All hail National Poetry Month, in which we are allowed — encouraged, even — to revel in words laid one by one without the usual constraints of punctuation or the so-called rational sequencing of prose.
In honor of this month of literary freedom, my picks for April are from three of our freshest, most accomplished young poets — and one, now gone, I cannot imagine life without.
In the coming months, look for new books of poetry by bell hooks and Percival Everett; don't forget to read Chris Abani and Natasha Trethewey; and take some time to sink into the deep waters of Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde and Yusef Komunyakaa.
Make April count. Add your favorite poets to the list in the comments, or fill the space with a poem of your own.
Evoke. Excite. Reveal. Stir. Boil. Ponder. Dare. Deliberate. Rage. Love. Desire. Howl. Be bold. Take the road not traveled.
These writers did.
Directed by Desire, by June Jordan (Copper Canyon Press)
The legendary June Jordan was one of the first poets I knew, read and understood deep in my bones. Her book for young adults, His Own Where, holds a permanent place on my bookshelf, and Things That I Do in the Dark, her first collection of poems from 1977, saw me running to pick up my own pen in response to the power of her words:
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
are you ready?
they are stones in the water
These skeletal lines
they are desperate arms for my longing and love.
I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
whoever you are
whoever I may become.
The work of Terrance Hayes is new to my bookshelf but no less loved for its potency than volumes that have stood the test of time. His latest, the National Book Award-winning Lighthead, feels especially prescient. From the jacket: "Hayes' fourth collection portrays the lightheadedness of a mind trying to pull against gravity and time. It sets what it means to be 'light longing for lightness' against what it means to 'burn with all of the humanity fire strips away.' " Yes. Yes. Yes.
Even if you love the racket of ascension,
you must know how the power leaves you.
And at this pitch, who has time for meditation?
The sea walled in by buildings. I do miss
the quiet. Don't you? When I said, "Fuck the deer
antlered and hithered in fur," it was because
I had seen the faces of presidents balled into a fist.
If I were in charge, I would know how to fix
the world: free health care or free physicals,
at least, and an abiding love for the abstract.
When I said, "All of history is saved for us,"
it was because I scorned the emancipated sky.
Does the anthem choke you up? When I asked
God if anyone born to slaves would die
a slave, He said, "Sure as a rock descending
a hillside." That's why I'm not a Christian.
The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir, by Staceyann Chin (Scribner)
Staceyann Chin. What to say about this beautiful, bold, fearless woman? I came to her poems just last year, after reading this critically acclaimed memoir. I didn't know anything about Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam or her legions of readers all over the world. I was a fan, but then, the poems, they showed me something else. Something more. Something undeniable.
In the fall of 1990
I let go of my virginity
The Desert Storm blasting loud from his 13 inch TV
of course it was summer there
sweat collecting in my navel trembling
in the face of the unknown
I wondered then
if the explosions were for me
or the little people on the blue screen
far away from my pleasure
they were pictured small
boys with metal rods pointing to where they suspect America
Today I make love to a young girl
the sound of this New War everywhere
wonder what we will lose this time
I was visiting
home for when it began
silver bombs bursting clouds
everything looks small on cable TV
I don't know
maybe the boys in Kuwait lived
maybe only their dreams died in the gulf that year
But I will never be that girl again
slow turning beneath his hands
I am a woman now
"Allegiance" appears by permission of the author.
Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, by Thomas Sayers Ellis (Graywolf Press)
Ellis co-founded the Dark Room Collective and received a Whiting Award, among several others. From the jacket of his explosive new collection, Skin, Inc., is Ellis' ambitious argument for an America whose identity is in need of repair. Part handbook noir, part identity repair kit, part plea for poetic wholeness, this collection worries and self-defends, eulogizes and casts a vote, raises a fist and, often, an intimidating song. One example:
Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or "Of Color"
or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora
or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory's armor
of ignorant comfort
or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry
or fear of …
of terror or border.
Or all organized
"Or," appears by permission of the author.
Rebecca Walker is a frequent contributor to The Root.