Photo by: Sarah Ross

CM Burroughs’s Five Books of Poetry

I am constantly on the lookout for teachable texts, and I have gathered these five with the ambition that they might teach not only my students, but teach me, too, how beauty and brutality continue to coexist in verse and in our world.

1. Vessel, by Parneshia Jones

If a poet ever learned to praise place—place as land and place as body—it is Parneshia Jones. In her debut book of poems, Vessel, Jones expresses a lush pride in Chicago, in the brown bodies of kinswomen, and in the intimacies and intricacies of culling bodies that have passed away or are passing.

She invokes such literary figures as Baldwin, Brooks, and Rukeyser to lead the reader into sections of the book containing poems such as “Auto-Correcting History,” written for Barack Obama:

It must be understood that he exists
that we exist.

We are real and breathing.
We are hungry and rewriting dictionaries.
We are poets and presidents.

I never know what will buoy me until it comes along—poets and presidents, indeed. The bodies of this book are vivid and tangible, as is Plath in the poem “Hearing Sylvia Plath’s Voice, Circa 1962”:

Your voice is a siren, of sorts,
alive and aware, contradicting all your
posthumous—hiding dark between your breath.

I see this darkness—and lightness—that Jones makes visible in Plath’s mouth, and, again, am raised somewhat in my own mission to be siren. I appreciate Vessel for its care—Jones knows instinctively that compassion is the way through one’s own body as much as it is a way to others’ bodies/burrows/loams. She’ll teach you—you’ll see.

2. Zion, by TJ Jarrett

TJ Jarrett gave a stellar reading during AWP Minneapolis, such that I slipped into her syllables and became moored in her text. Selected for publication by Crab Orchard Series in Poetry/Open Competition, Jarrett’s second collection of poems, Zion, is now in my hands. Reaching the same point of slippage as I did in listening to her read, her language lands on me in the same way I imagine religion must land on the devout. As in the poem “Miss Polly Experiences the Consequences of Gravity,” Jarrett writes one of her many truths:

I have come into knowing

anything you name can fail you; nothing of the body
can be claimed. The owl is an owl. The night is a night.

To be free of metaphor is a mercy. Anything that can be named
can fail you.

Jarrett’s speakers occupy black bodies, female bodies, and the surprising body of the white supremacist politician Theodore Bilbo. Jarrett makes her speakers breathe to give them voice and to make them bear being—is it forgiveness or brutalization, what she offers? Regardless, Jarrett’s is a command that must be borne.

3. Seam, by Tarfia Faizullah

I have a hearty love for Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam. Winner of the 2013 Crab Orchard Series First Book Award and published in 2014, the poems of Faizullah’s first collection turn gaze and question toward women once dispossessed of their bodies—the central subjects of the book are women brutalized during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war. Our poet is fearless and unblinking. She culls familial bodies (both beautiful and troubled, both present and passed) while traveling in Bangladesh toward bodies that, though they look like hers, contain radiant pain. In “Instructions for the Interviewer,” Faizullah writes:

Once, she will say, I didn’t
know there was a hollow inside

me until he pushed himself
into it. Once, you learned

that inside you was not hollow
but seam: […]

Hurting or healing, these poems woo me to love the bodies they invoke. What an unexpected result when such violence is remembered, but it is the beauty of Faizullah’s breaks and diction, how gently she places these poems on the page, that makes it so. I thank her. And I suspect you will, too.

4. Guns & Butter, by Montana Ray

I can’t remember the last time a concrete poem caught me in its grasp. My understanding of concrete poetry is dictated largely by Apollinaire. Yet Montana Ray has absolutely captured me with the form of the gun propagating her first collection of poems, Guns & Butter. And she doesn’t simply invoke the contemporary gun. She grasps the glock, the antique pistol, and the toy gun (there appears the flag at the end of it as you realize, no, you haven’t been assaulted here; you, reader, are still whole). And each of these hard forms contains language that rocks me, as in the poem “(soulville)”: “(the afternoon u held a gun to my head) / (should have been a turning point) (in our courtship) (today’s cold / is yesterday’s front) (the crib keeps silent in a corner)”; or, below, “(I may be late) (a gunwar is on)”:

Reader, you won’t understand this poem’s weapon until you buy the book. If you’ve ever been curious how a lyric poem can be armed, how a poet may find her book in a figure feared, then Guns & Butter should reach your hands.

5. The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, by Ladan Osman

One of the most graceful women I know is Ladan Osman, and no less graceful is her first full-length book of poems, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. Her poems speak the emotions each of us bumps into, ready or not, daily—desire, despair, joy, and resentment. In the poem “Ordinary Heaven,” we glimpse a synthesis of these emotions:

I arrange a doll in a chair and wait for her to speak.

I want to say, “Be!” but am an ordinary creation.
I watch for the folds under her eyes to twitch.

I have many dreams, I say to her.
In my dreams I’m better than myself.

This is a poem in which even play is a troubled task. This is a poem in which I nearly, as its reader, twitch as I wait for its figure to twitch. It is not easy to know how Osman makes her reader dangle on the edge of beauty and danger, but she does. Another girl voice in the book comes through the poem “First Red Dress”:

“I like it,” my brother says.
The other says, “Go out in that dress
and you’ll get split like a watermelon. Down there.

[…] I take big strides. How could I rip anything?
Fall on a big rock? Cut myself down there,
though it’s never happened before.

It is questions like these that cause the speakers of this book to be hard or hardened, to take her and her softer parts out in private moments only. Harm becomes haint in this book, just as beauty becomes that for which I hold my breath. Hold. Release. Hold. Release.

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