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, Sarah Kay is on the line.
I’m so angry all the time—at nothing, at the people around me, and at myself. I find that I’m unsatisfied in my job, in the town I live in, and in my own development as a person. I know I’m young, but I feel as though I’ve squandered every opportunity given to me. It’s like I have a beast inside of me, clawing at my lungs. There must be a poem for that feeling, right? For when you’re so angry you just want to scream at the next person who even mildly upsets you. I want to be kinder, gentler, and I realize that bottling up this anger is unhealthy. But I truly don’t know how to express it—please help me do so!
An Angry Machine
Dear Angry Machine,
In your letter, you mentioned that you feel like you have a beast inside you. I have a poem for you that is about a beast, and also anger, but it is a very tiny beast. Specifically: Franny Choi’s poem “The Mantis Shrimp Speaks.” In the preface to the poem, Franny informs us that “the Mantis Shrimp has the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Their powerful limbs spear or club their prey using one of the fastest responses known to man. They can deliver a blow that is equivalent to the force of a bullet.” What a perfect metaphor for how anger makes us feel: both beast and also tiny, both supercharged and also insignificant, pounding our fists against the injustices of the universe. Franny writes:
This is the only way I know how to tell someone what I want, to describe the infinitely unfolded accordion of my heart. To love with a rage gone blind from the knowledge of the stolen lands, dirty wars, honor killings, false idols, forced soldiers, and buried throats haunting every sentence. Too many truths setting my retinas ablaze, and me, mad, mad, mad at the end of it all.
Sometimes your anger is not wrong or incorrect. Sometimes it means that you are paying attention. After all, “it is hard, being a prism in a burning city.” But note that the narrator of this poem specifies her need to “describe.” Your instinct is correct: bottling doesn’t help. Describing does. Articulating the rage (to a therapist, a friend, your journal) is a way of focusing it and pinpointing what the rage is against instead of letting it morph into a vague and all-encompassing “anger” at “nothing.” Find the somethings. Point at them. Detangle them. At the very least, putting anger into words is a way to push it out of your throbbing human body and, perhaps in the process, find a direction for those powerful limbs.
I’ve lost three very important people in the last couple of months: one to death, the other two to breakups of some sort. It is not the relationships I had with them that I mourn; it is the loss of the people themselves. I’m having trouble anticipating pleasure and/or excitement anytime soon. What poem might help me to feel better?
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
There is a poem by Jane Hirschfield called “The Promise” that details all of the things the narrator has asked to stay:
Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
their heads lower.
Stay, I said to the spider,
embarrassed for me and itself.
Sometimes it feels like absolutely everyone and everything is leaving you. Sometimes it feels like that is all life is: a series of leavings, and not always spread out at a manageable pace. Sometimes it feels like all the leaving is happening at once. But the last stanza of this poem reads: “Stay, I said to my loves. / Each answered, / Always.” I suppose you could read this last stanza cynically: just as all the other players in this poem have refused to stay, so will these loves. Their promise is empty because of course they cannot keep it. Or you could read the last stanza as sadly naive: the loves want to stay, “always,” but we readers know how the pattern goes.
But I like to read this stanza with stubborn romanticism and optimism. When the narrator requests that each previous character stay (the cut flowers, the spider, the leaf, the body, the earth), none of them tell her that they will. Most do not even try. But her loves promise, “Always.” And so maybe they are right. Maybe they are different. Maybe loves stay with us even when everything else leaves (including people in their corporeal form). Maybe love stays in our body and in our memory in a way that nothing else can. There is another poet named Merrit Malloy, whose poem I recommended in my last column, who wrote, “Love doesn’t die, people do.” And I would also add: People leave, but the love you shared and built together cannot be simply erased from the record, even if it morphs or drifts or changes shape. If you so choose, some part of those loves (and the time you poured into them, the lessons they taught you) stays with you. Always.
Sometimes I feel just completely unlovable. The idea that someone could see me and want me romantically feels so foreign. I feel ugly and small and strange. I feel like my own body conspires against me. Any poetry that could help?
Dear Spited Face,
Three years ago, I went through a shattering breakup. The person I had loved for five years, who had known me best in the world, had chosen to reject me. I concluded I must be unlovable. When someone you love and trust treats you like you are worthless, you believe them. I blamed myself, my body, everything but him. I felt ugly and small and strange. A month after being broken up with, I read this poem by the poet Ocean Vuong. I love Ocean’s work and read most everything of his I can find, but I fully stopped breathing when I reached this line:
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.
I repeated those words to myself over and over, as if they were a benediction or perhaps a wish. I did not feel beautiful. I did not love my body. I was the loneliest I had ever felt. But if the most beautiful part of my body was where it was headed, then perhaps my body was doing exactly what I needed it to do: carrying me toward something better. If loneliness was still time spent with the world, then I was not alone on a planet of grief. I was both lonely and also still here—also still alive and worthy of being here. Anytime I feel self-hatred starting to gnaw at me again, I return to Ocean’s words. And today I offer them to you. You are not unlovable, Spited Face. Your body is not ugly; it is busy. It is working on bringing you where you are headed—days when you will feel beautiful and loved in the way that you deserve.
Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York City. She is the 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.