What I find most captivating in Megan Fernandes’s Good Boys (Tin House Books) is the energy and voice that move throughout these easy-to-consume pages. This collection has the “feels” of Confessional Poets past and New York School vibes with casual references to friends and play-by-plays of the speaker’s journeys. But beyond the energy and heat and compelling voice, there is also great sincerity and critical examination of equity and social justice throughout these pages.
Several poems in the book challenge stereotypes related to this complex, intersectional thing called identity. One that jumps out is the pushback we see in reference to gender stereotypes. A few poems examine the pressure to be a “proper” type of “lady.” Particularly perhaps, those expectations that can come with being the child, specifically the daughter, of immigrant parents. We begin to see this in the book’s first poem “In Which I Become A Mythology and Also, Executed” with the lines:
In January, I will visit India
and fail there too, because
I am childless
or because I am in America
where they gun down
I took too long
to come back.
peering into a bucket
and I want to throw myself
in and come out
dainty, come out graceful.
Grace is a word that stings.
Because if you don’t have it,
you are not a lady.
And if you are not a lady,
then what are you.
The book holds open conversations about race and racial discrimination in America. Take for instance the poem “White People Always Want to Tell Me That They Grew Up Poor.” Fernandes writes:
White people don’t like when
like to remind you
that you are Indian, not black.
never say that to you.
a home for you
Fernandes’s poems are not afraid to speak. Not only do the poems point out hypocrisy, bigotry, sexism, and prejudice, but they also seem to turn a critical eye on consumerism in society. In the poem “Amsterdam,” Fernandes questions the commercialization of tragedy and grief:
Josh says he does not want
to go see Anne Frank, that that kind of tourism
depresses him, the one where the demonstration of grief
is like a voyeuristic tug at suffering
that is not yours to posses.
However, the poem moves surprisingly as the speaker later decides:
I want to go back to see Anne Frank’s
house this time, because this time,
I am a woman and last time, I was a girl
and when you are a girl, all you see is another girl
and when you are a woman, all you see is history
careering towards a girl whom you cannot protect.
These insightful and moving moments are spread throughout the book. Poignant notes fall in the midst of funny, sharp, and tonally hot lines. Some of these poetic gems: “The river like felt eels, graveyards like cities” or “The smell of a new body, newly close, / ready to love” or “I understand now that to love radically is to always / be willing to be banished to some disfigured island of stone/ in the middle of the sea, a small sacrifice, really.” You will find in Good Boys phrasing that evokes, like good poetry does.
Something else that Fernandes does masterfully throughout the collection is knowing where to take the poem (or where to allow the poem to go—unruly, unkempt, unsuppressed). Often she takes the poem beyond the space where one might assume it would end. This makes for a satisfying reading experience—the journey from line one to the final line of a sprawling, meandering poem. These poems shift and veer and expand and contract and land and lift off. An example of this is in “The Poet Holds A Gun,” which moves from the speaker holding a gun into lines about Agnès Varda (following the thread of the hand). And this poem highlights another theme, which is that the book also seems to be interested in power, body, and danger (and typically those three in conversation together). This poem concludes its first stanza with, “An orgasm / has more surface area and salt than a gun” and continues later to say:
[…] or that I look like a meek captive,
or that he could tell, without saying
a word, that I was begging for him to take it
out of my hands.
A New York School style mixed with the Confessional keeps a reader engaged and quenched. You will see in this collection references to friends next to references of well-known figures, such as Agnès Varda, Bhanu Kapil, or Baudelaire. Stylistically, you will find lengthy stanzas that are one whole sentence long, often modulating between humor and sincerity, often using the repetition of “and,” and including that O’Hara-esque name drop. Take in these two examples:
In the prose poem “Five of Swords”:
[…] my friend, Catherine the Blonde over here, gets a
bunch of cups and unicorns and harmony and something that signals
water and emotional health and a book deal and all her dreams coming
true and some card with a dainty fawn or some shit on it and here I
am with my worms and a lamb that looks like it’s about to be stabbed
Or again, in “Why We Drink”:
I tell Malik I drink because I am tired and because they hate us anyway
and we are outside while others smoke at the opening
of The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris and I’m wearing a polka-dot dress
and I forgot to put on a bra this morning and its freezing
It is engaging to see the Confessional mode in the digital age, like in the poem “No Black. No Asian. No Femme.,” which explores the “virtual worlds of desire” and of course the implications of the phrasing in the title. And in “Regret is a Blue Dive,” Fernandes writes:
and did you know if you google
how to hang yourself, the internet is kind.
I am surprised that the internet cares, routing me
to hotlines, wooing me with titles like:
“If you only read one thing, read this” and I read it
Keeping on this path of stylistic exploration, you will see the poet turning to the self in poems. Take for instance these lines from the poem I previously mentioned, when, in the end, Agnès Varda “seems to say,” “Megan, […] There is nothing here to defend and everyone is in love […] Megan, you do not need the gun.” Or another example in “Running in the Suburbs”: “You tell your mom about running in this suburb / and she is annoyed: Not everything is about race, Megan.”
The nod to “Megan” extends an invitation to the reader, much like the invitational nod to friends in several poems. Like in “Five of Swords”: “I remember the time Jeff was so convinced an earthquake was going to / tumble LA.” Or in “Sonora”: “I read Hannah’s book to learn how coyotes can be baited.” One more name drop to mention is “sam” in my favorite poem in the book, “Conversion,” which begins:
sam says you can’t name your book good boys without a dog
but sam doesn’t know that I am the dog
And talk about movement, given the way this poem unfolds from top to bottom. It continues later:
when i was seventeen and my mother found an essay
about how i was in love with a girl
when i see those kids all i think is that they never had parents
who were immigrants and who sent you to a lady
and told you that you had to solve it all
in one session because this therapy was expensive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of the book and when the phrase “good boys” shows up in various poems throughout the collection. The titular poem tells us what “even the good boys” want to do. In “Why We Drink,” the speaker laments, “if these are the men / on our side, I said, then of course, I am going to drink.” And yet, in the previously mentioned poem “Conversion,” the speaker says that she is a “good boy” and also “loved good boys.” Who are the “good boys”? What makes a “good boy”? I won’t reduce the poems or the book to having an answer here, but rather look forward to conversations unpacking the connotations, implications, and resonances of “good boys” in Good Boys.
And in true Fernandes style, I have a genuinely good human, Lloyd, to thank for giving me this book. Go be good and get your hands on this electric collection.