31 Poetry Recommendations for The Sealey Challenge

One of my goals for 2019 was to read a print version of some poetry every single day. I have been off and on with this goal, mostly off for the past three weeks or so.

But August is a challenge month done by the poet Nicole Sealey. Her challenge is to read a book of poems every day for the entirety of August. I LOVE this idea and am going to play along, except I know I won't finish an entire book every day. So I'm going to reestablish my poetry-every-day habit, and in the spirit of social media challenges, I am going to share more on my social media about poetry or poems or the poems I read and love.

HERE is an explanation of the challenge and a list of 31 poetry titles recommended by contemporary poets. It is a great list and a good place to start.

But I thought I would also share some of my recommendations, so here it is: Amy's list of 31 poetry titles you might want to read in August. Even if you just picked up ONE book of poetry from your library (it's in the 811 section of Dewey) and read only one poem a day, you might just find you love poetry too.

  1. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet. The first book I’m going to read. “Aja Monet’s ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters—the tiny gods who fight to change the world.”
  2. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar. The second book I’m going to read. “The work here means to go out on limbs, be it to fling blossoms, chew fireflies, or push old nests into the river once the rearing is done.”
  3. A Woman without A Country by Eavan Boland. The third book I’m going to read. I started this one a couple of years ago, but only got a few pages into in before I picked up something else.
  4. Any edition of The Best American Poetry anthologies. These look like they are long compared to other poetry books, but there are also two introductions (one by the series editor and one by that year's editor) and quite a bit of biographical info about each of the poets, so it's not as long as you think. I buy my own copy of this book every year because I love finding both new poets and new poems by poets I already love. It is a great way to immerse yourself in contemporary American poetry and get a sense of what that means.
  5. Love Poems (for Married People) by John Kenney. This is sort-of funny poetry. Funny because it's true, so it's also painful. But funny. (As an example: One of the poems is titled "When Are You Going to Turn off Your Kindle?")
  6. Power Made us Swoon by Brynn Saito. Woven through all of the poems in this book are poems about Warrior Woman, who is "descended from the dark/river of women"; the rest of the poems are disparate but unified by Warrior Woman. One of my favorite lines: "I don't know whose story/has taken up residence in my body, what ghost."
  7. Anything by Mary Oliver. She is accessible (meaning you won't just think "huh?" after every poem) and wise and her poetry will make you despair over the crumbling natural world while you simultaneously remember just how glorious and beautiful it is.
  8. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. His poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” which is in the collection, is in my top-20 all-time favorite poems. “The most beautiful part of your body/is where it’s headed. & remember,/loneliness is still time spent/with the world.”
  9. Magdalene by Mary Howe. Poems through Mary Magdalene's perspective.
  10. American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrence Hayes. This book will challenge any assumptions you've made about yourself being "woke." Seriously, I want everyone to read it. It is political but deeply personal (if you can even separate the two). 
  11. The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone. Poems set in a purgatory that is part burlesque, part feminist poetry stage. The ghosts of the dead can do scandalous things. This is something that contemporary poetry can do in the hands of skilled poets, create something heretofore unimagined and make it breathe.
  12. Dizzy in Your Eyes: Poems about Love by Pat Mora. In theory this is a collection of poetry for teenagers, but if you've ever been a teenager, or a teenager in love, you will connect. Plus the poet explains the origins and methods of some of the poetic structures she uses, so you learn about poetry while you're reading poetry.
  13. Averno by Louise Gluck. I could also write "Anything by Louise Gluck" here, because her understated, wry poems are all a punch to the gut you never see coming. But this is my favorite by her, as it explores the Persephone myth.
  14. Native Guard by Natasha Threthewey. All of her poetry is worthy of your time. This one, which I just read last year, changed me because it gave me a different vision of the voices a poet can use in her work.
  15. Ariel by Sylvia Plath. Not because of the Sylvia Plath suicide idealization or because her husband was an awesome poet but an enormous asshole, but because the poems are just so good. And because many of them are cultural touchstones.
  16. Stone Spirits by Susan Elizabeth Howe. She was one of my favorite professors at BYU. A local poet in the sense that she lives in Utah, but her poems are published everywhere. This collection is her first and it is excellent.
  17. Blackacre by Monica Yoon. This book got me through my Narnia Winter. Not sure I would be here without it. 
  18. American Journal: 50 Poems for Our Time edited by Tracy K. Smith. Smith is the current poet laureate and this anthology is awesome. It is small enough to carry with you in almost whatever bag is your favorite. I've read it in line at Taco Bell and Target, while waiting for a movie to start and while waiting for a doctor's appointment. This is another awesome place to start discovering who contemporary American poets are and what they do.
  19. Selected Poems by Anne Stevenson. I discovered Stevenson when I was in college and she is a seminal influence on my ways of thinking. Her poems about motherhood are exacting in how brutal and beautiful that experience can be.
  20. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss. Poems about art are some of my favorites.
  21. Transformations by Anne Sexton. Or really any of her books. I really…I love her poems. But the more I know about her as a person the more I really have to work to separate the poet from the poems. So many of them are intimately connected to my relationship with poetry itself, the connections it makes and how it helps me feel embraced by the world at large. But she had some strange ideas about sex and motherhood that I cannot get behind. I cannot admire her as a person, but her work is incredible. This duality can be an inherent part of any literature, of course, and I think it is possible to make that separation.
  22. Anything by Seamus Heaney. I had a dream once that I met Seamus Heaney at a store that was having a sale on wool socks. I would like to turn that dream into a poem one day.
  23. Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay. Full of "Self Portrait as a __________" poems. At first you might thumb through and think "those poems are too long for me" but they are worth the emotional investment. You wouldn't want to miss lines like "we walk inthe rubble/of the African dream,//brushing shipwreck/from our hair and dresses" because you're afraid of a little bit of length would you?
  24. Good Bones by Maggie Smith. So freaking good​. Especially if you've ever A---been a mother or B---had one. 
  25. The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O'Brien. I bought my copy of this book at the British Library in London, but hopefully your library has one too.
  26. Oceanic by Amiee Nezhukumatathil, if only to learn how to say her name (but of course for the poems too).
  27. Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith. Race, gender, politics, society. Will break your heart.
  28. American’s Favorite Poems by Robert Pinsky. This is an anthology that Pinsky put together while he was the poet laureate. It is poems selected by everyday, average American people who happen to like poetry. Because yes: everyday, average American people like poetry! (HERE is what I wrote after I actually met Robert Pinsky, which was a pretty cool day in my life. 
  29. Anything by Donald Hall. His book Without, about his wife Jane Kenyon’s battle with cancer is one of my favorites. (Is that weird…to love a book about someone’s death? It is a way of witnessing, for me.)
  30. Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. Her poems are so joyfully invested in her marriage and sexuality that this was utterly shocking to me, a chronical of her divorce. Like Without, it is a devastating book about loss and grief, but so beautiful.
  31. The Door by Margaret Atwood. The whole book is excellent, of course. But the title poem? If you are anywhere close to 40 or older, the title poem with fill you with fear and rip your heart out and make you mourn for the briefness of life and the length of death.

If you read any poetry this month, I would love to hear what it was and what you thought of it.

Book Review: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

Whenever anyone who doesn't like poetry learns that I love poetry, there is always a sort of bafflement in their response. It seems it is hard to understand, for the person who doesn't love poetry, why someone loves poetry. I assume that can be true of all things; I don't, for example, understand why people love stamp collecting, tole painting, or playing golf.

Except, I can imagine why they love it: the beauty of a foreign image or mystique of something from other countries, the pleasure of creating, the joy of moving your body outside.

But loving poetry seems to be the thing that many (most?) people have the hardest time understanding.

Which of course is something I in turn can't understand, because I cannot imagine a life without poetry. The beauty of language and the way a wise poet can tease out so many meanings in sound, imagery, metaphor, structure, rhyme...I don't understand not loving poetry.

One of the deepest and most abiding reasons I love poems is for how you can read one written by someone almost completely unlike you and yet find something that resonates deeply with you. As if that person who is not the same gender, race, nationality, who has a very different lifestyle or life philosophy, who didn't even live at the same time as you still, somehow, has a piece of you within herself. You find those pieces while reading poetry and you don't feel quite as alone in the world. 

So maybe I love poetry because it helps us see that in some form or another, we are all at our deepest sense the same because we are all human.

American sonnetsBut as I read this book of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, as I continue to think about it, I find myself doubting this reason for loving poetry, even though it has held true for the majority of my poetry-reading experiences.

I loved these poems; they shook me right down to my core poetic identity. They made me wonder: ARE we really all the same in our basic humanity?

The book is a collection of 80 sonnets, all with the same title: "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin."  Terrance Hayes wrote them in response to trump's election, and some of them address "Mister Trumpet" himself. Many of them speak to the current time itself, to a nation who could elect such a person, to the people whose racism vibrates to the hum of trump's, as in these lines: “America, you just wanted change is all…A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection/Of your own.” Mostly white people made this choice; a huge swath of my demographic—educated, middle class white women—chose to vote for him.

So I started the book, and immediately enjoyed the poems (especially these lines from the first one: “My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned,/And skittish, she thought her poems were ordinary.” I’d like to have a conversation with Hayes about this idea.) But I found myself thinking “but not all white people are racists!”

This thought repeated itself several times until I really started paying attention to it. Not to the actual protest, as I think this poet is wise enough to know that racism isn’t the defining trait of all white people. But to what in the poems was sparking that thought in me, and why it seemed so important that I felt like this poet writing these poems knew, somehow, that I—a white, middle-class woman—don’t believe that my whiteness, or anyone else’s, makes me “better than” in any way.

But really, what good does that do for the people who live with the effects of racism every single day?

So as I read, instead of protesting “not me!”, I just tried to absorb. I tried to take my own identity out of the reading experience, to not, this time, make reading poetry about finding pieces of myself in the poems, but about catching a glimpse and perhaps even a tiny bit of understanding of how someone else really is not like me. How not just the contemporary experience of racism affects lives, but the history of it, too. I thought about one of my ancestral lines, which was a wealthy southern family of plantation owners, and how, if I am proud of my other ancestors (the woman hanged for witchcraft, the long, solid Scottish line descending from ancient clan chiefs), I also have to claim my shame that I am a descendant of people who owned slaves.

But there I go again, making the reading about me and not about the poems themselves. See how easy it is, to slip back? See how difficult it is, to remove my white ego?

I learned something from this book, from the experience of reading this book. I am still struggling to put it into words, honestly. But it changed me. It is a thing I learned about myself, and about this society I live in. Stick with me with this analogy, but it feels like the day I realized, when I was a kid, that men’s bathrooms all have urinals. It was like discovering another world that exists in the same space that I exist in, and made me wonder how else my experiences are different from men’s.

Hayes’s book gave me the same feeling. We live on the same planet, in the same country, but our lived experiences are totally different. The fact that I think racism is wrong and shouldn’t be a part of our society doesn’t change the existence of racism. He and I don’t live in the same worlds, and this fact brings me great sadness.

The reading experience itself will stick with me, as will many of the individual poems. Images (the white woman singing along to black music), lines (“Of course/After that, what is inward, is absorbed.” “My problem was I’d decided to make myself/A poem” “Moving through the tangle of bramble on your way/To scrap with Death at the pier, remember to sing/A battle song”). There are a million pieces to be gathered here. But what I want to remember the most is coming to the sonnet on page 81, which starts “I remember my sister’s last hoorah.”

This poem, like all good sonnets, has a turn, wherein two ideas are introduced and then, somehow, connected. It starts with this line: “Can we really be friends if we don’t believe/In the same things, Assassin?” Can we really understand each other, reader and poet, white woman and black man? Is poetry large enough to make that connection? He asks “because we are dust/Don’t you & I share a loss?” and of course, the answer is both yes and no.

I left that poem knowing that, even unwilling and unwittingly, I am the assassin.

Book Review: Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Sometimes I write poems about my children, but not so often as I did when they were little. When they were little and everything was miraculous and painfully good, when their precociousness was a sign, when I didn't know yet how, despite my intentions, I would make mistake after mistake. When I didn't think I would make mistakes: that was when I could write poems about my children.

The last one I wrote, or at least tried to write but never finished, I wrote in the car as we drove home from California. Not a car—a minivan, the first one we owned, the white one with the door that sometimes wouldn't open properly because someone spilled lemonade in the cup holder during our first family-of-six trip to California. This poem I wrote driving home after we'd stopped for the morning at Newport Beach, and I was trying to translate why the experience was painful by writing a poem about it, and it was so big—not just the beach and the ocean but the way my daughter walked across the beach toward the ocean like she was walking away from me.

Maybe you can only write poems about your children when they are young because when they are young the experiences are more universal; everyone's child is wise beyond her years or sometimes he says something so profound your adult brain is confused and shattered. Doesn't that happen to everyone? And when they are younger, writing poems about your children is the same thing as writing poems about being a mother. But when they get older, the experiences are more personal and entirely unique to the space between you and your child. And when they get older, what you understand about being a mother gets harder and harder to say. Even in poems. Or maybe especially in poems.

Or maybe I am not a good enough poet (as if I can even call myself a "poet") to write poems about my children.

Book cover good bones maggie smithI thought about those poems I wrote about my children while I read Maggie Smith's poetry book, Good Bones. I discovered her work via her poem "Good Bones,"  (and, please: click on that link and read the poem, even if you think you don't like poems, or especially if you think you don't) which grew popular in late 2016, what with all the shootings (Pulse nightclub, Jo Cox) and, you know, the United States electing an enormous, petulant, orange-faced toddler as the leader of the civilized world. Someone posted a snip of it somewhere, Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and eventually a few famous people noticed it, and then everyone had read it.  (That article says that the most popular post-election poem was "September 1, 1939" but what I kept repeating to myself, over and over even though I didn't, at first, remember that I had memorized it, was "The Second Coming" by Yeats: "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?")

Not all of the poems in Good Bones are about her children, but many of them are. The poet Erin Belieu says that Smith's poems help her "discover with real surprise now frequently exhausted human touchstones." Writing about your children=a touchstone of poetry, but I agree with Belieu's assessment: the poems about children feel fresh, not exhausted. I read a library copy and before I returned it the book was bristling with post-its and bits of cardstock and a few torn-apart Bath & Bodyworks coupons that I'd used to mark poems I want to read again.
Basically I want to read the whole book again.

I'd like to trace the way the girl in the book interacts with the hawk and the hawk's shadow (which she wears "like an overlay of feathers printed on her skin"). I'd like to underline and comment.

I'll have to buy my own copy obviously. Some books are like that: they own you as you start to read them and then a library copy, a one-time experience, is never enough, and Good Bones is that kind of book for me.

I think my favorite poem in the book is "First Fall,"  which is about a woman walking through a park with her infant, who is experiencing fall for the first time. "Fall is when the only things you know/because I've named them begin to end." It made me think of how, when Kaleb was a baby, I would walk around everywhere—the house, the yard, our neighborhood, the mall, public parks—holding him and naming things, because he was my only fussy baby, the only baby who cried for no reason I ever figured out, but the holding and the walking and the language, the litany of nouns, helped him not to cry. Also this line: "I'm desperate for you/to love the world because I brought you here." True for all of my children, but especially Kaleb, who I worked the hardest to bring here.

Or maybe my favorite is "At Your Age I Wore a Darkness,"  but maybe that is too easy because I too wore a darkness, because I worried about giving my darkness to my children, and because now they are grown I know who I gave my darkness to. (I gave it but I still kept it.)

I loved so many of these poems. Maybe all of them. And while I love poetry, and I love reading poetry, I can't say that of all the poetry books I love. Many of them have poems I just don't understand, or don't like, or I think "Yes, OK, but I've read this before." I didn't have that reaction with these poems though.

I'm glad there are poets who can write good poems about children.

On International Women's Day, a Few Influential Women Poets

Today is International Women’s Day. I’ve written several posts on my blog about women who’ve inspired and influenced me. Today I thought I’d get specific, as I woke up thinking about Audre Lorde (as yes, one does when one is a librarian and a poetry lover!). I read this excerpt from her letters yesterday and it’s left me thinking about how women writers—specifically, women poets—have inspired and influenced me. poetry books
There are several male poets I love, but if I am honest I feel more at home with a woman poet. They write about what I write about; the best ones are fearless in exploring all aspects of both humanity in general and the experience of being a woman in all its constructs in this contemporary world. They are brave, moving, and stunning creators.


So, to celebrate, here’s a list of women poets whose work has pulled me through, lifted me up, revealed a truth, helped me feel heard, given me a key, along with a favorite quote just for fun.

Audre Lorde, who I’m starting with because these stanzas from her poem “Stations” is inspiring me greatly at this point in my life. She was a black feminist activist poet and is having a sort of Moment right now, where people are quoting her and rediscovering her work. I first read her in 1993, when I was in between my community college Associate’s degree and finishing my bachelors, and I’d scour the library for books about feminism, writing, poetry. I wanted to understand who the important women writers were, and her work felt important to me—and moving, as well.

Some women wait for themselves
Around the next corner
And call the empty spot peace
But the opposite of living
Is only not living
And the stars do not care.

Some women wait for something
To change and nothing
Does change
So they change



Marge Piercy, who I researched mostly because I wanted to irritate one of my least-liked professors when I was at BYU. I had both a poetry writing and a contemporary poetry class with him; in the writing class he made sure to tell us that he didn’t like poetry about women’s periods and we’d better, if we were women, stay clear of that topic. (See why I loved him so much?) In the contemporary poetry class we had to pick a poet to research in depth and then present to the class. I chose Marge Piercy because her poems are frank and outspoken and even when they are not about women’s bodies they seem imbued with women’s bodies. It would be a long list if I listed every poem I love by her, so I’ll just stick to one that has reminded me what writing is about since I discovered it during that project, “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.


Anne Stevenson, a British-American poet, is the first poet I ever shared on my blog. I think I read her poem “Himalayan Balsam” in The New Yorker and then I had to work fairly hard to find her work; some interlibrary loans were required, and finally I just started buying my own copies of her work. She writes so truly about motherhood that her poems became ways for me to understand what I was feeling as a mom to young children, and now as she writes poetry about aging I am finding her a guide again. And although it has been so many, many years since Haley was born, and our relationship has changed in such unexpected ways (or perhaps because of those changes), I continue to find in her poem “Poem for a Daughter” a sense of being understood in ways I didn’t, at first, know I needed understanding. I just re-read the whole thing again and it still gives me a lump in my throat.

A woman's life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first, particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but a part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.


Eavan Boland is a new favorite. I started reading her work (as in…more than just a few poems here and there in an anthology) after I started working as the collection developer for the poetry section at the library. She is an Irish poet and that is what drew me at first (Irish anything is almost irresistible to me), but what kept me interested was her actual poems. They are full of myth, history, experience; they explore feminism and do not apologize for how it connects to domesticity. I think if we could have a conversation she would understand my fascination with how history and landscape connect, how the stone in the garden has been there before us and won’t care when we’re gone. Again, hard to choose a favorite, but I love “Becoming Anne Bradstreet” because I also adore Anne Bradstreet and because it captures the way poetry makes connections.

We say home truths
Because her words can be at home anywhere—

At the source, at the end and whenever
The book lies open and I am again

An Irish poet watching an English woman
Become an American poet.


Susan Elizabeth Howe was my favorite professor at BYU. I suppose you could say she’s the least well-known of all this list…but to me, she’s had the most impact. Partly because her poems are reflective of my own landscape—many of them are set in Utah—but mostly because she is a real, live, walking, breathing poet. I’m sure she doesn’t remember me, but I have seen her a few times, at different readings and literary events, and I am always filled up with admiration for her—her work and her life. “Liberty Enlightening the World” means even more to me now that I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty in person:

My back and legs ache
And the book, suggesting more
Than it will ever give, weighs
A ton. I want to put it down,
Tell my visitors I know how
Their lives go. I never will.
I am huge, copper-weighted,
Supporting the status of icon.

I am limiting myself to five poets, even though there are more than fifty I could list. I know that not everyone loves poetry (and I wish more people did!) but for me, it is a necessary thing. A sort of magic, almost; someone somewhere writes a poem, somehow it gets shared with the world, somehow I find it, and then when I read it I am connected to the poet who wrote it as well as to the issues in my own life. The women poets whose work has influenced me are people I am deeply grateful for. I would be less, far less, without them.

on Breaking the Depression Cycle

A short little bit from a poem I recently read that I cannot get out of my mind:

It is as if
a steel clamp

Had seized upon
one square inch
of a flattened

Canvas map then
jerked sharply

The painted landscape
cracking along

Creases, cities
thrown into shadow,
torqued bridges

Twisting free.
A life is not
this supple,

It is not meant
to fold, to be
drawn through

A narrow ring.

(from “Portrait of a Hanged Woman” by Monica Youn, Blackacre)

I have been reading a lot of poetry lately. I want to search out the ones that break me open, like this one; poems that are not about anything like what I am experiencing but that also resonate because they are, somehow, exactly what I am going through.

(Also songs, but that is a different post.)

I read this sitting in the pink chair that I scavenged from my mother’s house. This chair was in my bedroom when I was a teenager, and it was the space of refuge, the comforting place I went when I was caught in the dark. It’s covered in pink velvet, and when I scavenged it I did so with the intent of having it reupholstered, because by now it is bedraggled, more grey than pink, raw wood exposed on one edge, trim dangling—but I cannot bring myself to do it. The texture of that fabric against my fingers, even now nearly thirty years later…that texture is what it feels like to be cracking along my unaccustomed creases.

So I sat on the chair and I read poems and I remembered myself at 14 and 15 and 16, stuck in darkness, and compared that darkness to this one, and I realized how similar they are.

Almost the same place.

Except, I know now, at least, the triggering points. Sometimes, depression just arrives, blackness seeping in slowly until you are filled. Sometimes it is like a switch, the wave of a magic wand, the difference between one blink and another: not there, there, and the suddenness this time is because the last bit of my resistance has been broken.

I was up above it.

Now I’m down in it.

(A life is not this supple.)

For three weeks, I have left my house only for necessities: work, the grocery store, the driveway but only to shovel snow. I’ve stopped going to the gym. I didn’t snowshoe in our fresh snow. I haven’t visited any neighbors or friends or family. I even took a few mental health days from work.

I didn’t do anything besides stay home and eat unhealthy foods. Entire bags of chocolate, far too many hot drinks. Spaghetti and butter, English muffins and butter and jam, hash browns cooked in butter with cheese melted on top.

The darkness got denser and because of that it got harder to do anything and because of that the darkness got denser.

The chocolate and carbs that brought me brief little sparks of light made me sad, settling on my thighs and chin and belly, and I could only find more light with more chocolate, more carbs.

I played music but I didn’t sing.

I made things but I didn’t connect to them.

I wrote, but nothing real.

I cleaned the house, I cleaned every 8&*@!!($^[email protected] corner of my  ^&%%$*(@ house, I decluttered until everything was empty and then I didn’t feel accomplished but just…empty.

Then I had that moment, sitting on my old pink chair reading poems, and somehow that was enough. Just barely enough that, half an hour later when my husband walked into the (clean) house and said “let’s go to the gym,” I could say “OK.” I could pull on some exercise clothes and find my music and watch and shoes, and even though I slogged, I slogged through that workout (ten minutes of elliptical, ten minutes of the side trainer, ten minutes on the rowing machine), even though it was boring and uninspiring and ugly…I moved. I moved my body and some of the darkness moved too, like black, thick chunks of ice on a lake in winter at midnight during a new moon cracking, at last, just a bit.

A shift. Barely perceptible except I could perceive it, I could remember what it felt like to breath, I could put a stop to the endless cycle of darkness.


I would say “hopefully” but I don’t even have any hope yet.

I’m not even sure I should be writing this. What a crazy person she is, I hear all you readers saying. (“All you readers!” There are far more readers in my head than in real life I know.) Exposing herself like this. It’s weird, right? It’s a plea for attention, it’s sort of lame, it’s actually fairly pathetic, who talks about this anyway?

Who talks about it.

No one, or not many. And that makes it worse. Because it is not just that I am locked underneath all that dark ice. It is not that whatever my painted canvas map had been, it has been yanked through the smallest opening, it has been cracked and torn and everything colorful made meaningless.

It is that I am utterly alone.

And maybe if I talk about it, someone else won’t be alone. Maybe if I say: depression is a vicious cycle and the only person who can stop its downward spiral is the depressed person—maybe someone else will also have a moment in their (metaphorical) pink chair. Maybe their (her) cycle can break, too.

It is hard to speak out of the dark. It weighs so much my voice feels impossibly heavy.

But this is part of it too. Part of breaking the cycle is, for me, writing my way up out of it. Writing what is real, and hard, and ugly, and painful. Maybe I will never share publicly what pushed me into the dark water, what broke the last of my spirit and started the cycle.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how it started.

Maybe it just matters to know that I can end it.

With moving.

With writing.

With letting myself feel what I am feeling.

I confess: I’m still down here in the dark. I still feel like everything has been ruined in irreparable ways.

Who knows what my life or my psyche will look like on the other side.

But even just knowing that—even just saying “the other side.” That reminds me it wasn’t always dark and maybe the light will come back.

And maybe I am not alone.

“Goodest Grief is an Orchard You Know. But You Have Not Been Killed/Once”: Or, Thoughts on Scar Tissue

Sometimes I have a hard time finding a way into a story. A story I want to tell, or need to tell, but usually it’s these important ones that are the hardest to start. Because what if I start and then keep writing but I can’t write it right, can’t do it justice, can’t write what needs to be written in a good way, even if—especially if—it’s not a good story? Not an easy story, like this one I need to tell, a story that’s not a good story and I don’t want to tell it because telling it makes it true, makes it real, and yet—perhaps the only goodness in telling a hard story is the relief—a sort of solace—of telling it well.

I want that solace.

Tonight I read this poem, “Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country” by Angel Nafis. And then, somehow, here it is, my way in, even though the poem and this story have nothing, really, in common. Not in an obvious way, and all heartache is specific to its circumstance—and yet, all heartache is also the same. It is a brave poem that speaks bravely to grief and loss, to the self that has lost and fears more loss.

It gave me a little handle on my fear and made me think I can ride my moon hide through this upcoming darkness.

(And if you are bothered by the F word in the poem, I don’t even know what to say to you.)

But enough of poetry: here is the story.

In the middle of August, just as we were planning our trip to New York, Kendell started having a hard time breathing when he exercised. I’ve not yet felt like he was fully recuperated from his cardiac arrest last April, but this was definitely a downswing. First he was having to stop after five minutes, then three, then two. He’d exercise but get out of breath. His energy started to lag and he started sleeping more, and finally—the week before our trip—I convinced him or he decided that this wasn’t normal and he should have the cardiologist check it, just in case.

So in we went, and after hearing his symptoms and listening to his heart (I have come to be able to read the merest hint of a cardiologist’s facial inflection when she hears a murmur, to prepare myself for the bad news before she says the bad news), the doctor ordered some tests, and after an EKG and an echo and a TEE (trans esophageal echo, which is a tube down the throat with a camera to look at the heart), after anxious waiting it was confirmed:

his valve, the one they just replaced last October, the one that should’ve lasted for 15 or 18 or 20 years, is already failing.

Piece by piece/The body prayers home

When he had his aortic valve replaced the second time (last October. As in: one year ago. 12 months. 52 weeks.) it was failing because of scar tissue. When the pathology came back and the surgeon explained, I thought but wait. How does replacing the valve with another valve stop the scar tissue from growing? Shouldn’t we be addressing the reason why grew? Won’t it grow again?

But I am not a cardiac surgeon or a cardiologist. I’m only a person who is starting to learn something I didn’t ever want to know, so many meanings of the word heartache.

When he had his cardiac arrest, the electrocardiologist surmised that scar tissue had grown in the layer of tissue where the heart valves are located, interrupting the electrical current. When he explained this to us, I thought but wait. Scar tissue again? Can’t anyone stop it from growing? Isn’t there a medication?

But I never thought it was still growing.

But it is. The process of healing is killing him.

So here we are, facing down his fourth major heart event in seven years. Or, more terrifying: his third major heart event in one year.

And I have to tell you. This isn’t happening to me. I don’t have to have the physical experience of the chest crack, the sternum sawed open, the heart cut, the stitching and the medications and the pain and the pain meds. I only have to witness, and try to encourage and uplift. I only have to empty pee and fetch water and rub feet and manage prescriptions.

I don’t have to suffer like he does.

(If even the medicine hurts too)

But I am tired.

I’m tired of witnessing his suffering. I’m tired of him having to suffer. I’m tired of how life keeps teaching us that you have nothing if you don’t have your health is the truest cliché in existence.

Fuck the fog back off the mirror.

I’m tired of waking every night in terror just to listen for his breath and of waking in the morning with my teeth aching from grinding them in my sleep, with my hands aching from making fists all night.

I want our life back, the life we had when he had his health (even though if I follow the trail I don’t know where that life existed). I want to just be normal.

“You’re lucky to have Amy,” one of his friends told him after he heard about another heart surgery (some people have started to think oh, Kendell, another heart surgery! No biggie, he does it all the time and others are…more compassionate, more understanding that it is worse, much worse, not easier, each time), trying to lighten the conversation. A statement that’s probably true unless you know how small my capabilities for nurturing and nursing are. But the other way around is also true: I am lucky to have him, with his laughter and his drive and the way he takes care of me by taking care of everything, by the way we work together (he runs the weed eater; I mow) and because of our history and our family and our us-ness.

I don’t want to lose him and I am terrified of losing him.

(still your heart moans bride)

Which is why we are trying it again, one more time. This time, they are trying a mechanical valve (as his others have been first bovine and then porcine). This time, we will try to come out on the other side of the odds (four percent of replaced aortic valves fail, and of those failures ten percent fail because of scar tissue, so it’s a medical issue no one pays attention to because who would make money off such a tiny percentage?), even though on the other side is life-long blood thinners and monthly INR checks and worrying about a stroke or a brain bleed for eternity.

November 14. Deep breath: we’re doing this one more time.

Goodest grief is an orchard you know. But you have not been killed

Kendell and amy 4x6

A Woman Faithfully Washing

At church a few weeks ago, I overheard a woman talking to her friend about how much she liked it when her kids were all outside, because then she could clean her house in quiet.

I confess to feeling a flash of guilt, because I might just be the world’s worst housewife. If I have time to myself, the last thing I want to do is clean. Even if it’s messy. I know some might see this as a personality flaw, but I am puzzled by women who take delight in cleaning their houses. It seems like (from my outsider’s perspective) cleaning the house is good for their spirits, which simply baffles me. (Not that I am judging them. My life would actually be much more pleasant if I were one of those women. I just don’t understand it.) Sure, I like it when it’s clean, but I have a finely-tuned ability to ignore the messes. And cleaning doesn’t do anything at all for my spirit, except for a little flutter of hoping that the people in my house will know that I love them because look! How clean is that bathroom?

(I feel like I should add a disclaimer. My house isn’t disgustingly messy. I do clean my house…but not really with joy.)

Housecleaning is something I almost never do with my solitude.


Today, though, I cleaned my house. And if you knew how sacrosanct my Thursdays are, you’d know that that is a big deal. Usually on Thursdays I devote all of my (lovely, glorious, quiet) time to doing something creative. But, I think because of a change that might happen soon, I am restless in my creative time. My heart pounds and I can’t lose myself in any of my usual processes. And this morning, for no reason I can determine, I woke up with the itch. The itch to get organized, the itch to clean a little bit, the itch to have just one day when I acted like a normal housewife (whatever normal means).

So while the kids were at school and Kendell was at work and I didn’t have to be anywhere, I:

  • Detailed the kitchen
  • Cleaned the kitchen windows
  • Organized the bathroom cabinet (giving myself tons of space for all of the stuff that had just been on the counter)
  • Detailed the upstairs bathrooms

Hmmmmm. Typed out it doesn’t look like a lot, but it felt like I got a lot done.

While I worked, I thought about the poem “Housewife” by Anne Sexton. I first read it when I was working on my associate’s degree, so in 1991 or 1992. It was one of the first pieces of feminist writing, in fact, that I discovered. I was beginning to learn what feminism means, then, just barely dipping my toe in, and this poem was a revolution to me:

Some women marry houses.
It's another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That's the main thing.

I was already married by then, the first time I read this. The poem ate at me a little bit. I troubled me, and I finally had to read it and read it and write about it before I understood why. It was because I didn’t want to be part of the group of women who marry houses. I wanted marriage—my future, really—to be more than just housekeeping. I didn’t want it, in fact, to be anything about housekeeping. Even if the house is the Jonah, pulling a man back to me.

What troubled me was that I was discovering I had married someone who really, really likes a clean house. And might likely be happiest if he were married to one of those women who marry houses. Who delight in housecleaning. But just as he hadn’t married one of those, I hadn’t married someone like me, with my ability to overlook messes. I was troubled by the conflict of not wanting to be that kind of woman for myself and knowing if I were it would make my husband happier.

I don’t know if my resistance has really accomplished anything; my lackadaisical cleaning perspective is the thing we fight about the most. But we both brought our cleaning issues into the home of our marriage; we have both compromised some and we have both resisted.

The house is clean enough.

Today, I was the woman faithfully washing myself down. But I didn’t do it with resentment because I chose to do it. No one asked me to clean out that neglected cabinet. But I was reminded today that while housekeeping can be all sorts of things—an expression of marital politics, a battleground, even, sometimes, a place we come to with laughter and unity—it is also, oddly enough, a form of creativity. A temporary one, to be certain, but still: it did do something good to my (anxious and terrified and excited and uncertain) heart today.

The Marble Moon Glides By

I love going to poetry readings. It was one of my favorite things about being an English major, and the thing is, there were always poetry readings to be found. I don't go to them as often now, but I don't think there are any fewer. I just don't know about as many.

One of my favorite readings was the one Mark Strand did at the University of Utah. I think this was in 1996, or maybe in early 1997—when I was a student at UVU. I went with one of my university friends, Dawn.

I was a big reader of The New Yorker in the 90s, mostly for the poems, and I had been struck by a poem about dogs. I read it so often I had it memorized, but I had forgotten who wrote it. So when I was sitting in that auditorium, waiting for Mark Strand to read "Eating Poetry," I was startled to hear the first lines of the dog poem. "Now that the great dog I worshipped for years/Has become none other than myself, I can look within//And bark."

I started reciting it quietly to myself, a sort of voicy whisper that blended right with Strand's voice in the little quiet pocket between me and Dawn. She was a little astounded, I think, that I knew it. I didn't just know it, though. I loved it, even though I couldn't really say I understood it very well. It was just so...sad but beautiful, all at once.

Even though I don't really like dogs very much.

And it isn't even really about dogs. It's about growing old, and finding oneself less than expected, but still acceptable.

The poet Mark Strand passed away last week. I hadn't heard until my friend Wendy text to ask me if I knew him. "Not in a biblical sense," I couldn't resist responding, because he was sort of known as (in addition to being, you know, a really good poet) fairly sexy. I didn't really know him, even though I shook his hand once and told him how glad I was he'd read the dog poems. (And, yes. "Eating Poetry.")

But I did know him, at least in the way any admirer of someone's writing "knows" someone. I taught "Eating Poetry" to my poetry classes. I wrote an essay about his work. I carried "Great Dog Poem no2" with me for all of these years, and as I have grown older, too, I understand it better. I haven't yet become the great dog I worship. I'm fairly far from it, in fact. (And it's not even a dog.) But I understand. I understand barking within myself.

There isn't comfort in being who I am, either.

But there is a solace in knowing someone else said something beautiful about something sad. Something sad that I felt creeping up to me, so long ago when I was in my twenties, that is no longer creeping but crawling pretty quickly toward me now, something I couldn't describe like he did but recognized immediately.

"Great Dog Poem no2" by Mark Strand, from The New Yorker, January 15, 1996

Now that the great dog I worshipped for years
Has become none other than myself, I can look within

And bark, and I can look at the mountains down the street
And bark at them as well. I am an eye that sees itself

Look back, a nose that tracks the scent of shadows
As they fall, an ear that picks up sounds

Before they are born. I am the last of the platinum
Retrievers, the end of a gorgeous line.

But there's no comfort being who I am. I roam around
And ponder fate's abolishments until my eyes

Are filled with tears and I say to myself, "Oh, Rex,
Forget. Forget. The stars are out. The marble moon slides by."

Robert Pinsky Poetry Reading

At my library, we have a yearly program called Orem Reads. We pick a book (one year it was To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee sent us a letter!) that community members can get for free at the programs we have that relate to the book. This year, our book was Singing School by Robert Pinsky. This is an anthology of poems collected not by theme or topic but by what I think of as writerly quality. They are all excellent poems that also help you learn something about writing poetry. There is a thoughtful introduction and then the poems, some old, some contemporary, all introduced with a brief idea meant to make you think—how could I write something that is like this but also mine?

I was excited about this because I used Pinsky’s work quite a bit when I was teaching. His Favorite Poem Project was a tool I used to help my students learn that regular people read poetry. (That was one of the goals I had as a teacher, in fact: that my students leave my class knowing that poetry isn’t only for English majors.) When I was teaching, I always felt a little bit…frustrated, I suppose, but the limits of time and of my students’ desire. There are so many good things in literature to show them! I was always looking for models to follow, an apprentice looking for experts, and Pinsky was one of them.

But when I found out he was actually coming to our library? The word “excited” hardly covers it. I tried to explain to Kendell, who is decidedly not a poetry fan, just how big of a deal this was for me. Pinsky is big. He’s done important work bringing poetry to people. He’s won awards and was the poet laureate. Having him come to our little, small-town library is like, I don’t know…having Michael Jordan show up at your junior high basketball practice.

I looked forward to the program for months.

Robert pinsky reading 1

Then, wouldn’t you know, I told Kaleb’s scout leader that sure, I could bring treats to pack meeting. Not putting together that it was the same day. The same day as the Pinsky reading, and I have all of this guilt wrapped up in scouts and whether I go or not got, so instead of just dropping the treats off and going to the reading, I went to scouts with Kaleb, and then I rushed over to the library (with Kendell!) and I caught the last ten minutes.

All motherly guilt aside, I should’ve just gone to the reading.

But what I did get to see was pretty damn good.

Once you’ve been a teacher, you immediately recognize when you’re listening to someone who is a really good teacher, and that was what I took away from my ten minutes with Robert Pinsky: he knows how to teach. Good teachers don’t only teach about their subject, they bring it into the world; they show how knowing about something helps us to understand the world better.

Whenever I go to a reading, I always try to take notes in the book I’m going to have the writer sign. I do this so it is all in one place, the writer’s words, my thoughts, and his or her real, ink-and-paper scrawl. I only had time to write down two thoughts during those ten minutes:

“We always sentimentalize what we oppress”


“Iambic pentameter is a secret weapon”

It isn’t a lot. But it is something: a thought to continue thinking about, an idea to help my writing improve.

After the reading, I was the second person in line for this signing. (Not only because I was all fan-girly about talking to Robert Pinsky but because we also had to go to Costco that night.)

Robert pinsky reading

I was determined to actually talk and maybe sound intelligent, so I told him how grateful I was for his favorite poem project, and how it had helped me as a teacher. He asked why I wasn’t teaching, and I gave him the short answer, and then he told me about a meeting he sometimes has in Boston, with his other poet friends, where they discuss their favorite poems. Sharon Olds was mentioned. (Another of my favorite poets.) I was calmly talking to him but in my head I was like How is this happening? I’m having a conversation with Robert Pinsky!)

Then he wrapped it up, finished signing both of my books (I also had his book Gulf Music), and Kendell and I left.

To go to Costco.

Which is sort of fairly awesome, because really: poetry is something that normal people read. (I realize I might be making a big assumption by placing myself into the “normal people” group, but let’s just go with it.) I know many people don’t read poetry, but people do. And then we go to Costco. Because poetry isn’t outside of anything. Not real poetry. It is inside the world, about the world. It can interact with your life if you let it.

I like what he says in this interview on NPR: “For a lot of people, well-meaning teaching has made poetry seem arcane, difficult, a kind of brown medicine that might be good for you that doesn’t taste so good. So I tried make a collection of poetry that would be fun and that would bring out poetry as an art rather than a challenge to say smart things.”

An art, rather than a challenge to say smart things.

I left the reading full of a sad yearning: I wish I could teach again. That is a crazy thought for me, because the actuality of teaching was sort of devastating, both to me and to my family. I couldn’t be a good mother and a good teacher at the same time. But I also loved teaching. I loved having an opportunity to share good poems with people.

I miss that.

But I also still have poetry. Maybe we are a dwindling tribe, the poetry readers. But we exist. We’re here, reading poems. I am here, reading poems.

When we Belong to the World we Become What We Are.

While we were getting ready for our trip to Cabo last week, Haley mentioned that she was glad that it was this summer—the summer after her first year of college—instead of last summer—the one before college started. For different reasons than her (she had two different jobs to manage, and was worried about money, and nervous about leaving home), I agreed.
Last summer, I was both thrilled that my daughter was going away to college (starting down a path I'd always hoped she'd take) and terrified that my daughter was going away to college. I worried that I hadn't taught her enough, that she would be afraid or sad, that being away from home would be overwhelming. But my secret, darkest fear was that she would disappear. That she wouldn't need me at all anymore, or that she wouldn't want any sort of relationship with me. That she would move on and not look back.
So the summer spent preparing for her to leave for college was a hard one for me.
But one day on our trip—when she and her cousin Madi were swimming in the waves in Chileno Bay—I had one of those moments. You know how it feels, when you look at your child and you think how did I get so lucky? When you're astounded by their intelligence and their beauty and their rarity, and also their normalcy and their split ends and their unique oddities. When everything about them feels astonishing because look: this person is one who didn't exist until you helped to make her, both with your body and with your mothering. It's the same feeling you had the moment the nurse handed her to you: a whole new person.
I realized right then: I didn't really let her go. I didn't stop being her mother. I didn't lose anything. Instead, I am finding something. The new structure of our relationship is still vague and shifting, undefined. But I can almost start to see it. Right now it is made of infrequent texts, occassional tears, some emails and phone calls and random trips home. By the fact that I still think about and pray for her every day. By that trip, where we shared the Spanish words we knew, laughed and shopped and ate together, sat quietly without words. And we will be shaped by what might come next. This feeling stuck with me throughout the entire trip: true, there are less interactions than we had when she was still living at home. But the ones we do still have are sweeter, somehow. She is my daughter, but she is also a person, one I get to include in my life for always, in various shapes that seem brimming with possibilities.
And as I find this, she is also discovering: the beginning of who her adult self will be. She will be imperfect I am certain. She will make mistakes. But she will learn and discover and grow. She will continue forward, carrying stories.
Later that day, after we'd showered off the sand from the beach, I put some after-sun lotion on her sunburned shoulders. Then I asked my mother to put some on my sunburned back. In that hour, I touched my daughter, who is just beginning, and was touched by my mother, who is just at the beginning of her end. I am their fulcrum. And I finally put together the lines of a poem that had come to me in fractured bits, back there on the beach:
A woman's life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first, particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but a part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.
I'm not sure I understood it fully until that moment. Haley is beginning to belong to the world. To the tribe of these women she knows, mother, grandmother, aunt, old friend. To the tribe she will find in the world. To the one she will create. And I am blessed to be part of her tribe, witnessing her become what she is.
(the poem is Anne Stevenson's "Poem to a Daughter," which you can read in its entirety here)