Kalyanii reviews Pansy by Andrea Gibson

 

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There are literary influences whose work has a way of taking us back to a time when we were enlivened, emboldened and perpetually inspired. Then, there are those who nudge—or rather kick—our ass forward, encouraging us to seize the opportunity to wake up, give back and believe in something greater than that for which we, and the world around us, have settled. If we have stumbled upon this force serendipitously, we might even ask, “Where have you been all my life?” or more honestly, “Where have I been to not have found you before today?”

The evening I settled in with Pansy by spoken-word poet and activist Andrea Gibson, I found myself reborn. The experience was something akin to what Ani DiFranco gave to me back in the early ‘90s with her rousing discontent yet more fierce as befitting the undercurrents within our present-moment society which foretell the rise of a raging and hate-fueled tsunami, headed directly for our civil rights and capable of leaving who-knows-what in its wake.

Within their fearless truth telling, Gibson tackles issues of sexism, racism, trauma, suicidal ideation and, yes, love and hope, calling it all as they see it with self-deprecating humor amid pleas to abandon complacency and seek out ways in which to hang on and work together to quell the devastation of that rising wave of bigotry, heteronormative ideology and apathy that threatens to imprison, if not destroy, us with its yet again growing momentum. (Mind you, I’m writing this on the eve of the U.S. presidential election and can only hope that you’ll turn to me upon reading this and assure me that it was only a very, very bad dream, after all.)

The first poem that gleaned my attention was “A Letter to My Dog Exploring the Human Condition,” in which Gibson addresses their dog, Squash, a.k.a. My Beating Heart with Fur and Legs, and imagines how the nonsensical habits of humans must appear to her, all the while expressing their undying love. With tenderness, they write, “If I could I would put your beating heart in my mouth / and suck on it like a piece of candy / so I could truly understood [sic] how / you got so sweet.”

Given Gibson’s commitment to advocacy and support for those contemplating suicide, it comes as no surprise that “The Madness Vase, a.k.a. the Nutritionist” serves as a letter “to anyone who has ever wanted to die,” providing understanding and pledging to remain by their side. Gibson assures,

I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance.
Even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?

You stay here with me. Raising
your bite against the bitter dark,
your bright longing
your brilliant fists of loss.

“Things that Don’t Suck” made me smile with its appreciation for the joys of connection, nostalgia, the simplest things… and the most profound, while “The Insider’s Guide on How to Be Sick” brought me smack into the moment of crisis, to a place where attempts to soothe only exacerbate the pain. To the well-meaning, they cry out, “I know how to talk to god, / and right now god does not expect me / to use my inside voice.”

“A Genderful Pep-Talk for my Younger Self” affirmed my commitment to living honestly and boldly. There was something so very gratifying about realizing that I’ve been around the block enough times to know the perils of compromising oneself in order to meet the status quo. The lines “They’re telling you to blend in, / like you’ve never seen how a blender works, / like they think you’ve never seen the mess from the blade,” serve as a reminder that we’re now smarter about these things than we one were.

While I’ve embraced “Etiquette Leash” as my rally cry, it was “Privilege Is Never Having to Think about It” that gave me the greatest pause, for as firmly as we might believe in our understanding of white privilege, it took the pointing out of the daily safeties and luxuries—the wearing of thrift-store grunge without raising suspicions and the expensive haircuts meant to appear unkempt—to drive the point home.

Though I had convinced myself that none of the love poems would rank among my favorites, “To My Love on the Day She Discovered Tumblr and Every Love Poem I Ever Wrote to Every Woman I Loved Before Her” certainly found its place there. Offered as a pacifying explanation for having experienced feelings for others in their past, Gibson’s love resonates whether petitioning for understanding or mumbling to themselves, “Damnit, Tumblr, you tattling piece of shit.”

I’ll admit, “Emergency Contact” nearly brought me to my knees with its clumsy though heartfelt wooing, embodied within lines such as

I have never made a love potion that hasn’t blown up,
but your mouth is the sexiest beaker.

or

Fuck playing the field.
Do you know how wild I could grow
in the flower pot beside your desk?

Seldom (if ever) have I witnessed such original use of metaphor as within the examples above as well as so many others littered throughout the collection. If truth be told, Gibson’s masterful implementation of the device has inspired me to discover a whole new level of connection and meaning within my own writing. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the tender and the ridiculous touches a place in me that begs for surrender.

Just for the record, that still doesn’t peg me as a romantic.

In conclusion, given the political unrest and impending threat to the civil rights of all marginalized people within the United States, I’m grateful that Gibson’s honesty, humor, integrity and passion have reached me in just the nick of time. I only wish that I had encountered them long ago, for there have been more personal, rather than political, times in my life when I could have used the strength and vulnerability of someone who “gets it” to keep me hanging on. Yet, what we have is today and a most pressing need for all of us to speak up and do something to make things safer, kinder, more equal and just. Please, I ask of you, let Gibson inspire and strengthen you the way they have inspired and strengthened me. We’ll do this together. We’ll hang in there with one another for as long as it takes.

Bessie reviews The Red Parts and Jane by Maggie Nelson

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Nelson is a wonderful writer, whose memoir/queer theory explosion The Argonauts was probably the best book I read last year. It got me interested in checking out some of her earlier work, The Red Parts and Jane, which are very different from The Argonauts, and from each other, but both exceptional books.

I wasn’t sure about writing about these books here, because Nelson doesn’t address her sexuality at all, but they’re both so good. We’re more than a single aspect of our identity. Here Nelson is writing as a daughter, a niece, a young woman who sees herself in her aunt’s fate.

I read The Red Parts first, and it opened up the world of Jane to me. Though it was written later, I think I’d recommend this reading order. Both books deal with the story of Nelson’s aunt, Jane, who had been murdered thirty-five years before. The crime was never solved. Nelson grew up with this story as a part of her family history. It shaped her childhood in ways that she didn’t really understand until she got older. Jane is the book of poetry she wrote trying to understand her aunt and the murder. Just before Jane was going to be published a detective called Nelson’s family and told them that they had found the murderer. The Red Parts is the memoir she wrote about this news, the ensuing trial, and how Nelson’s perspective on the case shifted with new information.

The Red Parts is a really compelling mix of true crime/detective story, family history, and writer’s journal. Nelson’s relationship to Jane’s death is informed by the fact that she just spent years writing a book of poetry about it. She’s done the research, she knows the facts, she’s visited the sites. And now all of this information is being presented in the new context of a trial. From her family it is just Nelson and her mother who are able to attend every day of the trial. We also see how Nelson went about writing Jane. Having her describe the process that created these poems made me really want to read them.

That Jane is an artifact within The Red Parts informed how I approached it. It gave a backstory for how these words wound up on the page. In the poems she tracks down her aunt’s old boyfriend — we see more of how this happened in The Red Parts. It gives more history and context for everything that happened. While I’m sure the poems would stand on their own, having the memoir as well enriches the experience.

What really struck me reading Jane was the way it commented on the vulnerability of being a young woman. Jane was coming of age during the late sixties. She was rebelling from her parents, and starting to create her own life, which was suddenly halted because women, especially young women are vulnerable to male violence. While Jane was not raped, at the time her death was linked to a serial killer who did really horrific things to his victims. Nelson’s writing about violence against women, including sexual violence, is so raw. This vulnerability is something she shares with her aunt, something that has not changed or gone away. Both books riff off an Edgar Allen Poe quote wondering what the most poetic topic in the world is, and deciding it must be the death of a beautiful woman. That is almost the subject of Nelson’s poetry, but she’s equally preoccupied with asking what is it about our world that makes this a correct answer.

Both books are the sort of writing that sweeps you up and holds on. I didn’t mean to read The Red Parts in one night. I was going to read a little bit before bed, but not much, because I was worried about the true crime element giving me bad dreams. But then it was so good, and so compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. I spent a wonderful raining afternoon with Jane. It’s such a narratively gripping collection of poems. Even though I knew the story already from The Red Parts, I wanted to follow Nelson’s train of thought, and see where her poetic journey into her aunt’s murder lead. They’re beautiful, tragic books.

Julie Thompson reviews You're The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White

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Arisa White’s newest poetry collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, plumbs the depths of what it means to exist in the world as queer, female, a person of color, and beyond. She undresses a multitude of topics, including race, family, and relationships. The collection offers tender, tumultuous, and light moments.

In the introduction, White shares how a Wikipedia page full of translated terms for gay provided the initial inspiration for this work. She discovered “how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty [she] discovered when [she] paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases” (Introduction, 9). Notes on the origins for poems titled with derogatory terms and cultural references are located at the end of the collection.

The collection draws its title from the poem “When They Say” (WTS), a poem filled with strong, intense imagery and challenging questions. “Gun(n) for Sakia Gunn” speaks to the 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a lesbian teenager from Newark, New Jersey. “Kokobar”, one of my favorites because of how White draws out the inherent beauty in everyday transactions and interactions, is the name of “the first cybercafé owned and operated by African American women” in Brooklyn, New York. Bullets, obsession, and mangled love, create a new constellation (“Hold Your Part of a Deal”). Infidelity becomes a rotten orchard (“Dirty Fruit”).

I could wax poetic about how much I love explorations of existence and identity through words-sounds-syllables. How culture, age, and history flavor the words that leave our lips. How fluid and malleable words and their meanings are and how translations can’t and don’t necessarily bridge the gap between multiple words. Before starting this review, I read and re-read the poems, both silently and aloud. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is a collection that will stay with you for a long time.

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is available October 11, 2016 from Small Press Distribution.

Danika reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I don’t typically read poetry, and this was a collection that made me realize what a mistake that is. Bodymap is about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life as a queer disabled femme of colour. It’s political, but it’s politics rooted in everyday experiences of injustice and survival, not abstract theorizing. Although her poetry experiments with style, they all are accessible and grounded (which as a poetry novice, I always appreciate).

There are some books that I enjoy so much that I want to draw out the experience of reading them as long as possible, and there are some that I love to the extent that I want to inhale them all in one gasp, and Bodymap was the latter. I found myself in the bizarre situation of being impatient to reread it as I was reading it for the first time. It’s definitely going to be a collection I revisit multiple times, and I know I’ll get more out of it on every read.

This is poetry that punches you in the gut. It’s hard and bright and unapologetic. There is humour and light, but most of all, Bodymap is passionate and honest. And despite the fact that this collection is unapologetically about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s intersectional identity, it has a lot to say just about surviving in this world. This was my favourite read of the month and one I can’t recommend it highly enough.

(Also check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s review!)

Danika reviews Where the Words End and My Body Begins by Amber Dawn

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Where the Words End and My Body Begins is a collection of glosa poems, which means, in part, that each poem incorporates four sequential lines from another poem. What makes this collection especially interesting is Amber Dawn’s selections: each poet glossed “find[s] themselves somewhere along the queer, gender-creative, feminism and/or survivor spectrum.” Although each poet has a different style, which helps shape the glosa created from it, there are some themes that weave the pieces together, including mental illness, sex work, and above all, survivorship.

It’s fascinating to see the different ways that Amber Dawn works with the original poems and creates something new out of them. Some seem to be organic expansions on the original, like she found more words hidden between the lines. Others reinterpret each line and put them in a completely different context. Probably because these are glosas, her writing style varies dramatically throughout the collection. Some worked a lot better for me as a reader–I tend to prefer more grounded, prose-y poetry.

This was an interesting collection that really explores different styles and voices. I think most people will find some poems that speak to them in here, though they may not all hit their mark, depending on the reader. I had to read out the lines “[Sadness] is always here / like a lake forever fed by a cold creek. / Damn right a nature metaphor! / Want more?” to my roommate, because I was cracking up at that interjection.

I never quite know how to review poetry without just quoting it and letting you see for yourself if it’s your style, so here’s part of one of the poems that stuck with me:

I’d sooner howl at a wounded moon, yes, I might
swoon at a questionable light
but at least I still swoon–my scabby kneecaps
may always weep pink, I’m so often floored.
I’ll never be a two-feet-on-the-ground girl.

. . .

Never confuse hold fast with hold still.
There’s so much yet to do. Swoon. I say swoon forever! Apathy
is the world’s worst lover

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews The Story of Ruth and Eliza // self/help/work/book by Kristen Stone

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The Story of Ruth and Eliza // self/help/work/book by Kristen Stone is a double-sided chapbook, with one side being the novella The Story of Ruth and Eliza and the other side the poem self/help/work/book. The poem is eight pages and has to do with abusive relationships. It’s fragmented, and it’s unclear which segments are connected, but they come together to establish a discomfiting mood, and communicates a lot in a small space. I appreciated how Stone used different techniques throughout the poem, from one run-on look inside someone’s mind to short, stark sentences that stand alone in a section. I read this after The Story of Ruth and Eliza, but I would recommend starting with the poem instead, or reading them in different settings, because Ruth and Eliza overshadowed self/help/work/book some for me.

The Story of Ruth and Eliza is a novella (or lengthy short story?) that revolves around two characters: Ruth, a witch, and Eliza, a nurse. The story is told in many small sections, some several pages long and some only a few lines. Each is titled, and though they are written in prose, they seem to act like poems. Stone definitely bring a poetic element into the story, and so many of the lines seem as carefully chosen and evocative  as poetry. Ruth and Eliza meet in a sign language class, and they are brought closer by working on a group project together. Ruth is lonely, and envies Eliza’s home, which is filled with the presence of her children and husband. They are both drawn to each other, but this isn’t exactly a love story.

I instantly fell in love with Kristen Stone’s voice, and found myself reading out lines to my roommate, though I wouldn’t be able to explain why those sentences struck such a chord, like this paragraph, in the section “Dog Kickers”:

When Ruth sees something cure she immediately imagines someone doing damage to it. Crushing its face. Once in the library she heard a woman holding a tiny baby say to another women, I’ll be so glad when she’s too big to fit in the microwave. Ruth wishes for a child but know she can’t. She would think only of the microwave.

I also actually laughed several times while reading, too, which I don’t usually do, and at lines like: “Emmaline and Eddie both seem to think there would be dinosaurs at the zoo. They had confused the idea of a museum and the idea of a zoo and the film Jumanji.

Besides the voice, I most enjoyed the backstories given in The Story of Ruth and Eliza. Both of them are really interesting characters, but it was Eliza’s childhood that really stuck with me. These are definitely characters that are going to stick with me, and that’s especially impressive considering how short this story is (61 pages). There’s also an element of magical realism to the story–is Ruth a witch? What does that mean?–which is left up to interpretation, which adds to the interest.

I was definitely impressed with this chapbook. There were a few typos, but only two or three, and other than that it felt polished and thoughtful. I have another book by Kristen Stone, Domestication Handbook, on my TBR pile, and after reading this one I’m really excited to start it.

Danika reviews Handmade Love by Julie R. Enszer

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Back in January, I read another collection of Julie R. Enszer’s poetry: SisterhoodI found that little poetry book so powerful that I was eager to pick up another collection of Enszer’s work. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much. Sisterhood had several poems (one especially) that hit me so hard that I re-read them over and over, and kept thinking about them for days. I even found myself reading bits out loud to my roommate. Handmade Love has the same poetry style for the most part, but I didn’t read any poems that had such an impact on me as the first collection.

That might have to do with where I am in my life, though. While Sisterhood obviously was themed a lot around sisters, Handmade Love is more concerned with aging and marriage. Reading these poems at the ripe old age of 23, I’m probably not the best audience. I did have other issues on top of this, though. One was that I found more poems in this collection to be distractingly rhyme-y, which is just my personal preference in poetry. Also there’s a footnote that leads to nothing! Which is another pet peeve.

But more importantly, there’s also transphobia in one poem: “Terms of Endearment”: “Then I learned you consider / yourself to be male–transgendered. … Immediately, I’ve like to say “FTM tr***ie” and cast / upon you my feminine wiles, but can I?” For one thing, trans men do not “consider themselves” to be male, they are. “Transgendered” is also not the preferred term: it’s “transgender”. And then there’s the slur. This poem, I think, is trying to be pro-trans, but it’s coming from an extremely cissexist place that made me wince to read. Especially from a book that is described on the back cover as “delight[ing] in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people”, this is disappointing. Another poem a few pages later, “Through the Flower”, discusses Judy Chicago’s paintings, and says “Chicago captures/the locus of our strength and power; locates it between our legs”, which seems to equate women with vaginas. It made wonder whether we can celebrate vulvas (which have been demeaned in mainstream media, because of their association with women) without being cissexist.

It isn’t all negative. There were still poems that I found thought-provoking, like “Hibiscus”, which describes seeing a flower so large that she wanted to climb inside it, and then follows with “At rest, this seen takes root: / I know why men hate women.” My favourite poem is probably “Was Elizabeth Bishop a Lesbian?” which begins

The first time I heard this question
the words came from my lips
posed to the professor in the too-hot
classroom of an ivy-covered,
though thoroughly Midwestern, hall;
he looked at my and sighed,
Such things are not relevant to poetry.
What matters is she was a master–
one of the greats of our century.

I think a lot of queer people (and other marginalized groups, too) can relate to having their identities and histories brushed off as irrelevant. She goes on to describe attempting to answer this question for a decade after this. I did also like the excerpt that is also included on the back cover:

I believe that there are two kinds of love in this world:

inherited and handmade. Yes, we inherit love
but my people, my people make love by hand.

This is such a concise and beautiful idea, of queer love being made by hand; having to be sought and deliberately created, not just inherited.

There are definitely some great poems in here, but the cissexism tipped this collection to just okay. If you’re going to pick up Enszer’s poetry, I would definitely recommend Sisterhood more.

Danika reviews This Is What Happened In Our Other Life by Achy Obejas

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Almost all of my poetry reviews begin the same way: with me expressing that I don’t know how to review poetry. With that in mind, I’m going to keep this review pretty brief, because I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation. As a personal preference, I usually enjoy poetry that is fairly straightforward. Very symbolic poetry tends to lead me confused. This Is What Happened In Our Other Life is a poetry collection that leans more towards that second category. It is less accessible than the poetry books I read right before it: When I Was Straight by Julie Marie Wade.

The poems in this collection felt like they slipped out of my grasp as I read them. I felt like I could almost, but not quite, understand what was happening, like they were vague hints that I wasn’t able to link. Take the opening paragraph of “Monday In April”:

All your lovers come to you in April,
or you to them.
Spring offerings, rain and rhododendron.
Later, the smell of smoke.

The poem I liked the most is not surprisingly the one that is more literal: “Transitions”, which describes a moment after a breakup that feels visceral. I don’t doubt that Obejas is a skilled poet, but this collection was clearly not one for me. If you do enjoy more symbolic poetry with sparse, beautiful language, you probably would enjoy this one.

Danika reviews When I Was Straight by Julie Marie Wade

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When I Was Straight is a brief (42 pages) poetry collection by Julie Marie Wade. It is split into two sections: “Before.”, in which all the poems are titled “When I Was Straight” and “After.”, which are titled “When ___ Learns I am a Lesbian”. Because the first half of the collection has the same title for each poem, the beginning line is listed in the table of contents, and together they make a sort of poem themselves:

When I Was Straight

[I Did Not Love Men as I Do Now]
[I Did Not Love Women as I Do Now]
[There Was a Man in the Moon]
[Everything Came to Me Vicariously]
[It Was a Shame]
[It Was Like a Game of Red Rover]
[There Were Always Theories]
[I Could Tell My Mother How]
[A Ruler Was Called a Straight-edge]
[I Thought So Little of Sex]
[You Were Straight, Too]

As you might be able to tell from those lines, Wade’s poems are deceptively simple. The language is straightforward, but I found myself unable to help but re-read each poem as soon as I finished it, finding new layers each time. Contrast the first paragraphs of the first two poems:

I did not love men as I do now.
I loved them wincing & wanting to please.
I loved them trying too hard.

and

I did not love women as I do now.
I loved them with my eyes closed, my back turned.
I loved them silent, & startled, & shy.

I found myself nodding and smiling at some of the lines of each poem, because Wade communicates some feelings, feelings of not being straight, of growing up repressing that, so concisely and accurately. I think many queer women will enjoy the poems in this first section that capture that feeling. One paragraph that especially struck me was the closing of the second poem, which goes to describe “when I was straight” feeling like being at a slumber party:

I tried to wake the host girl to ask her, but she was
only one adrift in the sea of bodies. I was ashamed
to say they all looked the same to me, beautiful &
untouchable as stars. It would be years before
I learned to find anyone in that sumptuous,

terrifying dark.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the second half of the collection as strong. The conversations included there are sadly fairly predictable reactions to coming out to people. I actually thought it might work better being read by a straight person who may be unfamiliar with what happens “When Sharon At Work Learns I am a Lesbian”. That dragged down my enjoyment of the book as a whole a bit, but I still think this one is worth picking up. It would be a good poetry book for someone a little intimidated by reading poetry (like me!), because it is straight-forward and very relateable.