Photo credit: Ian Orion
Compiled here is a memory/dream guide to the first books of poems that I fell in love with, books that taught me something beyond the single-minded lessons of a particular neighborhood in a particular time. In my mind, the neighborhood of Lents was full of family, rain, and beauty, but also ambient violence and anger. Lately, I have become uneasy with the idea that books “can save your life." Maybe that’s because there are so many examples of them not saving lives. People are killed every day, while by their beds a book lies on a table, a stack of books on the floor. Books lying still at the bottom of their backpack while they are walking home, listening to music and not hearing what the cop is shouting. But in the end I think I can agree with some form of this sentiment, because books do change your life and that change can feel like salvation. I know that was true for me growing up in Lents in the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe it wasn’t books that saved my life, but these poems certainly have directed my life. They have had a big say in who I am as an adult. Whether we are aware of it or not, once we read a poem, a short story, a novel, or a memoir, our lives get a little bigger. And if we let the words in, we might even be lucky enough to experience empathy for ourselves and others. The author’s voice reports back into the air of our essential being and after that nothing is exactly the same.
All My Pretty Ones
by Anne Sexton
Read this book in the shade at Glenwood City Park behind Kelly School. There is something about this book which makes you want to hide with it, makes you want to just sit in a corner of the park and not be harassed or pulled out of the cool green grass and back into the neighborhood. In the grass it’s just the shade and a small breeze, and for the first time you begin to think you might one day write something down.
What Work Is
by Philip Levine
Read this book while you are waiting for the bus on 82nd and Foster in front of the Tom Peterson’s which has just become Tom Peterson’s and Gloria’s Too. People at the bus stop might not even be catching the bus or going to work, but you are — you are going to work when all you want to do is stay home and read these poems over and over again.
by Yusef Komunyakaa
Read this book in the car while your mom goes into Checkers Mart on SE 92nd and Flavel to buy a Power Ball ticket. Two men are leaning against a wall smoking cigarettes and drinking tall cans of beer in paper bags. They are laughing and agreeing with whatever each other has to say. You are reading a poem in which a child says that he is seeing something he’s not supposed to see. Then your mom walks out of the store and the men stop talking and stare at her until she’s back in the car. Sometimes it felt like the only place male vulnerability lived was in books like this.
The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems
by Michael Ondaatje
Read this book while walking past the Gypsy Joker’s clubhouse on SE Duke. Do not look up from the book. Just walk by. Do not stare, though you have never heard of the Gypsy Jokers ever beating up a kid from the neighborhood and especially just because that kid is reading a book. But you’re young and this is not just reading. It’s poetry. It’s some of the most tender poetry you’ve ever read.
by Dorianne Laux
Read this book while you are still living at home off 92nd and Foster, though you probably should have moved out by now. From bed you hear someone arguing outside on the street; a dog is barking. You can hear a woman yelling at someone. And then someone else, in a lower voice, saying something that makes her stop yelling. In the book, you are learning different ways to be a human being, different ways to be open to the world, and different ways in which women have had to survive that world.
Living at the Movies
by Jim Carroll
Read this book on your front porch while looking across the street at the asphalt steaming in the schoolyard because it has just rained but also the sun is out. Take the book over to your neighbor’s house because you want some weed. In the garage he is sitting in a circle with a few friends. A cop is sitting there, too, in uniform with a gun. The cop has just passed a pipe back to your neighbor’s blind wife. In the book it’s like the world is both more and less than it’s supposed to be.
The Black Unicorn
by Audre Lorde
Read this book after you board the #14 bus downtown. As you cross the Hawthorne Bridge, look up from the poem you are reading and out at the Willamette. Keep reading. You are heading home. As you read the poems, you are changing a little bit and so is the bus. As the business class gets off below 50th, the people from your neighborhood are getting on around 55th. Keep reading even though the bus is louder, even though you have begun to recognize people, keep reading, your stop is coming up, you pass 82nd Ave and you are almost there. At the bus stop you step down onto a sidewalk littered with cigarette butts and receipts. This is your path home. Now you must walk the rest of the way on you’re own. You have to worry about dogs and men, but you don’t have to do it alone. You have this book with you. You have these poems. Which is a lot more than some people have.
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is the author of Mayakovsky’s Revolver
and All-American Poem
, winner of the May Sarton award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the coauthor with Michael Dickman of 50 American Plays
. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his two sons and partner. Wonderland
is his most recent book.