The year began with Joelle Taylor’s C+nto & Othered Poems (Westbourne) winning the TS Eliot prize. This powerful account of butch lesbian communities is a vital read, with a striking insistence on claiming the physical space of club and bar as a way to unpick the damage done by a hostile world; where sanctuary can be found, repair can begin. Taylor’s language, at once gaudy and deadly, is driven by “the sound belonging makes”.
Emily Berry’s third collection, Unexhausted Time (Faber), is a series of philosophical fragments that read as an aubade in the truest sense, evoking the dreamlike quality of waking at dawn: “There is no other life, but there are so / many lives … Thank you / for rescuing me with your words.” Forward prize-shortlisted The Illustrated Woman by Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus) focuses on the ramifications of the male gaze, including the violation of pornographic “deepfakes”. Mort’s language is visceral, holding space for the complexities of experiencing pain.
One of the year’s best debuts, Yomi Sode’s Manorism (Penguin), delves into the pain of Black communities with an artful blend of essays, lyrics and short monologues. This, and Sode’s identification with Caravaggio, give the book its energy: out of the shadows can come beauty and respect. But it is a fight, one that he takes on with an unflinching candour: “Justice is an autopsy with no apology.” Meanwhile, the most high-profile arrival of the year was Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice in Her Head (Vintage), the long-awaited first full-length collection from Warsan Shire. With many of its poems famous in wider culture, it delivers an emotional intensity no less captivating for being familiar.
Other noteworthy debuts include Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley (Faber), who elegantly blends Black feminist thinking and a gorgeous, precise tone in poems that are acutely insightful about the role of silence in the world. Meanwhile, The English Summer by Holly Hopkins (Penned in the Margins) offers beguiling meditations on modern Britain. Hopkins’s language is deft and witty, with Explanation for Those Who Don’t Know Love destined to become a modern classic: “I have a child and am more important / than childless people. // I am two people and have an extra vote. / You cannot comprehend our bond”.
The year’s most notable anthology is 100 Queer Poems (Vintage), edited by Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan. It has at its core a generous and expansive definition of queerness that finds room for poets such as WH Auden, John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop, while including modern, innovative voices such as Verity Spott and Harry Josephine Giles. With a thematic arrangement ranging across relationships and families, the urban and natural world, and queer histories and futures, there is a great sense of kinship running through the poems.
Kinship is a theme that surfaces in the collaboration between TS Eliot-winner Roger Robinson and photographer Johny Pitts. Home Is Not a Place (William Collins) records journeys they took around the UK “to reveal hidden but experienced culture”, especially the lives of Black communities by the south-east coast. Robinson and Pitts never shy away from melancholy or controversies (one of the pieces is a found poem made from 2021’s notorious Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities), but insist that joy is present too: “we persist in this world / of wonder and quiet marvels”.
Similarly drawing attention to quiet marvels is The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang (Corsair Poetry). Utilising the waka, a Japanese syllabic form, Chang takes the titles of poems by WS Merwin as the starting point for her own observations. The results are some of the most dazzling evocations of the natural world I’ve encountered: “We say the snow falls, / but it really seizes. / Because it is light, / it takes seven years to grab.”
The most ambitious book of the year is Will Alexander’s Refractive Africa (Granta Poetry), drawing on Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola to reframe the history of Congo and vocalise an energetic resistance to colonialism. Alexander’s lines have an unstoppable energy allied to a thrilling phrase-making ability. He can devastate, too: “I appear to the Occidental eye as carbon without consequence”. Refractive Africa is a masterpiece, reminding us of poetry’s power to change how we feel and think.
• To browse all poetry books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2022 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.