I am famously an idiot. It’s true; I am not looking for statements to the contrary! I revel in my idiocy, wiping Fritos Honey BBQ Twists debris on an old T-shirt procured on the Jersey boardwalk in 2011 before deploying a Tweet about astral projection and Marshall’s around eleven p.m. on a Friday night.
And still, I thrive!
But this idiot also loves to read poetry, despite my inability to write it. I’ve tried! Do you know how many marble notebooks I’ve assaulted with poor attempts? I just do not have the whimsical brilliance that occupies a poet’s brain. I’m lucky if I can pull off a haiku about my deceased childhood pet.
So instead of exhuming poetry that is best left at the bottom of a chest in the corner of my parents’ attic somewhere, I thought I’d celebrate National Poetry Month by rounding up some collections that left me swooning from their form, swaying to their rhythm, and bowing down to their brilliance.
How else do we return to ourselves but to fold
The page so it points to the good part
What we’ll always have is something we lost
Stand back, I’m a loser on a winning streak
I’m on the cliff of myself & these aren’t wings, they’re futures.
Because this mess I made I made with love.
Girl. Girl. These are just a few of the lines I’ve underlined in Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poems. Time Is a Mother destroyed me in the best way possible—that way in which those fractured parts of you reflect back the things you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise see. This is the beauty—and power—of these poems. Vuong mines his memories following his mother’s death, exploring grief, loss, and family—all while elevating the ways in which the ordinary can be beautiful. It’s delicate and punk all at once, revealing how sometimes the most tender parts of us are more effective at carving space for ourselves than anything else.
you show up in the surf / always washing me away / always a cold tide / a screaming space breaks / over my body / i want and wait for you
forgive me, father, i confess to being a ragtag doll
scraps from men or places where i left myself
even when my pieces were taken, they were old
they didn’t fit me anymore, nothing haunts me long term
still, how i hunger for hunger
miss you like i have a right to
i believe in new skins, even nightmares
can be maps, the space between existence
and function, between performance and effect
If you’ve ever met me without my bringing up Akwaeke Emezi within the first eighteen seconds, you’ve probably met an imposter. Imagine my delight when I learned that one of my favorite writers of all time would be releasing their debut collection of poems. Of course, every line is as profound as its author; every syllable trembles with the divine, even the spaces left blank bleed with intention. Desire, abuse, and survival are given the space to sit side by side, and threaded in between are stories of chosen family. Also, best title ever????
I have become
the queen of the uninspired.
I was once queen of the firebellies,
fell in love with everyone I met,
said nothing about my love,
let it grow & grow & grow until
the whole of it was gone.
I have to keep reminding myself
an itch does not exist to be scratched.
i used to think
were evidence of magic
i’m just grateful for the time & space
to notice them
Be still, my depresso heart! This collection by Sabrina Benaim—who is one of the most-viewed spoken word poets of all time—continues to navigate the mental health struggles that have frequently been the central theme in her previous works, but this time they're charted over the course of one month in 2020. Grappling with the end of a relationship, extreme isolation as a result of a global pandemic, and caring for a loved one from afar on the heels of a serious diagnosis, Benaim continues to remind us that joy exists amidst the throes of sorrow, and that “sometimes self-care is just surviving.” This collection is an outstretched hand for anyone faring any degree of hardship or uncertainty. Grab it.
And I go mad thinking you will save me
When I should know better by now
Being a liver of life
And an inveterate reader of ghastly fairy tales
Whose morbid true versions
Hold nothing to their shiny counterparts
I’m eager to believe in, because
Somewhere along the way, I’ll learn to have it all.
And I want that wholeness to claim me,
to take me under, to pare away at me
until I am red open and alive and
full of flaws again.
Perfection is overrated,
I see this now.
I found myself reading lines from At Sea out loud; it’s just one of those collections whose lines you want to chew on. Truly, there is so much flavor within these pages. Aïcha Martine Thiam (also my pressmate!) stirs the soul with every syllable from this collection. Thiam plunges the depths of grief, trauma, healing, and cultural identity, unafraid of the calamity that comes with a turbulent sea—in fact, it’s within this discord that she finds her power and liberty. By the end, we’re reminded that chaos and uncertainty are just waters to be waded, pulling and propelling us through the human experience.
Though prisons and cops won’t be found anywhere,
our youths still learn of them, and they know what they mean,
how they look, how they function, what it will take to stop them
if they return with new names.
Has glamour lived without cruelty?
is pettiness a small revolution?
A human is akin to a boat
and, too, an ocean: both vessel
symbolism and personhood
This collection is like a pinball machine: It launches you into a landscape ringing with joy and fury, whispers and screams, all while unflinchingly interrogating the things we must unlearn, inviting self-inquiry along the way. With a voice as sharp as Buffy’s stake, Lopez sifts through Blackness, queerness, money, violence, and asks us to consider a world after abolition. It thrums with heart and humor, but not without a call to action, reminding “you’ll be made prop if you don’t speak up.” Keep it near; you’ll be ready to revisit it before long.
I want to be a child of happy illusion
not sad illusion or truth.
I am the priestess of resurrection
though I cannot make your body strong
I will make your heart loud
Invent a fantasy to save me
and project it on another body.
We need a loving grownup to give us advice
and that loving grownup is the universe.
Who wants to go to the universe for help?
You can’t touch the universe
or kiss its mouth
or stick your finger in its mouth
though sometimes the universe works
horizontally through people
and I like that.
Sick people find each other and it is not a good thing
Sometimes it is a great thing
I need an ex-lover to read these poems to me out loud while I rest my head in their lap in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven at dusk. You’ll understand this urge if you read this collection—or any writing by Melissa Broder for that matter. It’s just very that. As someone whose personality was once solely based on driving around aimlessly in their used 2002 Honda Civic through rural Central Jersey pining for things—sex, food, drugs—these poems call to me like a siren. Broder finds the holy in the profane, the sacred in the strange. It is an ode to the insatiable, the ones whose hunger goes beyond appetite. This collection has not left the bowels of my tattered tote since I got it. It is irresistible.
Forgive me if the wind stole
the howl from my mouth and whipped
it against your windowpanes.
When I lived, I wanted to be seen.
I built this mansion made of windows
for my prince and me. He feinted,
I knocked—we were apparitions of splendor.
Thief of my skin, you can arrange my bones so I fly,
a raptor—you can cure my meat, summon the flies
in summer. My body is my crypt, your masterpiece.
You can bedevil me with fabrication, but I
transmit the truth.
I’ve left my landline so the ghosts can’t dial me
at midnight with the hunger of hunters
My heart was tugged at from the beginning, which is featured above. I recently met Sally Wen Mao at AWP (if you’re unfamiliar, it is the largest writer’s conference in the country). I was immediately smitten. Before parting ways, I gave her a copy of my own book, which I now regret because I fear for her brain cells—the very ones that have gifted us this treasure of a collection—once she cracks open my gay angst disguised as tolerable subject-verb agreement.
In Oculus, Mao explores exile through a series of sequences: one follows a nineteen-year-old girl from Shanghai who documented her suicide on Instagram in 2014; another navigates animated worlds; others reckon with robot culture. A longer sequence speaks through Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, as she embarks on a journey on a time machine, even transcending her own death. Brimming with exceptional imagination and wit, this collection will take your breath away.