Growing up, I didn’t read a lot of poetry. I latched on to Shel Silverstein when I was young enough that my school libraries were still carrying Where the Sidewalk Ends on the shelves rather than wall-to-wall stacks of reference material. That’s about it, if we don’t count my Nan feeding an early interest in Poe and assigned readings in English making me learn about iambic pentameter (I don’t, mainly because I still don’t know what iambic means, nor why it’s in pentameter.)
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had fluctuating opinions on poetry, from being vaguely interested but not committed enough to pull my nose out of novels, to outright confused about the boom in ‘Insta poetry’ and similar styles. Then, last year, I got my hands on an ARC for the poetry collection Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian. To say that it ignited a healthy interest would be an understatement; I fell in love with that collection and Najwa Zebian’s writing. I fell in love with the deep, simmering catharsis that worked its way through me as I read, leaving me with an experience that felt less like opening old wounds and more like peacefully acknowledging their presence.
I’ve made it a point to seek out more poetry since then. There is something elegant in the way a poet paints words on a page that isn’t captured in a novel, and two collections that I’ve read this year brought up those same feelings of catharsis and feeling seen as Sparks of Phoenix did for me last year.
Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across
by Mary Lambert
…I love the way my mouth says your name, like music crawling out of a cave...
Mary Lambert will likely sound familiar to people who remember the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis single, Same Love, which led to the debut of Mary’s single She Keeps Me Warm in the summer of 2013. This followed hotly on the heels of the independent release of her poetry collection, 500 Tips for Fat Girls. With this solid start in music and publishing, and the momentum gaining as Mary released an extended play, performed at the Grammys, and toured alongside Gavin DeGraw, it’s not surprising that Mary Lambert had the lyrical chops and writing experience to put out a collection as perfect as Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across.
I listened to the audiobook version of the collection, which is narrated by Mary herself and is intimately candid as she speaks on her experiences with sexual assault, body image issues, lesbian love, and mental health. I was swept through stanzas of prose that made me feel seen as a queer woman, a survivor of assault whose own mental health feels threadbare on the worst of days—but also as someone who has found love and joy in being who she is and healing as best as she can. The ebb and flow of her unflinching confrontation of the things that have happened to her intertwining with glimmers of hope and happiness—of budding love and the healing that happens in between—leaves you at the end of the collection feeling like your pain is valid, but so are you, and so is your happiness, strength, and ability to self-love.
Quick Note: Because of the content and themes in this collection, while I wholeheartedly recommend it, I’ve provided a comprehensive content guide here. I detail the themes/subjects within Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, with direct page and/or title references and context. You can also find my Goodreads review here.
The Willies by Adam Falkner
…gifting instead the silence to skate my lips along you, forgetting for the first time in months how many holes I have in this hungry, heartbroken body. And the lies I am willing to tell to fill them.
Like Mary Lambert, Adam Falkner is a seasoned writer. Under his belt he has poems appearing in print for publications like Painted Bride Quarterly and the New York Times, as well as programming like HBO and NPR—not to mention accolades as a performer for President Obama’s 2009 Grassroots Ball.
This experience shines through in The Willies, Adam’s most recent publication (and one I was lucky enough to get an ARC of.) Like Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, its pages are filled with brutally honest lines of poetry that at times toe the line of scandalous while always remaining authentic. Where Mary’s collection is the perspective of queer womanhood and survivorship, Adam’s is a reflection of the journey through discovering and embracing sexuality as a gay man, with insights to the realities of homophobia within the family, grappling with parental neglect, and alcoholism. With sharp and intelligent critiques of white privilege interspersed as his poems reflect his life and his experiences, I think this was not only nuanced but shockingly self-aware. As a whole, The Willies is a treatise on the complexities of identity that, even as a queer woman, I could understand and relate to.
Quick Note: As with Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, I’ve created a content guide on the material in The Willies. It should be taken as a tool to either determine if this collection is right for you, or to use if recommending this collection to others. You can find the guide here, as well as my Goodreads review here.