In our new column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion (like “when you love someone so much you want to rip them apart and live inside them”) and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Sarah Kay inaugurates the series.
A quick note on Poetry Rx:
This is not meant to be an advice column in the traditional sense, in that we are wholly unqualified to offer you any solutions for the dilemmas in your life. Something Sarah says a lot is, “No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet … ” The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times. —Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz
I live in Vancouver, where snow is fleeting. Two days ago, I was standing in the woods as snow fell through the limbs of the large Douglas firs. I stood there transfixed as the snow absorbed all the regular echoes of the forest, leaving only the sound of the creaking trees and my breath. I need a poem that captures that moment in the forest, when you’re alone in the middle of nature, snow softly falling, feeling one with everything but knowing your happiness or sadness means very little in the context of everything. And it’s a good feeling.
Snowy in Vancouver
Dear Snowy in Vancouver,
I liked this note so much I read it out loud to my mother, who immediately responded with the word “mono no aware.” I had to look it up, but it is a Japanese word that means “an empathy toward all things.” Composed of mono (物) (“thing”) and aware (哀れ) (“an ancient expression of surprise, like ‘ah’ or ‘oh’ ”), it is also, more specifically, an awareness of the impermanence of all things, and a gentle, wistful sadness at their passing. I love the idea of a gentle sadness, as opposed to a violent sadness. I love that you found yourself feeling small and a little bit meaningless in the face of all that nature and beauty, and that it was not a cause for despair but a cause for wonder and a cause for mono no aware. The poem that I would like to recommend to you today is not about snow, but it is about standing with your face to the immense natural world and being full of gratitude for what is before you, even while you make room for the gentle sadness that knows it will not last. Ross Gay’s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is full of mono no aware (and I wholeheartedly recommend it in its entirety), but the titular poem in particular is such a breathtaking gift that I often reread it as though it is a meditation or a psalm. I love that he addresses the reader as “Friend.” If you have the time, I recommend listening to him read it in his own voice. Listen as he tells us,
there is a fig tree taller than you in Indiana,
it will make you gasp.
It might make you want to stay alive even, thank you;
Like Ross, I too “want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude over every last thing, including you.” Yes, snowy friend. Including you.
My partner, whom I love dearly, is finding it difficult to deal with the onslaught of terrible, awful, unbelievable news reports daily. I’m finding all of it awful as well, but the more I read informed voices, the better I feel. The more she learns, the worse she feels. She’s in academia, and having a breadth of understanding our country’s cultural and political problems adds to her frustration. Is there a poem out there that will lift her up in this time of feeling hopeless that things will ever truly change?
Oh, Caring Partner,
How I feel for you, as a person who cares for your person, and who wants to promise her change, or at the very least wants to crumble off a corner of your own hope and offer it to her. And how I feel for her! It is exhausting to face all the loud ugliness of the unrelenting news. Personally, I vacillate between being some version of each of you: one day stoking the small fire of my optimism, hoping to light it brightly enough to warm my downtrodden loved ones, the next day waking up without even a memory of light. Here is what I can offer you. After the 2016 election, I could not find any poems inside myself. I hoped to find someone else’s poem, so that I could cling to it like a buoy. But everyone else was just as miserable as I was. Thankfully, Safia Elhillo was the lighthouse I needed. Her poem “Self-Portrait with No Flag” reclaims the language of the Pledge of Allegiance and forms a kind of patriotism I believe in. She pledges allegiance to her “homies” and to her mother’s “small & cool palms,” just as you have pledged allegiance to your partner’s tired heart. I do a lot of work in high schools, and one of my favorite workshops is to bring them this poem and ask them to draw a map of Safia Elhillo’s poem. What are the landmarks? (“The table at the Waffle House.”) What is the language spoken there? (“I pledge allegiance to the group text.”) Then I ask them to map the place they pledge allegiance to. If it is not the one they live in, then what is it? Who do they pledge allegiance to? And what are their languages? Their landmarks? Young people are so much better at imagining what is possible than we grown-ups, who have been soaking in what has been for so long. So read Safia’s “Self-Portrait” while holding your partner’s hand, as a reminder that you have already pledged allegiance to the parts of this place that matter, and that the parts that do not, can be, and must be, left behind.
Lately I have been excessively conscious of my heart. I can feel it beating, urgently. A doctor tells me my heart is fine, and I know from checking my heart rate periodically that it’s not racing. I think it’s like this: my heart is knocking on the door of my chest, and it wants to tell me something. The problem is, I don’t know what it’s trying to say. My marriage is fine, my kids are growing up fine, my job is fine, I am blessed with good health and love and shelter. A friend tells me that my star chart indicates I am in a time of great transition. I recently grew a beard and got a big tattoo on my arm—superficial signs, but they help me locate the sense of change. But I still feel kind of lost. If the universe is sending me a signal, I can’t hear it yet. Is there a poem to help me?
Dear Urgent Heart,
Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what message your heart is trying to tell you. I don’t think anyone can. But I can tell you that I am very proud of you for listening. Too many of us hear that urgent knocking and put our fingers in our ears. The poem I want to share with you today is by Rachel McKibbens. The first part, “Letter from My Heart to My Brain,” begins,
Its okay to hang upside-down like a bat,
to swim into the deep end of silence,
to swallow every key so you can’t get out.
And the second part, “Letter From My Brain to My Heart,” includes,
I have no one to blame
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
just this long-legged sorrow
who trails my every joy like a dark perfume.
She listened to what her heart was trying to say, wrote it down, and then wrote back. Do not mistake her heart’s letter for yours. Your heart has its own story to tell. But I hope that the anaphora of “it’s okay” that thumps along the backbone of this poem will echo over to you, so that whatever message your heart is whispering, you will know that it’s okay to feel that way. And perhaps you will write it down. And once you have figured out the message, perhaps you will write back.
As an added bonus, listen to the poet share her own poem.
Need a poem for that emotion? Write in to [email protected].
Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from NYC. She is codirector and founder of Project VOICE and the author of four books of poetry, including B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.
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