Contemporary poetry is so much more than the traditional rhyme scheme, flowery quotes, and love cliches that come to mind when you think of poetry — especially more traditional feminine poetry. But a combination of increasingly progressive societal norms and more relaxed stylistic writing conventions makes poetry today a particularly useful medium for truthful self-exploration.
Free from the need for too much narrative, poetry as a form fosters a more direct relationship with the subconscious than other, more narrative literary forms. Pair this with the feminist awakening happening all around us, and you have yourself the documentation of something beautiful. If you want to know what it’s really like to live in this world as a woman, it’s time to read these five multi-dimensional poetry collections.
Something Bright, Then Holes
by Maggie Nelson
Something Bright, Then Holes encapsulates the messiness and visceral pain of lost love without apology, politeness, or euphemism. Maggie Nelson is a force, and her fourth poetry collection lays bare a raw energy channeled through the human experience of fragility. The book follows the trajectory of a woman experiencing a slow breakup, a trauma later deepened by her time spent caring for a friend after a bad car accident. The journey, which includes a section dedicated to the speaker’s daily walks to a nearby urban canal, feels almost tangible in its rich, corporeal imagery, vividly portraying real anger, sadness, and even ugliness without hesitation.
I Was Not Born
by Julia Cohen
From this platform, Cohen launches into an exploration of the space between the psyche’s interpretation of reality and the mundane yet beautiful details that make up reality itself, using her own childhood recollections as a mode through which to deepen this discussion. The exploration, to its credit, eventually enables the speaker to reconnect with life’s sweetness, subject to — but also somehow impervious to — the knowledge that her future life with her partner is uncertain. Beauty remains beautiful. Love, a byproduct, follows.
by Emily Kendal Frey
Emily Kendal Frey’s second collection of work is characterized by double-spaced, almost minimalist poetry, distinguished by first-person statements and loose descriptions that often leave off in the midst of a thought and never fully return. The appeal of this type of work is that the poems function the way memory does, as if the poems are sketches that perfectly capture, for example, a glance, detail, or instance — but never the whole story. In its resemblance to real memory, this style rings true and conveys much depth in the process.
Thematically, Sorrow Arrow focuses on an ending relationship (presumably a divorce) and describes the day-to-day events in the speaker’s life as they become tainted by loss. Rather than depict, as Maggie Nelson might, the violence, conflict, and emotional frenzy of the situation, Frey’s tone instead is more resigned. Often referencing the exiting partner, the musings and frustrations are more internal, as if attempting to render that person’s existence while his memory and presence is fresh. The lines tend to wander casually into the surreal landscape of the jaded speaker’s imagination — though not without urgency, potency, and emotional vibrance.
by Szilvia Molnar
Published by the small press Future Tense Books from Portland, OR, Soft Split is a poetic dream diary, small and compact and shocking in its commitment to every grisly, dreamy detail. Sex, love, betrayal, pregnancy, mental stability, and even the workplace come into play — but don’t ever actually come into being (or so we think). Emerging writer Szilvia Molnar plays with the idea that dreams reflect the subconscious, but also seems to be pointing out that in their absurdity, dreams are also a way through which we can free ourselves from our own self-analysis.
Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast
by Hannah Gamble
Hannah Gamble is distinct in that she somehow manages to talk about death, love, loss, and self-exploration poignantly without becoming too heavily-steeped in solemnity. Her work handles imagery with a light but accurate touch, unafraid to ground the reader with the mention of something common and familiar, like a puffy windbreaker or a gumball machine, then driving home a specific feeling with the precision of a brain surgeon. It’s this complex combination that makes Gamble’s collection a particularly apt representation of the conflicts that define modern womanhood: domestic familiarity passed down from generation to generation; awareness of being subtle but repeatedly treated like a sexual object; and a desire for love that is not always harmonious with her strong sense of self.
In metaphorical terms, Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast uses imagery and language that invokes a polite social event to draw a parallel to antiquated societal gender and lifestyle expectations. The result is the sense that we’re all guests at this party, confused about the formal table settings and wondering how to continue playing our roles.