“The poem,” Rafael Campo writes in his essay “AIDS and the Poetry of Healing,” “is a physical process, is bodily exercise.” It is “perhaps […] an idealization, or a dream of the physical — the imagined healthy form. Yet it does not renounce illness; rather, it reinterprets it as the beginning point for healing.” Although Campo’s ideas in that essay reflect a dynamic he felt between formal poetry and his experience treating patients suffering from AIDS, I’d venture to say that they can be extended to encompass all poems, formal or otherwise, and to illnesses that wrack not only the singular, subjective body, but its larger, ephemeral cognate, the body politic — and it was under this belief that I compiled this list. The books I selected felt like they were attempting to heal, in some way, some of the most nefarious ills in the world — domestic abuse; HIV/AIDS; racism; mass incarceration; nationalism — through poetry. And while it may seem romantic or naïve to assume that poetry could function in such a way, I’m comforted in knowing I’m not alone in that belief. As A. F. Moritz wrote in Poetry Magazine: “Poetry is the place where […] [we can be] given the gift of a prophecy: that the proper unity still and always persists, and that it can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door.”
Rafael Campo, Landscape with Human Figure
While the settings in this collection vary widely — a blacked-out Cuba; a bridge in Florence; a Fayetteville back road — it was the moments in which Campo focuses on the human figures populating these landscapes that resonated the most with me. Take, for instance, a section from the poem “Phone Messages on Call”: the speaker, a doctor, listens as an infirm Guatemalan woman recounts soiling herself in “a voice hushed / in English both too formal and too harsh, the language she reserves for landlords, case- /workers, and doctors.” When the woman attempts personal connection by asking if he “eh-speak eh-Spanish,” the speaker responds: “No, I say, pretending I’d not recognize her face, / and then proceed to offer my advice.” Moments like these, in which Campo captures some of the nuances of healing, are woven throughout the collection, and remind us that sometimes creating emotional distance — even in writing poetry — is the only way to steel against pain.
Rachel McKibbens, Pink Elephant
This particular spot on the list counts as two, in my mind, because I can’t write about Pink Elephant without considering Rachel McKibbens’s most recent collection, blud. Whereas the speaker in blud has (seemingly) come to terms with childhood cruelties and abuse, the voice in Pink Elephant vibrates with rage toward her family and her self — it spits out scene after violent scene. By the end, I couldn’t help but feel much like the speaker does after at the end of “The Second Time”: “holding / a bleeding sack of coins, waiting / for silence to overcome / the night.” And perhaps silence is exactly what must occur in order to write a collection as marked as Pink Elephant, a silence in which the body can be allowed to howl as it tends its wounds.
Jorie Graham, P L A C E
Since first encountering Jorie Graham’s work, I’ve maintained that she’s nothing less than a force of nature, an idiom that feels especially apt for a collection that reckons with climate change. Graham dilates liminal experiences — a summer solstice, walking on the shore’s edge, the curl of a wisteria vine — in an attempt to come to terms with humanity’s hand at actively destroying the world. The effect is staggering, and even more so when one considers that all of this is accomplished through poetry. Toward the end of the book, the collective culpability is undeniable, but the poems drive our noses into it anyway. From “A Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011”: “We, / whoever we / were, made that / up. Everything / that caught our / eye — shining — we / took.”
C. D. Wright, One Big Self: An Investigation
In a de facto introduction, C. D. Wright makes clear the intention behind One Big Self: “Not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize. What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time.” It’s difficult to isolate a single line or moment from the book that could explain what it’s like to experience the stories and episodes that Wright recorded from the Louisiana prisoners she visited for this book. Instead, I can only say that the “real feel” I experienced at the collection close was equal parts lament and anger. One Big Self is a repudiation of the “everyone-for-themselves” mentality that the systems of mass incarceration (and capitalism, if we’re being frank) would have us believe. In her role of “humble factotum,” Wright reminds us that mass incarceration is a deep wound that continues to afflict this country, and allows us to imagine how poetry might be used as a beginning point toward healing.
Emmy Pérez, With the River on Our Face
Within this book I recognized a truth best phrased by Gloria Anzaldúa: “The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” It is a truth I learned from lived experience. I was four when I crossed the border, smuggled in a hollowed-out stereo speaker. Though I’ve been too afraid to vocalize what that truth means to me, and to the thousands of others who look over their shoulders daily, I’m grateful for poets like Pérez, who are brave enough to remind us how necessary it is to write from, and about, that “place where children still speak and lose / multiple tongues.”
Notes on Seroconversion
If its immune system is “stressed”
doesn’t that justify the body’s third
cigarette? The fourth? The fifth
of Jack, slapped back
straight because it lacks a faith
in prayer and Percocet?
Nowadays the body lives as a dung beetle
does, night after night, its strange
fixed on the Milky Way, hoping to shape meaning
from the scat.
Granted, it was not always this way.
Once, the body had dreams: to be steel
stainless, young, taut
something you could whet
a beat on
night after night—
Once, the body had dreams.
If not the sharpest, certainly
the most clean.
Ricardo Hernandez is the son of Mexican immigrants. A recipient of fellowships from Lambda Literary and Poets House, his work has appeared in Assaracus, The Cortland Review, and Newtown Literary. He’s an MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark.