Deeply personal ‘Safe Words’ handles real life beautifully

Safe Words
Michelle Brown, 80 pgs, Palimpsest Press,, $18.95

If there’s one thing I learned from majoring in English, it’s to not assume poetry is autobiographical. I did my best to follow that rule with Safe Words, but then I got to the acknowledgments, where Michelle Brown thanks her friends Kayla and Jessie for “finding me,” a reference to the final poem in the book, “Stories.”

Well, if there’s one thing I learned from minoring in Philosophy (really set myself up for success in life, eh?), it’s that you should question generalized rules.

Not every poem is autobiographical — surely not “Company Picnic,” which the back cover points to as “a company man’s complete undoing at his summer party” but which seems to me a little more ambiguous. But it’s hard not to read one like “All the parties I’ve ever been to” — which features names found in the Acknowledgements and lines that read as lived experience — as at least somewhat based in reality.

“Based in reality” would be a better descriptor. “All the parties …” is emotional and deals with what appears to be an out of control drinking habit, but a poem like “YouTube Commercial,” of much lighter subject matter, also deals with a moment I expect most people have experience with. Who doesn’t skip those damn ads? Though perhaps “Skip. / But I buy it” is the poem’s most relatable line.

The way Safe Words handles these real-life moments, whether light-hearted or difficult and even when it exposes the darkness of otherwise mundane situations, is what I love most about it. It made me wonder just how personal some of these poems were. It made me re-read and rewarded every time I came back.