If you know anything about my literary “preferences,” you know that I like reading stories that haven’t been told before. I don’t subscribe to the idea that every story has already been told; no story is 100% unique, but a good story will tell me something new about the human experience, and it does that through unique story.
Poetry books can tell a story, too, and I think some stories are far better written in verse than in prose. Of course, those stories aren’t always linear or clearly defined, but if you pay close attention to a poetry book, you can see how the poems talk to each other and create a narrative.
I want to share some of these poetry books with you. Writing this down will help me approach my own poetry book, and I hope that, if you read any of these books, you’ll reach out and tell me about it. Let’s fangirl over Sam Sax, Richard Siken, or Anne Carson together.
Poetry Books That Tell a Story, in No Particular Order
In no particular order, these are my favorite poetry books that tell a story.
Sam Sax’s poetry has always taken my breath away, but A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters is still my favorite chapbook of his. Written in a series of bestiaries and lyrical poetry, each section of the book is accompanied by a drawing a boy in a monster costume slowly unzipping himself.
I love how Sax’s book expands the possibilities of poetry. As the poet strips himself of what makes him a monster, he also dissects his queerness and the things that try to make it monstrous. One poem that stuck with me is “The Hunger Artist.” Quoted below:
cannibal ditch, the father,
the son, & the holy spirit
spread across his fingers
I love the musicality in this piece, as well as the way it borrows from Catholic prayer but finds religion in something deemed “unholy.” I know the “Sacrilegious Catholic” thing has been done a thousand times over, but this one is special.
I don’t think Danez Smith needs much of an introduction. A Cave Canem poet, a 30 Under 30 award winner, and a powerful voice within the slam, queer, poz, and genderqueer communities, Danez Smith has a habit of breaking barriers in language.
Don’t Call Us Dead is certainly a barrier-breaking book, especially among poetry books that tell a story. The opening open “Summer, Somewhere” comprises 1/3 of the book itself and reimagines a world where black boys aren’t killed for the color of their skin. The poet can’t get the world right, so they keep reinventing and reimagining it. In one world, the boys “say their own names when they pray”; in another, they dream about the old world and awake “hands up.”
Every moment of this book tells a story about survival and violent intimacy. Smith leaves no bloodied stone unturned, and there are many moments throughout the book that leave the reader stunned on the page.
The first two poetry books tell a story through emotions. We might not see Sam Sax literally strip himself down, and we might not see Danez Smith tell us they dream of better worlds, but the reader learns quickly that there’s a story at play.
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky is different. The reader follows the story of an unnamed town in military occupation. When a deaf boy is killed by the occupying soldiers, the entire town feigns deafness, resulting in a quiet rebellion of clandestine communication and stolen moments of intimacy.
I can’t imagine the story of Deaf Republic being told in any way other than verse, and I can’t imagine anyone else telling this story than Kaminsky. Each poem is gorgeous, both on its own and when fit into the larger book, and as the townspeople rebel, the speakers of each poem deliver stunning, brilliantly imagined lines.
Kaminsky asks: what is a child? Answer: a quiet between two bombardments. What is a man? Answer: a quiet between two bombardments. We are all, in our own way, silenced by what oppresses us, but in that silence we form a self, and in that self, we form rebellion.
I’ll close with one of the most intimate lines I’ve ever read.
You can fuck
anyone—but with whom can you sit
The only thing I love more than Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s poetry is MLO herself. She’s hilarious, she’s an amazing poet, she’s kind, and she’s so pretty. I had the pleasure of seeing her live when she toured with Olivia Gatwood, and she’s as wonderful and charismatic in person as she is on Twitter. (Also, her cat’s instagram kills me).
Nevermind the fact that I’m a huge MLO stan—her poetry is wonderful. Peluda is her debut chapbook, and in it she documents the intersections of womanhood and non-white femininity in a culture that tries to reject both. Peluda, which roughly translates to “hairy beast,” examines this intersection through a narrative of hair. Head hair, arm hair, lip hair, hair in the shower and curled into question marks on the pillow. Hair stuck to tape, hair tweezed from the brow, hair on hair on hair.
What develops from these poems about hair is a narrative of reclamation: we see the poet understand that her hair, much like her identity, must fight for its place in the world. We begin with a girl with bangs who’s too afraid to show her true emotions, but we end with a girl who worries about the state of the world while her mustache is strung in Harvard Square.
MLO’s poetry is witty, conversational, and offers a new way of writing and loving poetry. Where the confessional poets of last century were formulaic and evocative, MLO’s confessional style offers a new type of direct, unfiltered honesty. I absolutely love her work and the narrative of this book.
I could talk endlessly about Crush. This book defines the struggles of the gay male experience: its monstrosity and alienation, the confusion of intimacy and violence. Crush is a stellar, intense work, and it tops my list of poetry books that tell a story.
Each poem struggles with masculinity, queerness, and the search for love. With each love-story-gone-wrong, the speaker falls into a pit that many queer men, including myself, have fallen into: confusing sex with love, violence with generosity, hurt with honesty. Most queer men will understand Siken when he compares himself to the dragon in every fantasy story, or the “boy who’s a dead boy because he likes other boys.”
I could sing the praises of this book endlessly. It’s an infinite, inescapable read, and I find myself returning to it after bad dates or bad days. However, I think you get the gist, so I won’t talk for too long on Crush. Instead, I’ll close on this quote from the book:
I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.
It’s such a powerful, potent line. The speaker loves the boy so much he wants to die by the boy’s hands, and when he doesn’t get this, he holds onto the boy’s jacket as a memory. This line demonstrates that confusion of love and violence, and also the tender nostalgia of being a gay man, the sequences of almost-loves that we hold onto because we haven’t had anything better. Siken guts me, and if you pick up Crush, I think he’ll gut you too.