In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I met a boy my first semester of college, and I immediately liked him, but then I watched as he fell in love with another girl. They had everything in common, and he experienced many firsts with her. They dated all through freshman year, then broke up over the summer. Then he and I began dating. We love each other immensely, and we’re even planning a future together. I know bits and pieces of his past relationship, but I’m too nervous/insecure to ask him about it directly. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but I also want to understand that part of his life. I am experiencing many of my own firsts with him, and his ex-girlfriend pops into my head. I find myself jealous and angry and hurt sometimes, even when I know I have no right to be. I guess I need help in understanding my jealousy. Is there a poem that will teach me how to accept that he had a previous love and life before we shared ours?
Dear Abashedly Jealous,
When I read your letter, this leapt out: “I find myself jealous and angry and hurt sometimes, even when I know I have no right to be.” I’ve also often felt that I have no right to those darker feelings. But feelings don’t respect rights, and bludgeoning them with reason will only lodge them somewhere out of reach—like an impacted tooth. Maybe they won’t bite, but they will hurt. It’s difficult to love generously when you’re hurting.
And your desire to love generously shines through in your note. Move into that gentleness. Look at your feelings, turn them over, and coax them into a new shape. This will take time. Be patient with yourself. Check in with your partner. The tender honesty you bring to your own feelings will manifest in your relationship. If you do decide to ask your partner about his past, you will have done the work on yourself to hold whatever he shares with you.
I offer you Angel Nafis’s “When I Realize I’m Wearing My Girlfriend’s ExGirlfriend’s Panties.” It opens:
Praise now the fabric, for protecting who it can.
Praise the purposeful silver needle, and the thread’s long arm.
Praise now, the path, and the exgirlfriend, and
any mouth that has known my love’s impeccable salt.
Nafis’s poem beautifully recalls that to love someone is to love all of them, even the past they had without you.
This is the circumstance
of loving. To see another’s name
written so plainly.
Like you, your partner is made of histories. This poem teaches me gratitude for every past experience that has shaped the person whom I love.
Do not unwish a single blade of grass.
For the house craves each brick.
I am going through a period of soul-searching. I am finally allowing myself to feel the emotions I normally push aside. It’s cleansing, but it also definitely hurts. I am looking forward to healing, but right now, it is hard. Is there a poem for this?
Overwhelmed with Feelings
Your process of soul-searching has opened you to that sometimes-exhilarating, sometimes-painful experience of new feelings. The pain is not the wound. Pain is the wound’s intelligence reminding you to care for yourself as you heal. In that spirit of self-care, I give you Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours I, 59. A book of hours is a medieval illuminated manuscript developed for laypeople who sought to incorporate elements of monastic devotion into their daily lives—something quotidian to mediate the impossible vastness of spiritual being. There’s a reason this poem is in the form of a sonnet and a reason why sonnets are often love poems. Sometimes our most unwieldy feelings require precise structure. Rilke’s poem imagines the instructions God speaks when creating each person: “go to the limits of your longing.”
You are walking at your edges—how else to grow except to perch differently in yourself? Audre Lorde writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” I hope Rilke’s poem offers you a kind of name for your experience—a way you can call to it and know it more intimately.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Even if you don’t share Rilke’s faith, these lines offer something small and tangible—like prayer beads or tallit fringes—to hold as you move in the largeness of your interior life.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
You can join with hugeness without being consumed by it. “Just keep going.”
There’s no emotion I feel as much and as frequently as loneliness. I feel it every day. For me, learning to live with depression has come to also mean learning to live with loneliness. Tonight the loneliness is a bit too much. I feel like I am caged in the dark. Like I am the only person left on this planet. Like I’m utterly, helplessly alone. Is there a poem for me?
Just a Lonely Gal
Dear Lonely Gal,
I’m sorry you’re feeling lonely, and so often. Today I offer you Jean Valentine’s “Sanctuary.” It is a gathering of voices of unsure origin—contingently connecting, often missing each other, despite their desires to commune.
You who I don’t know I don’t know how to talk to you—What is it like for you there?
Here … well, wanting solitude; and talk; friendship—The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear.Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes.But they will not be mine;to wait, in the quiet; not to scatter the voices—What are you afraid of?
When I feel loneliest, I read the poem as if these voices are coming from a single body, grasping to know the full self. What are “the uses of solitude”? Loneliness is the craving to alchemize the raw material of isolation into the creative possibilities of connection. Ask yourself that question—“What is it like for you there?”—and practice connecting first with yourself. It’s difficult to move openly toward the world before you do.
When I fall in love, I walk around alive to the world, hoping to cull something from the day—a new scent, an overheard conversation, a dragon-shaped cloud—that I can offer my beloved. When I write a poem, I do the same things for myself. Creating is a process of falling in love with myself. That can be a terrifying tumbling, but it is the terror of profound openness, of the relentless possibilities of connection. I walk into my interior by making—a meal, a poem, a song, a drawing in the sand. Often, that interior excursion then leads me back out into the world. It’s not easy, that process of transforming your loneliness.
Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to
follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes.
Yes, it’s impossible sometimes. Sometimes we experience loneliness devoid of creative possibility. That is painful. For those moments, hold the small comfort of the affirming voice in this poem: “Yes I know.” Let that be okay. You already have so much company to keep within yourself.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews in the Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.