Swimming Lessons by Lili Reinhart
This is the first poetry book I've ever read in its entirety outside of Shel Silverstein, so I've checked off one of my reading goals for the year with this one. I've now read a graphic novel and a book of poetry. I've been anticipating Swimming Lessons so long that I can't believe it's actually in my hands. I've been a fan of Lili since Riverdale, and I've continued to be a fan of hers even when the show got a bit too ridiculous for me to keep watching every week. I've been excited for the chance to get to see something completely created a controlled by Lili.
I'm not sure what I expected from Swimming Lessons. I think I had almost no idea what it would be like or the topics it would cover. After the first couple poems, I was completely hooked. In the intro, Lili prefaces the collection by noting that poetry has always given her solace in knowing other people felt the same specific emotions that she did. She offers these in an attempt to do the same, and I think she achieves this remarkably well. She also notes, very similarly to Taylor Swift's letter about Folklore, that pieces come from lived experiences and others come from fictional places or exploring some kind of emotion in an exercise. Through all of them, though, Lili keeps a valiant degree of honesty and a shocking amount of vulnerability. Poetry and lyrics are exposing like nothing else, and knowing where Lili is coming from as a highly scrutinized actress, it's amazing that she decided to share these pieces with us. It's something I appreciate greatly while also acknowledging the unique challenge of what she's doing. As a writer myself, I know the feelings of nakedness and exposure that the best writing creates for the author, and I can't imagine how much more intense it is when you know people are waiting to pick something apart for clues.
I've never written about a book of poetry, so please bear with me. I haven't quite honed my skills at this kind of critique, but I can tell you this is a beautiful book. I spent the entire hour I did my first reading taking photos of poems I wanted to remember. I felt like I took photos of almost every poem, and now they're stuffing my camera roll. I'll have to reread this book many times over.
I guess, in terms of substance, I can talk about it from two points of view: formatting and themes. I loved the way all of these poems were laid out. The spacing and formatting choices told a story in themselves. They look beautiful on the page and add extra layers of emotion. While reading it, I tweeted something along the lines of, I think what I love most about poetry as a genre is that it's not just the words that tell the story but the exact way they're placed on the page, and that's really the thought this book brought to my mind. There are additional interesting choices beyond the word arrangements. There are blank white pages and blank red pages that shift emotions. There are also tons of illustrations to show what's happening in the poems. They weren't my favorite part of the book, but I like what the illustrator chose to pull out of Lili's words to represent. I appreciated all the choices that were made.
As far as themes, the collection feels cohesive because almost all of them are about Lili at their core instead of being too focused on other people. There are poems about loss, both in the sense of a break up and a death of a friend, it seems. Both of these areas are gut wrenching. There is one addressed to her late dog, Delilah. There was one poem I particularly liked that addressed Lili getting congratulations for being a mental health advocate where she admits she doesn't deserve any points for telling the truth. It raises an interesting question. On that note, she also puts words to some of her experiences with depression and anxiety. Some of the more existential themes include the pervasive feeling of running out of time and the struggle as a writer about not having any words that haven't already been said. That specific poems is one of my favorites. Those are the topics that resonated most deeply with me because those are the areas where I have direct, lived experience. In those poems, I got to have that unique sensation of Lili pulling the thoughts out of my brain and chatting with me about my most inner fears.
The bulk of the poems, though, are about a romantic relationship. Both falling in and falling out of it. These poems feel the most raw and visceral. It's not hard to imagine Lili capturing these experiences in real time. The words are sparse, but there are the necessary details to ground you in her world. I have never fallen in love with some magnificent, special person, and I've never watched that relationship fall apart. But the way Lili writes about it makes me feel like I have. I understood the oddly specific feelings that come with it, now, like I don't think I ever have before. She captures the just the right moments to paint the entire picture. I regularly relate to stories about things I've never experienced, but never to this degree before.
Also, Lili has a layer of perspective that I find uniquely fascinating. She has loved someone who is in the public eye while being a celebrity herself. To go back to Taylor Swift, it's often her songs on that theme that I go back to over and over again. Love is hard and messy enough without that kind of external stress. Lili does an amazing job of balancing being relatable and holding these feelings on their most fascinatingly mundane level while also encompassing these realities in the big picture of their lives. I love how most of the pieces on her relationship and fame is focused on the unique joy and wonder of truly knowing someone who is constantly looked at but never fully seen. In what's unsaid, it manages to delve into that commentary of how we never and we can't know the famous people we follow on the internet, no matter how much they let us see.
None of this commentary on what is drawn out from Lili's position in the world is to take away from the words on the page on their own. They're quite beautiful and meaningful without being flowery or what comes to mind if you think about poetry as someone who doesn't read much of it. The whole wonder of these poems come from their sparseness. The words not on the page count just as much as the ones that are. It's less lyrical than it is approachable and a conversation, and I think that serves her as a writer. Beyond that, I think it'll also be amazing as a possible vessel to get more people interested in poetry and reading. Lili has such a fanbase that there will be plenty of people who don't typically pick up books for fun that will read Swimming Lessons to learn more about her, and the way she writes, I think Lili might create some new readers. I think, especially in poetry, there's a layer to it that feels so unapproachable if you've only ever encountered it in an English class that this could be a powerful reading experience on a broader level.
This collection left me with way more thoughts than I anticipated and trying to write this review has created even more. If I could, I would just sit there and analyze every poem and share all my favorite lines. In trying to capture this expansive collection in a summary, I've found an interesting other parallel that comes out of trying to write about a book written by a person who is a celebrity for a different reason. For one, I don't think anyone should write off an actress or YouTuber or anyone else who writes a book until they've read it. But I also struggle with the question of whether it's fair to Lili, the author, to discuss the book in the context of her fame and what I already know about her life. Most authors don't exist in such a public manner and therefore aren't critiqued on their reach or celebrity life. But, honestly, I only bring those elements into it because I feel like it adds to what Lili's done instead of taking away from it. If it was simply her fame that the book relied on, discussing it in that context wouldn't be interesting at all. I feel like the broader conversation is facilitated by the fact that Lili creates an amazing poetry collection that could stand alone, anonymously.
I think I've rambled enough for one book review, but this book really touched me in a way I wasn't ready for. If you want an inviting window to jump into poetry from, this is a great place to start.
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