Best Books of 2020


Galina Rymbu | Life in Space (Translated by Joan Brooks)

To be political, poetry does not have to turn into advertising, advocate for parties or platforms. Poetry becomes political when it represents the world as having a nature that is not “natural,” but rather negotiated, an Indra’s net that is political, social, and economic; made up of contingencies, and having to do with power—mainly of people over people—which is buttressed by ideology first and coercion second. A poetry that represents the world as political is political. It is also secular. A poetry that represents the world as immutable is not political, even when the representation is a tragedy. In Rymbu’s poetry the political pervades all our sensations, all our words, and all our choices. It is immanent in them. (Eugene Ostashevsky)



Peter Weiss | The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 2 (Translated by Joel Scott)

From our first steps on French soil we were regarded as ejecta; the demobilized soldiers, the masses of refugees were driven into ringed fences of barbed wire, only a small number, with valid passports, were able to evade internment, and this was a hidden path out of a desert, a field of rubble. The expectation of a greeting, a welcome, a sign of solidarity had evaporated, there was no Popular Front here, only the gendarmerie received us, the only place we belonged was in the police archives; henceforth we were to report to the prefecture daily and hold out to be stamped the scrap of paper that signified our existence. I had always seen my path in front of me, made my decisions, even back then, deep in the underground and surrounded by fascism, I had been able to see a way out; only here, in the capital of openness, of enlightenment, were we forced into blindness.



Chris Nealon | The Shore

Then came fire / It wasn’t yet a new world, or the end of the old one / But water, money, feeling overspilled their banks / There was finally something real to be afraid of / There was finally no reason to fear / Even animals approached us as they hadn’t in ten thousand years / Buildings were either shelter or they weren’t / Music got quiet / And poetry— / Poetry began to ask the question it had hidden in the forest / Poetry returned to lists, enumeration, inventory / It chose sides / This was not the same as prophecy / Look around you now      and ask yourself / Which of these— / The innovators, profit-makers, the ones behind high walls, / The ones who are planning for the great catastrophes— / Or the ones with no ability to plan, / Who live from hour to hour, year to year, / In whom terror waits to be uncurdled, / Who live in the great wide world— / Which of these will be the victorious ones? / Nobody knows.



Mark Nowak | Social Poetics

Social Poetics documents the imaginative militancy and emergent solidarities of a new, insurgent working class poetry community rising up across the globe. Part autobiography, part literary criticism, part Marxist theory, Social Poetics presents a people’s history of the poetry workshop from the founding director of the Worker Writers School. Nowak illustrates not just what poetry means, but what it does to and for people outside traditional literary spaces, from taxi drivers to street vendors, and other workers of the world.



Red Love: A Reader on Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was a prominent Russian revolutionary, a commissar of Social Welfare after the October revolution in 1917, and a long-term Soviet ambassador to Sweden. As a cofounder of the Zhenotdel, the “Women’s Department” in the communist party, she introduced abortion rights, secularized marriage, and provided paid maternity leave. Kollontai considered “comradely love” to be an important political force, elemental in shaping social bonds beyond the limitations of property relations.
Red Love stems from a yearlong research by CuratorLab at Konstfack University together with Tensta konsthall, that led up to Dora García’s exhibition Red Love and its related public programing. A number of artists and thinkers revisit Kollontai’s ideas on the politics of love and their relation to current political, social, and feminist struggles. The publication also includes the biographical play Kollontai from 1977 by distinguished Swedish writer Agneta Pleijel.



F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry (Translated by  Eugene Ostashevsky, Ainsley Morse, Alex Karsavin, Helena Kernan, Kit Eginton, Valzhyna Mort, and Kevin M. F. Platt)

Feminist poetry? Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone talking about feminist poetry as an independent phenomenon in Russian literature, or even pronouncing this phrase without a pejorative or ironic inflection. But now we can state with confidence that the 2010s witnessed the arrival of feminist and LGBTQ+ culture in Russia, in which feminist poetry plays a critical role. A few poetesses, who identified as feminists, led the way at the turn of the twenty-first century—among them, Anna Alchuk and Marina Temkina—but they were exceptional figures in the literary landscape of their time. Now there are many, some of whom are featured in this anthology. (G.R.)



Don Mee Choi | DMZ Colony

Our vowels are incomprehensible. Only the consonants pass from hand to hand, colony to colony. We cheer, we weep. We are e. We are 이. We are eternally motherless. We are your orphans. We are your angels. We are your mirror words. What’s written on paper is obvious — See you at DMZ! 



Feminism and Art in Postwar Italy: The Legacy of Carla Lonzi (Edited by Francesco Ventrella and Giovanna Zapperi)

The eleven essays in this book document the artistic and feminist circles of postwar Italy, a time characterised both by radical protest and avant-garde aesthetics, using primary and archival sources never before translated into English. They map Lonzi’s deep connections to the influential Italian Arte Povera movement, and explore her complicated relationship with female artists of the time, such as Carla Accardi and Suzanne Santoro.
Carla Lonzi’s written work and activism represents a crucial, but previously overlooked, feminist intervention in traditional art history from beyond the Anglo-American canon.



Bernadette Mayer | Memory

Bernadette Mayer has called Memory “an emotional science project,” but it is far from confessional. Rather, this boldly experimental record follows the poet’s eye as she traverses early morning into night, as quotidian minutiae metamorphose into the lyrical, as her stream of consciousness becomes incantatory. The space of memory in Mayer’s work is hyper-precise but also evanescent and expansive. In both text and image, Mayer constructs the mercurial, fleeting consciousness of the present moment from which memory is—as she says—“always there, to be entered, like the world of dreams or an ongoing TV show.”



Fredric Jameson | The Benjamin Files

When he compares Baudelaire’s verses, for example, to the insurrections and coups d’état envisioned by Blanqui, what is at work is not a metaphor. Rather different from the elegant violence he admired in Baudelaire’s own phrasing—knife strokes so clean you do not even feel them until you notice the blood beginning to seep through the water—Benjamin’s comparison with Blanqui, which combines the two distant domains of the stylistic and the political in an arbitrary and willful gesture, can be felt to be an act in its own right, an intervention in the serene autonomy of the verses for which the current language of performativity or the speech act seems too academic and well-behaved. Brecht’s conception of the gestus is preferable, which subsumes the words under a more physical and situational unity; and as a critical act (or gestus in its own right), it demotes linguistics to a subordinate position under what Kenneth Burke would have called dramatistics. (F.J.)



Leslie Kaplan | Disorder (Translated by Jennifer Pap)

Disorder, disorder, disorder. // The country couldn’t go on this way. // In the end the guillotine was reinstated. // After it was reinstated, the first crime was the act of the President of the Republic who in a fit of omnipotence and prey to an “irresistible impulse” strangled his bodyguard. // Immunity was revoked. // The 21st of January was chosen as the date for the execution. // After the execution, order was immediately restored. // In fact the guillotine was abolished.



Cait O’Kane | A Brief History of Burning

It is not a crime to sweat. In sickness we wonder who will die, who  will sleep, who will wake up tied to a cot. Hearts break easily. These words are not y/rs but come from their dust the color of bricks through the windows of an HMO. The color of good veins. The color of my useless state insurance card. If you’da visited my city I woulda shown you the museum of the American Revolution which is my favorite place to spit. I woulda asked will you sign my Access card. Now I only want to know will you tell my beloved hi.



Mario Tronti | The Weapon of Organization (Translated by Andrew Anastasi)

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have long acknowledged the influence of Tronti on their thinking, drawing especially on his inversion of strategy and tactics in their influential collaborations. Tronti’s work in the 1960s also furnished important building blocks for a Marxist feminist critique of unwaged labor—as developed by Mariarosa dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, and many others working on social reproduction theory—as Tronti showed how capitalist control extends beyond the factory to all of society. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have echoed Tronti’s calls for a radical antagonism “within and against” institutions and the state.
The Weapon of Organization is a crucial introduction to Tronti, presenting a variety of never-before-translated texts—personal letters, public talks, published articles. With an incisive and provocative introduction that situates Tronti and highlights his relevance to contemporary political struggle, Anastasi translates and restores key writing from the birth of Italian operaismo—days of street fighting and theorizing for a renewed age of revolution. Tronti’s goal, Anastasi writes, was not to become a revered thinker but to participate in the destruction of capitalist society.



Miyó Vestrini | French Unpublished Poems & Facsimile 1958-1960, by Miyó Vestrini, translated by Patrick Durgin, edited, designed and printed by Faride Mereb

Miyó Vestrini was born in France, 1938, emigrated to Venezuela at the age of 9, and at eighteen she joined Apocalipsis (Apocalypse), the only woman to do so in the then male-dominated scene of the Venezuelan avant-garde.

Critics have called Miyó Vestrini the poet of “militant death.” Vestrini is known, too, as the Sylvia Plath of Venezuela, but if she is a Plath, we think she is one who would have set Ted Hughes on fire.  And if Vestrini is a confessional poet, what she is confessing is not a set of personal problems: it is a fatal disappointment with the world at large. Her work is less a self-exposure than a set of  incantations. (Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig)



David Graeber | Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking
Conversations with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman

I remember being very impressed as a teenager when I read somewhere that if you look at the very early 20th century in countries like Spain or Italy, where half of the labor unions were anarchists and half were socialist, the biggest difference was that the socialist demands always focused on more wages and the anarchist, on less hours. One was saying “We want a consumer society for everyone, but we want a bigger share (oh yes and we also want it to be self managed)”; the other wanted out of the system entirely.



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