Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.
I have a confession: I don’t much care for poetry. I know, I’m a terrible person. I don’t know if it was childhood overexposure, or I’m a philistine, or what. I don’t dismiss the entire genre and in fact there are poems I think are really lovely (‘First Fig’ or ‘This is Just to Say’), but it’s not to my personal taste, broadly. I don’t actively seek it out and when given a choice between Poetry and Not Poetry, I typically know how I’m going to go.
Which makes me not suited to poetry reviews, as a whole. People who deeply love the genre can speak authentically and enthusiastically about it, but additionally, they have the experience and breadth of knowledge you need to judge work in context. I do not. I’ve read almost no contemporary poetry, for example.
So when I initially picked up Free Verse, I was extremely hesitant. It turned out to be a good thing that I stuck it out, because it’s an excellent book, and if you have a poetry aversion, I can’t guarantee that you’ll love it, but you might greatly enjoy it. From the start, though, know that the bulk of the book is in prose, albeit really lyrical, haunting, lovely prose that often feels very poetic. The poetry appears as the protagonist, Sasha, discovers the medium and starts to explore it while processing the series of really awful things that have happened in her life, slowly stripping away her sense of self, belonging, and justice.
At the opening of Free Verse, our protagonist is being shuffled into foster care after the death of her brother, as she has no known living relatives willing to take her on — her father is long dead in a mining accident, her mother disappeared. She’s angry, upset, confused, in a dark, bitter place, and she’s forced to right herself in an unfamiliar house even as all she wants is to go home and be with her brother. Then she meets the neighbours, establishing a connection with Mikey, a young boy with a complicated and dark past of his own.
And every time you think things will get better for her, something else awful happens. Free Verse doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to repeatedly bringing characters down and forcing them to figure out who they want to be and how they’re going to cope with terrible things. There’s a tendency for this kind of writing to feel like misery porn — especially in the context of a book set in coal mining country, something that outsiders see as mystically, fascinating awful and depressing — but Dooley managed to avoid that, walking a fine and very complicated line as she depicted an authentic lived life without sinking into utter tropes.
The thing is that people do have terrible lives, and it’s good for readers to be forced to explore that. As with The Serpent King, in Free Verse, readers are confronted with experiences that might be totally unfamiliar to them — Sasha’s life isn’t ordinary, and it’s not extraordinary either. Miners are continuing to die in accidents as a result of occupational hazards, poor maintenance, and attempts to cut corners on the part of executives. Firefighters die on the job. Children run away. Women leave. People get addicted to drugs. Bullies bully.
For children experiencing lives like Sasha’s, or struggling with problems of their own, this kind of ‘dark’ middle grade reading provides an anchor, a thread of connection. They are not alone. These things happen to people like them — and they so rarely see themselves in the pages of books that take them seriously as human beings, not objects. For people who experience these stories as highly alien, books like these offer other benefits, like critical perspective into the lives of others. People like Sasha face things that other people might be incapable of dealing with — and Sasha in turn faces some pushback of her own when she needs psychiatric help to manage her reactions to incredible stress.
What saves Sasha, ultimately, is poetry and the ability to find a creative method of self-expression that she can use to tap into what’s going on, articulate what it is, and process it. People don’t necessarily need to write poetry to comprehend their lives, and it’s not going to magically fix things that have gone horribly wrong, but this book isn’t a prescription. It’s an example of how art can foster independence and freedom, and help people figure out who they are and escape the shadows of their pasts. Whether that’s poetry or visual art, writing like Travis in The Serpent King, music, dance, any number of other things, art can be a powerful force in the lives of those who are struggling.
It must, of course, be paired with substantive help — Sasha still needs therapy, she still struggles with the legacy of poverty and the realisation that she may struggle if she wants to go to college and pursue other opportunities, she still has to deal with complicated family matters. But there’s tremendous value in promoting arts curricula in the schools and creating a space for art. Art is not frivolity, but something core to human experience and something with profound influence on the lives of artists. The resistance to providing arts funding is troubling, especially in the context of a culture where some of the greatest artists of years past relied heavily on government support in their early years — how many talented artists are we missing out on because no one’s teaching them about haiku, or buying paints for them, or giving them practice rooms for dance?
Image: birdcage, megan ann, Flickr