5 Poetry Collections Under My Fingernails
by Michael Wehunt
I write about strange things and bumps in the night and presences out at the periphery of the human experience. I have no choice. Though I intend more than horror in my stories, it is nonetheless the vehicle of most of my plots, the container for my thoughts. Creepiness—getting under the skin—is my love.
Another of my loves is poetry. I’ve never had much interest in writing actual poems, but the form is essential to me as a reader. And though it has influenced the way I write since before I wrote, though I try to tap into its veins in my way, I virtually never want to find the horrific or weird in a poem, and indeed can’t seem to ever connect with “dark poetry.” Why is this? I’m not sure, but it’s not for lack of trying as a reader.
But I do very much want poetry and fiction to impact me in the same way—I’m not looking for the same essence from the two modes, and yet I am. From Yeats’ center not holding to Oliver’s box of darkness, I find that the language of poetry itself—plain words used profoundly—can strangely and deeply limn the edges of normalcy in a way that the very best overtly weird fiction does, but when poetry pushes into the intent of horror as a genre, when it seeks the uncanny or supernatural above all else, it loses nearly all of that resonance. So poetry and horror/weird fiction remain symbiotic in my heart in one direction only.
However, the following five collections all contain the same power that I find, subtly or shockingly, in the best dark fiction. Some of them are “greatest hits” collections, but I’m presenting the books that were my personal gateways. Not a whole lot here will be surprising or obscure, but—and this is key—that isn’t the point.
Mary Oliver – Dream Work
American Primitive won the Pulitzer, but Oliver’s follow-up collection of poetry, Dream Work, is my choice for this list because of the famous “Wild Geese,” which I share with many lovers of her work as an introduction. It wasn’t even a favorite for long—soon I would read a dozen or more Oliver poems that gently pushed it further into the soil and away from the sun of my favor—but that’s just it—soil—earthiness—the reason I love her so. That one of the best-selling poets of recent decades, a bestseller in a mode of literature that so few read, can write so profoundly on the surface of things, in a way nearly anyone who listens can hear humming in them—that she can write so simply and unadornedly yet with fertile soil always under her fingernails continues to touch me like no one else can.
Lucille Clifton – Blessing the Boats
“The Death of Fred Clifton” was probably the last poem I felt in the marrow of my bones—I had never heard of Lucille Clifton until 2015 or so, and she quickly became a lifelong favorite. This collection of new and selected poems deservedly won the National Book Award and is filled with genius and powerful racial themes, but the fourteen simple lines of “The Death of Fred Clifton” are reason enough.
Sylvia Plath – Ariel
Like many teenagers, especially those who were a bit too emotional, I was a little obsessed with Plath’s poetry. It’s not so hard to see how her work could bury itself in the author soil of a semi-tortured boy who would go on to finally (finally) try writing fiction too many years later—and how those roots could bear a weird and scary fiction harvest. (Stephen King had already burrowed under there when I was eight years old, after all, and Plath infected him.) Nakedness and anguish and imagery I can still hardly grasp the power of—she colored my coming of age. I knew even when I was young that I would have connected much more powerfully with her work if I had not been a male. I remember half-wishing (probably foolishly) that I had been a girl so I could dig deeper into her poems (as well as her novel The Bell Jar). Still, though, I wore through a copy of Ariel and then a copy of her collected poems until they fell apart.
Anne Sexton – Selected Poems of Anne Sexton
Sexton’s work was haunted, confessional, and tragic in a way that often gets her lumped in with Plath—and, of course, they both committed suicide—but she lived a little longer and gave us a good deal more. Perhaps Plath matured more quickly; perhaps she never had time to give us that hindsight. But Sexton was able to have a string of powerful years at the height of her powers, including a strange, surreal period that lets us look back at her earlier work as “just getting started” or “self-conscious.” Either way, her poetry is amazing, and this book is a wonderful introduction. Try “Her Kind” and fall in love.
Rainer Maria Rilke – The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve read many English-language translations of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” but the one in this book, translated by Stephen Mitchell, was the second I encountered, and it, well, changed my life. It opened me. I first read it a long time ago, and I give it a lot of credit of why I’m a writer and what is in the things I write—which is another way of saying why I’m the human I am. I came to the fiction of Robert Aickman, MR James, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Jorge Luis Borges after I started writing horror and weird fiction. I’d never even read Lovecraft until 2013, believe it or not. I used to be ashamed of this tardiness, but I’ve come to embrace it as a large part of my fabric. And along with Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Sylvia Plath, I mark this single Rilke poem as my author origin story. This whole book is full of awe and beauty.
Michael Wehunt lives in the woods of Atlanta with his partner and dog. His stories have appeared in multiple best-of anthologies and other well-known spooky homes. His debut fiction collection, Greener Pastures, shortlisted for the Crawford Award, a Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and the winner of Spain’s Premio Amaltea for Foreign Translation, is available from Apex Publications. A limited-edition novella, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here, is available from Nightscape Press and will donate one-third of all proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center when the print run is sold out. Visit Michael online at http://www.michaelwehunt.com.