Book review: Your Family, Your Body (Modern Poets Three)* by Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, and Warsan Shire

The Penguin Modern Poets series is based on a simple premise. As described on the opening page of every copy, each volume in the series “brings together representative selections from the work of three poets now writing.” Originally published between 1962 and 1979, and again in the mid-1990s, the series was recently revived to showcase a whole new generation of poets

The series is aimed at both “the curious reader and the seasoned lover of poetry.” I consider myself, at best, to be the former. I’m quite ambivalent towards poetry; I enjoyed analysing a selection of poems at university, but sitting down and reading whole collections rarely appeals to me. If I’m given the choice of, say, a poetry collection or a short story collection, I’ll always opt for the latter.

That being said, the Modern Poets series caught my attention. Bridging the gap between single-author collections and all-out anthologies, I felt like the series offered me enough to get a sense of each writer’s work without feeling overwhelmed. If I disliked one poet, there were two more to enjoy.

IMG_3671That was what I thought when I bought a copy, and I’d say that that assessment still stands. I chose the third volume in the series, entitled Your Family, Your Body, at random (there are currently four available, with a fifth publishing at the end of July), and I was not disappointed.

The volume packs a lot into a small format, although I was disappointed by the amount of intentionally blank pages left in Olds’ section – if you’re not being censored, what’s the point? I didn’t dislike any of the poets, nor could I definitively say I preferred one over the others. Booker, Olds, and Shire each know their craft well, and while I didn’t like every poem in the collection there were many that I enjoyed, and a handful that I truly adored.

My only criticism lies not with the poets, but with the series itself. Each of the new Modern Poets volumes has its own title, something which the original series lacked (bar one notable exception). Each of the poems in Your Family, Your Body fit the title perfectly, but I have to say I grew tired in the end of reading take after take on the two themes. The poems took in a range of themes – Shire, for instance, brilliantly tackles immigration and the refugee crisis – but they all centre on family and bodily experience to some degree. I would have preferred an unnamed collection that contained a varied assortment of poetry from the three writers, although I can see how naming the volume provides a thematic touchstone from which to compare the poets’ work.

I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of the Modern Poets series, particularly if you are not a regular poetry reader. I intend to buy another volume in the future, though I think I will try to look for one with a more abstract title.

Your Family, Your Body – a few of my favourites:

Warning (Booker) A sage piece of advice handed down from mother to daughter through the years, and its resonance with the speaker in the present day: “Never let no man hit you and sleep.”
Erasure (Booker) One of the poems I read over and over, this is heart-breaking message from the speaker to her aborted child: “I cannot tell you why I said no to you.”
Ode to the Hymen (Olds) What a name – and a great poem too. Olds positions her hymen as her protector and companion: “A sort of blood / mother to me: first you held me / close, for eighteen years, and then / you let me go.”
Conversations About Home (at the Detention Centre) (Shire) This is a piercing prose-poem told from the perspective of an asylum seeker. It is one of Shire’s most well-known pieces – “No-one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” is an oft-repeated line. Personally, I couldn’t get over the second section: “I wouldn’t put my children on the boat unless I thought the sea was safer than the land. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water.”

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