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, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I find myself distracted these days—mostly by the violence of the news, which streams in circles. I want to engage thoughtfully, but it’s difficult when everything is “breaking” and urgent. Do you have a poem for this age of terrible information? I want to do what I can in solidarity with those who are putting everything on the line, but I get overwhelmed by the width and scale of injustice. I’d appreciate any help you can offer for narrowing in and focusing my efforts without tuning reality out. At the moment my world is spinning, and I just feel helpless.
Can’t Do It All
Dear Can’t Do It All,
This morning, I stood in the desert. I felt so small compared with its vastness. Then I imagined myself not in opposition to the desert, but joining with it. Suddenly, I felt different, possible. When I think about the scale of injustice against the scale of my one life, I feel overwhelmed. News cycles rely on the pretense of newness, but these are old stories. The urgency is real, but the roots are deep. We can’t hack at what grows new and expect the roots to shift. Learn your histories. Join with those doing the work of making a better world. There is a quote I have been holding recently, from Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, neither are you free to desist from it.” For you, Louise Glück’s “Vespers,” a poem that draws me back to the sacred work of tending even the smallest things:
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
The speaker seems at first to be addressing, perhaps, a neighbor who has left town. Then the poem turns. The address expands:
belongs to you:
…You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
It is not a neighbor but the world’s creator who has taken leave. What immense uncertainty the speaker’s vision passes through. In the poem’s final lines, the speaker’s gaze contracts, renewing an obligation not to every leaf on earth, but to the tomato plants:
even in early August, even in darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
You already see that the work is large. Now choose your plot and commit to its care.
I teach creative writing to students in juvenile detention. I love using your column as a way to talk about emotions with kids who often aren’t given many opportunities to express themselves. Yesterday, one student wrote a piece for me to submit to you.
Have you ever felt trapped to the point where you can’t go anywhere or leave or text your friends, can’t go outside whenever you want? Because I feel trapped like I’m chained down in a maze, about to set my soul ablaze. I want to be free and spread my wings and fly high like a kite, but I can’t because I’m stuck in a jail cell, staring into the white walls, slowly going insane. I get headaches, brain waves that die and come back from the grave. I hate this place. Got any advice?
Do you have any poems to help this student?
All the best,
Dear Trapped’s Teacher,
Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for sharing Poetry Rx with your student, and for sharing your student’s letter with us.
I’m sorry you’re in a place you haven’t chosen, and that you can’t leave freely. There is a rich tradition of poetry written in confinement. I wonder if this is in part because poems can craft largess from small spaces, as they radically reimagine the boundaries of the work. The work of Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ethridge Knight, Mahvash Sabet, among many others, comes to mind. I hear poetry in your letter, too—your rhyme and simile (“like a kite”) forge beauty, your language maps the freedom that incarceration denies. I want to share with you a poem that teaches me how poetry can transform the experience that has been handed to us. Mahmoud Darwish’s “The Prison Cell” (translated by Ben Bennani) begins with wild affirmation:
It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…
When the guard comes to interrogate the imprisoned poet, the poet affirms the ability of poetry to create a new order:
What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
And what did you do with the ceiling?
I turned it into a saddle.
And your chain?
I turned it into a pencil.
The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to the dialogue.
He said he didn’t care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.
In the evening, the guard returns:
Where did this moon come from?
From the nights of Baghdad.
And the wine?
From the vineyards of Algiers.
And this freedom?
From the chain you tied me with last night.
The prison guard grew so sad…
He begged me to give him back
As the poem ends, it is the poet—with their imagination that can reconfigure the world—who possesses freedom. The guard, who knows only the language of locks and anger, is the one who is confined.
I’ve been in a state of unraveling for the past few months. For a while, I felt ready to barge into my priorities headfirst, but now I feel a little more wary. Several traumatic memories have bubbled back up to the surface. I feel like I’m living as a contradiction. I exist in the shadow of past abuse while still living with my abuser. I thought that he had changed, as our relationship has improved by leaps and bounds, but I feel simply confused in light of these recovered memories.
What constitutes growth? What does it feel like to truly recover—from pain, inflicting pain, or otherwise?
Dear Discovered Darkness,
I’m sorry that you’ve experienced abuse and that the abuse you’ve experienced in the past is resurfacing to unsettle your present. I can’t tell you what recovery feels like because too often the idea of recovery imposes a narrative on an experience that is fundamentally nonnarrative. Growth feels like many things. I can tell you what you already know: healing is not linear. The conditions of your relationship may have changed, but memory lives in your body on its own terms. You deserve whatever time and space your healing requires. As we’ve said here before, a poem is not a therapist, and I hope you are building robust support systems. In the spirit of offering something to go along with that support, whatever form it might take, I want to share with you Joanna Klink’s “Four Skies,” which offers both companionship in devastation and language for imagining healing. The poem’s four sections recall for me four seasons, reminding me that growth happens in cycles.
The first section opens into harm’s infinity:
Each wrong done to you
a gate that opens forever into storm.
In the second section, the subject dissolves. The trauma overwhelms.
You could stand here for hours and then turn to
storm—sheer refusal and will. You could collapse
into fear and draw back into foam. These sheets of rain
are fences and crops, deeds, statues, ponds.
They are things you can’t change. Things you can’t say
The third section is distilled into clarity. “If you have grieved you have loved,” Klink writes. These lines teach me to approach my grief with tenderness, to ask: Where is the love drawn by the outline of my loss? How might I move back toward that?
And, finally, a vision toward healing—not a destination, but something to hold as you move through the harder times:
You are unscathed. The delicate grasslands
have thinned to pure sound traveling across miles
of white dust…
You have become everything you needed
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.