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If you have followed my writing on Autostraddle, you know the one subject I feel the most comfortable writing about is poetry. I read it, I write it, I listen to it, I consume it so many ways, through so many avenues. More than that, I love listening to poets talk about what they have said and written. I don’t demand that they explain themselves to me, but I love when they do, I love when they muse and wander.
There’s nothing like being punched in the gut by a poem. That punch can be devastating, for love, for grief, for sheer exploration. There is no other mode of expression like poetry. I find myself delighted at every new collection coming out, pining after books for months on end before they release.
People come to poetry for a number of reasons, but I think one of the main reasons is the desire to not feel alone. To know that someone once waded in the same murky waters as you, to feel like less of an outlier because of your own experiences. People have been where you are before you, and fortunately for us, some of those people were poets.
This new series, In Verse, is about bringing you the collections of poetry that meet you where you are at. This first installment is for the person dealing with a broken heart.
Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips
you broke it, now wear it broken
Pale Colors in a Tall Field is a collection of poems that I listened to after following Phillips on twitter for awhile. Phillips is a prolific poet, with works that have inspired other LGBTQ poets who’s work I’ve followed for a few years. I believe this book was the first one I read from him, and its full of gems. The quote that appears above is taken from the poem “Dirt Being Dirt,” a poem that is more about the self than a lover, but it still pertains to the way we can break our own hearts.
In another poem, “Since When Shall Speak Of It No More,” Phillips writes:
“I’m/no one’s horse. I’m not what waves like a/bit of ocean down/and to either side of its brindled neck/ I’m not a thing I know.”
Again, we’re talking more about the self here, but there’s something so desperate in the line “I’m not a thing I know.” Which, for me, rings with such clarity because it speaks to the way we betray ourselves in relationship with others. I recommend this collection because so much of the poems are deeply grounded in the self, and sometimes, no matter the nature of your heartbreak, it can be good to stay in that realm and really learn about who you are, why you feel the things you feel, and what you can do with that feeling.
Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop
How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I did a report on Elizabeth Bishop in college and spent a lot of time with her poems. What struck me about her writing was her sense of place, and the way she made sure the reader also had a deep sense of place. Not only that we could see what she was seeing, but how that sight enabled us to be grounded in our own realities even more.
Most of the poems in Geography III have to do with place. Bishop was a well traveled poet, spending time in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, and Brazil, among others. The excerpt I shared above is from the poem “Crusoe in England,” a long persona poem that references Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The lines that I quote are not about the heart, but the poem itself speaks to a kind of displacement, and what is heartbreak if not displacement?
I mostly recommended this collection because it contains one of her most famous poems, “One Art.” The repetition of the line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” has become famous for its poignancy. Heartbreak is as much loss as it is displacement, and to think that loss is something that can be mastered suggests a sort of control over something that makes us feel absolutely uncontrollable. The final stanza of the poem mentions a “you” that is lost, which could be a lover or a friend. Either reading carries weight, losing as a disaster and an art. When you’re heart is broken, it helps to remember other heartbreaks you have survived just as Bishop reflects on other losses in the poem. Even when we are inconsolable, we survive.
(you are washing old words
right out of me)
A lot of my love for this collection comes from the first poem in it, titled “(carol)”. The ending lines:
(You’re like my mother)(you give birth to me)
(you give birth to me) (I forget that)
(I carry your baby) (Would’t it be great
if I carried your baby)
absolutely stun me. This is a book full of longing and unrequited affection. About being a lover to someone that doesn’t know how to care for you. It’s complex and beautiful. the poems in it are awash with that longing. It’s a book that will make you reflect on all the lovers in your life, especially the ones you would have given anything for, the ones who were probably withholding but who you pined after anyway.
In heartbreak, there is a time to wallow, to wade in it. I think these poems wade in it. Not every collection of poems leads us to a point of resolution and repair. I like when there is no answer, only the truth of experience. The lines that conclude this book align the speaker with a prophet. The speaker emerges as prophetess, but even in that power, she is still able to feel pain and be hurt. There is such humanity in these poems that often gets lost in other books. There is that aforementioned desire to emerge unperturbed and “healed.” But sometimes all a poet can show you is a snapshot of the journey — that is often the most real thing of all.
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Had a sow twin, had a reap twin
Had a husband, could not keep him
This one is probably an obvious choice if you know poetry, are a poet, or have heard of Sharon Olds before. It’s quintessential reading if you’ve ever been divorced or had your heart broken in a major way. “Left-Wife Goose” is written like a nursery rhyme, but the repetition of “had a husband, could not keep him” is a visceral gut punch.
Stag’s Leap reads as both linear and nonlinear, charting the emotional and physical course of a divorce, starting in winter and ending in a section titled “Years Later.” The emotional life of these poems are rich, making it a famous collection that many people arrive at to be devastated. At least, that’s how I came to the book, I heard it would devastate me and after a string of failed romances I was ready to be devastated.
The final lines of “Known to Be Left” call that to mind:
“But look! I am starting to give him up!
I believe he is not coming back. Something
has died, inside me, believing that,
like the death of a crone in one twin bed
as a child is born in the other. Have faith,
old heart. What is living, anyway,
The final lines call on this regenerative loop, if living is dying, than dying is living, and so on and on its goes ad infinitum. But the call toward faith is one that we need when our hearts are broken. If we live in a cycle of living and dying, we have to have faith when we are dying that living is on the way.
One Above One Below by Gala Mukomolova
A year is a skeleton made of twelve bones
Many of the poets on this list are LGBTQ, which is in part why I chose them. I also chose them because LGBTQ poets have a way of thinking and writing about heart break in a way that resonates a little more. Maybe that’s because I’m a dyke and I like to think about how other people who identify similar to me have gotten through their private and public heartbreaks. These poems, the first poem in particular, jump out to me because of their voraciousness, their sexiness, their pain. Mukomolva writes
“Dear Would-be Wife, I wish for you a wound as un-healing as the one in me.”
The naming of the Would-be Wife indicates a severance here, and earlier in the poem, the speaker announces that “once I was as good as married.” once being a crucial word in the poem. The hurt enacted by this Would-be Wife has manifested as a call for vengeance.
The figure of the year is very important in these poems. In a later poem, we see:
“When your year-long lover who will not hold your hand in public calls you
too eager, erase eagerness from your heart. Put your phone away.”
The year as a milestone for a romantic relationship, the year as a skeleton of something long dead. It’s ghastly and haunting.
I chose this book of poems because it resonated with an old heartbreak I thought I had gotten over. There’s so much desire pulsating through these poems, a whole life inside them. There of course is heartbreak, but there is also the call of the body. I believe in pleasure, and so do these poems, suggesting there is something on the other side of heartbreak. Even if it’s just a fling with another hot poet.
There is a poem for everything, I firmly believe that. Sometimes, when your heart is broken all you want to feel is that brokenness, sometimes you want to push through and reach toward a different emotion. I hope you find that in these books I’ve selected.