One thing I love about poetry is that there aren’t too many words on the page, so to speak — what I mean is, it’s rare that you’ll catch a poet spelling out exactly what they’d like you to think. Instead, their words and images just guide you someplace you never quite expected — and sometimes somewhere the poets themselves hadn’t even imagined — like these poetry collections that’ll change the way you see the world do. Simply put, I like poetry that offers me the perfect balance of provocative text and blank page, giving me a space where I can sort out my own thoughts, jot down a line or two, inhabit somebody else’s worldview for a moment, and explore my life and the world through a new perspective. (I bet you didn’t know that’s what all that white space around poetry was for, did ya?)
The poetry collections on this list are definitely the perfect balance of noisy and quiet, provocative and reflective — whether the writers who composed them are facing feminist issues head-on, navigating life’s more difficult transitions like loss or aging, or finding the simple miraculous in the everyday. Here are nine poetry collections to read for a new perspective on the world.
1. Ruins by Margaret Randall
Feminist poet and social activist Margaret Randall is a serious poetic force to be reckoned with, and Ruins is my absolute favorite of her poetry collections. Using the ruins of the world — from what remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau to what remains of Machu Picchu, and through countless other spiritual, mystical, destroyed, and mysterious landscapes-in-ruin — Randall explores the way humans experience time, individually and as a collective. She parallels these global “ruins” with the personal experiences of “ruined” bodies — people that have experienced trauma as well as transformation, and sometimes both, and investigates how such lessons evolve across the passing of time.
2. Our Dead Behind Us by Audre Lorde
Literally anything written by Audre Lorde would fit perfectly here, but in my opinion Our Dead Behind Us is one of her most empowering, “call to action” collections of poetry. Often, Lorde’s poetry takes the world to task — protesting systemic violence and androcentrism, defending feminism, female sexuality in all its forms, motherhood, and race. In this collection, she takes her activist poetry one step further and dares to call out the reader, making you think more closely about your (however surprising) role as an oppressor of others, of yourself, and in ways that might not have ever occurred to you before.
3. Burnt Rotis, With Love by Prerna Bakshi
Writing in the tradition of the great feminist, political poets, Prerna Bakshi challenges the patriarchy’s construction of the female mind and body, and illuminates the feminist experience shared by women living in the developing world today. Her narrative poetry is dedicated to the world’s stateless people, a murdered daughter, a Chinese migrant factory worker, survivors of domestic violence, and all those affected by the Partition — to name just a few of Bakshi’s poetic inspirations. Writing about everything from sexual assault to what happens, as she writes, “When the Poor Woman ‘Leans In’,” she wants you to be moved, and haunted, and angry, and empowered. And the poems in Burnt Rotis, With Love will do just that.
4. What Is Amazing by Heather Christle
I seriously just love this collection, which takes the idea of “seeing the world differently” to an entirely unexpected place — one of magic and mystery, personified nature and possible spiritual inhabitants of inanimate objects. It is joyous and playful, suffering and disappointing, inquisitive and celebratory. Christle discerns all that is amazing within the human experience — be it large or small — and by the time you’re finished with What Is Amazing you’ll be a student of amazement too.
5. My Mother's Body by Marge Piercy
Inspired by a series of poems dedicated to her mother, Marge Piercy’s My Mother’s Body takes the personal and the political and blends them in a way that is wholly unexpected and entirely illuminating — in Piercy’s world, doing housework is intensely political, and nuclear war equally personal, the female body political, and pollution personal. And in addition to exploring all of the above, she manages to take a close look at mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships, and what it means to bear witness to the aging process. This collection pretty much covers it all.
6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
There’s a reason CIaudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is still so buzzed about — and it’s not just because her blend of poetry, prose, and photography is striking and aggressive and powerful (not to mention award-winning.) What keeps readers coming back to Citizen is the fact that it is such a clear-cut call to awareness of the myriad ingrained (and perhaps at times unconscious) ways that racism permeates our society — even as we might imagine ourselves to be living in a post-racial world. I learn something new and think about something differently each and every time I revisit Rankine’s book — hers is not a poetry collection to gather dust, that’s for sure.
7. Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen
As someone who often experiences grief in, shall we say, a non-traditional manner, Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture totally spoke to me — and for anyone who has endured a staggering loss in their life, this collection might just be that breath of fresh air you need to help you get through it. Written in the wake of his brother’s suicide, Rasumssen captures that surreal, outside-of-time state that so often accompanies grief, but he’s not afraid to incorporate a little irony, and a healthy dose of humor.
8. The Poem She Didn't Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis
This collection just feels like it’s dedicated to all the silenced (self-inflicted or otherwise) women of the world — and for more reasons than the title alone. Versing-out all the things women think but don’t necessarily say, experience but don’t necessarily articulate, Olena Kalytiak Davis writes about love and love lost, sexual violence and sexual apathy, and what it’s like to grow older as a woman in a world that often renders older woman invisible. The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems is sharp shooting feminist poetry.
9. Peace by Gillian Conoley
For a book entitled Peace , Gillian Conoley’s collection is anything but — at least visually. Her words are everywhere in this collection: scattered across the page, and strewn about in organized chaos, arranged in unpunctuated (or non-traditionally punctuated) columns, and making artful use of the surrounding white space. And I totally love when poets do this, because that’s half the fun of poetry — when the arrangement is in conversation with the content. In addition to its experimental construction, Peace also offers readers a personal and political exploration of love and loss, violence and death, memory and forgiveness, and of course: war and peace.
Image: Taylor Leopold/Unsplash