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 feel like I’m living in a world of decay right now. My mother and both of her brothers are dying of Huntington’s disease, which slowly kills your mind and body over a decade or so (think ALS + Parkinson’s + Alzheimer’s + extra mood/psychological challenges). My other mother has cognitive challenges that are making it hard for her to manage their care, and she seems to be worsening. As a twenty-six-year-old, I certainly am capable of taking on responsibility, but I often find myself feeling like a scared, lost child.
I’ve moved back home to New Orleans to help, but I struggle to find anything like optimism or contentment. My city is also in a state of cultural and physical decay—it’s being taken over by those who seek to exploit my fellow native New Orleanians. These things (and of course the state of the world) weigh on me daily.
Hoping you might have a poem to bring a little solace,
Dear Seeking Hope,
When someone shares their experience of loss, I often think of Lisel Mueller’s poem, “When I Am Asked.” The speaker laments the persistence of natural beauty in the face of her mother’s death.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
Searching not for an erasure of her loss, but for company in her grief, the speaker turns to poems:
[I] placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
Sometimes, we need to dwell with the loss to learn how those transitions transform us. That is to say: I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this.
But you have named yourself seeking, so today I want to offer you a poem to fortify your search: Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense.”
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
I used to dislike this poem for these lines. They remind me of that dangerous line of thinking that posits trauma as a precondition to insight. But I think the poem’s truest intelligence is here:
We must risk delight.
Often we say vulnerability when we mean pain, but amidst all that is pain—loss and hurt and grief—it is vulnerable to search for something to love. Vulnerable not only to name the loss that already is but to love enough to risk losing again. Now I appreciate those previously despised lines. I understand them to mean: don’t relinquish the expanse of your attention to destruction. Gilbert writes:
… We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
I hear that same stubbornness in you. Your “struggle to find anything like optimism” is the record of hope. If you didn’t already have hope, you would have stopped struggling. Keep going.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
I am in love with a man who mispronounces my name. I feel myself turning into a ghost each time he does it. But I am also a shy ghost, and it has come to the point where it is really too late to correct him. This man, he is in love with someone else. Despite the wonderful somersaults of the heart, I hate this state of unrequited love. I am always overtaken by my own lack. I find myself never good enough. I know, though, the greatest thing is to face love (and the world) with openness. I just can’t seem to win against my own dark. Do you have any poem at all, really, for another poet in love?
In Love and Lacking
Dear In Love and Lacking,
Unrequited love is painful. It’s difficult to feel the chemical charge of desire without the alchemy of reciprocity. It sounds, though, like one of the most painful parts of this experience is that you feel far from yourself. Love—even unrequited—offers an opportunity for learning more about yourself, exploring your desires and experiences like “wonderful somersaults of the heart.” For you, a poem I hold close when I feel lost to myself. Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering” is like a compass for interior exploration:
… the exaltation in knowing
you are lost. Say your own name backwards to prove
you exist, an ancient tongue that steels the simple evening air on which
you rely like Pharaoh building the tomb for years
Honor that you are finding it difficult to be open in this moment. Part of caring for yourself is knowing whether you have the capacity to hold whatever might enter. Reorient yourself toward truth. You know your name; that is true. It is never too late to correct this man’s mispronunciation. But, more importantly, this poem calls you to that talisman of how well you know—and speak—your own name.
You are not what is lacking; it’s in the way that you and this man meet each other. Maybe this man will never love you. But if you distort yourself and he does not love you, then you will be without him and without yourself. If you distort yourself and he loves you, then who, really, will he be loving? What if he loved you by a name that wasn’t yours? That sounds very lonely. Meet the world with your truest shape so that when you are held, it will be you who is held. Kocher’s poem invites you into the elemental stretch of your own desire and circumstance. “Go where you will,” she writes. “The sun rises there.”
Could you recommend a poem that helps explain why I am still smarting with pain from every loss I have ever experienced: from my mum dying slowly in front of me to the person who just couldn’t love me to that copy of The Ethics of Ambiguity I am positive a student stole from my office. It all really really hurts. Poets, please help me out!
Dear Eternally Hurting,
When an old loss resurfaces and I feel like the window of grieving should have closed, I have a friend who always reminds me, We don’t just get over things. I find such comfort and permission in her words. In those moments, more than solace, I want someone to hold open that window of mourning, to remind me that it has never, in fact, closed. In that spirit, I give you a poem that is a rock thrown through whatever glass would pretend to contain loss: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Time does not bring relief: you all have lied”:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
The speaker spends the majority of the poem enumerating elements and spaces that elicit memories of her lost love.
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go—so with his memories they brim
Even the form of this poem—the sonnet—is the well-trodden ground of love. Where the form sets us up to expect a turning point (the volta), the speaker instead doubles down:
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
I love this poem for its petulance—for its refusal to diminish the truth of its feeling. And I love this poem because, in spite of the grandeur it proclaims, what it enacts is in fact tightly controlled: fourteen lines and a regulated rhyme scheme. Sometimes form can offer us a way to hold—to live with—what can otherwise consume us. As Toni Morrison writes in Sula, “Like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” I can’t offer the explanation you’re seeking, but I offer you St. Vincent Millay’s company and the wish that you, too, find forms—writing, singing, gardening, running—that can give shape to your losses.
Want more? Read earlier installments of Poetry Rx. Need a poem? Write to us. Next week, Kaveh Akbar will be answering questions.
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.