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.
This year, I have seen so much death. Losing the people I love used to be my biggest fear, but now I have lost so many so quickly that I find myself with a new one. I jump into problem-solving zombie mode every time it happens. There’s so much to do and so many people to take care of. Last week, a poet I knew killed himself. I spent the night comforting every friend he had and, in the middle of comforting, I realized how used to this I had become. I know just the right thing to say or not say, just how long to hold the silence before it had to break. I am an expert at helping others deal with the grief death brings. Now, my biggest fear is that I will get too accustomed to tragedy, to suicides, to death. I am scared of getting used to losing. I am scared of losing all this pain. I don’t ever want to stop feeling. I don’t ever want to get used to it. Is there a poem for it, any words that will stop this from happening?
Too Used to Death
Dear Too Used to Death,
First let me say how sorry I am for your losses. I always find the language of condolences to be awkward and fumbling, but I think it is important for me to say that enduring the loss of many loved ones in a short period of time is a misfortune that no one deserves. I am so sorry for that pain you have been facing. I understand the fear you mentioned, of becoming so accustomed to the rituals of death that the pain itself is numbed or the colors of your life become permanently dimmed. I would like to recommend a poem by Galway Kinnell called Wait, which begins,
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. The desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
I think it is likely that this poem was originally written about trying to heal after romantic heartbreak. But much of it also rings true to what I would like to say about grief and the many losses you have recently faced. It is possible that the numbness you are experiencing is a survival mechanism your heart has employed in order to get through this exceptionally difficult time. But on the other side of all this loss, the numbness will be less useful to you. I have faith that you will be able to let it go when it no longer protects you. There will come a time when personal events and hair and pain and flowers and second-hand gloves will all become lovely and interesting again, when the colors will brighten. Galway writes:
But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it
Only wait a little and listen, friend. Be patient with yourself, and be patient with the difficult animal of Grief. When Galway writes that the “enormous emptiness carved out of such tiny beings as we are asks to be filled” he might have meant romantic heartbreak. But you have also had to carve so many loved ones out of yourself. You are carrying a very deep emptiness right now, which is also asking to be filled. While some grief never disappears entirely, while some emptiness may always remain, there is also much more coming to fill you, to take up some of that room. The skills—and I do believe they are skills—you’ve been forced to learn in this process, of mourning and comforting and healing, will serve you as you go.
I was a really good kid growing up. I rarely got in trouble, I was super respectful, and I loved making my parents happy. I always assumed I’d do the right thing, but in the last year or so I’ve made decisions that hurt a few people for whom I care deeply. My understanding of who I am has collapsed on itself. I’ve started overanalyzing everything I’m doing to make sure I do things right. I don’t want to cause any more damage. I’ve lost trust in myself and don’t know how to continue with the knowledge that I’m much more broken than I thought I was. Do you have a poem for this feeling of not recognizing (or even liking) yourself?
Girl in the Cracked Mirror
Dear Girl in the Cracked Mirror,
Not recognizing and/or not liking yourself are two particularly strong arguments for seeking some kind of professional guidance, in my opinion. I think sometimes folks think therapy is only to be sought in crises, or when something is very wrong, but I actually think it’s more like getting a check up on your car. (I learned this analogy from writer Nicole Cliffe, if memory serves.) Most of the time, your car runs just fine, but it is still necessary to get it checked out by a professional occasionally so that it continues running just fine. And certainly if it starts making funny noises or behaving in a way you “don’t recognize,” that would definitely warrant asking someone to help you look under the hood and see what’s going on. Especially since you mentioned that you have “lost trust” in yourself and feel “more broken” than usual, I just want to make sure you are getting more (qualified) help than just our little poetry column! But in the meantime, I can give you poems. Today I want to recommend a poem that is short, but packs a mighty punch. It is called The Mower by Philip Larkin. It begins:
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
I, too, was an eager-to-please kind of kid, who lived for adult approval. I also struggled with immense guilt at anything that I did wrong or even anything that went wrong in my vicinity. I can easily imagine myself as a child, discovering a hedgehog in the yard and running to feed it, the way I imagine the narrator of this poem did. And if I accidentally killed the hedgehog? My vicarious guilt and regret is already in overdrive. In your letter you wrote that you had made decisions that hurt others, which is not the same as accidentally hurting (or killing, in the case of this poem), but your phrasing shows me that you are owning your behavior and want to take responsibility for it. To me, that suggests that you are still the loving and respectful person you have always been, even if you have strayed from the path recently. It is true that damage often cannot be undone, and that earlier good behavior isn’t credit to be cashed in. (It does not matter now how well he fed the hedgehog.) But look at the last few lines of this poem:
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
It has taken me a while to realize that my childhood good behavior was largely out of obligation and ego: wanting to be good and rewarded for my goodness. Being an adult means that nobody applauds you for your good behavior. It is up to you to choose to be kind and careful, not because you have to be, not because you’re a Good Behavior Machine that has always done what’s right, but because you decide you want to. I think you have an opportunity to recognize the hurt you have caused, and use this moment to set a course in a new direction: intentional kindness and carefulness, especially towards those you love. You still have plenty of time.
Despite having an exceptional number of things and people to love in my life (poetry, friends, family, fiction, dolphins), I can’t shake this feeling of existential dread. I pivot back and forth between feeling like my cup runneth over and feeling like everything is a giant black hole and none of it matters.
Maybe this is a symptom of graduating from college, maybe it’s a permanent part of adult life, or maybe it’s because, for the first time in my life, I have to figure out how to pay my rent. Experiencing these things and feeling these feelings is all a privilege, but regardless, I could use a poem.
Dear Hopefully Dreadful,
I would like to share with you a poem by Ruth Stone, called Shapes. The poem begins:
In the longer view it doesn’t matter.
However, it’s that having lived, it matters.
So that every death breaks you apart.
You find yourself weeping at the door
of your own kitchen, overwhelmed
by loss. And you find yourself weeping
as you pass the homeless person
head in hands resigned on a cement
step, the wire basket on wheels right there.
I don’t usually write about the poets themselves in this column, but I think Ruth Stone has a relevant backstory that I want to share with you. When Ruth was forty-four, her husband Walter (who was also a poet) committed suicide, and Ruth was left to raise their three daughters in relative poverty. This tragedy pulses below the surface of many of her poems, and yet she often uses incredibly lighthearted imagery. In her New York Times obituary, they describe her “joyful urgency of seeing the world and racing to translate her impressions into poetry” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, she mentions a story that Ruth shared with her from her childhood in rural Virginia. “She would be out, working in the fields, and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming … she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, ‘run like hell’ to the house as she would be chased by this poem … she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.” I loved learning about this woman who contained both the heaviness of death and the levity of running through the fields, being chased by poems as a child. It is a dichotomy that resonates with me, and hopefully with you as well. Existential dread can be a shadow that hangs heavily behind everything we do, insisting that “it doesn’t matter.” But as Ruth so beautifully says in this poem, “having lived, it matters.” Your living could be, like Ruth, a joyful urgency to race toward poems. This doesn’t negate the shadow, but it gives you light to run towards. Later in the poem, Ruth says:
Like stopped film, or a line of Vallejo,
or a sketch of the mechanics of a wing
by Leonardo. All pauses in space,
a violent compression of meaning
in an instant within the meaningless.
Perhaps you do not have to fight the dread (perhaps you cannot!). Instead, when it starts to rear its head, allow it a little of the time it demands of you. Then make time and space for things that challenge it—things that feel meaningful, rather than meaningless, as small as they may be. Sometimes even just an instant can be enough.
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.