Feature image photo by mikroman6 via Getty Images
If you’ve been reading my work recently or following me on social media, you know I’m about to embark on a big life change: a move. I have never lived anywhere that wasn’t in Pennsylvania. This state is my home, but I’m ready to move on from it.
This move has come with a host of emotions: I’m excited, I’m anxious, and I’m scared. Scared that things won’t go as planned, anxious that I might not like my new city, and excited to start a new life for myself. I’m in flux, but being very mindful about how a big change could easily untether me. I’m working at staying grounded, and a part of that is turning toward poetry.
These books aren’t specifically about big life changes themselves, but they do ask big questions about grief, humanity, and more. They ground me not because these poets have answers to said questions, but because they dare to ask them.
Soft Science by Franny Choi
I have only ever wanted to bite
down hard on whatever was offered
to my hothouse mouth.
I was first introduced to Choi’s work when she co-hosted the VS podcast with Danez Smith. I hadn’t read any of her chapbooks, but when Soft Science came out, it was next to impossible to get my hands on it. It was always sold out wherever I looked for it. When I finally did get it, I was struck by the world within the book, the world Choi questions and interrogates.
One of the big questions asked in this book is about what separates the human from the machine, in this modern world, where do we draw that line? It makes me think about how we work, the current state of the “content machine,” and how we make everything in our lives fodder for online consumption. Or we are forced to.
These poems are rife with Turing tests and examinations of what makes us human. One of the things that the book offers as an answer is itself. I walk away from it with a thought that humans were given the gift of making art. A machine can formulate art as well, but it doesn’t have the understanding of what it is doing the way we do.
There is also the question of what the poem can do, especially within the poem “You’re So Paranoid.” Many people will offer the poet’s job is to witness the atrocities of the world and make art despite, but this poem makes me think: is witness enough? In the poem, the police offers give up their humanity to move with machine precision and brutality. They are ostensibly humans but humans acting at the will of an oppressive state, robbing them of what makes us recognizable to each other.
The speaker in the poem muses:
The cop speaks and I call a plum into his mouth it doesn’t shut him up.
Poetry, as beautiful and stirring as it is, has its limits. I chose this book of poems because everything changes, but how we respond to that change can make us more ourselves, more human.
Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen
If you are unafraid, beware.
This book deals heavily with the death of the author’s brother by suicide, so I want to tell you this before you go into it. Grief can feel insurmountable. Maybe it is insurmountable. The death of a brother is vastly different from moving across states, so why did I choose this book?
I chose it because of my fear and my grief. Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with either. I’m in therapy, I’ve acquired all the tools I need to make this move successful, so why am I still grieving?
In the above-referenced poem, “Grief Logic,” the speaker tries to work out just that, the logic of grief. It is a stunning poem, a heartbreaking one. I think of it often and reading it again for this has come with that same swell of emotion. I have five brothers, two of which I still speak to. To lose one of them would wreck me. In this poem, the speaker states
If this doesn’t end the world, the world will end after it.
and I can’t help but think how poignant and true that is of grief. The times in my life where I have lost someone or some version of myself, it felt like I would never survive it. These poems survive though, they endure the grief of the author, they carry that grief along with her. Poetry, even when you aren’t the one that has written it, can carry your grief.
Grief is the most human emotion. A big change can come with that grief, and it is important to know this and let it come. To not fight it even if you are scared or worried. It cannot be rushed or hurried along, so it is best to let it take its course.
In “An Empty House Is a Debt,” the speaker writes something I will leave you with:
A human terrifies.
A human is someone who becomes terrified, and having become terrified,
craves an end to her feat.
This craving carves a cave.
I Was A Bell by M. Soledad Caballero
How long since my body
I have to confess that Caballero was one of my college professors, which is in part why I love this book. I also love it because it deals with a similar change. Caballero writes of coming to the US, her journey out of a country changed by a coup, and even her present-day cancer diagnosis.
What I learned from this book is the enduring spirit of the heart. The heart that can be wracked by grief and fear of the unknown, can still recover, can still beat. In the poem “Pacific Dreams,” Caballero writes of missing the Pacific Ocean, a place where her body was once suspended in the cool water, the smell of seafoam in the air.
The opening line is quoted above, and I ask myself the same question often. A part of why I am moving is because I am moving toward joy, which I have rarely ever experienced in my life. The body is so fragile, robbing it of joy can have lasting effects. I’m trying to prevent that from happening.
Reading as the speaker talks of becoming accustomed to the strange land of the United States, I feel empathy for the small girl in those poems. I’m moving as an adult and I’m terrified, it must have been so hard to lose a home for a girl so small.
The poems that deal with cancer and the havoc it wreaks on the body are so complex and divine.
too much life. That is
what the doctor says. Many routes of muscles, blood
to dance with, invade. So many ways to make mountains
These lines appear in “What You Are Doing Is Living,” a poem that confronts the terror of death and tests and the body. It’s a beautiful collection that makes me want to confront change instead of shying away from it.
Hull by Xan Phillips
have you ever heard
of intimate space
compounding with want
This collection is daring, it burns in your hands as you read it. The titular poem contains the lines:
It is for the
dead’s inability to do so
that I rattle the coins in my
chest. In every exhale there
These poems have audacity, and that is something I want to mirror in my own life. To have the audacity to want change, to strive for it. I like to think of it as my ancestral duty. These poems guide me toward that thinking.
Many of them chronicle the realities of violence enacted on Black people throughout history, from slavery to modern-day lynchings. These poems take on the voices of the deceased or are in conversation with them. It’s a challenging read because of its history, and its emotionality.
In “I Never Used To Write About Birds,” the speaker says
this is the closes I’ll get to grabbing
our unjust god by the pearls
strung across his throat so I can ask
why he sat back in luster
all these millennia
watching my people die
and all I can think of is the audacity it takes to write those lines. Phillips is a strong poet, and an obviously audacious one. I hope you find this in their work too.
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück
I try to comfort you
but words are not the answer;
Anytime anyone dares to ask me who my favorite poet is, I mention Glück. Her work is not only beautiful, it is honest, the purest form of truth, for me.
Winter Recipes from the Collective is her most recent book, and while reading it, I was struck by it’s quietude. I know that doesn’t sound like it makes sense when talking about poetry, but the book is really a study in patience, in observation, in looking.
In “Autumn” the speaker writes
The part of life
devoted to contemplation
was at odds with the part
committed to action.
To change is to be committed to action, no matter how scary it is. I spent many years contemplating this move and feeling stuck in this city, but now I’ve put in the action necessary to make it a reality.
I list Glück as a favorite poet because her voice is so clear and wanting. It is begging to get at the meat of what is in its sights. Whether that thing is relationships or the natural world, she approaches it along with you. You the reader and the speaker hand-in-hand, getting to know what is being discovered together.
What impressed me about this collection is that Glück is such a celebrated poet that there is no one left for her to impress. She’s writing with a new eye, in my opinion. Writing with that honesty I love so much. I consider her collected poems to be my favorite book, and it shows: The collection is well worn with brown edges and a softness that comes from opening a book again and again.
There is so much beauty in discovery, and I find that in this collection. I have complete confidence that you will, too.
“The body is so fragile, robbing it of joy can have lasting effects. I’m trying to prevent that from happening.” 💛 🌱Dani thank you so much. This is just what I’ve been feeling but didn’t have the words.
I love this series so much! Thank you for bringing so much excellent poetry content here. I hope all of the big changes and big questions and big feelings help you find even more of yourself and bring you so much happiness!