The hardest part about poetry is that so many great poems come from loss. Michael Lee’s poetry is often haunted by a great sense of loss, and his ruminations on memory, death, and recovery are often difficult to process, as they are so loaded with weight. In his first full-length collection The Only Worlds We Know, Lee memorializes those he’s lost in one of the most emotional collections in recent memory.
Coming out of slam poetry, it’s no surprise that Lee’s work is highly emotive, but where some of his most popular videos from Button Poetry’s YouTube channel feature him tearing away at himself, The Only Worlds… features an introspective look, often at the people who surround him. He often observes nature as a metaphor for life and death and views the expanse as both a source of hope and anxiety. There’s a certain parallel to be drawn from Lee’s poetry to the music of Bon Iver. Both seem to find a great comfort in nature, even as they experience severe despair. Each find this primal human instinct to seek shelter in forests, hillsides, and fields, and that helps to make Lee’s poetry gorgeous. One of the most haunting images in The Only Worlds is that of a wolf devouring a dead deer, and in a ~circle of life~ sort of way, it’s oddly comforting. No matter how bleak Lee’s subject matter can get, he can twist the words in a way that contort to a blanket. When discussing death, he once eludes to how scientists can pull a heart from a body but not a history from a person. It’s enough to force your eyes to well, but it also provides an offsetting sense of calm.
Lee does reflect on sobriety often throughout The Only Worlds. Unsurprising as many of his poems previously featured him discussing his own road to recovery, but here he often observes others’ struggles with addictions. In “Out There,” he discusses the dangers of someone going back out from groups like AA. He offers his experiences with the wisdom and fear of someone who knows how many problems drugs and alcohol can cause. He no longer feels like he’s beating himself up like in “Waking Up Naked;” he now takes more introspective looks and feels a certain level of hopelessness. The Only Worlds is occasionally hard to read.
While Michael Lee has always been a poet with tons of potential, The Only Worlds We Know is proof of his greatness. This collection is one of the most exciting to be released this year. Like many before him, he finds a gentle hand to explain the human condition, even if the collection is often enough to move you to tears.