There’s alchemy in poetry. There’s some vibrant magic in this art. It consumes and revives and transforms. It’s a power that’s hard to describe, yet is experiential, nonetheless. This power is what drew me to poetry in high school during a regional Poetry Out Loud program, a requirement for my 10th grade English class. I didn’t know it was possible to hold someone in rapture through language, until I heard a poem, and I have never stopped listening and writing them since.
One of the magical possibilities of poetry is its ability to cultivate healing. Lucille Clifton talks in an interview about this very magic stating “poetry can heal… [and] I don’t care if people don’t believe it or not; I know that there are lines and words put together that are very healing…” In our cultural climate of reflecting and experiencing so much societal, governmental, and personal harm; it’s no wonder many have returned and revived poetry as a balm for the current moment. We are in need of rest, we are in need of healing, and I think we’ll be in a constant state of these needs for some time.
Poetry can be amorphous. It can eschew its own genre and the conventions placed upon it. This is evidenced by lyrical essays, fiction that pushes against chronology, hybrid works, and more. The poetic doesn’t solely exist in one form, it’s resistant in that way. I, like Lucille Clifton, don’t care if people believe in the potential for poetry to cultivate healing. What I do care about is what grows despite belief. The creation of something that can resist and heal simultaneously. I care about the capacity of language to revive and change whoever engages with it. It’s in the following texts that I see that happening, outside of genre, outside of sheer belief, and very much inside possibility.
I always return to this book when I need a reminder to love myself. Porsha Olayiwola cements the need and ability to love the self in this poetry collection that makes the reading of it a ritual. Her poems are a reminder of what it means to stand at the intersectionality of one’s identities and to allow those identities to be seen and cared for. From “The Electric Slide is Not a Dance, Man!” to “Twerk Villanelle” I am reminded what it means to grow amid destruction and hate, while finding love and joy simultaneously. Her poems remind me what language can do and are meant to be sung aloud, as poems should be.
I had WHEREAS on my shelf for so many years before cracking it open. And in some ways, I feel like I needed those years to prime myself for what the collection has done to me.There are true horrors in the history of the United States, and Layli Long Soldier writes about them in a way that makes me weep. She writes “Whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality//salt-shakers, plates, cloth” and I know exactly the ways in which she is resisting the current and ancestral colonialism she and her ascendants experienced. Even in her retelling, of the history of harm against not only Native American people, but the land itself, I found that in speaking the truth there’s an opportunity to find a pathway towards healing. That’s a radical thing for a collection of poems to do.
I was often taught to tame my wildness. And reading Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval gave me permission to lean into a liberating untamedness. Finding this permission feels especially profound to me as a Black woman writer and someone reckoning with the way Black women (and so many others) are continuously harmed in this country. In “Another Anitpastoral” she writes “Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins” and I feel a permission to do the same. Francis’ ability to write wildness has healed a calloused part of myself that struggled to see myself as liberated. In my Blackness and my femme-ness I can love the beauty in my wildness.
Many years ago, I heard Rachel McKibbens read some poems from blud and it made me want to write with an honesty that she brings to her work. It’s not just honesty, it’s a lightness of the language itself, that allowed me to feel less weighed down by the living of my own life. My favorite poem from this collection is “glutton” in which McKibbens writes “you write poems to understand what you cannot understand.//finally name the snapping beast you’ve tried to outrun your entire life.” There’s something about witnessing someone else talk about something difficult that makes your own healing possible. This is what happens when I read blud. I am reminded of the power of witnessing.
I didn’t know that a fiction book could also be a poem until I read Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. This is when I knew that poetry is not monolith but multidimensional and ever evolving. I lost myself in this book. In the week I read it, I lived in the world with the characters as they worked through addiction and traveling throughout the South. Ward created a universe I did not want to leave. I mourned by the time I made it to the end. And in my mourning, I have never been able to forget the final scene of this book and how it is filled with ghosts. Ward changed my perspective of ghosts entirely. This is when I began to understand apparitions as omens of growth and healing. This is when I began to welcome the presence of my own ghosts.
There’s this poem in this collection shaped like a house and I found myself thinking: What a beautiful way to reckon with the earlier parts in our lives. Sara Borjas taught me about how to talk about the truth in our lives and how to let these moments live on the page. In giving them life, they can become something else and perhaps sting just a tad less. There’s a line in her poem “I Know the Name of the Desert” where she writes “ I am a daughter//who walks through a desert carrying my mother’s wounds.” This line helped inspired a poem in my collection entitled “Ars Poetica” where I thought about the things we carry from our ancestors. It also made me think about how healing isn’t solely personal, but collective. It allowed me to access the idea of healing as an essential and communal experience that can transform an entire lineage.
One of the most incredible lines written in poetry reads: “come celebrate/ with me that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” What a wonder it is that we have the gift of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. What a testament to the art of language. Clifton’s poems illuminate the glory in survival and living. She reiterates this in another poem in her collection titled “she lived” in which a woman mourns the loss of a partner and in a state of grief decides to continue living. It’s not often that we can view the light beyond our grief. Lucille Clifton teaches just that.
There’s a contrapuntal in Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s collection called “Notes on My Present: A Contrapuntal” in which Scenters-Zapico reiterates a speech from Donald Trump alongside a speaker who fights for their own survival. Survival often feels like that precursor to healing and I was struck by the way Scenters-Zapico elegantly and forcefully speaks truth against the patriarchy and a culture of femicide. In doing so, she writes poems that seek to protect Protection, to me, feels like an activated state of knowing a type of healing. This collection is a necessary reminder of protective healing.
Similar to my experience in reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, reading Heart Berries taught me the ways prose can evolve within and through the poetic and in doing so resonate profoundly. I often teach a section of this book, entitled “Heart Berries” in a hybrid course I teach to creative writers. Each time I read that section and this book I find something beautiful to cling onto. Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is a study in the building of interiority. Somehow Mailhot writes in such a way that you feel so close to the speaker. And because of this, their move toward a state of healing feels even more palpable. There’s this moment where she writes “Pain expanded my heart. Pain brought me to you, and our children have blood memories of sorrow and your joy, too. They inherited their share, to cultivate their own children, whose humanity and gentleness will remind them of you and me.” When I read that, I began to understand my own healing in a different way.
Kamilah Aisha Moon’s Starshine and Clay is in deep conversation with Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with you,” and continues as lineage of crafting language to speak not only to healing, but sacredness. Kamilah Aisha Moon died in 2021 and I remember feeling in disbelief. I carried this collection with me for a while after that. I read it again during a writing residency and it heartened to me of the ability for writing to lift and carry. The last few lines of the collection read: “Bless these mosquitoes//& their insatiable thirst, the bluejays//at down trilling you are not through.” The lines have a similar affect on me as Lucille Clifton’s “she lived” and serve as a reminder of the power of ancestry and passing through one life into another. Or one state of being into another. Or one state of being into a state of healing. What a lesson Kamilah Aisha Moon eternally teaches.