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.
I have never felt this way about anyone before. At first, I didn’t understand what I was feeling, but I’m sure of it now. I have fallen in hate with someone. He hurt my friend, who loves him, and she’s still with him. I don’t wish him any pain, but I want him to cease being a threat to my friend’s happiness. It has taken up residence in my heart, and it feels like poison. Poets, this is the first time I have loathed someone, and I don’t know how I can go on like this. I was going to ask if you had any poems for hatred, but perhaps my real need is for a poem for unearned forgiveness.
Dear First Hate,
I don’t know if you inhabit the same corner of the Internet that I do, but my corner has been abuzz this week with new diss tracks flying between prominent rappers. In light of these diss tracks, some conversation has turned toward people’s favorite diss tracks of all time. The responses have been delightful and surprising, including “Be Prepared,” by Scar, in The Lion King, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and “The Last Midnight” from Into the Woods. So while I am definitely not delighted to hear that your friend has been hurt, I am just a little bit delighted by your letter, because it gives me an excuse to share one of my favorite diss tracks of all time, the poem “Grief, Not Guilt” by Jeanann Verlee. In it, Verlee writes:
I wish you a tongue scalded by tea.
A hangover. Burnt toast. Stubbed toes. A lost job.
I wish you weeping in the shower. Salt in the sugar bowl.
A wish list of sorrows. Grief, not guilt.
The list of hexes continues, ranging from the almost funny (“flat tires, soggy pasta, a tax audit to fail”) to the truly haunting (“a room wallpapered with my photographs. / A chamber filled with empty bassinets”). The poem is so dexterous that even without details, we readers are still left suspecting that whomever this poem is directed toward must have done something truly horrible to earn such wrath. Our empathy never leaves the narrator. Such a poem feels cathartic to me. Sometimes having someone else’s diss track to listen to and sing along with is a way to force some loathing to exit my body so it doesn’t poison me with bitterness. I hope this poem gives you a thrill and maybe a laugh and maybe a place to pour some vicarious loathing into. Because then you do not need to actually wish bad things upon this specific man. Because the trap is that if you really do wish horrible things on the man who hurt your friend, the risk is that they might come true. And if your friend is the kindhearted person I suspect she is, she might feel inclined to tend to all his new hurts and misfortunes. Instead, know that the universe keeps track of the miseries we inflict on others. Don’t worry about him getting his. Worry about being a fierce protector of your friend’s heart, as you already are. In the meantime, start collecting great diss tracks to sing along to, for when you really need to let off some steam. When she’s ready to see him plainly, in her own time, you’ll be ready. With a playlist.
I have been struggling with the abstract notion of “closure.” I was with a man I thought was the love of my life for four and a half years before realizing he wasn’t the right person. We loved one another, but we were not supportive of each other. He was possessive, while I was restricting and demanding. He ultimately broke up with me through text; it felt so surreal to have my long-term relationship end so abruptly. I am currently in a healthier, more supportive relationship, but I often find myself thinking about my previous partner. I know that closure is a man-made concept, but I find myself helplessly lost about how to find it. Is there a way to ever achieve closure?
Need an Ending
Dear Need an Ending,
The wonderful and wonder-filled poet Anis Mojgani has a new book called In the Pockets of Small Gods, which I highly recommend. It is a book about unraveling multiple griefs, one of which is the end of a marriage, and Anis deftly wrestles with all the hurt, anger, and confusion that comes with that experience. Anis gave us permission to publish one of the poems from that book in full, and so I’m delighted to share it with you:
And when spring arrived I
took a class to learn something
I had never before learned
and a thing I thought I might love
How did we make it through this winter
after the year we had
and while knowing
what awaited us in the new one?
How amazing we who have stayed
are how beautiful and heavy and
vulnerable we who couldn’t
––when spring arrived I learned how to carve from wood
a large spoon! I hadn’t ever done that before
and I haven’t done it again since
yet But I learned it
As I have learned more
how to hold my heart again and whisper
into it and once more
a little better
to the songs it sings
even mouthless with no mouth
and even when no note heard
nor even made I am
listening or at least learning
to always try to
so perhaps it is not the longest night
we at times find ourselves in
but simply the slowest dew
forming upon us
The word closure, while in this case referring to a resolution or conclusion, is also the same word that people use to refer to the process of “closing” something. Like a book or a door. No wonder that “starting a new chapter” and “closing the door” are both used when describing the end of a relationship. Both doors and books maintain a pleasing binary: they are either open or they are closed. Closure suggests that a relationship fits into this binary as well: that it is something you can fully close, without ever feeling the tug of emotions or nostalgia or memory that reopens the hurt; that it is possible to draw a neat line around a person and relationship, and simply cut along that line. But an entire relationship cannot be compartmentalized into one single place in your brain that you can close and bury. Having a meaningful relationship with someone means that the boundaries between your relationship and the rest of you become porous. And nowhere is this more evident than when you try to extract the relationship and discover that it is intertwined with so much of the rest of you. You took dance classes together and now he’s gone, but you still know how to dance. You made friends as a couple, and they are still your friends without him. The restaurant where you were regulars still makes your favorite dish. And on and on and on. And so of course you still think of him, of course his fingerprints are still evident on different parts of your life. But to seek otherwise would be to try and remove every trace of him, to return to the person you were before him, which is an impossible surgery. And why would you? The person you are now is strong and thoughtful and in a healthy and supportive relationship and went through a lot to get here. It isn’t wrong or shameful to recognize his shadow when you see it. Perhaps the more helpful thing to search for is the day when his shadow doesn’t hold any more power over your happiness. When you can see it, wave at it, and go back to dancing. Already, you have “made it through this winter.” Already, you have learned to “hold [your] heart again and whisper / into it and once more / listen / a little better / to the songs it sings.” Already the dew is forming.
I write poetry every day. But I want to reach the nervous systems of readers, not just serve them a plated meal of only one or two surprises. Can you help me find my way into the wilderness?
I don’t know if I can help you write a poem, but I can share with you one of my favorite poems of all time, which I believe accomplishes all the things you are seeking. Maybe if we can name what makes this poem great, we can work toward it in our own poems. The poem is “Katherine with the Lazy Eye. Short. And Not a Good Poet.” by francine j. harris. It starts with:
Katherine with the Lazy Eye. Short. And Not a Good Poet.
This morning, I heard you were found in your McDonald’s uniform.
I heard it while I was visiting a lake town, where empty woodsy highways
turn into waterside drives. I’d forgot
my toothbrush and was brushing with my finger, when a friend
who didn’t know you said he heard it like this: You know Katherine. Short.
with a lazy eye. Poet. Not a very good one. Yeah, well she died.
The poem continues with the backstory of Katherine and her poems at the open mic, her McDonald’s uniform, her lazy eye, and her tendency to follow around a married man. The narrator also details her feelings toward Katherine: “I didn’t like your lazy eye always looking at me. That you called me / by my name. I didn’t / like you, since the first time I saw you at McDonald’s. / You had a mop. And you were letting some homeless dude / flirt with you. I wondered then, if you thought that was the best / you could do. I wondered then if it was.” I could talk about this poem for hours. But we don’t have hours. So let me just point out a small handful of things that I find exemplary in this piece: (1) the poem feels deeply personal to the author, which makes the stakes feel high and the poem feel urgent, (2) the poem shows a mastery of structure: the chorus-like repetition of certain words and phrases create a spine that runs through the poem, and as this spine disintegrates, so does the the narrator’s emotional steadiness, (3) the poem shows a mastery of pacing: the momentum builds gradually but steadily, leading to that gut-punch of an ending, (4) the poem shows a mastery of language: the tone is seemingly conversational but the word choice is precise, (5) the poem manages to be both immensely specific and also universal: we have all thought badly of someone and perhaps had it come back to haunt us, (6) the poem is complex: it is funny, devastating, conspiratorial, and implicating. It doesn’t contain one single metaphor or moral but rather unearths a whole bouquet of nuanced and conflicting truths, and (7) the message of the poem is perfectly married with its execution: it is a poem that explores how careless language can minimize, dehumanize, and “other” strangers. And by deconstructing that careless language so carefully, francine is instead able to use language to humanize, complicate, and build empathy. Spend time with this poem and see if you can count the different levels it is operating on and the many surprises francine is able to fold in. This poem certainly hits me in my nervous system. I think about it endlessly.
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.