Grief was what first drove me to poetry. As a teenager, in the throes of loss, I felt language slipping away from me—or me slipping away from it—which was terrifying. Not long after, I started reading poetry, and it was like discovering language anew. My relationship with words had changed, but it wasn’t diminished, as I had feared. In fact, it had deepened to involve a kind of wonder and a yearning for connection and precision. In poetry, I found not only piercing articulations of pain—proof that I wasn’t alone—but also of beauty. Stunning, soothing beauty.
I love the moment in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (my favorite novel about grief and family) in which Ruth says, “It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” The books I’ve gathered here, all by women poets at fairly early stages of their writing careers, offer proof that Ruth’s hope can be made real. These poets take what perished and build a new home for it in language, and in us. In grief, I wanted someone to go ahead of me in the darkness, to shine a light, and it was poets who did.
- Allison Benis White
Allison Benis White’s second book, Small Porcelain Head, is a collection of prose poems about the suicide of a friend. Benis White uses dolls as vessels through which to explore grief. Throughout the book, her juxtaposition of the concreteness of those objects and the philosophical aches of mourning is mesmerizing. Her poems settle for nothing but the extraordinary. “If description is a living thing,” she writes, “dark cherry hair and glass eyes, tilted away—I want to say something that will look at me.” These poems are like clean, icy breezes, filled with a kind of deep freshness that both haunts and soothes the spirit.
- Grace Bonner
Throughout Grace Bonner’s first book, Round Lake, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2016, you feel the loss of the narrator’s sister, Atlantis, with a powerful ache. Atlantis is luminous in the poems, even as suicide casts its terrible shadow. Bonner has a striking voice—spare, incantatory, and elegant. When the speaker sees apparitions of Atlantis after her death, she calls to her with all the intimacy of sisterhood and all the eeriness of the divide: “Be a genius at something else, / I tell her, when I don’t want to kill her. / Or: I love the way you play guitar.” Later, when a mother also dies by suicide, Bonner utters the precise conflict of grief: “love, / love must be bearable.” I could not be more excited to hold this book.
- Lisa Fay Coutley
Lisa Fay Coutley’s gorgeous first collection, Errata, explores issues of family, motherhood, love, alcoholism, and grief. Coutley’s poems show us how the death of a mother can thrust the past into a daughter’s hands, and the various ways the daughter struggles to carry it. Throughout the book, the mess of daily life is woven with the wonder of time and nature. “Sometimes it takes just one gust of wind,” Coutley writes, “to forget a mother’s face.” Full of grit, resilience, tenderness, and language that will leave you breathless, this collection is a treasure.
- Tarfia Faizullah
In her first book, Seam, Tarifa Faizullah gives voice to the experiences of Bangladeshi women who were raped and tortured by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. Faizullah writes with such intimacy as to make you feel right beside her, breathing in the brutal past. I am particularly in awe of how Faizullah renders both the closeness and the distance of the dead, and the way we save for them some of our deepest questions: “I dreamt, / Sister, that you were / resurrected, no longer / bone erasing bone….How do I love / as much as I say I do?”
- Bettina Judd
Bettina Judd’s urgent and haunting debut collection, Patient, sears with grief for the experiences of enslaved women subjected to atrocious medical experiments and humiliation by J. Marion Sims, who is widely considered the father of modern gynecology, and by P.T. Barnum, the circus founder. Judd lifts up these women’s names—Anarcha Wescott, Betsey Harris, Lucy Zimmerman, and Joice Heth—and imagines their voices in precise, electrifying language that urges both against forgetting and toward healing. Judd writes, “forgive the soft parts / of your mother.” And, “you are memory / you are everything.” This is a harrowing, necessary book about understanding the horrors of the past in order to recover in the present.
- Michelle Peñaloza
Michelle Peñaloza’s chapbook, landscape/heartbreak, stems from a wonderfully original project. Over the course of a year, Peñaloza had twenty-two people in Seattle take her on walks to certain places in the city where they’d had their hearts broken. The result is a gorgeous collection of maps and poems that illuminate heartbreak as a journey intertwined with our footsteps and streets. “To travel by foot is to surrender,” Peñaloza tells us. These poems are vital companions to anyone walking through trauma; they will make you less lonely, and less afraid to keep on walking.
- Eugenia Leigh
Eugeina Leigh’s voice is so musical and daring, it seems to fly on the page. In her first book, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, she wrestles with faith, identity, and the trauma and grief of familial abuse passed down through generations. “Will you hold the small boy version / of my father and hide him / in the trash can? Will you hold his father / back and put his knife / down,” Leigh writes. Despite the pain of the subject matter, Leigh’s speaker continually seeks beauty and possibility, ensuring us “that to worship is to survive is to be / wholly human.” This book is a gift. To be held in the wild depths of Leigh’s voice is to be carried toward healing and hope.
CORRECTION: When we originally published this, we listed Grace Bonner under her pen name, “Betsy Bonner.” Since learning that she is publishing her debut collection, Round Lake, under the name Grace Bonner, we’ve updated this information.
Thanks for these suggestions. I’ve been writing for decades, but only began writing poetry after my brother died two years ago. I recently took a poetry class, and at least 1/3 of the participants came to poetry through grief and loss. So … a much-needed essay! Thanks again.
Beautiful descriptions of these poet’s work! I’m especially looking forward to reading Michelle Peñaloza writing.