Generally speaking, two things are true: the first is that, more often than not, reading poetry is only an incidentally tailored experience. It is often a portrayal, a glance through the lens of someone else’s worldview, a sometimes-brief, sometimes-brutal game of chance wherein both the writer and the reader hope that something that belongs to them catches with the other like little sticks kindling a fire pit. Maybe it’s a piece of their own experience, a shard of memory, a bridge connecting them and the author. Maybe it’s appreciation for the craft, for being gifted a moment where you think to yourself, “Wow, that’s cool as hell.” But the fire doesn’t kindle that way every time, so the reader pours through glue-bound verses and waits for the spark to ignite. It will always ignite, but not for every reader and not all at once.
The other true thing? There really is no absolute truth in creative expression, and it’s there that we find Choose Your Own Poem by Candice M. Kelsey.
If you, like myself, were a precocious and avid library patron in your middle school years, you may be familiar with the format. A certain YA series that cannot be named (I have heard from multiple sources that they are very litigious) allowed the reader to select from plot point options and treat themselves to the ending they wanted or thought they wanted. Candice has brought this adventure back in verse but tailored it to an introspective adult audience, weaving pathways through common experience with your choice of gutting, aching turns of phrase. The decisions you make throughout this book don’t always lead you to the outcome you want, but they will lead you to one that is shared, described eloquently or angrily, and is undoubtedly coming right for your throat (as the author has alluded to.)
This collection’s only rule is that there are no rules; the one exception is that you must begin at the beginning. Kicking it off with a bang is The Cave of Misogyny, or Tips to Improve the Sex Lives of Christian Husbands, a brutal and appropriately cutting line-by-line deconstruction of female expectations, both human and insect.
Vibratory signals & pheromones mediate the reproductive behavior of stinkbugs. Cultivate sexual responsiveness. The brown marmorated stinkbug wears a decorative shell adorned by two large eyes & red ocelli. Dress femininely. During diapause, the female congregates in warm, tight crevices like the folds of curtains—her period of suspended development. Practice covering offenses with grace. The appetite is voracious. Show respect. Foraging relentlessly, it leaves insufferable devastation across orchards & forests. Never walk around with a scowl.
Where do you go from there? Far be it for me to tell you, but here are some standout locations along your potential journey:
From Beyond Escape:
Narcissist’s child that you are, you finally understand: You are a leprechaun captured in a
kindergarten trap. The grass is made of felt, the rocks are painted coins, & the sky is held together by glue. Your usual tricks are useless. Even gray-rocking is futile—you will always be who they believe you are. The narcissist will forever blame you.
From The Secret Treasure of Tibet:
Yet cordyceps transform into
that gallantly inhibit organ
transplant rejection micro-biofactories.
You are encouraged
by how they kill—false offerings
to the ants’ appetites
they take over
not a dance nor
foolish flutter of wooden joints
but a climb of ant terror.
From Deadwood City, or Peacefully in Your Sleep:
Every backyard cat understands mortality’s rhythmic
licking, its bird-bone trail. We confront our own pulse, late night
bats like tiny ticking shadows. Now you rest sideways, reader,
a wing of pale feathers across death’s chest like ceremony.
Whatever path you take, you will undoubtedly come away with a striking sense of what connects us, for better or worse. Beautifully written and captivating, you will know what carries your burdens and what causes them. So what are you waiting for? Pick your poison and your antidote.