A Review of You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves
You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves
Diana Whitney (Editor)
Workman Publishing, 2021; 176 pp.; $13.75 (Paperback)Buy Book
Most women can still remember how it felt to grapple with the challenging transition from childhood to adulthood. What if our passage through could have been easier? What if we discovered that we could be unapologetic in our range of feelings, emotions, and physicality? What if we were shown that it was okay to fully embrace our unique selves? Today’s adolescent girls, their mothers, and mother-figures, now have a guide to help ease the rocky road to adolescence. The anthology, You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves, explores themes that will resonate with adolescent girls and the women in their lives. This intergenerational compilation of sixty-eight poetic voices features new work from younger poets, poems from within the canon, contemporary Instagram poets, poet laureates, and all voices in between. Edited by author, poet, and mother of two teen daughters, Diana Whitney, this collection presents life lessons wrapped in verse and offers answers to the larger questions that echo in girlhood. Anyone considering this book of poetry for an adolescent girl in their lives may also discover the anthology invites them to revisit their younger selves.
Divided into eight sections—Seeking, Loneliness, Attitude, Rage, Longing, Shame, Sadness, and Belonging—the collection travels across a complex range of emotional landscapes in an accessible way for readers. Additionally, the poetry anthology features images by a global and diverse range of illustrators—Cristina González of Ecuador, Kate Mockford of the United Kingdom, and Stephanie Singleton of Canada—that create depth and add visual texture to the reading experience. This combination of truth-telling through verse and illustration is a bridge that connected me to some of the hardest moments of what it means for a girl to transition into adulthood.
All of us tried to navigate this journey in different ways. Personally, as I mentally tried to manage the change between eleven and thirteen years old, I became challenged by the rounding of my hips which caused many of my favorite skirts and dresses to fit differently on my body. I was increasingly dismayed by the way my breasts seemed to expand from innocuous bee stings to things that moved, caused staring, and inspired teachers to call my mother to ask about my “development.” In addition to the complexity of my changing body, there was the dimension of dealing with boys. I wonder if Laura Kasischke’s sage insights about trusting one’s intuition as expressed in her poem, “Bike Ride with Older Boys,” could have saved me from my shame. Within this poem, Kasischke predicts what could’ve been on a bike ride she was invited to with two older boys. In one of the scenarios, she expresses:
Or, I am in a vacant field. When I stand up again, there are bits of glass and gravel ground into my knees.
Many of us have our own versions of the vacant field presented in Kasischke’s poem. For me, my body constantly felt like a personal betrayal on the roller coaster of becoming an adult. I also wanted to know answers to bigger questions, like: How did any of our teen selves navigate this new emotional terrain, and our thirst, hunger, or rage without being labeled or punished for our individual ways of being? Why was it that my parents never talked to me about this territory called adolescence, or about trusting my gut? Given how elusive intuition can be within a culture that does not encourage women to listen to their inner voices, the poem can become the way a mother talks to her daughter about avoiding the glass and the gravel, and how to believe in herself. To counter the silence and the shame I so often felt during my adolescent years, I sought information and answers to these and other quandaries about my body and emotions. Often I resorted to stealth tactics—piecing together an eavesdropped conversation, whispering to friends, creeping into my mother’s books to explore details about what it meant to have a “woman’s body”—to fill in the blanks of womanhood. How would embracing the rounding of my hips have been different if I’d encountered Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips” earlier? I imagine that the lines, “these hips are big hips / they need space to / move around in” would have taken the sting out of my body shame and perhaps lightened the load of carrying around body dysmorphia.
What would the world have been like if we knew we could just embrace the bigness that came along with growing into a more defined self, especially if this included owning our attitudes? Personally, I harbored this question internally for too long, into adulthood, far past my stifling adolescent years. If I had been exposed to the wisdom of the poets in Whitney’s edited anthology, I might have reached acceptance of my attitude, and a bold level of self-possession, a lot sooner. Maybe your adolescence was similar to mine, and you wish for an adolescent girl in your life to have an entirely different, more positive experience. It is in this way that You Don’t Have to Be Everything becomes a bridge connecting mothers and mother-figures to a diverse range of poets who become collaborators in these monumental conversations that are often hard to navigate alone.
Imagine a young adult flourishing with the help of mothers who can provide extra support through the use of poetry, especially within the exploration of embracing attitude. The “Attitude” section in the anthology includes classics like Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” alongside the welcome edginess of Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?” Amanda Gorman’s “Black Daughter’s Pointillism,” offers palpable power on the page within the first line: “I’m a piece of work.” I wonder what this kind of knowledge would have meant for the fourteen-year-old version of myself who was a shy, nerdy, and unpopular girl with few friends; focused on her GPA; and struggling with a longing for boys that I was not allowed to date. While reading You Don’t Have to Be Everything, I felt the tug of this younger self who would’ve wanted to be reassured by Gorman’s lines:
Don't they know I can stop a man's heart with one word? Write the future Like I'm dragging my finger in wet sand?
Other poems in the anthology will encourage many readers to boldly be themselves. Would any of us have walked with more confidence in the world if we knew we could have broken the box of expectation without apology? This question is answered by Angélica María Aguilera’s poem, “in critique of modesty.” This piece is her response to every potential employer, professor, and others who tried to make her contort—with the energy gaining on the page:
me I want to yell the way belligerent American men do
I caught a glimpse of my seventeen-year-old self within Aguilera’s fierce verse of encouragement on the day my male boss called me a “bitch” while I was working at a fast-food restaurant. Refusing to take the verbal abuse that he and others doled out upon all the other minimum-wage employees, I quit that same day. For the rest of my life—when I needed to find my way out of my abusive home at the age of eighteen, and end relationships, marriages, and situations that no longer served me—I summoned that fierce seventeen-year-old. True to the last word in Aguilera’s poem, I did each of these things “unafraid.” I hope that other adolescent girls can tap into the same spirit and level of fierceness demonstrated in Aguilera’s poem.
This level of ferocity is also needed to navigate the natural changes of one’s body that occur during adolescence, even in this age of so much information. Any versions of “the talk” about how my body would change—talks that were usually given either by the gym teacher or a stranger invited by the school to hand out pamphlets—were void of any deeper explanation of what lay ahead, in terms of my changing body. No one gave me any warning that becoming a woman was so much more than what was presented, beyond having a menstrual cycle. Coming of age in the world co-existed with my rage and shame. These feelings gathered and stacked like a growing pile of firewood, rising and building, and eventually grew into a bonfire of body insecurity, bullying, racism, and all the other things that fueled the flames of shame as I crossed over into adulthood. These unfortunate realities are spoken of collectively in You Don’t Have to Be Everything, and are specifically present in Natalie Diaz’s “Why I Hate Raisins”:
I told my mom I was hungry. She gave me the whole bright box. USDA stamped, like a fist on the side.
Diaz’s brilliant piece is her personal experience. It also hints at an unflinching history of the indigenous body within the United States. Diaz’s raisins were manifested in the way that I abused my blonde Barbie dolls, not able to express how angry I was at the kind of perfection they presented, and that I was never going to have. The hate, rage, shame, and powerlessness written about in Diaz’s poem mirrors what I did not know how to express to my mother or to the world.
Other poems in the collection, like S. Erin Batiste’s “Questions Asked to Me When I Was Ten,” depict a harsh reality many girls experience because of their race. Batiste’s poem uses the second-person point of view which places the reader automatically in her skin while building tension through all of the questions that are asked about her appearance and her family: “Are your parents married? Why did your father / marry her? Does he love her? Why is she so dark? Do you / and your little sister have the same father? Why is she darker / than you? . . . How do you get your hair like that? / Why do you look so different?”
For mothers who are multiracial and for those who raise multiracial children, this poem will feel familiar. And, perhaps, it will be through poems that talking about race and identity in America’s history will finally feel accessible. We are within a cultural moment in our nation, and craving to be engaged in healing and wisdom. The voices of these poets are one of the many balms needed for a complicated now.
Poetry is often the kind of balm that permits us to feel what Nikita Gill expresses in her poem, “Wolf and Woman”: “Some days / I am more wolf / than woman.” This salve is also packaged within the audacious telling Bianca Stone pens in her poem, “Ones Who Got Away With It,” when she instructs a younger self and all of us to “live and live and live.” Our soothing comes from imbibing the reality that we are all still navigating how to stop the seeking within an endless new territory of emotion. Wendy Guerra speaks of this infinite reality in “Playing Hide and Seek,” and relates her personal experience of loneliness to a universal truth: “So much time spent looking for them… / how alone how lost in the courtyard of my own game.” Mothers can use the poetic wisdom of Guerra as a way to share their own stories and to help their adolescent girls find their way out of the courtyards they face. During my adolescent years, this looked like trying to negotiate a future relationship with a boy I liked in the tenth grade. That whole year, like Guerra, I was “lost in the courtyard.” The girl I was then would have appreciated the wisdom found inside this poetry collection. For our current generation, this anthology has arrived at the right time.
Today’s adolescents are walking along some of the same jagged roads we’ve traveled, trying to solve the mystery of growing up, trying to figure things out; but with an arguably larger burden than any of us ever experienced. Instead of trying to hide away and read books, many are attempting to sort through a massive amount of online information. The digital realm is as expansive as trying to steer oneself within the changing landscape of one’s body. This topography is as endless as the one expressed in Blythe Baird’s “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny,” and as detailed as in Fariha Róisín’s “self-portraiture.” Many of us can still relate to Róisín’s lines, “i count how to love myself, thoroughly, / an abacus, my love handles as armrests . . . ” Poetic lines like these are yet another way the collection helps girls to handle the tumultuous terrain of adolescence.
All of the voices in this collection make a loud declaration that it is okay for girls to be; that it is okay to jump across the boundary of all the things we may have been told to contain about ourselves by our families, society, and institutions. After getting a copy of this anthology for your daughter, goddaughter, granddaughter, niece, or any girl in your life, don’t be surprised if these poems also become a bridge to remembering your journey to adulthood. In other words, this anthology brings its adult female readers back to their younger selves, and aides cross-generational conversations about body image, navigating the rough terrain of shame, embracing attitude, and creating space to accept the very things—like rage—that society does not always accept about us. If you are a mother, aunt, godmother, or grandmother, you can become an active participant in reminding young women of all the ways that they owe it to themselves not to be everything the world is trying to place upon them and their bodies. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself securing your own copy of this collection so that you can remind your past and present self, your psyche, and your whole being that You Don’t Have to Be Everything.
1 reply on “A Review of You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves”
Thank you so much for this insightful review! I’ll be buying this one for myself and for my goddaughter & daughter.