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 was betrayed this past year by someone I deeply loved and trusted, and whom I thought loved and trusted me. The experience felt almost surgically, cruelly precise in the way it mapped onto my history of trauma, and so I have been triggered while also overwhelmed with loss. This betrayal has been deeply unsettling to my sense of myself, my ability to trust others, and my belief in the possibility of love and partnership in the future. I am struggling to find myself again. Do you have a poem for me?
Lost at Sea
Dear Lost at Sea,
I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this painful and destabilizing betrayal. As Kaveh crucially reminded us, a poem alone is insufficient support as we work through our histories of trauma. Not as a remedy, then, but as resource in what I hope is a vast constellation of support, I offer you Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love.”
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Revel in the declarative stability of that affirmation: “You will love again the stranger who was your self.” It’s a missive from the other side of this wreckage. Read it aloud to yourself. Hear the truth in your own voice, and forge an opening toward that future.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
I love these first two imperatives. They are sufficiently pointed to penetrate the haze of grief, and yet allusive enough for the holy and eternal ritual practice that is self-love. That third imperative, though, feels a bit trickier. At first, “who knows you by heart” seems perhaps to refer to the other to whom you ceded parts of yourself. Read differently, it is “the stranger who has loved you // all your life … who knows you by heart.” Even when your attention was turned toward your relationship, you were there all along. You do know yourself by heart, Lost at Sea, even in those moments when you feel most at bay. Now, give the care you were giving away back to yourself. Move from the sacrifice and sustenance of bread and wine to the poem’s opulent final directive: “Sit. Feast on your life.”
I’m simultaneously horrified and amazed by modern life. I drive an astoundingly complex vehicle for three to four hours each day so that I can get to “work.” The not-work that I do gets me imaginary money (money is always imaginary). I use the imaginary money to pay for weird things, like oddly colored liquids that energize me and clothes made from liquid found deep in the ground. Sometimes when I buy things, I don’t even understand what they are made of. Often I eat things, even though they don’t seem like food. Everything moves around me at lightning speed. But I desperately want to slow down. I want to make the things I need. I want to sleep under the sky. I want to bury myself in earth. I want to watch every sunset. I want to see the earth breathe and I want to breathe with it.
But I can’t do any of that. I have to pick the kids up and go home and make the weird food and sleep in my weird box.
I feel like a time traveler. But I’m just a suburban mom with a nine to five job. I clearly need a poem.
Longing for Slowness
Dear Longing for Slowness,
Sometimes I feel like I’m treading water: forever trying to clear out my email inbox, endlessly accumulating errands, attending meetings upon meetings. But more than tedium, I hear in your letter a note of estrangement—a refusal to take for granted even the most ordinary object. In this way, your note is like poetry. I love how poetry holds me at bay from even my native tongue. In poems, I get to ask: How can I enter the world through sound? Through cadence? What else might this word mean? When I read a poem, I feel like a fish who learns the properties of water without ever leaving the ocean.
For you: Rita Dove’s “Daystar,” from her monumental collection Thomas and Beulah, which tells the story of an African American couple (loosely based on Dove’s maternal grandparents) who came to Ohio during the Great Migration. Like you, Beulah craves space for her mind to unravel:
She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps.
Sometimes there were things to watch—
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf.
Beulah’s unbounded excursions into the space of her mind are no less grand for their domestic constraints.
She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice?
Why, building a palace.
Even when your day doesn’t afford you the slowness you crave, the simple and profound act of noticing can move you, bit by bit, toward that interior lushness you’re seeking.
I’ve been stumbling my way through a very modern, confusing dating scene and getting all sorts of bruises, large and small, along the way. What I could really use is a hopeful poem, something about connection or honesty in an era where our phones make us think of others as disposable.
Dear Seeking Hope,
Dating is hard! One thing I find particularly intimidating about those first few dates is that connection requires vulnerability, but opening yourself also means the risk of being hurt without recourse to the kind of accountability that builds with a partner over time. Be proud of your bruises. They are evidence that you’ve made yourself vulnerable to the possibility of connection. There are no guarantees, but there is no other way. I hope that your openness will soon be met by someone who is equipped to hold it gently. For then and for now, Chen Chen’s “Winter” is a reminder that intimacy is not the same as the curated images on our phones. Chen’s love poem opens:
Big smelly bowel movements this blue January morning
In Chen’s poem—like in the body, like in a full relationship—the erotic and quotidian and health and illness share a site.
I mean, one winter night I got sick & pooped the bed.
& he just got up with me.
Helped strip the sheets, carry it all to the washer.
I kept saying, I’m so sorry, shivering, I’m so, I’m sorry. But he said, What? Hey. I love you.
Chen has said that “a teacher said, never to use the word poop in a poem,” but I can’t think of anything more gorgeously rule breaking than ending a poem with “I love you.” What makes this “I love you” poetry and not a Hallmark card and not a cheap cliché is the messiness of the world Chen builds around it. By the time we reach the poem’s end, the “I love you” doesn’t snap like a flimsy thing. This is a love committed to being there, together, in the beautiful mess.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound. Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.