet of the body, delivering work that is a bracing blend of the elegy and the rallying-cry. Caleb Femi's anthemic debut, Poor (Penguin), gives mythic resonance to a Peckham estate. Cut through with original photography, these poems are vital, confronting and electric, energised by the deep music of protest and grief. Another brilliant debut, Romalyn Ante's Antiemetic for Homesickness (Chatto) is by turns playful and tender, offering a formally-various exploration of migration, community, and nursing. As in Femi's book, there is honesty, musicality, a powerful heart, and a brave disinterest in irony.

Kerrie Hardie's Where Now Begins (Bloodaxe) is full of a dark, exact lyricism. The beautiful lyrics circle around absences, pulsing with metaphysical contemplation. John McAuliffe's The Kabul Olympics (Gallery) was another favourite: the book opens on a drive through Germany, and is full of turns and sudden expanses, carefully balancing the personal and the public to great effect.

New Irish poets who published pamphlets this year, including Audrey Molloy's Satyress (Southword) and Róisín Tierney's Mock-Orange (Rack Press), prove that poetry is in very safe hands. Alongside the new, many titans of Irish poetry released stunning collections this year. Sinéad Morrissey's Found Architecture: Selected Poems (Carcanet) gives us the chance to revisit the work of one of our best poets. In Michael Longley's The Candlelight Master (Cape), the poet himself returns to his earlier works and themes in a reflective and elegiac collection.

Eavan Boland left us a final gift in The Historians (Carcanet). At the end of a difficult year, in which many of us have suffered loss, loneliness and anxiety, Boland still shines in her absence. A metaphor from The Fire Gilder might be extended to her life, and to our own. She sought to "burn, burn, burn mercury/ until it fled and left behind/ a skin of light".