We're well past poetry month now, but I am here to remind you: poetry knows no such thing as calendars. Poems are for the rainy Spring Tuesdays, for the slow drives to work, for the warm, crepuscular nights that mean summer has finally arrived. Poetry is forever!
Poetry is also often used for things we traditionally consider occasions: weddings, birthdays, funerals, baptisms, St. Patrick’s Day, etc. The poems read at these events have lofty titles like “On God” or “On the Meaning of Being Alone” (I’m sure these are real poems somewhere in the world but don’t fact check me). For me, poetry is more often about just noticing, nothing fancy or profound, no grand proclamations about death, just noticing. It reminds me to open my eyes as I walk through my days, it reminds me to feel my body sitting, leaning, breathing.
In Nikkey Finney’s big, beautiful book Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, she brings an amazing amount of personal stories, history, and current events together into lyric fragments and artifacts and poems, some of which she calls “occasional poems.” Some are poems that she was commissioned to write for such grand events as I have mentioned, others are some she wrote to commemorate smaller moments, like on revisiting a painting or reading a letter from her father. Finney made me think about what occasions warrant poetry, and for me it is the everyday occasions I find myself looking for a poem upon: on finding a new penny on the sidewalk. On feeling a cold glass of water go silver through your chest as you drink it on a hot summer’s day. On a breeze that seems to momentarily carry the powdery scent of your grandmother’s hands as it brushes your nose, even though she has been dead for years. These are the occasions to celebrate and spend time with because we so often fail to pay them their mind. To pay attention to our own occasions so we do not leave them behind.
Here I have compiled a few books of poetry and suggested an occasion you might find yourself in and thus find yourself needing a few poems to celebrate/elegize/complicate/clarify that occasion:
On the occasion of looking for nuance in pop culture
Nicky Beer - Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes
I remember when the phrase “deep fake” didn’t mean anything to me. I remember when teachers told me not to put pop culture references in poems because they pin the poem to a certain point in time, something poems should apparently not be allowed to do. Both those ideas are bullshit and Nicky Beer knows it, she knows both how frustrating it is to have to question everything and how revealing that questioning can be when seeking some kind of clarity in ideas. Yes, the first poem is about Dolly Parton, and the book begins with an epigraph from Bjork, and beyond that these poems swing along the emotional register from snort chuckles to throat lumps and everything in between.
On the occasion of realizing the Western literary canon has failed you
Roger Reeves - Best Barbarian
I’ve been waiting for Roger Reeves’ second book to come out for years and it certainly does not disappoint. From Grendel and Odysseus to James Baldwin and his infant daughter, Reeves skillfully moves his lines through history and into the present to create one humming pool of living. I think part of his greatness comes from knowing that there is no use denying history and that the best thing to do is talk about it in our own plain, loving words. From the first poem you know this poet does research, but the more you read it is clear that Reeves’ mind is a wonder, just how he arranges words can make me cry, his attention to the line make me shiver, his use of sound leaves me without words. He is also one of the best readers I’ve ever heard, if you ever see that he’s giving a reading, run don’t walk!
On the occasion of driving home late at night with your mom
Rosalie Moffett - Nervous System
It seems a fairly common phenomena (at least among my friends) that you have big, meaningful talks on late night drives. For me, that seems to always be the best time for me and my mom to let our conversations out, give them enough space to move around and get comfortable. I don’t mean to say Rosalie Moffett’s gorgeous collection is only about a mother, but the flowing, wave-like poems so remind me of that late night car ride conversational style where any thing of the world is fair game and the world opens up. Moffett billows through bodies and snails, time and painkillers until you are so wrapped in these poems you give yourself over to their idea of reality gladly. I recommend reading this all at once, preferably on a porch, warm evening, frogs croaking somewhere in the field beside you.
On the occasion of searching
Aimee Nezhukumatathil - Oceanic
This is one of the first books of poetry I fell in love with so excuse me if I get a little sappy. But how can we avoid it talking about first loves? Nezhukumatathil’s eyes are so open to the world I always feel more awake after reading her poems. These are poems of the world from under the sea to the Taj Mahal that know there is nothing as important as seeing. And her word choice? Like sun bursts all over the place, music to read. I’ll always treasure this collection for how it lifts the rock of a day, any day, and shows you all the tiny scuttling hermit crabs and blue slivers of beach glass hidden beneath. For how it feels like the most intimate conversation with a friend and lesson on the more-than-human world, all at once.