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.
My cousin is getting married in a month. We were born ten days apart, which we take pride in like we planned it, and grew up like sisters. We drifted a bit and now work different hours and are states away. We have a tradition of writing something to each other before momentous occasions. I’ve always looked up to her—she’s an adventurous, kind soul and has shouldered a lot of unexpected responsibility with grace. I have this well of happiness for her and her soon-to-be husband, but I’m having trouble expressing it. I know she’d appreciate even a simple “I’m so happy for you,” but I want to say more. I feel both giddiness and this more stable undercurrent of joy for them. Can you help point me in a direction for well wishes like these? Are there any you hold dear to your heart?
One of the most common requests that poets get is to recommend poems for weddings. Sometimes we get asked to write original pieces for close friends, sometimes just to help find one for someone else to read. There are so many excellent love poems, and it’s difficult to pick the right wedding poem for a couple I don’t know. But wedding season is approaching, and I bet many folks will be writing in with similar requests soon, so I will give this one a shot. For you, for your cousin, let’s read “On the Occasion of Your Wedding,” by Sandra Beasley. Sandra writes:
People will tell you it is natural
to pair off. People say this despite
the Pope, in his backseat built for one.
People say this despite the cuttlefish,
with three hearts of his own and no room
for more …
Sandra notes that there is nothing natural about the messiness of a dedicated partnership, the “clog of drain hair” and “the way you tuck used Kleenex into the crevice of his recliner.” And yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she applauds the couple for saying, “Screw it and I do.” In your letter, you mentioned your cousin’s adventurousness and her ability to meet the challenges that have come her way. It sounds to me like she is the kind of person who would nod her head at Sandra’s sage advice that “they make duct tape for situations like this.” I love this poem because not only does it celebrate the courage it takes to choose marriage in this endlessly chaotic world where nothing is promised, but it also includes small and practical blessings like “knowing when to leave the room.” Best of all, it ends with a single joyful thought—one that is perhaps the same thought all we romantics dressed as cynics have at weddings—“You fools. You lucky, lucky fools.”
I am twenty-one years old and suddenly feel an urgent need to explore the full range of my sexuality. I thought I had closed the young-adult chapter of Finding Myself, but it feels as if I’ve stumbled upon five more pages that I have yet to read. Do you have a poem for the exhilarating, terrifying experience of exploring new parts of yourself?
Yes. Yes to being twenty-one and feeling an urgent need to explore your sexuality. Yes to having more pages to read. Yes to feeling exhilarated and terrified. I can’t wait for you to read “Peanut Butter,” by Eileen Myles. I find it queer and sexy and exhilarating and beautiful. Something I especially want to call to your attention is this section, where Eileen writes:
the things I
embrace as new
fact old things,
the sensation of
being dirty in
body and mind
summer as a
time to do
nothing and make
no money. Prayer
as a last re-
as a means,
and then a
with no ends
in sight. I am
absolutely in opposition
to all kinds of
goals. I have
no desire to know
where this, anything
is getting me.
That is the trick to finding yourself, Curious. It is not a young-adult phenomenon, I promise. It is unending. Because even the things that are old things become “re-released.” Eileen has the right idea: no desire to know where this is getting them, just committed to exploring new and rereleased parts of themself. “I’m immoderately / in love with you, / knocked out by / all your new / white hair / why shouldn’t / something / I have always / known be the / very best there / is,” Eileen writes. And I toss this question your way as well: Perhaps you have always known that you have more to explore (your sexuality and beyond). If so, is this need to explore the very best there is? I hope so. I hope you follow Eileen’s recommendation: “I squint. I wink. I take the ride.”
You know that helpless feeling of starting something new and feeling wholly unprepared to start it? Like maybe you made the wrong choice because you’re not good enough, not whole enough, not smart enough? And then that thought rattles around in your head until you have to remind yourself to breathe easier? Because the clock is ticking and this thing will be starting soon? But you can’t even embrace the excitement of this new opportunity because there’s a real chance you’re about to be absolutely horrible at it? And no one will be surprised, least of all yourself? Is there a poem for that?
A Lead-Lined Ball of Anxiety
If you’ve never read Mary Oliver’s very well-known poem “Wild Geese,” I would recommend you do so. But Mary’s poem is not actually the poem I want to give you today. The poem I want to recommend is Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s poem “Wild Geese: After Mary Oliver.” (For those less familiar, this is something that poets do: write poems “after” another poet, in response to the poem’s text or inspired by the poem’s form.) Cristin’s poem is full of reminders I think you need to hear right now:
Your pendulum heart doesn’t need
to swing so hard in either direction.
Nails don’t have to be bitten to the nub.
You have to believe that the ground will
materialize under your feet the moment
you step forward. No one can tell you
if it will be rock gravel, or slick with pain.
No one can travel this road before you do.
It is yours, and it is beautiful because of it.
I will tell you a secret: I have occasionally suspected/hoped that Cristin wrote this poem for me. (I have no evidence that this is actually true, though she is a dear friend and longtime mentor, and she has had to be the one to endure many of my late-night anxiety-laden phone calls, so it certainly feels like this particular poem could be addressed to someone a whole lot like me.) In any case, I do feel that you are a whole lot like me, LLBoA. And I think both of us need this poem. Where Mary Oliver’s poem is concerned with reminding us that “you do not have to be good” in order to still be welcome “in the family of things,” Cristin is concerned with reminding us that “you don’t have to be crushed under the spokes of your own desire to be proven worthy enough.” That you have this new opportunity and care so deeply about it are strong evidence that you are worthy of it. Of course, there is a chance that you will be horrible at it when you first start. Most people do not start something brand-new and ace it. There is a learning curve, and that is what practice and experience are for. But try to remember Cristin’s words, and I promise I will too: “No one can travel this road before you do. / It is yours, and it is beautiful because of it.” I am excited for you to start.
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.