Feature image photo by ivan-96 via Getty Images
I don’t know where you are reading this from, but for me, this summer has been hellishly hot. Almost too hot to enjoy the splendors outside, the hostas in my front yard, my neighbor’s fig tree, the bumblebees dug deep into flowers. I hope you have or have planned some time outside on a cooler day, preferably for one of my favorite activities: a summer picnic.
Some of my favorite memories involve a picnic at a local park at one of the shelters on the grounds. Playing music and singing along, taking a date to a special spot, riding my bike through the designated bike paths, then settling down for a light snack and an ice cold drink.
What makes these summer picnics even better is literature. Whether that entails talking about all the new books you are reading or bringing a book to read to yourself or a date, something about reading a book in the sun with birds chirping, surrounded by greenery, is heaven.
Here are five books that I think are perfect for your summer picnic reading. Whether you’re new to poetry or a fanatic, these books will be a way into deeper reflection and conversation with yourself or your date.
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar
There is room in the language for being
This book of poems was highly anticipated by many, including myself. After reading Akbar’s first collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I was stuck in this place of wanting more. I gifted another copy of the book to a friend and talked about it with other poets. I read it more than once. I listened to him on podcasts talking about his work, which is what I do when I know there is so much more I can learn and understand about poetry and poets.
What is so great about this collection is that it is so personal, and that makes it awe-inspiring for me. The language does that thing that good poetry does, it surprises me. I don’t see the next line coming as I go along, it is beautiful and languid. But there is also loss and struggle in this collection. One of the things that first drew me to Akbar’s poetry was knowing that he was a sober person, like me. I wanted to read poets reflecting on sobriety to prove to myself that I could be a sober poet, that the magic wasn’t in the drink.
In “There Is No Such Thing As An Accident Of The Spirit,” Akbar writes
Show me one beast
that loves itself as relentlessly
as even the most miserable man.
and in those lines, there is truth, yes, but also vulnerability and an understanding of what makes us human. I think about myself when I come to this line, which is kind of the point of it. To love oneself “relentlessly” even at your worst moment, to have an elevated sense of self. I don’t find judgment in this though, only observation.
I come to this book when I want to learn something, when I want to be challenged and swayed in the same note.
Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich
I used to fear my body
was a well anyone could toss
their wishes into
Pulling from the above lines, I think this collection says a lot about who has claim to the body, with the speaker working that out through the poems. Poets are always musing about the body, but this collection is different, as it explores being a person that is both Black and trans.
As I’m sure many of the people reading this understand, historically, those that are Black, trans, and queer have had untold violences enacted on their bodies and their psyches, which I think this book delves into as well. What is the psychological toll of watching another Black person murdered by police, another Black trans woman murdered by an angry man; what do we do with ourselves when we learn of these violences?
There is a poem in this collection that very often gets quoted or passed around on the internet, and for good reason. I think it contains the answer to the questions I’ve just asked. “Meditations in an Emergency” chronicles the way the speaker moves through a day in a perpetual state of heartbreak. The poem ends with the lines:
“Like you, I was raised in the/institution of dreaming. Hand on my heart. Hand/on my stupid heart.”
I read these lines but especially the entire poem as a mediation on how it is easy to despair, but it is vital to dream and make a better world. To have faith that things can be better, despite what we know of the world.
Trophic Cascade by Camille T. Dungy
I have loved every cell of her body from the time I could count them
What first drew me to Dungy’s work was her reflections on the natural world. The way she listed and described flowers, greenery, animals, mountains, all seemed so careful and attentive, and soon I sought out more of her work. What I love about Trophic Cascade is how much it contains. From meditations on motherhood, sex, the dwindling natural world, to racial violence, so much intersects in these poems.
The poem “Nullipara” begins:
I have learned love rests on the odd assortments of petals.
pick buttercup, pick sweet pea:
You love me. You love me.
and these reflections on love, whether they be between lovers or between mother and daughter, are also rich with the language of the green world. In Dungy’s poetry, I find that we can find ourselves in nature, that we are not so different from the flowers and the beasts, though we find ourselves to be far superior.
This comparison is evident in the titular poem, where the speaker muses on how becoming a mother changed everything about her world just as the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone changed everything about that ecosystem.
The more we can learn and cherish about the world around us, the better we will understand ourselves.
New and Selected Poems: Volume Two by Mary Oliver
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine
If you are going to read one poet in a park, let it be Mary Oliver. Her poetry is widely quoted for a reason. This book is the most “loved” that I own, meaning it is dog-eared, coffee-stained, and post-it noted. Years ago, I found myself trying to connect with the world and turned to Oliver’s poetry as a way to get out of myself and my incessant worrying.
What I think makes Oliver so quotable is she states things that we want to connect so plainly. Where we are struggling to make sense of the world around us, she has a grasp on it and has decided to share that knowledge with us.
In “This World” she writes:
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs
even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too
and it makes me think that everything has a song, we just don’t know the language in which they sing, the tone and melody cannot be heard with the naked human ear. This wonder is so pertinent in Oliver’s poetry, making her one of the most celebrated of our time.
frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
To return from paradise I guess they call that
This collection is one of the most talked about and celebrated books of 2021, and for good reason. Seuss takes us into the past, into girlhood and its struggles, with these mesmerizing sonnets that play with the form.
These poems are untitled and untraditional. They are playful yet unflinching in their honesty. When reading this book, I first struggled with some of the poems that lacked punctuation, but once I got a reading groove going, it became so easy to get lost in the world of each poem.
The poems in this collection that got to me the most were those documenting the often brutal life on a farm. In one poem, the speaker tells of a sow giving birth:
“Mama/suffer to rid herself of each fancy body. Pigs have more hair than you’d/ think. Ice-white, and long white lashes.”
This almost angelic description of the mother pig is contrasted with the deaths of two of her children, one of them crushed by her in the night.
The poems are just so honest, about the speaker’s life and her relationship to the literature she is creating. The language isn’t trying to hide behind itself or shield the reader from horrors. It just is, and that kind of writing is something that I’m drawn toward.
If you want to impress your date with your poetry knowledge, I definitely recommend reading this book.