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.
I am the daughter of two wonderful, loving Chinese parents, and I have a supportive boyfriend and caring friends. But still, I somehow find myself dealing with daily feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. I am a humanities major with an uncertain future and less-than-average academics, and I am faced with continual feelings of shame and embarrassment about the lack of effort I put into my studies. My parents are intellectual giants who came from nothing and worked their way up into high-earning jobs so that they could give me the best possible education and life, and I feel as if I have squandered the opportunities they have worked so hard for me to have. To make things worse, they are extremely supportive of my choices, and are constantly caring and understanding. How do I deal with my fears that I will never be able to honor my parents by becoming more successful than them?
“To make things worse, they are extremely supportive of my choices” is such a strange and quintessentially immigrant utterance—I am smiling with affectionate recognition. What to do with the guilt we feel that our lives are often so much easier than the lives of our parents? How can any of our fears, anxieties, lonelinesses be worth mentioning when theirs have been so great? For you (and often, for myself), I prescribe Hai-Dang Phan’s “My Father’s ‘Norton Introduction to Literature,’ Third Edition (1981).”
Certain words give him trouble: cannibals, puzzles, sob,bosom, martyr, deteriorate, shake, astonishes, vexed, ode …These he looks up and studiously annotates in Vietnamese.Ravish means cướp đoạt; shits is like when you have to đi ỉa;mourners are those whom we say are full of buồn rầu.For “even the like precurse of feared events” think báo trước.Its thin translucent pages are webbed with his marginalia,graphite ghosts of a living hand, and the notes often soundjust like him: “All depend on how look at thing,” he pencilsafter “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity —”His slanted handwriting is generally small, but firm and clear.His pencil is a No. 2, his preferred Hi-Liter, arctic blue.
I love the father of this poem—he seems a cousin to the father in Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” each bringing “love’s austere and lonely offices” into brilliant, rending clarity. The father in Phan’s poem writes in small, firm pencil marks, has survived “reeducation camp” and his own daughter’s death. Coming to an American university to improve his family’s lives, he takes “Intro Lit (‘for fun’), Comp Sci (‘for job’).” This is monumental—the poem tells us that its speaker, the father’s son, has become a poet and poetry teacher. What was a semester’s reprieve from hard science for the father becomes a life for his son! Isn’t this the dream of every immigrant parent? For your children to be free and secure enough to spend their hours pursuing what nourishes them?
Even though my parents might still not-so-secretly be holding out hope I’ll become a doctor or scientist (this column is the closest I’ll ever come), I know ultimately they care most about me being safe and satisfied in my living. It sounds like your parents love and celebrate YOU, the you of you, not your CV or your transcript. I suspect that the most loving gift you could give them would be to work yourself away from the feelings of inadequacy and shame you describe—to fully and joyfully inhabit your station, with all its myriad demands and vicissitudes. When your parents see you living happily, unburdened, it will give them a joy deeper and more lasting than any academic or professional achievement.
There is a boy (isn’t there always). I met him a few months ago and was instantly drawn to him, but we only had two nights in the same place before he went to work abroad in a very small town. Since then, we’ve been doing something nuts – we’ve been answering the 36 Questions to Fall in Love via letters sent back and forth. I’m grappling with the fact that I’m falling in love with someone I barely know in person, and not sure how to tell what love really is, in this situation. Do you have any poems that speak to the power of words? Or even just uncertain love in general?
Wooed by the Words
What a happy and terrifying and miraculous and strange situation to find yourself in! In lieu of the typical bouquet of platitudes about leaning into new love and lending the chips fall where they may, I give you “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.” by Donika Kelly.
I write my name in the sand:Donika Kelly. I watch eighteen seagullsskim the sandbar and lift low in the sky.I pick up a pebble that looks like a green egg.To the ditch lily I say I am in love.To the Jeep parked haphazardly on the narrowstreet I am in love. To the roses, whitepetals rimmed brown, to the yellow linedpavement, to the house trimmed in gold I amin love.
It’s a poem about love, about the way love affords us astonishing precision in some arenas—Kelly’s speaker doesn’t just watch “seagulls / skim the sandbar,” she watches “eighteen seagulls / skim the sandbar”—and totally overwhelms precision in others. She shouts with a “rough calculus” instead of the precise arithmetic of those counted water birds, and her loving washes over everything with equal abandon: the ditch lily, the Jeep, the house trimmed in gold.
It sounds like perhaps you’re in a similar place, falling fully without being burdened by the weight of practical thinking. Most people only get to access that state a handful of times in a life—my suggestion would be to enjoy it as completely as you’re able, to move through your new joy counting birds and deliriously shouting at roses.
I have discovered recently that I am emotionally illiterate. My moods have become volatile, swinging from mania to depression to anger, for reasons I cannot explain. It has hurt the people around me, and happened so fast that I was unable to recognize it. Part of this is a mental illness that I am doing my best to mitigate, but I refuse to blame this solely on an imbalance, and am finding it difficult to unpack and parse my own emotions. It feels like looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger, or even a villain. Is there a poem for not recognizing myself? For acknowledging that I have come up lacking, and for wanting to change?
I want to couch this whole answer with the hope that you’re speaking to a professional as well, not just a random internet poet. No poem is going to make the amends it sounds like you might need to make, nor will it do the difficult and time-consuming work of rigorously uprooting your painful (to you and to the people around you) patterns of behavior. That is the journey that lies ahead today, and I commend you for taking these first steps. You speak of “blame” and “villains,” but each is an instance of language used to flatten nuance rather than carefully interrogate it. I offer Suji Kwock Kim’s “Monologue for an Onion.” It begins:
I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,
The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.
Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.
I choose this poem for two reasons. One, the incredulity of its opening line, “I don’t mean to make you cry,” exemplifies perfectly the sort of non-apology that is characteristic of the chronically quick-to-anger. Two, it demonstrates how the process of peeling away layers of oneself often reveals more layers—“Beneath each skin of mine / Lies another skin”—or something even more baffling: “a maze of chambers, blood, and love.” It’s a magisterial, relentless poem, and you may need its sort of searching attention for your own excavations. I don’t know what you will discover beating at your core or how long it will take to get there, but I wish you the courage and stamina to face it full on.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book is Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.