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.
My seventy-two-year-old mother used to wake up early every day and text me the weather so I could dress accordingly before I left for work. I’m twenty-seven years old and—I am proud to admit—fully capable of checking the weather myself. But despite my repeated protests, my mother texted me daily anyway. She passed away suddenly in late February. We shared so many quirky traditions that feel lost to me now.
I was wondering: Do you have a poem that might speak to these small gestures of love, either from the perspective of what it’s like to give them or to receive them?
Missing the Weather
Your mother’s texting was an irreplaceable gift, undoubtedly one of many such gifts she gave you. At first, my instinct was to send you Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (“What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices” being among the language’s great articulations of our inability to appreciate small gestures of love in the moment they’re given). But then I thought it would be better to give you something that spoke specifically to maternal love and its associate—too often thankless—labors.
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely
eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’s horn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten
by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,—
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-
laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.
It’s a poem about maternal sacrifice; the female paper nautilus “scarcely / eats until the eggs are hatched.” The final lines, with the rider’s arms wound around the Parthenon horse’s mane “as if they knew love / is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to,” nod to the way the nautilus’s primary weapon, its embrace, is also how humans relay maternal affection. The word “love” and the sentiment of its line surprise us—is it, to borrow a phrase from Bishop, an instance of emotion exceeding its cause? Certainly, the line sits in contrast to the language of “Ionic chiton-folds” and “glass ram’s horn-cradled freight.”
But it’s also an enactment of what Moore means when she says that poetry might “present for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Or here, imaginary oceans with real shelled octopuses in them, an aquarium of the mind that Moore fills with selfless mother nautiluses. Moore lived with her own mother for more than five decades, and it’s hard not to read this poem as Moore’s “perishable souvenir of hope” for the woman who raised her, an acknowledgement that maternal love is too often built upon years of quiet self-abnegation.
I’m glad you were able to appreciate your mother’s quirky traditions, and I’m sorry to hear that they feel lost to you in this moment. I hope that won’t always be the case—that soon, revisiting her messages, like revisiting this poem, might reconnect you with a bit of her “fortress / strong enough to trust to.”
I’m queer. I’m queer, I’m queer, I’m so queer and so closeted. Help.
Gay as F*ck
You’re already through the hardest and most important part, which is coming out to yourself. I can’t speak to whether or not it’s safe for you to come out to anyone else right now, but I hope you have at least one person in your life with whom you can be fully open. For now, I’m grateful that you’ve trusted this space with your note. I give you Frank Bidart’s “Queer.”
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
It’s a searing poem, written by a gay poet who spent his teenage years in the June Cleaver fifties. About the poem, Hilton Als writes, “[Bidart’s] style is marked by a kind of calm hysteria, or a calm that alternates with hysteria, as he struggles with the things that the straight world and his formerly closeted and frightened self think should remain unsaid. And then he says them twice.” Bidart’s poem continues:
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
It sounds like you’re already past the poem’s opening couplet—but the repetition of your “I’m queer. I’m queer, I’m queer, I’m so queer” struck me as being parallel to Bidart’s repetition: “or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” That’s where you’re stuck, that Hamlet quandary—to stay in the closet or not to stay.
Again, without knowing you or your circumstances, I can’t speak to whether it’s safe for you to be out. But I’m heartened (as the speaker of Bidart’s poem would no doubt also be) to read your confidence in asserting your own identity. “I’m queer, I’m queer, I’m so queer,” you say. Bidart’s speaker writes: “lie to yourself, what you will / lose is yourself. Then you / turn into them.” Whichever decision you make now, you will remain resolutely and assuredly yourself. That’s a kind of power, one you’ll need to draw from as you continue your journey.
Last night I was drunk, and while I was in bed, just before I fell asleep, I wrote what I thought was a perfect sentence that would be the perfect opening to a short story. I spent most of today trying to recall what that line was, but like a soap bubble I tried to hold in my hands, it kept escaping me. This isn’t the first time this has happened: sometimes I’ll be at a gig and let my mind wander, and all these ideas will come to me. But an hour later, when I have my notebook with me again, I’ll have forgotten most of it. Is there a poem for the grief of these stories that will never materialize?
It’s funny, I spent all day trying to come up with the perfect poem for you, but somehow it kept evading my grasp …
Wait! There it is! Russell Edson’s “Of Memory and Distance”!
It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
You talk about letting your mind “wander,” which made me think of this poem’s meditation on distance and its relationship to memory—specifically the way they depend on each other. As you wander away from a thing, as your distance from it increases, so, too, does your reliance on memory to conjure it. As your distance decreases, your perception begins to rely more and more on senses, not memory.
Of course, we know from psychologists that most of our memories are at least partial fictions, “made of paper and ink,” so it’s likely that your perfect opening might not have been as world-changing as you’re remembering. My advice? Start writing things down, on your phone or in a notebook or on the inside of your T-shirt or wherever else you’ll actually find it the next day. And if that fails, too, take heart in this bit of wisdom from Friedrich Nietzsche: “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.”
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.