Yrsa Daley-Ward’s smooth, strong, poetic voice tells stories. Sometimes only a few lines long, like the quintet of lines in “Heat” they capture a mood perfectly:
I miss you in tiny earthquakes
in little underground explosions
my soil is a hot disaster
Home is burning.
You’re a lost thing.”
Sometimes those stories stretch over the course of pages. Like the best poets, Daley-Ward’s verse feels honest and transformative. It is polished in the way a professional poet’s words should be, even while the words create the illusion of spontaneity, the feeling of truth whispered to a friend.
bone (the lack of capitalization the poet’s), Daley-Ward’s first collection, was a book new to me when I started this Year of Poetry, and Daley-Ward is a poet I’ll now return to long after this series of posts comes to an end. A young woman born in England of West Indian and West African descent, Yrsa Daley-Ward is not the kind of poet I read in my undergraduate British Literature class, but she will be one read in Brit Lit a hundred years from now.
Even as a young poet (she wrote bone before she was thirty), Daley-Ward’s battle-won perspective feels wise: “You may have learned from your / mother or any other hunted woman” she writes in “a fine art.” Or the stanza in “artichokes” that reads:
Remember on the right night and
under the right light
any idea can seem like a good one
love is mostly ill-advised but always
But she is not defined by her hardships; Daley-Ward’s strength and sense of self rises from the page in poem after poem. And she tells stories.
Stories of love, like “she puts cinnamon on tomatoes.”
You knew you liked her when
she was talking about her life one day
and in the street the drunk women
and the young men were playing
and there were Muslims praying
amidst all this
and the taxis were honking their
horns all around her in a circle of
so she went back inside in all her
and where the two of you are now, in
a different town
and different time, there are dogs
and you love the way
her name feels behind your mouth.
She puts cinnamon on tomatoes
white pepper on carrots
mustard seeds on unlikely things
and takes wine and ice with breakfast.
She sits awake at night
and dreams with open eyes
so you are not afraid to tell her
every time you want to run.
There was a time when fingers on
white walls made you nervous
a time when you didn’t pray so much
a time when you worried about what
the men in the street had to say
a time when you weren’t yourself
they tell you you’re an abomination to
how so? You speak to God more
than ever before.
She sketches jellyfish
smokes a broken white pipe
and you feel like an instrument
that she’s had for years.
You pool pennies together
for dinner, most nights
but you’re happy.
You are. You’re happy.”
Daley-Ward tells stories of hope, stories of triumph, and stories of broken hearts.
Some are Daley-Ward’s stories, some the stories of others, and all stories that have the power to resonate beyond geography, gender, or social status. Yrsa Daley-Ward tells human stories, with verse so beautiful that it feels more than human.
Her awareness of what it is to be a person in the world, and her understanding of her own complex self, bring a wisdom even to her wittiest of poems, like “I’ll admit it. I’m drawn to the wolves” which reads:
I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves
I like the lines you use on me
they crackle a little, like magic.
I cannot pull my mind off you
I do not trust your hands.”
I happened upon an audio of Daley-Ward reading the title poem and “I’ll admit it…” and was delighted to hear her voice sharing those words. There is a truth in what she says, raw honesty that is refreshing, challenging, and real.
As she says in an untitled poem late in the collection: “I suppose you know you’re writing the / truth when you’re terrified.” It’s hard to read terror in Daley-Ward’s voice; she is a poet of poise and power, but it’s easy to understand what she means. Poetry transforms our world, telling a truth we too often avoid.
bone is filled with truth, long stories and short ones, flashes of emotion and slow burns of reality. It’s a collection I’ll reread and share with a friend, filled with bits of verse already echoing in my head.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a powerful poetic voice that I look forward to hearing for years to come. Her story, her stories, are our human stories, and to hear them through the cipher of her verse gives me hope, understanding, and inspiration.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.