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As a book of poetry, Megan Fernandes’ Good Boys presents a prescriptive examination of the self. But as a body with life in it, it shatters what is known by intentionally moving through its own tempers.

What does it mean to be good, and who assigns this meaning? In all its messiness, Good Boys lays down the rules by giving birth to a freedom so radical that the reader is left with a place for the chaos to sit in comfortably.

Published earlier this year, Good Boys is the New York City based writer’s second book of poetry. In it she examines race, gender, and sexuality as a member of the Indian Ocean diaspora. But just as injustice is a lens for understanding the “shoulds” of our identity, so is the anger that follows it.

For instance, in “White People Always Want to Tell Me That They Grew Up Poor,” Fernandes writes, “Only white people get / to have / nostalgia. // You grew up rich, they say. / Your daddy is a doctor.” There is a declaration of a reality here that is misunderstood.

But the same declaration is followed by a bold examination of its darkness. “He is a doctor / because // it was a way / to unbury // his dead.” This is a sharp defense of history but it isn’t shy. In throwing the resentment back to it’s white beholder, the anger moves through the page.

Where, then, is this anger placed? Fernandes travels through the book to find out — figuratively, of course, but also as a glaring theme of her geopolitical instability.

In “How Have You Prepared For Your Death,” she starts, “I get on planes” and ends, “I map / the storms // of the whole world.” Here, reality is in motion, as are the rules within it. But the rules are heavy, and the speaker has taken on the burden of the world’s “shoulds”.

The next poem, “Bad Habit,” takes her to Vermont, New Hampshire, California. Nostalgia is rooted in the desire to move, but that movement is not always healthy. The poem ends, “What I learned from you is how / not to be a body.” Here, it’s the dissociation that teaches us how to cope.

Within this arc of traveling and getting lost is also the desire to be noticed, or to be found, but in a way that feels pure. In a poem after William Carlos Williams, Fernandes begins, “Every time I bike to the sea / I feel there is a chance I won’t come back.”

In the same poem, later: “…every outing feels // like a sacred risk, a voyage // in which I want to kiss and call the people / who would feel my absence most.” This push and pull between running away from love and still directly into its arms is how Fernandes examines the risk of vulnerability, as well as how, simply put, love hurts.

And there is a reason for the pain, just as there is a need to tie it into current goodness. For instance, in “Running In the Suburbs” Fernandes tackles race in relation to our most intimate, nuclear upbringing. How parents often project their “shoulds” onto us and how so much remains unsaid. Earlier in the poem, her mother says, “Not everything is about race, Megan.” Then it ends, “I ask her how she is finally / but I hear a voice reversing us in our head. It says: / Not everything is about race, Mama. // Not everything is about race.”

It is by understanding our own rules that the anger moves. And it is in this movement that it finds a way to lean into itself, spelling glimpses of beauty in the mess. One poem, titled “What Will You Miss About The Earth?” goes:

That it spun.
That everything was a portrait of gravity.

The smell of a new body, newly close,
ready to love.

So yes, love is the reason for the pain. It is how we, after all, break away from the “shoulds.” In “Why We Drink,” Fernandes looks at coping as a tired form of living. Also tired is the need to explain oneself. In the poem she expresses her frustration by addressing a friend.

It starts, “I tell Malik I am going to stop.” Then, Fernandes does what is rare — she moves through the poem restlessly looking to place her anger, and within that restlessness there is clarity. She says, “I hate the violence of insight — / the lesson is always how one is ugly or dishonest, / the shortcomings that could build a civilization and then did.”

The clarity of course points to her refusal of letting aging suppress her. Her refusal to allow the patronizing nudge of “insight” to end the laughter. “Malik says maybe it’s time to leave New York. He can tell / we’re all getting tilted there…” Yet, at the end of the poem she returns to New York, to Malik and “his brain so addicted to joy,” and she has a “revelation” that doesn’t “hurt so much”. Which, she says, is “what Malik might call aging.” To age is to lean into the messy laughter as coping. All of which is, after all, a redefining of one’s own rules.

Ultimately, it is the rules that define goodness, which is the message of Fernandes’ journey in Good Boys. But the rules are fragile, they are risky, they do not sit still. And what is good is chaotic. It is “sloppy, delicate.” It lives on the edges of our constant search for belonging. And it is in understanding one’s own abandonment that one learns to abandon the “shoulds.”