Bend, Don’t Shatter: Poets on the Beginning of Desire edited by T. Cole Rachel and Rita D. Costello

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Rachel, T. Cole  and Rita D. Costello, editors. Bend, Don’t Shatter: Poets on the Beginning of Desire. Soft Skull Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1932360172.  120 pp. $11.95

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Before National Poetry Month, consider adding this collection of longings and budding sexuality to your 800s collection. Poignant, raw, heartbreaking and uplifting in turns, these poems about queer youth forming identity and relationships are artfully arranged, opening with a boy pining for a boy and a girl stealing a kiss from a girl. Poems of pride, transformation, childhood gender-bending that disturbed family members, and the hell of high school (“homeroom is more room than home”) follow.

The caliber of the work is fairly even. Styles and techniques vary as much as the individuals writing. A few stand out: Rigoberto Gonzalez’s “Mariposa” that finds beauty in a percieved insult, and Lacey A. Dalby’s clever MacArthur High School that likens the daily grind to a battle. Gerald Wozek’s “Letter to Myself at Seventeen” (“I didn’t know how to save you then,/so forgive me. How you were able/to latch onto your spirit and go on breathing/astonishes me even now.”) is that one that made me cry.

This is absolutely, without question, a book for teens, but one that wary librarians will worry about placing IN the YA collection, for language, theme and content ranging from innuendo to honest lust and melting desire. Be fair; remember how you felt and talked and experimented as a teen and note that at least one poem (Dallas Angguish’s “Arrythymia”) was written by the poet when he was a teen. While I might call some of the poems arousing for younger readers, they are not pornographic, false or indecent, and they come from voices that need to be heard.

The overall message of the book–from the editor’s introductions to their biographies at the end–is validifying, reassuring and empowering for LGBTQ youth. The title encourages readers to hang in there, that life won’t always be this uncertain, closeted, lonely, and much of adolescence, whether you’re gay, straight or not sure yet, is “confused and totally freaked out.”

And that’s what gives this gem such universal appeal. Buy a few copies–they’re cheap enough, and you know at least one will get stolen, even though the cover and title are innocuous enough to not cause embarrassment at checkout time. Pair with Paul Janezcko’s Blushing for a diverse display next Valentine’s Day.

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