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.
My birthday is coming. It’s not a “big” one—not twenty-one or fifty or a hundred or any other special number—just a regular number in the middle. Honestly, there’s no particular reason I should feel this year is so much more painful than others, but I do. I’m not sure I can describe the feeling—it’s not something to wear purple for, per se. It’s more of a lost feeling: How did I get old? This body is mine and yet surely must also be someone else’s. I want to age gracefully and, most of all, I do not want to become invisible—to myself or anyone else. And I could use some encouragement, a vote of confidence, to know that this is possible. Is there a poem that could help?
When you say, “How did I get old? This body is mine and yet surely must also be someone else’s,” I immediately thought of this beautiful poem by Li-Young Lee, titled “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet.” In it, he writes:
This sadness I feel tonight is not my sadness.
Maybe it’s my father’s.
For having never been prized by his father.
For having never profited by his son.
This loneliness is Nobody’s. Nobody’s lonely
because Nobody was never born
and will never die.
This gloom is Someone Else’s.
Someone Else is gloomy
because he’s always someone else.
For so many years, I answered to a name,
and I can’t say who answered.
I love this poem, because it plays with language in a way that reminds me of e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” but with a heaviness that cummings’s poem doesn’t have. The narrator of Lee’s poem feels foreign to himself, and struggles to assign ownership to the sorrows he carries. “Someone, Anyone, No One, me, and Someone Else. / Five in a bed, and none of us can sleep,” he writes. Perhaps this division of self is similar to the way you feel unrecognizable this year: you have accumulated so many versions of you—some that feel familiar and some that feel strange. I just turned thirty, and while it is not “old” or even a “regular number in the middle,” as you say, I have also been having a hard time understanding what it means to age. Lee’s poem suggests that this sorrow is both common—by virtue of other people experiencing it—and also sacred because apparently even God experiences it.
And the sorrow we bear together is none of ours.
Maybe it’s Yours, God.
For living so near to Your creatures.
For suffering so many incarnations unknown to Yourself.
For remaining strange to lovers and friends,
and then outliving them and all of their names for You.
For living sometimes for years without a name.
If even God struggles in this way, then perhaps we can find some solace in knowing that truly everyone feels restless and strange as the years add up. It is not uncommon to feel unknown to yourself, but just as God is still beloved by many, perhaps we, too, can still be known by others—those who have seen our many incarnations and continue to celebrate them as they arrive.
I’m searching for a thing that I don’t know the name of yet. The man I love is slowly eating me alive. We’ve been married for a decade, and in ways subtle enough to seem ridiculous, we’ve both been disappearing. Now we are finally tuned-in to it, but there remains a void we can’t seem to fill. Poetry has been an immense comfort and I would love your professional recommendation.
I myself have not experienced a marriage, and so I feel unqualified to give you advice on yours. However, I will share with you one of my favorite stories about marriage, which is that during my parents’ wedding, while staring lovingly into the eyes of my six-foot-four cisgender father, my mother accidentally said, “I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife,” instead of “husband.” The crowd giggled, and my mother blushed and corrected herself, but in later years, whenever this story is brought up, she simply shrugs and insists, “Well, everyone wants a wife.” I can’t tell from your letter whether you yourself are a wife, but your letter did make me think of Ada Limon’s poem “Wife,” which includes:
Wife, why does it
sound like a job? “I need a wife” the famous
feminist wrote, “a wife that will keep my
clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced
if need be.” A word that could be made
easily into maid. A wife that does, fixes
soothes, honors, obeys, Housewife,
fishwife, bad wife, good wife, what’s
the word for someone who stares long
into the morning, unable to even fix tea
some days, the kettle steaming over
loud like a train whistle,
I think a lot about how hard it is for people to see each other. How very often when we look at someone, even someone we love, what we are actually seeing is our memories of them, or our projections upon them, or our expectations, or what they represent, or so many other things, but not quite them. Not only that, but it is such a painful experience to know you are not being seen. A marriage is a series of promises and pacts and agreements. It is dependent on humans who are volatile and lives that are in constant flux. To me it seems like trying to build a sturdy house on constantly shifting sand. It is possible that what you once promised to be or do on a wedding day is not what you can be or do now. Maybe trying to fit an old definition is exhausting you. It is possible you need something now that you did not even know how to ask for then. Perhaps the best version of a marriage is one that is constantly updating itself, based on who you are now and who you are becoming, what you need today and might need tomorrow. Marriage seems rigid, and the roles of “husband” and “wife” seem fixed, but they don’t have to be. They can be redefined based on who you both are and what you both really need. If you, like Ada, are one “who wants to love you, but often isn’t good at even that, the one who doesn’t want to be diminished by how much she wants to be yours,” then I don’t think hope is lost. I think it is possible for love, like matter, to shift and change shape, without disappearing.
I think a lot about motherhood. I love children and I want to have a family, but there’s one thing holding me back. For so much of my life, I wished I was dead. I’ve been in a much better place with my mental health for years now, but I still remember when existence felt like I’d lost a bet, and those memories are still raw and aching. How do I bring another life into this world when I myself had so much trouble with living? How do I balance that darkness with the light that children would bring?
Dear Mixed Up,
One of the most amazing mothers I know is the poet Rachel McKibbens, who writes with immense care and artistry about the traumas of her own childhood and the depression she has battled throughout her life. She has written at length about trying to reconcile that past with her ability to protect and raise her own children. As an observer, I can tell you that she has raised some of the kindest, most loving, most creative young people I have the privilege of knowing. For me, Rachel is proof that it is possible to be a mother who provides exactly what your children need, even when it was not provided to you, or you were unable to provide it for yourself. That does not mean it is easy—just that it is possible. I have shared Rachel’s poetry before in this column (and would still enthusiastically point you in that direction), but today I would also like to share the work of another poet, Lynn Melnick, and in particular her poem “Twelve” which begins:
When I was your age I went to a banquet.
When I was your age I went to a barroom
and bought cigarettes with quarters
lifted from the laundry money. Last night
I did all your laundry. I don’t know why
I thought this love could be pure. It’s enough
that it’s infinite. I kiss your cheek when you sleep
and wonder if you feel it.
It’s the same cheek I’ve kissed from the beginning.
You don’t have to like me.
You just have to let me
keep your body yours. It’s mine.
The poem goes on to describe some of the moments when the narrator’s body wasn’t her own. When men claimed it or “traded quarters / for a claw at my carcass on a pleather bench.” The narrator’s memories of helplessness flood back as she kisses the cheek of her sleeping child. For me, the most important lines of the poem are the last few: “You think I know nothing of metamorphosis / but when I was your age I invented a key change. / You don’t have to know what I know.” In this way, the narrator draws a line between what she has experienced, and what her child will. Maybe what you have gone through is exactly what will help you protect your child, ensuring they don’t have to know the same struggles you have known. What you are able to give them is not defined by what was given to you, or what you have survived. Maybe protecting their light will be the mission that keeps you here.
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.