Can a book of poems be your beach read? Yes. Yes it can.
Many of us have a favorite poem, maybe one that went viral, like Maggie Smith’s lovely “Good Bones,” or one we return to or want to share with others. As a high school teacher (and a poet), I’m lucky enough to get to share my favorites with students every year — Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” for example — and add new ones into the mix whenever I can, like Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like a Girl.” Poetry can be viewed as opaque or difficult, but poems are as varied as your beach day is long.
While novels give us clear direction on how to read them, a whole book of poems by a single author can feel intimidating. Do we read sequentially? Sure! The poems appear in an intentional order. Can you start in the middle, find a poem that speaks to you, and start there? Absolutely. Titles are meant to catch our eye. Prefer to begin at the end? Also fine. There’s no one way to read a book of collected poems, which is why they are great beach books: perfectly portable, easy to enjoy in small or larger doses. Here are several of my favorites from New England poets from the past year or two.
“American Treasure” by Jill McDonough
Jill McDonough, a professor at UMass Boston’s MFA program, is a writer I love to teach; her poems, often set in and around Boston, are conversational, funny, and profound. Drawing from her experiences during the pandemic, “American Treasure” feels like equal parts time capsule and lamentation, like titles such as “Freedom is My Pedicure”; “Quarantine 2020″; “There was a lot of stuff to do”. McDonough also works in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, and poems about her students center their humanity and humor as well as our uniquely American hypocrisy. In “Freedom” she writes: “I talk to students in jail about freedom, how in America we obsess over it,” and in the title poem, “American Treasure,” a student asks her, “Jill, do you do coffee before /you come here?”
“A Case for Solace” by Liz Ahl
Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” itself the subject of a famous W.H. Auden poem, appears on the cover of “A Case for Solace,” published this year by Lily Poetry Review Press. Ahl teaches writing at Plymouth State University and lives in rural New Hampshire. These poems speak to the ambient, persistent anxiety of the last few years, and the sharp, needling, and unpredictable pain of grief. In “About Suffering,” after the loss of her father, Ahl tells us how “time bent and stretched/in all directions.” The quiet of these poems shows how the natural world goes on in spite of our human drama (“Balm”), and in “Tricking the Lilac,” how we witness (and prune and trim) branches and dead things, keeping busy with the “pantomime of living/until it becomes the living.”
“When My Body Was a Clinched Fist” by Enzo Silon Surin
Enzo Silon Surin’s collection about growing up Black and Haitian-born in Queens fuses hip-hop rhythms, New York geography, and the psychology of trauma. Surin, who teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and is the founder of Central Square Press, spins a free-flowing list of survival skills when faced with a threat (which was almost always). There’s pain in this collection, and vulnerability; in “Chotsani,” Surin recalls how puberty “planted/a minefield of pimples/in this greasy wasteland … called face.” But Surin’s writing is also, and maybe largely, about creation, generation and regeneration; in other words, “How to Make a Fist a Microphone.”
“Wolf Girls vs. Horse Girls” by Catherine Weiss
Published last year by Boston-based Game Over Books, “Wolf Girls” is a triumphant catalog of messy and irreverent middle and high school memories, a great example of how poems can become just-right containers for the trauma we’ve compartmentalized or buried. In the title poem, the Wolf Girls and Horse Girls are on opposing pages; “Horse Girls draw perfect families holding hands” while Wolf Girls, “alone in their rooms,” draw an unnamed animal, and tell stories “In which we were still wild.” The poem “Redacted Names of People I’ve Loved And the Current Distance Between Our Hearts” is as visual as it is textual, and the verse paragraph poem “I Can Guess What Instrument You Played in Middle School Band” is a must-read for anyone who played MASH in middle school and/or struggled with a reed instrument. The poem’s run-on lines are reminiscent of the “wrapped oak roots around our ankles” and the ways adolescence can feel so confining.
Rachel Becker is a poet, writer, and teacher of English and Creative Writing at Newton South High School. She can be reached at email@example.com.