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 am still thinking of spring and the way rains wash away the neighborhood children’s chalk drawings. Do you have a poem for that never-ending spring? For the new opportunities I can almost taste in these upcoming months? My partner finally moving to the city where I live, a trip to Europe, a new job—is there a poem that holds all the hope I hold for the future?
Dear Spring Things,
I love that you are still thinking of spring when summer is so muggy! Personally, I can’t stop sweating, and spring couldn’t feel further away. And yet I think I understand what you are looking for. I like that it is an inappropriate season to be thinking of spring. I want to give you “June,” by Alex Dimitrov, which is also inappropriate, since now we are sitting squarely in July’s armpit. No matter. Alex writes,
There will never be more of summer
than there is now. Walking alone
through Union Square I am carrying flowers
and the first rosé to a party where I’m expected.
It’s Sunday and the trains run on time
but today death feels so far, it’s impossible
to go underground. I would like to say
something to everyone I see (an entire
city) but I’m unsure what it is yet.
Isn’t that the hope and promise you are looking for: arms full of flowers, heading somewhere you are expected, knowing there will perhaps never be more than there is right now? Having something you want to say to everyone, without yet knowing what you want to say? Maybe what you call spring, Alex calls June. Look here: “the only difficulty I’m willing to imagine / is walking through this first humid day / with my hands full, not at all peaceful / but entirely possible and real.” That is the spring I send to you, as your partner moves to your city, as you venture on your trip to Europe, as all the things speeding toward you continue speeding: your hands full, not at all peaceful but gripping possibility.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder back in 2016, and I am undergoing therapy and taking medicine to help me tackle my illness. I have a reasonably good support group in the form of friends. I tend not to talk to my family about it, though they are the ones who pay the bills related to this. I also have a significant other who knows and understands my situation. I believe I’ve made good progress since the start of my medication.
Given all that, however, there are times when I still harm and isolate myself, keeping quiet about what I do and what I feel, afraid my family and my partner will think the medication and the therapy aren’t working well enough. I understand progress doesn’t happen in a straight line, but my loved ones don’t think this is so (and it’s been proven to me a few times, when I have episodes and they are around, that they think I’m not progressing, that it’s my fault, and consequently, they become disappointed). Here’s where I ask my question: Do you know of a poem that explains the topsy-turvy nature of recovery—one that speaks to the loved ones of a patient as well as to the patient themselves? I myself have a hard time believing that I’m progressing, and something literary might help me keep a level head.
A hundred thanks
Dear Hundred Thanks,
I want to introduce you to the work of Shira Erlichman, who, among many other talents (music! visual art!), has a real knack for using poetry to help her navigate the very tricky ups and downs of mental illness. “Poetry is the closest we can get to being inside someone’s head, and so with mental illness, that’s a perfect avenue,” she has said. “I think intimacy is what is missing with most things that are stigmatized. We only have the caricatures. If you can create intimacy … then you have this ticket to understanding and empathy.” I would recommend doing a deep dive on all of Shira’s poems, but for today, I specifically want to direct you toward “Ode to Lithium #600.” Shira is currently working on a book called Odes to Lithium, in which she complicates preconceptions around medication by discussing the full spectrum of her relationship with it. This one begins,
The side effect of Lithium (is dehydration & peeing more frequently. The side effect of dehydration & peeing more frequently is not wanting to drink water at all because you pee more frequently. The side effect of not wanting to is not doing. The side effect of not doing is a couch & three movies. The side effect of a couch & three movies is what have you been doing all day with a raised eyebrow. The side effect of a raised eyebrow is a sigh. The side effect of a sigh is plaque. The side effect of plaque is a dirt road but you’re bikeless. The side effect of bikeless is an unrelenting heartbeat with a passion for waves.
And on and on it goes, as Shira traces for us the roller coaster of mental illness and the way one side effect landslides into another. It’s not all bad: “The side effect of overwhelmingly blue dreams is a girlfriend who listens. The side effect of this particular girlfriend is black soap that sits staining the side of the tub. The side effect of stains is her name in your cheek like a cool marble.” Shira writes of the love surrounding her, but she still acknowledges the loneliness of illness—how even those who love you may toss you the raised eyebrow or sigh, may not understand that a couch and three movies may also be part of the process. Mental illness is personal and manifests uniquely in each person, and Shira’s experiences may not be yours at all. But her way of cataloguing and excavating these many “side effects” strikes me as particularly vulnerable, honest, and resilient. She does not let the side effects stop her; she takes them in stride. “The side effect of it is good is it is bad. The side effect of it is bad is crossing your legs in the psychiatrist’s office, talking about side effects. The side effect of side effects is living your life.” I hope you will continue living your life, allowing your recovery to take place at the pace it needs, on the path that works best for you, however winding it may be.
For my whole life, I’ve been unable to imagine a future for myself. I can’t envision what I want to do or who I want to be or how I want to live. Every time I try to make plans for anything lasting (locations, jobs, relationships), I panic at the prospect of being fixed in perpetuity with something I don’t care enough about to stick with for years or even decades.This lack of commitment was okay when I was younger, but now I feel burdened by myself and others to make all of these decisions and find some semblance of a trajectory. Do you have any poems for this feeling, or poems that point to a solution?
Dear One Direction-less,
Louise Glück has a poem titled “Matins” that begins,
You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending
I think you sense that the summer is already ending, and it is causing you to panic. The good and terrible news, which I suspect you already know, is that you’re already heading in a direction, whether you call it that or not. Every day you wake up is another step in the direction you have always been going: forward. And there is no should have or could have, there is no wrong way, because the way you are going is the only way that exists, and so it is the right one. Perhaps you are instead looking for a big decision or a big commitment that allows you to feel you have some agency over the twists and turns. Well, okay, then. Try something out, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. I hope it doesn’t sound like I am being glib or taking this lightly. It’s just that I think perpetuity is so terribly illusive. For me, it’s more common that the commitments I think are forever commitments end up being for-now commitments. So when committing to things, I try to at least follow joy or love or curiosity, instead of fear. If you are looking for someone else to tell you which commitments are the ones worth making, I am afraid I must point you back to Louise Glück, who ends her poem: “You want to see my hands? / As empty now as at the first note. / Or was the point always / to continue without a sign?” (Spoiler alert: It is. There aren’t any signs. Continue anyway.)
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.