I’ve been reorganizing my poetry bookshelves, as one does during a pandemic, slowly sorting through books I’ve collected over the past thirty years. Most I sort by last name, slotting Barbara Ras next to Adrienne Rich, friends’ books next to dead poets, glossy new books next to tattered ones I bought used. I need to do this not only because we’ve lived in our house for three years and the poetry was still jumbled, shelved by size or still in boxes, but because I keep buying new books and need to make room. Bookshelf space is not unlimited, and I don’t hoard books for the sake of merely having them; I need them out where I can find them when I want them. I teach online writing classes, and sometimes I want to find a particular poem or book title to recommend to a student. Sometimes I forget my favorite poem from a collection, and have to thumb through to find it again, just to know it, just to savor it again. Or sometimes a friend asks me for a recommendation, and I have to go seeking just the right poem or poet.
So, unfortunately, some books must be sifted into the giveaway pile: those unread that I bought years ago at a conference but, when opened randomly three times, fail to reveal a poem that caught my attention; those that hurt me with some image or poem too violent, usually towards animals, my always-weakness; those that I did read but never marked an individual poem or line to return to; those by living poets whose reprehensible behavior (often men who abused women) makes it unlikely that I will recommend them in the face of so many other wonderful poets. I suppose I will donate these to the local library if and when they open for donations again.
But of course, the process isn’t straightforward. Many books have bookmarks or notes in them, which it is hard to ignore. Why not take a moment to thumb through, remind myself of what I loved? And there are the new books to be considered—Ellen Bass’ Indigo, Victoria Chang’s Obit, Linda Hogan’s A History of Kindness, Dana Roeser’s All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist, Dion O’Reilly’s Ghost Dogs, and more. Do those get shelved among the old books, alphabetical by last name, before I’ve finished reading them, or do they sit in a pile on the coffee table, potentially at the mercy of my 9-month-old Golden Retriever?
I’m speaking of books, but generally what stay with me are individual poems. I admit I’m usually a “greatest hits” type of poetry reader (and music listener) rather than a book (or album) person. So in these difficult times, when you are perhaps going back to your own bookshelves in search of something new/old to read, I’d like to share links to and comments on a few favorite poems. These are poems that I felt in my bones, poems that said something I need to hear. They are solace and companionship, confirmation that someone else has taken our human suffering and practiced an alchemy of words to turn it into beauty.
“Any Common Desolation,” from Ellen Bass’ book Indigo, contains the sentence: “You may have to break/your heart, but it isn’t nothing/to know even one moment alive.” The poem is filled to the brim with images that touch on every sense, pulling you into the world. If you read the book, you get the idea that the “desolation” of the title is related to the illness of the speaker’s partner, but the poem is a gift for all of us who have experienced desolation. “A breath/can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,/the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything/you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves…” The poem tells us not that this will happen, but that it can. It provides hope, coming from ordinary things.
Another recent poem I love is “My Hobby Needed a Hobby,” by Dana Roeser, from her book All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts. This poem pulled me in from the beginning, and didn’t let go: “My hobby needed a hobby you know how you get a dog and you have a dog/and then Kurt says we need to get the dog a puppy the dog needs somebody//to play with her to teach…” Even the language keeps you going here, a breathless all-one-sentence continuation of thought, like someone who just has to get a story out. Of course, as someone who did get another dog for our dog, I felt this opening personally. But the poem also hits me in both the heart and intellect by touching on the idea of where self-worth comes from: “so now/your hobby your art needs a hobby that feels completely free and doesn’t/have anything to do with the buying and selling attaching your worth to some//chips or tokens markers or whatever…” The poem doesn’t stop when we find out what hobby the speaker has taken up, but moves past to an ending both profound and humorous.
“Dead Stars,” by Ada Limon, from her book The Carrying, takes the ordinary scene of taking out the garbage and recycling bins at night and turns it into something so much bigger. The poet uses questions to imagine a triumph that’s oh so difficult to imagine at the moment, and yet so important.
“Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
No, to the rising tides…”
There are more amazing poems out there, so many more, and what will hit you at this time might be different from what will hit me, or maybe the same poem will resonate for me later. There’s a vibrant community of poets on social media, especially Twitter, where many share those poems that move them. Some of the above I discovered there myself. If you’re interested in finding those gems, I highly recommend following Poets.org, or even subscribing to their Poem-A-Day. And please share your favorite poems, poetry quotes, or links to poems in the comments.