Updated: Oct 3, 2020
I don’t really read a lot of poetry books. I read my Paris Review poem of the day (though not always daily) and I have the poem hunter app on my phone that I like to look at when my brain feels like it is made of bees or worms and is incapable of processing any more content from Instagram or Twitter. I’m picky about the poetry I like and oftentimes find a hard time really getting into it when I am not in the right headspace. I reread collections and anthologies a lot, which is not something I do with memoirs or novels. They’re shorter, but also I feel like you can never get the full impact of a poem by just reading it once. You need to reread them over and over at different times of the day and at different points in your life. Poems that have meant the world to me in the past have lost their impact once my headspace has changed and poems I couldn’t relate to when I first read them have taken my breath away when I revisit them at a later date. I would compare poetry to music more than I would compare it to any other form of writing.
Yes, there is objectively good poetry that is impeccable in its craft and tone and lyricism and there is bad poetry that has none of those things. But there is also poetry that I love, but other people may hate. And there is poetry that my friends have shown me and I’ve questioned our relationship after (I kid. I kid. Or do I?)
Anyway, that all being said. I love poetry and I love how it makes me feel like I am a part of the world but also detached from it. I love the inferences and the details. I love that it can be short or long, that it can rhyme or not, that it can have stanzas, line breaks, hard or soft enjambment, or none of those things at all. What I love the most about poetry is how many different things it can be.
Without further adieu, here are the three poetry anthologies/collections that I have read so far this year. Please hit my line (leave a comment) with any thoughts, comments, recommendations, hate mail, etc.
Shiner - Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is one of my favorite writers, but this isn’t my favorite of her books, which is understandable since it was her first. There are glimpses of what is to come and her language is still enthralling, but it lacks the depth of her later works. I read this near the beginning of the year while I was still living in New York. I bought it at The Strand along with Something Bright Then Holes, which I still have yet to read. I’d just had a job interview at a coffee shop in SoHo and had some time to kill before needing to head off to my shift at the restaurant I worked at in Williamsburg.
I read it in coffee shops and on the train between shifts at my three jobs. Poetry is much easier to dip in and out of than a novel. It’s easier to digest in small chunks without feeling like you are constantly ripping yourself out of the world when you have to mark the page because you’ve reached your stop or you need to head back for the second half of your double. Maybe that’s why I never felt like it really let me in. Maybe it had less to do with the book and more to do with the time I was reading it. There were poems that held my attention. Poems that begged me to read them over and over. Nelson’s voice is still very much recognizable.
Maybe I’m just spoiled by how perfect I think Bluets is in its little chunks of unrhymed narrative prose poetry. Bluets tells more of a central story, while Shiner jumps around subjects, space, and time. There was something beautiful about reading Nelson’s words about New York while I was living there. She doesn’t romanticize the city as much as a lot of writers do, but she also doesn’t demonize it. She talks about other places too. It’s kind of like that adage “you have your whole life to write your first album.” I guess that applies to books and poetry collections as well. Shiner is a collection of the work that made Nelson a poet. It is her introduction, and while it is not as brilliant as the ones that followed, it does give you an idea of what is to come.
Here are some of my favorite poems and lines from the collection:
"The Condemned Building"
“At 5am the fever breaks / runs around town / cries like a baby”
“All sadness is really anger / or all anger really sadness”
Should I get this tattooed? As someone who cries every time they are angry and gets angry every time they cry, I think I should.
"Eighteen Days Until Christmas"
“You are not your mother, / and each of your dead lives on / in you and smells like the moon.”
I would absolutely love it if someone told me I smelled like the moon. What does the moon even smell like? I don't know, but I want to.
“You can’t have anything forever / not your bride nor your skin / not even your trusty Volkswagen.”
"January 27, 1984"
“There is no telling when a body / reaches its peak. / He did not dream, he did not shriek. / As far as I know the story, / he died in his sleep.”
Read this at my funeral.
“Never fear, never fear, not while / the crescent moon is here, a crooked / smile of luminous jest.”
I love the moon.
“If rice gets lonely, it will die.”
Same also what does this mean? Is there any scientific truth to this? Someone, please tell me.
“To learn / from their death how / to live beside you, / equally halting / and opened.”
“If my love could do / anything right, it / would be as soft as today’s / snow and candles.”
“We are awash in a fog / of deities, a hill / of laughing melon.”
“Unable to protect you / from such things, / I offer incarnation.”
“Still all that lives / fights for life.”
“Skin off the shoulder / of a constellation / we cannot foresee, skin / of the selves we’ve been.”
“I want to love you nobly, / then be forgotten.”
If I ever get married, this will be in my wedding vows, which is super cheesy, but I don't care.
"Subway in March, 5:45 pm"
“we could like the world before distrusting it / Stop performing ourselves and let the pith of us / hang out. All these permutations of esteem and ridicule / when all I want is to stay focused on everyday life / What other kind of life is there?”
I just love this sentiment. The idea of liking the world before distrusting it, of allowing naivety, of fighting the desire to perform and just be.
Human Dark with Sugar - Brenda Shaughnessy
My friend Britnee sent this to me for my birthday this year, which if you are ever wondering what to get me as a gift, books are a very good option. It was about a month into quarantine and I had been having a lot of trouble reading. My brain couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time, so poetry was actually the perfect way to try to get back into it. I was hooked by the first poem, “I’m Over the Moon” for a few reasons.
1. I love the moon. I have it tattooed on me for a reason.
2. It plays with the multiple meanings of words in a really fun way.
3. I’m a sucker for a hard enjambment.
Going back through this book to pick out my favorite poems for this post made me realize that I definitely read poetry differently based on how I am feeling. I know I was pretty sad when I read this the first time and the poems that I marked as my favorites definitely reflect that. I’d never heard of Shaughnessy before this book, but I really enjoyed this collection for its rhythms, internal rhymes, and the range of emotions she captures within 76 pages.
Here are some of my favorite poems and lines from the collection:
"I’m Over the Moon"
“It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band. / Better off alone.”
I'm obsessed with this line. Truly obsessed. I think about it a lot. I'm so mad I didn't write it.
“But my lovers have never been able to read / my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.”
Learning to tell people what I want/ how I feel instead of just expecting them to somehow magically know is a form of character growth that I am immensely proud of and has made my life so much easier.
"Parthenogenesis" (CW disordered eating)
“there’s a crispness of not eating”
I have a pretty fucked up relationship with food from years of being too nauseated to eat due to my illness. I'd never heard it described this way, but this feeling is very familiar to me. When you don't eat enough, your body starts to feel taught and dry. Not in a cute "I'm thin" way, but in a scary "my body is consuming itself due to a lack of nutrients" way.
“For me, starving, that coreless, useful feeling, / is not making myself smaller / but making myself bigger, inside.”
“It’s too sad to be so ordinary every day"
My toxic trait is that I want so badly to be special that it's crippling.
“I don’t need a cult of sleep to tell me to die / every night.”
Macabre, but relatable
"Spring in Space: A Lecture"
“I could sleep for days / without a map.”
Sleep is my favorite depression activity.
“People think that to be ‘wise’ is to be old, owlish, / unbearable, or Chinese. Wrong. No need to wait to be reborn. / To be wise is simply to be understood, even missed.”
“If I had my way, spring would / revolve slowly and solely around me.”
Spring is my favorite season. I am also an Aries so I actually do believe that spring does revolve slowly and solely around me.
"One Love Story, Eight Takes"
“Do sweets soothe pain or simply make it stick?”
As someone who almost only craves sweets when I am very depressed/heartbroken, I think it might be both. I will still eat my chocolate cake and cry while watching bad teen tv shows though.
“Nothing is truly forgotten and loved.”
I can't tell if this is heartbreaking or reassuring.
“Language is architecture, after all, not an air capsule, / not a hang glide. This is real life. / So don’t invite anyone to a house that hasn’t been built.”
“I was wrong to tell you how multi-true everything is, / when it would be truer to say nothing. / I’ve invented so much and prevented more.”
This reminds me of those moments in fights where you look back and realize that silence would have been a much stronger and effective response.
"Replaceable until You’re Not"
“The problem might be regret. It is so beautiful / to cry and remember, / if beauty is a knife wound. Memory, that disco light, / makes for some unforgettable songs, / until morning.”
“Eventually the heart I have to offer / is as hard and small and unipurpose as a tack.”
“Moving on, is what they call it. As if one moves, / instead of revises, reneges, replenishes.”
“When you get new shoes, do you throw out the old? / Do you buy the same style?”
Tag yourself: I keep the old and get the same style.
"This Loved Body"
“I can’t claim to understand this art. But I understand it is art by the pleasure I take in it. In its uselessness. This beauty is relentless, even as you retract, unperturbed, fully inhibiting. But what art do I have to repeat you senseless?”
“What is a lover’s body? This one is covered with a substance I know to be skin but feels more like a bird’s egg lightly brushed with rain oil.”
“And gold, of course. What is skin if not, in some aspect, gold? Some parts of the body actually glitter with it. These are the softest parts. So soft I suspect they were meant to be inside and kept secret.”
"Me in Paradise"
“To miss you without being so damn cold / all the time. To hold you without dying otherwise. / To die without losing death as an alternative.”
“Loving you has made me so scandalously / beautiful. To give myself to everyone but you. / To luck out of you. To make any other mistake.”
Marriage vow material. All of it.
"Moth Death on the Windowsill"
“I warned you people, never sleep with the one you love. / Sleep with others. Make ‘em want you, / and you’ll love ‘em soon enough. Just use the body.”
“Trees move / at least as much as we do, / if only their heads and arms.”
The Tradition- Jericho Brown
Saving the best for last. This won the Pulitzer this year and for good reason.
I had the privilege of hearing Jericho Brown read at St. Edward’s in the Spring of 2019. I was taking my first-ever poetry workshop and I was realizing that I should have done this so much sooner than my senior year of college. First, I would just like everyone to go and listen to Brown read a poem. Bask in it for a little while. His voice is stunning. His humor is amazing. I still have notes from this reading in my phone some of the quotes that I still go back to are, “I am attracted to difficulty, which is really good if you want to be a poet, but bad if you want to be in a relationship” and “Me using all of myself is the only way I can write poems.” He signed my copy of The Tradition as well as my copy of Please and I stumbled through telling him how much I loved the Duplex form.
This book is beautiful. Some people may say it’s “timely” because it deals with race and police brutality, but if you read it, you will see that it is truly more timeless than timely. More than one poem in the collection references police brutality, from listing off “John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown” at the end of “The Tradition,” and mentioning Emmett Till in “Riddle” to saying, “I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me” in “Bullet Points” (which is one of my favorites in the book.) This collection should not be reduced to be purely about police brutality against Black people though. It is much more than that. The Tradition is Brown exploring his past and his present. It is him looking at what has made him who he is today and lovingly excavating the good and the bad. He explores the brutality that permeates society from our homes to our schools and how that impacts us all.
Here are some of my favorite poems and lines from the collection:
“Summer seemed to bloom against the will / Of the sun, which news reporters claimed flamed hotter / On this planet than when our dead fathers / Wiped sweat from their necks.”
"Foreday in the Morning"
“I am ashamed of America / And confounded by God.”
I don't believe in God, but same.
Please just read the whole thing.
"After Avery R. Young"
“All land owned is land once stolen.”
Duplex (on page 27) (all of them are really good though and it’s super cool that he came up with his own poetry form)
“My body is a temple in disrepair. / The opposite of rape is understanding.”
I've never seen rape explained this way, but it makes so much sense. I come back to this a lot. Also, my body is also a temple in disrepair. So I feel that.
I would like to take this moment to say that Brown tweeted about his health (and again about how going to Mayo, where I went when I was 16 and still very sick, has helped him get some answers) so if you would all keep him in your thoughts and if you pray, your prayers, I am sure he would appreciate that.
“We love land so / Long as we can take it.”
“We do not / Recognize music until we can / Sell it.”
"The Legend of Big and Fine"
“Long ago, we used two words / For the worth of a house, a car, / A woman—all the same to men / Who claimed them: things / To be entered”
He has such amazing insights into the idea of ownership and dominance.
“When you’ve been worked on for so long, you never know / You’re done.”
“I know / The value of sweet music when we need to pass / The time without wondering what rots beneath our feet.”
Music as escapism is something I know and understand well.
“Some of us don’t need hell to be good.”
“Here is one symptom of my sickness: / Men who love me are men who miss me.”
"Turn You Over"
“All my anxiety is separation anxiety”
I love this. I feel it in my bones.
"I Know What I Love"
“I wanted what anyone / With an ear wants— / To be touched and / Touched by a presence / That has no hands.”
“I’m more than a conqueror, bigger / Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.”
“We lay there together / As if we were getting / Something done.”
“I’m sure / Somebody died while / We made love. Some—/ Body killed somebody / Black.”
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