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 wife and I are expecting a baby in five months. We are both women, and she is carrying it. The months feel expansive and momentous, like I need to get myself wholly together, smooth out all my rusted-in neuroses, do all the wild kayaking, dancing, writing, and running around in forests. I need to do all that so I’m perfectly composed and ready for the sacrifices of parenthood. I feel I should be savoring every delicious hour of this right-before-baby time, but I’m still worrying and feeling a little bereft and not working out, just like usual. I can’t wait to meet our son or daughter, but how can I graduate to fully baked adult in just five months? What if I’m not good at it?
I need a poem that speaks to crossing a big threshold, and the inevitability of unreadiness for being a mom.
Not Grown Up Yet
Every new or expectant parent I’ve ever spoken with has shared the anxiety you articulate beautifully and concisely: “What if I’m not good at it?” I remember being fascinated by the realization (it came embarrassingly late) that before they had my older brother, my parents had never been parents. Some part of me just idly assumed they’d been born parents, fully equipped to handle our feeding and fevers and acne crises.
Everyone living was raised by people who just figured it out as they went. I love Rachel Zucker’s poems for a billion reasons, but chief among those reasons is the great clarity with which they make that figuring-it-out manifest. Look at her poem “Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.”
When I get homeand try to describe the boy in the street Josh says, More people died
in Iraq this month than any other and I remind him that tomorrow morning,before the new table is due to be delivered, we’re going to Saint Vincent’sHospital where Dr. Margano will put the KY-covered wand inside meand tell us if these past nine weeks have yielded a fetal heartbeatwhich will change everything, nothing.
The supersaturation of images, artifacts from a life richly lived and intensely felt, startles with its clarity. Motherhood doesn’t erase one’s interiority; it doesn’t pave over one’s existing psychic ecosystem. Rather, it inflects it—a boy’s soccer game brings you to the hawks flying overhead; the fetal heartbeat changes “everything, nothing.”
Your anxiety about “graduating to fully baked adult in five months” means you care and are human. I am not a parent, and I will never be a mother. Most of what I know about the world I know through reading and believing the accounts of others. Zucker’s poem grants me access to the ways historical time braids with personal time, how public and private horrors all filter through a single organ, the same brain tasked with learning to parent. Perfect parenthood seems like a horizon—a place you’re always marching toward, a place at which you never fully arrive. And as with perfect personhood, it’s the marching that matters, just that motion. It seems to me you and your wife are well on your way.
Two years ago, I divorced a man and married a woman. I myself am a woman. For reasons beyond my comprehension—because it’s not about my sexuality or anything else I can figure out—my two adult brothers are no longer speaking to me. My parents, who maintain a relationship with my wife and me, refuse to say anything to my brothers. Up until the divorce, one of my brothers was my best friend. Since the divorce, everything stings, and I am always excluded from family functions. My family even gathered with my ex, my young daughters, and my extended family on my birthday and didn’t invite me. I am working to make peace with all of this, but some days are harder than others. I would love a poem to remind me that I am a better person now and a better mother. I am heartbroken and lost, but I know what I have done is right for my daughters and me.
Heartbroken and Lost
The cruelest thing a person can do is assign shame to another’s joy—such cruelty seeks not only to diminish the joy at hand but also to poison and repress all future joy. It’s a profound violence, one that testifies to real sickness in the hearts of those who inflict it. The thought of your family gathering with your ex, on your birthday, without you, boggles the mind. I’m sorry you’ve had to bear such a painful and irrational response to your life blossoming into joyful new clarity. I offer Carl Phillips’s “Blow It Back.”
Well, it’s morning, now. Out back, the bamboobows and stiffens. Thoughts in a wind. Thoughts like (butnobody saying it): Nobody, I think, knows me better bynow than you do. Or like: The bamboo, bowing, stiffening,seems like nothing so much as, in this light, competing formsof betrayal that, given time, must surely cancel each otherout, close your eyes; patience; wait. Maybe less the foliagethan the promise of it. Less that shame exists, maybe, than thatthe world keeps saying it does, know it, hold on tight to it, as ifthe world were rumor, how every rumorrings true, lately.
Reading Phillips’s lines about “competing forms / of betrayal that, given time, must surely cancel each other / out” makes me think of your brothers, the way they’ve betrayed you and your faith in them but also betrayed themselves. They’ve denied themselves a major life-giving friendship with you.
There’s a minor chord sparrows makewith doves that’s not the usual business—it’s not sad at all, any of it:this always waiting for what I’ve always waited for; this not beingable to assign to what’s missing some shape, a name; this bodyneither antlered nor hooved—brave too, this body, unapologetic …
I want so much for you to be able to shout in their face, “it’s not sad at all, any of it: / this always waiting for what I’ve always waited for.” Even more than that, I want them to be able to really hear you say it. I hope one day that can happen, that they’ll feel appropriately embarrassed for their behavior and that for them “shame can, like love, be / an eventual way through.” Until then, I am grateful your daughters will get to see you living “neither antlered nor hooved—brave too … unapologetic .”
I would like a poem to give to my editor when I push my deadline and feel as if I’m not living up to her expectations.
Dear Pushing It,
First, a moment of solidarity as I sip my morning coffee and write you on the wrong side of half a dozen important deadlines. My life owes so much of its substance to the patience and grace of good editors. I give you Brenda Shaughnessy’s “A Poet’s Poem.”
If it takes me all day,I will get the word freshened out of this poem.I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,and now it won’t come out.It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated,so I went out to my little porch all covered in snowand watched the icicles drip, as I smokeda cigarette.
The first half of the poem delivers, with Shaughnessy’s characteristic precision and wit, a portrait of the writer Sisyphusing through their daily labor. The second half shows us the writer’s necessary stepping away.
Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spikeoff the roof with my bare hand.And used it to write a word in the snow.I wrote the word snow.I can’t stand myself.
The yoking of a writer’s self-worth to their productivity is the inevitable and near-universal result of practicing a creative medium within the framework of late capitalism. People have written about this far more eloquently and expansively than I can here. Can you recall the last time you met a writer who felt they were reading and writing as much as they should? I can’t. For me, part of the work of being a writer has been understanding when I need to be creating and when I need to be silent. I’ve had to learn to patiently wait for whatever reservoir the writing comes from to refill, without resenting the process. Good editors understand this. Somewhere in the bellows of your frustration, I think you do too.
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.