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, Kaveh Akbar is on the line.
A very, very dear friend of mine committed suicide on April 1 last year. I was the last friend to have seen him. A full year has passed, and I still feel utter despondency that I wasn’t able to help—even though, being a suicide and mental-health advocate myself, I know there are some things you can’t help. I don’t know what I feel. I feel pain, like a piece of my body was torn apart. I have been walking on eggshells with everyone, thinking, What if I say the wrong thing and push them into something like suicide?
Do you have a poem for this? I badly need one.
I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. His death was, of course, not your fault; you’re simply not that powerful. (Nobody is.) He was ill and succumbed to his illness. You know this intellectually, but I’m aware that sometimes, moment to moment, it can be difficult to access that knowing. Before getting into the poem stuff, I want to give you (and anybody reading this) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 1-800-273-8255. Poems can do a lot, but if you’re struggling with suicidal ideation or depression, you need to be talking to a professional, not a poet.
Growing up, I always thought it strange that when I was sad and miserable, I wanted to immerse myself in sad and miserable art instead of happy art that would improve my mood. It seemed like this was the norm for everyone else too. I never saw anyone get broken up with and then listen to “Weird Al” Yankovic on repeat for days or drive home from a funeral weeping to Lonely Island. I thought this was some weird masochistic streak common to all of humanity—when wounded, we sought art that would dig its thumbs into our wound.
Now I understand this phenomenon differently. I think, when wounded, we seek solace from others who have suffered the same wounds and lived on to create in spite of them. In Erika L. Sánchez’s “Six Months After Contemplating Suicide,” we hear the voice of a speaker who has known, intimately, real psychic pain. Her poem opens:
Admit it —you wanted the endwith a serpentine
greed. How to negotiatethat stranglingmist, the fibrouswhisper?To cease to existand to dieare two different things entirely.But you knew this,didn’t you?
The title situates us in a space of survival, in the clarity of after. But through the field of the poem, we whirl against each texture of the through—“You lit a flame // to your shadow,” “you cupped a goat’s face // and kissed / his trembling horns.” This is the way out, Orpheus’s journey back to the upper world. “The ghost?” Sanchez writes. “It fell prostrate, / passed through you // like a swift / and generous storm.” I pray this passes through you, too, that you can honor your friend by saving what he could not.
I’m twenty-four and have been freshly flung into a postgraduate world. I think a lot about adulthood (mostly about what it means—it still feels like a foreign word to me), but I also think a lot about my inner child. Last year, I taught ninth graders as a student teacher. I can attest to the special kind of wonder and imagination that fills even the younger side of adolescence. As I move into what society says should be my early “adult” years, years commonly associated with doubt and struggle, I want to continue to nourish my own childlike capacity to wonder, imagine, and make magic of the world. Do you have a poem that contains (or seeks to liberate) that particular perspective?
I Want to Be a Wizard When I Grow Up
So much of the project of poetry is to return us to the state you describe. The Russian defamiliarist Viktor Shklovsky argued for art that “recovered the sensation of life,” famously commanding artists to “make the stone stony.” How do you return to the stone the essence of its stoniness when we all see thousands of stones every day? How do we actually experience the stone, the tree, the bird, the Grecian urn instead of having them merely signify themselves? Children are incredible at this. When a two-year-old puts a pebble in her mouth, we are immediately reminded that yes, pebbles do look an awful lot like food! We are shaken free from our knowledge of the stone, and the stone’s stoniness is restored.
There is an entire contemporary canon of wonder poetry to draw from, poets like Ross Gay and Fanny Howe and francine j. harris and Heather Christle and Carl Phillips who wonder at nature and living and language and the mind and the body and and and … But for your specific question, “Astonishment,” by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, leaped to mind. It begins,
Why after all this one and not the rest?
Why this specific self, not in a nest,
but a house? Sewn up not in scales, but skin?
Not topped off by a leaf, but by a face?
Why on earth now, on Tuesday of all days,
and why on earth, pinned down by this star’s pin?
Few poems I’ve read so perfectly capture the profound strangeness of being, defamiliarize sentience itself so eloquently or with such charm. “What made me fill myself with me so squarely?” Szymborska asks. As I moved into adulthood, as I segued from teaching middle-school students to teaching college students, Szymborska became a direct line back to that elemental wonder, my powerful and endlessly reliable defamiliarist engine. Whenever the plaque of adulthood seems to have hardened the membrane between bewilderment and me, I return to her. For me, this poem has often been the “mystical moist night-air” to the world’s “learn’d astronomer.” I hope it might become that for you too.
I traveled to a big city several hours away to meet up with a man I’ve been in love with and haven’t seen in a long while. He never showed up. I haven’t heard from him since either. I don’t know how to feel at all, and so I was hoping one of you might have a poem to guide me through it a little.
Spurned and Alone
I read your question and immediately thought of “The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer,” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She writes,
I just know when he stuffed his hands in his pockets, saidOkay. Couldn’t hurt to try? and shuffled back to his roadside standto arrange his jelly jars and stacks of buckets, I had madea terrible mistake. I just know my summer would’ve beenfull of pies, tartlets, turnovers—so much jubilee.
In this instance, you’re the cherry farmer. Even though it stings now, the clarity of your “Okay. Couldn’t hurt to try” moment will relieve you of any future anxiety about what could have been. You were bold, you were spurned, but you gave it a shot. Now you can return to your life and move forward. He, however, will forever be wondering about the “pies, tartlets, turnovers,” the jubilee he might have had.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published by Alice James in the U.S. and Penguin in the UK. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.