Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month from 2022 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.
March: The Kids by Hannah Lowe
You’ll probably have heard of this collection by Hannah Lowe, ‘The Kids,’ which just won the Costa Book of the Year award: the acclaim is well-deserved. The concept is fairly straightforward: a former teacher writing poems which reflect on her decade teaching at a sixth form college, and it does that skilfully, but the collection is about so much more than memories of school days.
The portraits of the kids she taught are often witty, recognizable and pleasingly familiar: confiscating phones, theatre trips, the struggle for teachers to communicate and students to concentrate. There are poems which recount the weirdness of bumping into former students after they’ve grown up, and in ‘The Unretained’ she wonders, “What happened / to Eliot who went to Feltham? And Martha, / five-months-pregnant, quitting for her boyfriend / and a flat?”. What stands out, though, is her constant sense of her own humanity. She is never portrayed as a pedagogic master, but as someone who gets things wrong, mispronounces “Pepys”, escapes class to “check [her] texts / or sneak between the stockroom shelving units / to eat a Twix,” and often as someone painfully affected by the struggles and frustrations of the young people she works with.
This idea is deepened in the middle part of the book which explores Lowe’s own experience of being a young student. Her own teenage frustrations and fantasies are brought to life and paralleled with those of the kids she teaches as an adult. The third and final section of the book focuses on Lowe’s motherhood, the learning curve of becoming a parent, and her child as he figures out the world.
At the heart of the book is an exploration of teaching and learning, all the ways that comes to pass throughout one’s life. It shows how teachers can come in the form of children, your parents, a traumatic event or bereavement – and how learning can happen when you least expect it. It is a collection which captures the complexity of all the different versions of the self held at once: Lowe seen as a teacher and an authority but feeling vulnerable, being a mother but remembering being a child, being perceived as in control but feeling nothing of the sort.
The sonnet form, which almost all the poems in the collection are written in, often enacts this. The two stanzas create a sort of point and counterpoint, setting up one idea in the first half, then re-exploring it in the second half. The final poem starts “The body is something like a poem,” and the second stanza, “A poem is something like a body.” Lowe recounts seeing her yoga teacher participating in another yoga class. It captures the idea that underlies this whole collection, a study in humility and an admission that no matter how much we see ourselves (or are seen as) “masters,” we all still need “kind and guiding hands” to teach us.
February: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
I think we could all use a little bit of unbridled joy – and unbridled love (it is the month of Valentine’s Day, after all). Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs has it in spades.
Famous for her poems which reflect on joy and wonder, which ask questions like “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, it makes sense that Mary Oliver writes a lot about dogs. This is a compendium of those poems, featuring dogs which have come and gone throughout Oliver’s life: Bear, Luke, Percy, Benjamin the rescue dog, Ricky the hedonist… There are reflections on their inner monologues, stories of their adventures and origins, and imagined conversations.
In classic Oliver style, though, these poems resist the trite or twee. They are not just poems for dog-lovers, revelling in wet noses and waggy tails (though there is, naturally, plenty of that). We learn about being present and asking for what you need in Percy Wakes Me, about healing trauma and how “the old life haunts the new” from Benjamin, who came from who knows where. Luke teaches us how to love wildly through exploring the flowers, not choosing “this blossom or that blossom” but instead being “happy / in the heaven of earth.”
In many ways it is such a simple collection, but the simplicity is the point. Shedding the complexities of human life, these are poems which repeatedly invite you to lean in to the sweetness and immediacy of physical existence, to find wildness and freedom – to run like a dog off the leash.
January: Ten Poems for Winter
January again already, so here at OPL we prescribe curling up with lots of consoling and thoughtful poetry to get you through this bleakest of midwinters. This little collection, ‘Ten Poems for Winter’ is an excellent place to start.
At this time of year, we all brace ourselves to enter a new world of cold and snow and darkness. These ten poems offer snapshots of this world in all its beauty and difficulty.
The poems don’t shy away from the ragged, murky, cold greyness of winter – but there are also moments of whimsy or joy: Ruby Robinson keeping a turtle in the fridge to hibernate, making snow pudding, “small perfections” of nature to be found. There is a poignant Skype call between January and July, a poem which feels especially salient given current circumstances. There are moments of wintery wonder, but where the poems face the struggle of this time of year, there is also solace. There is still a kind of comfort, as found in Robert Hayden’s powerful reflection on “love’s austere and lonely offices” manifested through his father waking up in the freezing dawn to light the fires. Poems can be a powerful source of solidarity, and this small wintery collection offers just that.
Courage, dear OPL members. We’re all pushing through the cold months together – and thankfully, we’ve got enough poetry on our shelves to keep your winter warm.