We’ve all got those notebook pages crammed full of bad poetry skulking somewhere around in our pasts, don’t we? I know I tried to communicate the wretched angst and hormonal discomfort of my teen years in poetry. I filled page after page of three-hole-punched notebook paper with awful, unrhymed poems, in a desperate attempt to communicate the hell of my perfectly safe and privileged adolescence to the world. Thankfully, I destroyed all those papers many years ago, but sometimes I can still summon a line to mind, and it invariably makes me cringe.
The ubiquity of those bad poems — the fact that everyone, including those who never picked up a book of poetry before in their lives, writes poetry in their youth — leads me to the conclusion that bad poetry must be serving some higher biological function. Maybe there’s something to the teenage years that can only be communicated through poetry. Perhaps those skinny columns bedecked with too many adjectives and heavy from way too much emotion are the best way to share the intensity of adolescence. Maybe complete sentences and rigorous formatting aren’t the right tool for the job.
Ravenna author Lily Myers understands that poetry is the right medium for talking about the teenage years. Her new young adult novel, This Impossible Light, is written entirely in verse. And it’s not even one long book-length narrative. Instead, the novel is broken up into a series of small poems — many just one page each. The atmosphere is like stumbling across some teenager’s secret journal, the hidden volume where she keeps all of her dankest poetry, and then reading it from front to back. The narrative is plain and clear, and it reads more like a diary than a collection of poetry.
Impossible is the story of Ivy, a young Seattle woman who, in the wake of her parents’ divorce, develops an eating disorder. Ivy’s struggle begins, as many of these stories do, with control. As her best friend seems to be growing distant and aging out of their relationship, and as her mom succumbs to depression, Ivy manages to find control in the one place she’s got left: the types and amounts of food she lets into her own body. It gets worse from there.
Even considering the subject matter, some of the early passages in Impossible are a bit much. Ivy, for instance, loves math. She tells us why:
Given two unknown variables
and two equations
there is always
2+2 will always be 4.
The quadratic equation always works.
Numbers keep their promises.
This is a fine illustration of the chaos in Ivy’s life, and the uncertainty her parents’ divorce has created. It’s a perfectly solid passage that tells us about the character on a few different levels. But on the next page, Ivy lays it out even plainer, and the passage carries all the subtlety of a lead pipe to the teeth:
Like how does
Mom + Dad
Mom – Dad?
How does addition
Turn into subtraction
This maudlin passage doesn’t seem true to the math nerd who was writing nimbly about the quadratic equation just a page before. It reads like an English nerd’s idea of what a math nerd would say; even in the throes of grief, it seems unlikely that the precise mind of someone adept at math would use a wretched and unsound image like addition turning into subtraction with no warning.
But once Myers shakes off her own early lack of trust in her readers, Impossible finally learns how to be comfortable with itself. Ivy begins to show the readers and not tell. She explains how she tries and fails to make herself vomit:
so eventually I stop trying,
on the ground,
feel clean air float
in and out of my lungs.
in the cavern
of my stomach.
The poetry here is obviously better than the self-pitying doggerel that you and I wrote as teens, but it’s also not too good. These poems wouldn’t work in their own standalone volume, but here the simple scheme, which reads like slam poetry — fitting, since Myers was a slam poet — almost reads itself to the reader. There can be no doubt that the word “stomach,” there, should land like a thud. The poetry tells us how to feel as plainly as possible. The book feels as straightforward and raw as the experience of being a teenager.
The plot of Impossible, too, is very straightforward. It’s accessible and heartfelt and the characters are sympathetically drawn. Seattle audiences will no doubt love to see their city deftly drawn in Ivy’s observations (although there’s at least one glaring mistake that Seattleites will recognize immediately: Ivy and her friend Anna go to see The Nutcracker at Benaroya Hall rather than McCaw Hall.) Myers has accomplished something fairly remarkable with Ivy’s poems: she’s used the poetry of teenagers as a medium, and she’s turned it into something artful, beautiful, and genuinely moving.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant