I love poetry collections for a couple of reasons: they’re slim enough to fit in my pocket (who am I kidding, I have a giant VSCO girl backpack that could fit 5 thick books), they’re super quick to read, and – if they’re some of the best – they can pack the kind of emotional punch that I can only get out of 300+ pages of character development in the average novel. Win win when a girl only has so much time for eatin’, sleepin’ and readin’.
I have always admired poets for being able to seemingly write at their most vulnerable and depressed. If I’m in that mood, I can barely roll myself across the floor towards my journal to write a single line of anything, let alone get my mind straight enough to make something beautiful out of it. My favorite poets, mostly found through the Button Poetry YouTube channel (thank you, video content addiction), are the ones that deal with the raw shit – the bits that make your stomach squelch and ring in your head because you know that at some time, some where, you felt this poem before you read it.
Rachel Wiley’s poetry is a true smorgasbord of stuff. She addresses her mental health, the place she occupies in society as a ‘fat’ woman and the kinds of ignorant interactions she is forced to endure with people on a daily basis. She addresses racism, and eating disorders, and sexualisation and feminism and hope and love, along with slamming down some fab one-liners: “One hundred long-stemmed summers for the night Grandma tried to scrub the extra melanin from your skin in the bathtub” (p38), “A small girl spins gracefully at the back of my throat on point” (p77), “When you are fat (and I am fat) the streets are full of soothsayers telling you how you will die” (p1).
A lesson I had to teach myself was that poetry isn’t a how-to guide on the process of living, and how to handle your emotions. It shouldn’t set out to be a wisdom-ous guide (it’s a word, leave me alone) or a patronising nod back from the seat of the poet to you, whispering: “I’ve been there, let me tell you how to deal” (*cough* Rupi Kaur *cough*) – it should just be an expression of lived experience, without judgement. To peel open the layers of your own person, and still treat yourself gently.
In that same vein, I am reminded in Rachel Wiley’s work of the quote: “‘Therefore’ is a word the poet must not know.” by Andre Gide. While good poetry will end on a memorable line, it isn’t meant to offer you a solution, a finish line or a perfect ending. If poetry is the spontaneous overflow of emotion, then tying it up in a neat little bow is almost impossible if you want it to keep that impact. And that’s why, even though I find rhyming poetry the most pleasing to my little ears, I have started to develop a love for free flow poetry.
Rachel Wiley’s work isn’t like your average collection – between serious poems, she slides humorous ditties and lists, like “An incomplete Pinterest board of uses for the abundance of condoms that expired after he left”. This particular piece of work is led by its title, rather than the content of the list which instead nods towards the way in which Rachel deals with his absence: with humor, suggesting uses like “Dish mittens”, and “Fill them with your spinster tears and throw them at happy couples”.
To write this review, I marked all the poems in the collection that I really liked, but truly the list was almost as long as the content section. So I’ve reigned madly and ruthlessly with a sharpie and narrowed it down to a small few. If I have a clip of Rachel performing the poems, I’ll include them here too so that you can hear the inflection and the way it was meant to be read.
Of course, there were also some little poopy pieces amongst the glitter (come on, no-one can deliver perfect writing), which I’ll list too and is the reason I gave only 4 stars. I didn’t like the emails to the men online – mostly because I thought that she had such originality in the rest of her work, that those fairly unimaginative pieces dragged the rest down. For instance, “Potential slogans for OkCupid” is a great concept but contains so-so lines like “OkCupid: Got shame? Want some?”.
Still, is there such a thing as good poetry, and bad poetry? Does it really just come down to what you connect to personally?
Here are my top picks:
‘For the fat girl who considered starvation when bulimia wasn’t enough’
This was the first video I saw from Rachel Wiley, and it cut me really deep. The imagery of a slim little girl, twirling like a ballerina in the back of her throat, a music box – the only part left of a childhood dream to dance on stage – feeling so close to being real that if she could only reach back far enough, she could be/have her again. The idea of being bulimic in order to achieve, improve, be, transform is something that many of us remember and understand. It is hard to describe that feeling in a way that is original and still piercing, but the poem is on. point.
‘In the event the wind is knocked out of you’
I’m sad that I haven’t seen her perform this one yet as it’s one of my favorites. It’s so simple, and instead of focusing on the particular event that makes Rachel lose her breath, she talks about the feeling itself. We can all remember a time when something has been said or done to knock the wind out of us, and how devastating it was, and how we felt that we could either “sob, or sing, or just resume”.
And another favorite of mine, which wasn’t part of the anthology, but I just love hearing her read it: ‘10 honest thoughts on being loved by a skinny boy’
If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable with your weight, or struggled with self-image and what that means for both yourself and your partner, this poem is likely to hit home. Some particular lines that caught me were: “We put on shows that involve flying children and singing animals but apparently no-one has enough willing suspension of disbelief to believe anyone loving a fat girl”.
This turned out to be quite a hurried review because of my crazy few weeks at work, but I’m glad I finally had a chance to share this awesome poet. So have you read her collection? Which poems did you like best? Leave me a comment!
Want to know more about slam poetry? Check out this review I did on Blythe Baird and her collection ‘If my body could speak’ earlier this year.