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’m in the closet for the sake of my parents. We come from a society where it’s impossible to be gay or queer. They have already faced a lot of disappointment, and though I feel alienated from them at times, I want to spare them any further heartache. They probably wouldn’t disown me, but I know they could never be happy. You might say I have a duty to myself to pursue my own happiness, but I feel as if any happiness I could get would still be bitter and pale. Unlike in Hollywood, there’s no tearful reconciliation to be had here, just endless recriminations and seeing them beaten and bewildered. Do you have a poem for this thorny feeling? Call it love or filial obligation or resentment or pity for my poor, flawed, all-too-human parents.
A Wayward Son
Dear Wayward Son,
Let me begin by saying I am so sorry for this burden you are carrying. I am so sorry that the parents you love are not able to see you in your beautiful entirety, that they are not yet able to love you in the way you deserve to be loved. I am in awe of how you have been able to name and hold all these feelings at once—love, filial obligation, resentment, and pity. I want to recommend an entire book to you: Not Here, by Hieu Minh Nguyen. Hieu’s story is not your story, but his poetry wrestles with many of the topics you mention, especially the tensions of parental disappointment, sacrificing happiness for someone else’s comfort, and how to love or forgive or endure someone who can’t accept you. Here is an excerpt from Hieu’s poem Changeling:
My mother tells me she is ugly in the same voice
she used to say no woman could love you & I watch her
pull at her body & it is mine. My heavy breast.
My disappointing shape. She asks for a bowl of plain broth
& it becomes the cup of vinegar she would pour down my throat.
Everyday after school, I would kneel before her.
I would remove my clothes & ask her to mark the progress.
It’s important that I mention, I truly wanted to be beautiful
This poem so perfectly and painfully articulates how it feels to crave an impossible love and approval. “I truly wanted to be beautiful for her,” is doubly heartbreaking: once, because it reveals that the narrator does not see himself as beautiful, and again, because the narrator’s longing is only to make his mother happy. You specified “no tearful reconciliation,” and so this poem has no happy Hollywood ending. Neither do most of the poems in Hieu’s book. Instead, it is what my friend Hanif Abdurraqib would call a “sibling in a very specific grief.” I hope that in reading, you will learn that you are not alone in these burdens. Your enormous heart has many siblings. While you try and make yourself “beautiful” or palatable for your parents, know this: you are beautiful—in your truth and in your selfless willingness to bear these burdens—even if they can’t see it yet.
I am in love in a way I’ve never experienced before. I have always kept a safe distance from my relationships, but now I feel vulnerable for the first time. I am emotionally dependent on him, and it makes me anxious and a little scared. I’m happy to be in love and to be loved by him, but I also have this looming fear of getting hurt. Is there a poem out there for this feeling?
I am delighted to share with you Natalie Diaz’s poem, “When the Beloved Asks, “What Would You Do If You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?” In it, Natalie writes,
I wouldn’t fight, not kick,
flail, not carry on like one driven mad by the black neoprene wetsuit
of death, not like sad-mouthed, despair-eyed albacore nor blubbery
pinnipeds, wouldn’t rage the city’s flickering streets of Ampullae
of Lorenzini, nor slug my ferocious, streamlined lover’s titanium
white nose, that bull’s-eye of cartilage, no, I wouldn’t prolong it.
Instead, I’d place my head onto that dark altar of jaws, prostrated
pilgrim at Melville’s glittering gates, climb into that mysterious
window starred with teeth—the one lit room in the charnel house.
You are used to looking at love from a “safe distance.” From the shoreline, if you will. But now you have dived in, splashed around, and can feel its tides pulling you to their whims. So—it might toss you on the rocks. I suspect you already know this, but you do not get the thrill without the risk. You do not get true intimacy without vulnerability. Instead of offering you a promise that you will not be hurt, I offer you Natalie’s courage instead. She writes, “what you cannot know is I am overboard for this / metamorphosis, ready to be raptured to that mouth, reduced to a swell / of wet clothes, as you roll back your eyes and drag me into the fathoms.” Sometimes a love that is world-rattling is worth placing your head on the dark altar of jaws. But, if your fear is becoming entirely emotionally dependent, know it is possible to swim in the ocean of the one you love without becoming water yourself. The narrator of Natalie’s poem remains independent of the shark. It is her choice to climb into the mysterious window starred with teeth. It is her agency, her courage that enables her to take the risk.
I feel broken, used and lonely. I had a big, ugly breakup last year from an abusive relationship. This year I started liking someone. When I thought things were going well, he broke up with me, saying he doesn’t like me like that. It hurts like hell. Everyday I break into pieces and pick myself up. I have never been loved as hard as I love. I feel so small, so ugly and so unwanted I cannot explain. Any poetry that would help?
Today I send you a poem by Kim Addonizio, titled, “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” which begins,
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to a man you loved opened
them for one you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
Does any of this sound familiar? I have been there. I am sorry that anyone has made you feel broken, and I am proud of you for continuing to love as hard as you love. That is the hardest and most important thing. What I recommend is leaning on the ones who do love you for a little while. There are many kinds of love: romantic, familial, platonic … and while it seems that romantic love has taken up a lot of your life lately, please remember that other kinds of love are also valuable and worthy of your time. Sometimes it is a friend or even a stranger who has what you need—the crumpled tissue passed under the bathroom stall. For now, imagine it is me on the other side of that rickety divider, offering you the final lines of Kim’s beautiful poem: “if you think nothing & no one can / listen I love you joy is coming.”
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.