7 Poetry Collections About Transformation
Women poets writing about the body and liberation in diverse and dazzling ways
For women and queer people, the very act of writing can be an act of resistance. Especially when we shine attention on our own transgressive bodies, poetry is illumination in the darkness, a stay against despair. As Audre Lorde proclaimed in 1977, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
The women poets here write the body in diverse and dazzling ways, channeling imagination into liberation on the page. Their feminist work embodies what Helene Cixous calls an “insurgent writing,” carrying out “ruptures and transformations” in personal and collective history. These are essential books for our times—dive in and let yourself be transformed.
No Sweet Without Brine by Cynthia Manick
The sumptuous second collection from the founder and curator of Soul Sister Revue (the hottest poetry event ever to hit the internet) delights at every turn. Brimming with self-portraits, Black joy, recipe poems, list poems, soul vibrations, litanies and lullabies, No Sweet Without Brine savors play and pleasure while recognizing grief.
“I want to testify that I’m done with tasting elegies in my mouth,” Manick declares in “B-Side Testimonials,” an incantation on aging and self-care. Her sensual poems contain the “muscle memory” of childhood, the sweet taste of homegrown peaches, the legacy of the Middle Passage, deep reverberations of generational trauma and healing. Even propped in stirrups at a shaming gynecologist’s, Manick writes odes to her own blessed body, works hard to love her uterus “when it feels like a horde of gladiators in a closed ring.” As her voice moves from humor to lyricism, meditation to sharp insight, Manick weaves the sweet and the bitter into one unforgettable poetry feast.
Sex Depression Animals by Mag Gabbert
This bewitching debut delivers everything the title promises and more. Lyrical and provocative, Gabbert’s poems get right up close to the body, contemplating her skin in the bathtub, describing the swollen sensation of a lip-gloss called “venom,” anticipating the “brief prick/ of needle to bone” before getting tattooed. Animals pervade the collection, often wounded and broken but also metaphors of transformation– a snake that slips out of its skin, a monarch’s wings that “close and open like eyelids,” an oyster holding the erotic tension between pleasure and deprivation.
Gabbert deftly employs white space and fragmentation; her poems tend to float on the page, free of punctuation. Underneath the strange allure of Sex Depression Animals is a fierce rejection of patriarchal structures, a reclamation of bodily autonomy and sexual power. “I cannot wear a sequined dress/ I cannot slink across the floor/ I cannot drop like coins from a purse/ I cannot scatter brightly,” she writes, refusing to submit or be defined, remaking the self through language.
The Shared World by Vievee Francis
The astonishing fourth book from award-winning poet Vievee Francis pulses with vitality and grace. The Shared World affirms the interconnectedness of everything—lives and landscapes, humans and animals, love and loss and collective history. “I am haunted by memories as/ present as ghosts,” writes Francis, revisiting the loneliness of an unloved childhood alongside the horror of the 1963 Birmingham bombing. Her lucid poems explore vulnerability and oppression in a world where “every dark body/ is suspect”– they reimagine Rosa Parks in potent rage, the white accuser of Emmett Till defending her lust and her lies, the mourning and keening of “every living thing.”
With deep empathy and lyric power, The Shared World seeks what we hold in common while singing out for freedom in all its varied forms: “I hunger/ for round people– / the body uncorseted by male design.” The last poem, “Dark Horse,” offers a vision of true merging as the child self rides bareback on a beloved old mare: “I can feel the throb of her blood moving through our dark body.”
Territorial by Mira Rosenthal
Mira Rosenthal maps domains of danger in her stunning second collection, Territorial. “There’s tinder underneath our days,” she writes, bearing witness to drought-ridden California, the female body in peril, the earth in crisis, the constant threat of violence balanced with sensual joy.
These poems explore risk and womanhood, what it means to live among potential predators (mountain lions, humans), to navigate territories both urban and wild. A mother braces while her two young daughters romp on the playground, a public place where parents must remember to “put shorts under skirts.” A girl freezes in a manzanita grove at dusk, learning stillness despite “some nocturnal female sense/ that feels like snakes inside the flesh.” Rosenthal observes “the exposed world/ of men,” captures the embodied experience of giving birth, making love, being assaulted on a crowded bus in a foreign city. The speaker in Territorial becomes a goddess, a gardener, a fury in the kitchen slicing onions: “I admit at last/ there’s a river of rage below the surface,/ hidden.” Renewal lies in the self’s dynamic energy, a wild internal force driven to create.
Date of Birth by Shawn R. Jones
I was hooked from the opening poem of Shawn R. Jones’ searing debut: “Dirty Little Secrets Are Just Another Set of Facts.” This sardonic, breezy title becomes a kind of manifesto, a counterpoint to the poem’s staccato rhythms, her life story beginning with a failed abortion compressed into taut stanzas spanning four generations. Jones takes a journalistic stance on family history and tragedy, poverty and abuse, forging her own memories with the stories of women in her family to create a blazing testimony of Black resilience and love. Childhood scenes burn bright in the present tense, as in “One Reason She Keeps a Switchblade in Her Pocket”: “She is the only child. Has everything. Was taught to share but they/ demand ‘pussy.’”
Jones is fearless when writing the body, from “ruby chunks” of miscarriage to “the indelible image” of her father overdosed on heroin. Rage and grief are reborn in Date of Birth, a vital response to the brutality of white America. In the final poem, Jones celebrates married love and her own sacredness: “I know I am holy./ Both in what has been lost/ and what has been sustained.”
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by Torrin A. Greathouse
Torrin Greathouse took the poetry world by storm in 2020 with her revelatory, evocative debut. Now more than ever, we need Wound from the Mouth of the Wound, poems of transformation and trans flourishing, gorgeous lyrics that contain the world’s violence while claiming the trans disabled body as a site of mythical creation and power. Greathouse livens up the page with her brilliant use of varied forms and invented structures, her trickster gift for cathartic wordplay, as in “That’s So Lame” which interrogates the title slur through etymology and personal narrative: “Before I could accept this body’s fractures/ I had to unlearn lame as the first breath of lament.”
Wound is a contemporary feminist oracle, mapping the territories of trauma and survival. “Nothing’s more/ femme than empty/ field, a place to bury/ seed,” she writes, her lines pared down, knife-sharp. From the floodgate of crying released by gender transition to the “crookedness” of the body inspected by doctors in a cold exam room, these poems enact a profound intimacy with the reader, one that transmutes violation into connection, pain into a common language.
Skeletons by Deborah Landau
Deborah Landau’s fifth book goes down like a fine craft cocktail, cold and smooth, with a lingering burn. In a cunning arrangement of short acrostic poems, Landau showcases her signature edginess, wryly ruminating on “existential gloom,” monogamy and its discontents, “the filth and joy” of living in a body. Set in the glam world of Brooklyn parks and Parisian terraces, Skeletons examines midlife angst in spare, startling lines: “We liked birth, it kept the death away–”. The poems chronicle looming catastrophe and pandemic ennui, those “caged days/ traipsing round the living room streaming a cringey dance class.”
Landau’s self-deprecating wit is so elegant we can’t help but give in to her charms, entranced as she listens to Calm app mantras, fails at corpse pose, takes “the kale and kombucha,/ toting a calamitous hairdo and wrecked face…” Skeletons sings most sublimely in its exaltation of desire. The whole collection is a fierce ode to mortality, mourning time’s passage as it revels in the pleasures of the flesh, urging us to say yes despite everything: “The best time for the body is now.”