The best poetry books to feed your distracted self

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been a dance teacher all of my adult life, and a poetry and word-lover even longer. I love the economy of language, immediacy, and the promise of surprise in poetry. In middle age, I returned to writing just as my body began its slow rebellion, with the added shifts of remarriage and step-parenting a severely disabled son. I went back to grad school and wrote my first book, drawing on the experience of confronting change, just as these recommended poets have done. Each of these poets has a very different story, but what they have in common outweighs their differences, and because of that we are able to see ourselves in their writing.


I wrote...

A Break in the Field

By Ellis Elliott,

Book cover of A Break in the Field

What is my book about?

In mid-life, Ellis Elliott married a widower with a profoundly disabled son. This poetry collection observes how her reality shifted in a moment, including her perspective on how she sees the world and understands what it means to be human. Elliott offers an unflinching look into her reality, wishes, and frustrations as a latecomer in the special-needs world.

She pulls in the attending losses and blessings of middle age and lessons learned in acceptance and grief. Along the way Elliott reminds us that while we all might wrestle with unfathomable experiences, there is beauty and gratitude in even the darkest places.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bright Dead Things: Poems

Ellis Elliott Why did I love this book?

I love the gorgeous, lyrical language Limón uses to sort out loss, own her power, and the power of the “huge beating genius machine” of the heart.

Limón uses imagery so visceral I can touch it, and examines the light and dark of womanhood when she declares, “…the largeness of me, the hot/gore of my want and wants, wants to disarm/the fixedness of this”. I like that what she writes is understandable, but never easy. Limón currently serves as our nation’s Poet Laureate.  

By Ada Limon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bright Dead Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bright Dead Things examines the chaos that is life, the dangerous thrill of living in a world you know you have to leave one day, and the search to find something that is ultimately "disorderly, and marvelous, and ours." A book of bravado and introspection, of 21st century feminist swagger and harrowing terror and loss, this fourth collection considers how we build our identities out of place and human contact--tracing in intimate detail the various ways the speaker's sense of self both shifts and perseveres as she moves from New York City to rural Kentucky, loses a dear parent, ages…


Book cover of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: Poems

Ellis Elliott Why did I love this book?

I like poetry that teaches me something, and I like how Harjo can teach me about Native American myth and culture (as a member of the Muscogee Nation)in a poem set within the context of something as mundane as an airport.

She expertly threads together the modern with the historical, and the sacred within the ordinary. “Once a woman fell from the sky. The woman who fell from the sky was neither murderer nor saint. She was rather ordinary…”

I am also struck with how Harjo unifies her own unique culture with the shared experiences of all of us, as in: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last/ sweet bite”.

By Joy Harjo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Woman Who Fell from the Sky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

She draws from the Native American tradition of praising the land and the spirit, the realities of American culture, and the concept of feminine individuality.


Book cover of Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs

Ellis Elliott Why did I love this book?

This book breaks the rigid lap lanes of how a poem is “supposed to look”, and I love that about it. The pieces range from 2 lines to several pages, and can look like flash-fiction or something you jotted on a sticky-note beside your bed.

Fennelly never takes herself too seriously, as in the poem titled, “Returning From Spring Break, Junior Year at Notre Dame” and the one-line poem below the title, “Swapped the rosary on my bedpost for Mardi Gras beads.” 

But it is not all kicks and giggles, as she confronts the reality of grief in the poem, “Grief Vacation”, talking about having to put on a different face after her sister’s death and then coming home, “she stepped into her suit of grief. She pulled it up, over her legs and hips.” 

By Beth Ann Fennelly,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Heating & Cooling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 52 micro-memoirs in genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life, combining the compression of poetry with the truth-telling of non-fiction into one heartfelt, celebratory book. Ranging from childhood recollections to quirky cultural observations, these micro-memoirs build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer and deeply original observer of life's challenges and joys.

Some pieces are wistful, some wry and many reveal the humour buried in our everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments and awakens us to…


Book cover of Perfect Black

Ellis Elliott Why did I love this book?

This collection teaches me as well, by taking me into the experience of growing up in the Black, rural Appalachian South.

The poems are part memoir, as in writing about the experience of her mother visiting her where she lived with her grandparents, “(We) held hands like we thought/mothers & daughters should/but neither of us knew for sure.” 

They are also part love song to home-cooking, “Every morning of my childhood, my grandmother, who stood a little/ under five feet tall, donned an apron and cooked breakfast. Slow. Precise./ Deliberate. She equated food with love, and she cooked with both a fury/ and a quiet joy.” 

And finally, they are part Black feminist manifesto, “My black body is a boulder, a stop sign. Sometimes i think my body is/ graceful, a song of freedom. Sometimes i think it is something that every/ eye casts away. I must concentrate if i want to fit into small spaces, slip/into the eye of america’s needle.” 

By Crystal Wilkinson, Ronald W. Davis (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Perfect Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the foreword:

"In Perfect Black, Crystal Wilkinson walks us back down the road she first walked as a girl, wanders us through the trees that lined the road where she grew up, where her sensibilities as a woman and a writer were first laid bare. In one of the first poems that opens the collection she is a woman looking back on her life, on the soil and mountains that first stamped the particular sound of her voice and she is deeply inquisitive about how it all fell into place: "The map of me can't be all hills& mountains…


Book cover of Odes

Ellis Elliott Why did I love this book?

This book embraces both the conventional and the campy. Odes is unafraid to take an unflinching look at an aging female body, and when I say “unflinching”, I mean poems like, "Ode to the Hymen" or "Blow Job Ode".

She also addresses conventional subjects in her poems, such as her sister, buttermilk, and the wind. Odes definitely pushes boundaries, but does so with consummate skill, so that you feel both highly literary and a little dirty at the same time.

She doesn’t just talk about obvious body parts, either. In "Ode to Wattles", she writes, “…I love to be a little/disgusting, to go as far as I can/into the thrilling unloveliness/of an elder woman’s aging.” 

 

By Sharon Olds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Odes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • An intimate collection of poems that “picks up where Stag’s Leap left off, which is to say that it contains some of the best and most ingenious poems of her career.” —The New York Times

Opening with the powerful and tender “Ode to the Hymen,” Sharon Olds addresses and embodies, in this age-old poetic form, many aspects of love and gender and sexual politics in a collection that is centered on the body and its structures and pleasures. The poems extend parts of her narrative as a daughter, mother, wife, lover, friend, and poet of conscience…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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