In Review

First Gifts: Reflections on Debut Poetry
Karen An-hwei Lee

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” wrote the poet Williams Carlos Williams in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower.” This past year, invited to share a list of my favorite debut collections of poetry, I revisited my own shelves to discover, like Williams, what is found there. Fortunately, I found plenty and won’t languish from reading only the news.

Issued over the past several decades up to this year, the debuts appeared on my shelves in one way or another—acquired at book festivals, purchased at independent bookstores, exchanged as gifts, circulated at readings, encompassed by selected and collected volumes, or mailed to my post box as surprises.

On a Saturday afternoon, I drew up a long-list of ninety books, winnowed, then singled out nine standouts. What are the criteria for a dazzling poetry debut? 

In addition to an aesthetically distinctive voice, a virtuosic range of technique, a coherent vision, and a clear arc, there are intangible qualities that make a debut sing. Fluid or fragmentary, seamless, or passionate, it dazzles by transcending the scaffolding of exercise or the geometry of craft. The poets include those dark horses like Emily Dickinson, roaming beyond the status quo, writing beyond the safety of convention, and overlooked by critics until generations later.

On hindsight, I did not evaluate each debut with a calibrated rubric in one hand and a feather duster in the other. (The more dust, the less likely I’d read the book recently.) The books I chose display a range of aesthetics, whether figurative or linguistically innovative, devotional or de-colonial in poetics.

Collectively, there exists a shared belief in the good labor of poetry, and ultimately, an awareness beyond the individual: of God, our spiritual journeys, a space for diverse voices, or all of the above.

In chronological order my selections are:

The Double Image (1946) by Denise Levertov
Once (1968) by Alice Walker
Songs: A Book of Poems (1969) by Alicia Ostriker
O and other poems (1976) by Leslie Scalapino
Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979) by Jimmy Santiago Baca
What Moon Drove Me To This (1979) by Joy Harjo
Emplumada (1982) by Lorna Dee Cervantes
Under Flag (1991) by Myung Mi Kim
The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems (2013) edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner.

To echo Gwendolyn Brooks, in all these works, “Poetry is life distilled”—lyric, fragmentary, angry or in love, all of it electric.

Each one of these debuts would eventually witness the powerful impact of one writer’s pen-to-page on generations of poets in certain schools or movements. The books embody transformations of human experiences or identity through encounters with the invisible greater than ourselves, or silences fragmented by distilled utterances.

Language itself as a site of power in Myung Mi Kim’s poem “And Sing We” from Under Flag, Kim’s exquisite deconstruction of empire in its third printing from Kelsey St. Press:

Must it ring so true

So we must sing it

To span even yawning distance

And would we be near then

What would the sea be, if we were near it


It catches its underside and drags it back

What sound do we make, “n”, “h”, “g”

Speak and it is sound in time

Joy Harjo’s refrain, “I am a dangerous woman,” echoes the poem’s title, and in that repetition I cannot help thinking of Kafka’s observation, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Consider these lines:

I am a dangerous woman,

but the weapon is not visible.

Security will never find it.

They can’t hear the clicking

of the gun inside my head.

Despite the hardships of literary publishing in this economy, the out-of-print poetic debuts by Denise Levertov and Joy Harjo survive in volumes of their selected poems under the umbrellas of New Directions and W. W. Norton, respectively. It’s sad to see debuts by such influential women out of print; on the other hand, it’s heartening to see our intrepid literary publishers embrace poetry originally issued by I. Reed Books (yes, the Ishmael Reed) and Cresset Press, once based in London.

Alice Walker’s tender yet tough Once, ranging through her travels in Africa, a girlhood in the rural South, and perspectives as a young black “womanist,” was ushered into the editorial offices of Harcourt Brace by Walker’s mentor, Muriel Rukeyser.

Composed in the idiom of Walker’s early 1960s activism, these poems on racial strife and domestic violence anticipate Walker’s career as a womanist and African American visionary, oblique yet transparently layered in “ballad of the brown girl” and “South: The Name of Home,” the latter excerpted here:

all that night

I prayed for eyes to see again

whose last sight

had been

a broken bottle

held negligently

in a racist


God give us trees to plant

and hands and eyes to

love them.

Next, it’s wonderful to see Lorna Dee Cervantes’s dynamite Emplumada—Chicana poeta of code-switching lyric intensity—in perpetual print at University of Pittsburgh:

“Albaricoqueroes, cerezos, nogales… / Viejitas come here with paper bags to gather greens. / Espinaca, verdolagas, yerbabuena…”

As displayed in Cervantes’s epigraph, Emplumada is a portmanteau of the Spanish words, “emplumado” and “plumada,” reflecting the flights of language, tongue, and soul in her eponymous debut:

em * plu * ma * dov.m., feathered;

in plumage, as in after molting

plu * ma * dan.f., pen flourish

This year, I acquired a treasured first edition of Alicia Ostriker’s Songs: A Book of Poems, a lustrous trove of free verse on Jewish identity and womanhood. Poems such as “The Rose Song,” “The Girl’s Song,” or “Amy Thirteen” (quoted below) echo the lyric imagery of the Old Testament Song of Songs mingled with a modernist sensibility:

Sister, we love each other

From afar, like birds:

You a little skittish sparrow

And I an ostrich, or a pedant penguin,

I bring you book-talk

Like laying fish at your feet

Meaning all that while

To say don’t fear me, child.

Language useless between us…

Emily Dickinson’s posthumous debut, Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890), championed by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Amherst family friend Mabel Loomis Todd, infamously standardized Dickinson’s syntax and punctuation. But when speaking of first books, there is also a question of editions.

One can consider Dickinson’s first complete volume published in 1924 as an elegant debut, then her first volume of envelope poems The Gorgeous Nothings, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, yet another first book of sorts, which I have included in my debut list.

A scholarly monograph, primary text, and beautiful art-object, The Gorgeous Nothings is a collaboration between poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (The Dickinson Fascicles), the Dickinson scholar, Marta Werner, and the poet Susan Howe.

This marvelous collection of envelope poems, composed in Dickinson’s looped, arcaded script on fifty-two envelope scraps, presents full-color facsimiles and meticulous transcriptions, all ingeniously indexed according to each envelope’s traits, i.e. shapes (“arrow”), textual characteristics, or even mailing address.

Take, for instance, A252, written on the triangular flap of an envelope.

In   this    short   life

 that only  lasts  an hour


   How much –   how

     little –   is

       within our


Torn open, flattened, split at the seams, or monogrammed by the Western Union Telegraph Company, the envelopes offer a rare window into the visual and spatial dimensions of Dickinson’s approach to writing poetry, almost calligrammic in quality as if word-sculpting, word-sewing, or word-painting.

(And what about Dickinson’s cherrywood chest of fascicles as a private debut with an audience of two, herself and God? “Some keep the Sabbath going to church / I keep it staying at home.”)

For other celebrated poets, their luminous first books would be nearly invisible to the millennial reading public without digital archives. Leslie Scalapino’s eloquent O and other poems, an example of the innovative language-based poetics of the Bay Area dedicated to Virginia Woolf, was originally released by Jack Shoemaker’s former Sand Dollar Press in Berkeley. Today, O and other poems is digitally archived at SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center.


Whether my arms floated on the surface of the water

of the swimming pool

or beat

slowly back to my side,

I always

uttered the same O, delivered in a monotone, each O

having the same value,

O, I said after a regular interval. Then O. O.

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s rugged and expressive Immigrants in Our Own Land, first published by Louisiana State University Press, survives as an expanded edition issued in 1990 by New Directions. The rigorous, imagery-laden poems—resonant in tenor and vehicle—reflect the influence of Denise Levertov, with whom he corresponded while he was incarcerated in a maximum-security prison.

Sleeping Convicts in the Cellblock

They dream the sun rising above carved cliffs,

Dawn’s transparent nets of mist

Float over the stone,

And stars breathe their last dim flames

Into the crystal pure air of twilight.

The whole prison is asleep.

A lone songbird alights on the windowsill

With outspread wings,

In a beautiful halo of widening dawnlight;

When the clang and grind of steel doors is silent,

It sings to the new day,

Its wings beckoning for flight. Its wings flap,

From the high rafters,

As it swoops out a broken window.

As Levertov notes, “The poet is in labor.”

What are your favorite poetry debuts? What is the nature of their survival?

Favorites turn with the tide of aesthetic norms. These lists are certainly not exhaustive, and such lists are often starting points for further dialogue.

For instance, we could seek out debuts in tongues lesser known to Western readerships, those poets writing not only in Anglophone dialects but non-English languages, i.e. the polyglot global voices—like Vera Pavlova, whose If There Is Something To Desire (2012) is her English debut-in-translation, a collaborative project with her late husband—and those global poets whose first collections are not yet translated into English at all.

Let us reflect on these questions as we stay vigilant, ever on the lookout for poets with dazzle.

The more poetry we share in our kitchens and classrooms, the less likely we’ll swoon from the news.

* * *

Karen An-hwei Lee authored three poetry collections and two chapbooks, most recently, What the Sea Earns for the Living (Quaci 2014) and Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012). Lee’s work appears in literary journals such as Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Journal of Feminist Studies & Religion, Iowa Review, and American Poet, and was recognized by the Prairie Schooner / Glenna Luschei Award. Recipient of an NEA Fellowship, Lee currently serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from the Program in Literary Arts at Brown University and a PhD in British & American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley.