As I was just saying to a group of fellow librarians at our little poetry club, I often feel like my feelings for poetry are one of two extremes: 1) this is awful, why am I reading this, I understand why so many people hate poetry and I think I may be joining them, and 2) wow, this poetry is amazing and life-changing and makes me so happy to be alive and why haven’t I been reading more poetry. Luckily, the collection All Violet by Rani Rivera, which the publisher Dagger Editions generously sent me for review, is definitely in the latter category.
It’s a slim collection that completely took me by surprise. WOW. It is an incredible, stunning book. I hadn’t heard of the poet Rani Rivera and reading the back cover with a statement from Lynn Crosbie—which reads: “A star student and sweet friend, Rani’s death hurts in a way only she could describe with beauty and grace: ‘I love them pretty / with their ugliness. / I love them all violet / and blue.”—made me sad to hear that she has already passed away. What an incredible gift this posthumous collection of poems is!
I loved the feel of Rivera’s words. Her poems are the kind that occasionally alluded me as to what exactly they were ‘about,’ but they were also often the kind of poems where I didn’t care whether I understood what was happening because I was so enamored with the language. For example:
“A Dereliction of Line”
All I see now
are tuck shops full of ginsengs,
the preliminary ‘g’ pronounced hard
and false by a friend who thought
Announcing guturally, it’s time
to clear the detritus,
too many hours have passed
tableside over a paltry purchase
she’s spent and the lights are giving way.
starts a lazy, exquisite corpse,
lying unfinished in a haze
of the recognizable smoke and scent
of hard-topped construction cut
with digestives and filler.
Inclined to rush out
with trusted PIN codes and
newly acquired phone numbers.
Quashing old allegiances
and established sponsorships of
Do I grasp the ‘aboutness’ of this poem? No. Do I care? No.
Of course, there were also many themes that touched me as well. Rivera writes about fleeting moments of connection in an anonymous urban environment, bisexual dating and crushes, drug / alcohol use and addiction, music, depression, and the humanity of people dehumanized by society.
I love how Rivera creates this beautiful unique imagery throughout the collection, pulling especially from Toronto and QTPOC culture. “Drag Queens with a Side of Mash” is a wonderful, delightfully queer poem, where Rivera writes
My memories are distilled
in a bottle of fine Russian vodka
smooth to taste at first, then leaving
a dangerous bite in my palate,
whether it’s gulped down heartily in the Caucasus
or seeped in ennui with a tart lemon garnish.
Perhaps the most Torontonian poem is “Night and Day,” which is full of images of the streets and sights and sounds of the city. I’ve only spent a bit of time there, but her images took me back, immediately. They also evoke effortlessly that feeling of naïve confidence of a young queer person walking around a big city feeling like they have arrived, both at their own sense of self and at a world of new urban possibilities. That poem begins:
I’m getting off the 501 streetcar
and stomping my big, black boots into the sidewalk.
Surprisingly, my posture is perfect,
unburdened by a knapsack full of poems
and one vintage men’s Burberry trench coat.
I’m heading home on Queen West West
in an asymmetrically zippered coat
and a Northbound Leather shopping bag in tow.
Carrying war wounds and forgotten accessories.
Feeling confident, cocky even, assured.
The tone, as you can see in the poems I’ve quoted so far, is often sad and raw, but also occasionally very funny. The best example of funny is definitely “How Not to Become a Homicidal Ex-Lover,” where Rivera gives tongue-in-cheek break-up advice to side-splitting results:
Take advantage of that sudden burst of energy and hit the gym.
Not to look good when, by chance, you bump into that infidel on the
but to avoid diabetes and hypertension.
Drink shots of wheatgrass daily to detoxify.
This will be a suitable replacement for Stoli and JD.
Remind yourself that vodka makes for bad decisions,
that’s how you got here in the first place.
Don’t switch teams out of vengeance, you’ll only end up
breaking another girl’s heart.
Chassé wine and kickball-change yourself into a pottery class.
Mold and sculpt a phallic ashtray to pound your cigarettes into
Not only is that poem hilarious, I love how wonderfully that poem integrates the intricacies of bisexual dating. “Don’t switch teams out of vengeance!”
Now that I’ve shown you how this poetry collection is going to make you laugh, let me show you how it will also make you cry:
“For an Hour or Always”
I love them
broken and beaten badly,
pock-marked and toothless,
spent and riddled with rue.
I love them lying
with sleep in their eyes,
the sunlight curdling
in sweet bellies
heaving with an unrest of a few
I love them motherless
and taunted. Violent
I love them on fire. I love them on ice.
I love them hairy and unclean.
Hearts pierced and sagging.
I love them old. I love them new.
I love them mean.
I love them talking and talking.
I love them destructed and
pinned with little needles,
smokestacks of inconstancy.
Nailed to the wall and stuck on
I love them dancing, dancing…
You should get this poetry collection, and get it now.
(Content warnings for depression, alcohol and drug use/addiction, suicide ideation, and physical violence).