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.
This year has been full of so many new experiences, in the best possible ways. It’s disorienting. How did I get to this place? How is everything so strange? Am I allowed to feel happy, to accept good things for myself? Even if it’s all so fleeting? I’m unfamiliar with the geography of joy. How might I learn to navigate this space?
Bewildered in the Best Way
The geography of joy! What a wonderful place to find yourself. When my life slowly started to improve after getting sober, I was mystified. I had familiar psychological algorithms for pain and desperation and loneliness and despair, but I didn’t know what to do with gratitude or contentment. Some of the labor of recovery, for me, has been working to allow new, good things into my life, even when my brain wants me to reject them in favor of the joyless desolation it knows so well.
For you, I offer Naomi Shihab Nye’s “So Much Happiness.” The bewilderment you speak of is the same bewilderment I have known, and it is the bewilderment Nye points to when she writes:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
Yet, as she says:
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
I hope that you discover a path into and through your new joy, one that will allow you to feel it fully, to be immersed in it, to “hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.”
It seems like every day, there’s more bad news, from climate change to humanitarian crises to the rise of right-wing nationalist politics. I struggle with the onslaught of the daily news and the accompanying feelings of hopelessness and despair. There is magnificent beauty, too, but the mix of beauty and pain is sometimes unbearable. I am seeking a poem to help me in grappling with the question of how to live in this beautiful and terrible world. How to live and thrive and make the most of the time I am given…
Dear Feeling Raw,
I am constantly caught between the idea that poetry is totally impotent against the encroaching specters of fascism and ecological collapse, and the idea that poetry is the only reasonable place to live as our actual world becomes more and more inhospitable. Why not settle into a place where death is just an affable companion on a long drive, where political and social cruelties are charming Martian curiosities instead of omnipresent daily terrors? It’s tempting to hide in poem-worlds, to confuse work on the page for work in our lives and in our communities. In this spirit, I offer you “Corona” by Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger:
We stand by the window embracing, and people
look up from the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.
The moments of magnificent beauty that you speak of are what propel us forward. They are what we fight for when we fight (and we must fight, here in this crumbling world, however appealing the safer environs of our poems may seem), and they are what we weep for when we lose.
Today, it’s the touchable delights—the first bite of fresh pecan pie, rubbing lotion on my beloved’s arms, our cats’ soft foreheads—that make me most inconsolable. “It is time they knew!” shouts Celan. How could anyone neglect the earth when it showers us with the sweetest pecans? How could anyone shape their hands to hold a gun when there are cat foreheads all around waiting to be scratched? “It is time the stone made an effort to flower.” I can’t improve upon that. It is time all stones made an effort to flower.
Recently, I’ve begun something that resembles a relationship with someone truly lovely. We spend a lot of time together, we go on walks through the city, we get small gifts for one another—it’s gentle and new and sweet. The wrinkle is, he’s moving across the country in December. So it has no real potential to be a real relationship, and I have no one to blame for this because I knew it when it all began. I’d love to have a poem that perhaps speaks to grieving a relationship that was doomed to be ephemeral from the start?
A great poet, Max Ritvo, once told me, “So much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay.” It’s the long-awaited concert ruined after you spend four songs trying to take the perfect selfie, or the order of onion rings so sublime you order more, only to have the second batch come out soggy and bland. Max was guiding me to see joy’s ephemerality as a feature, not a flaw. The fleetingness of real delight is what makes it so delectable.
Here is one of my favorite of Max’s pieces, called “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night.”
Max, who died in 2016 at the age of twenty-six, was a young man grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis when he wrote these inimitable lines. The poem begins:
Just do things that are meaningful to you.
Go to the beach, says the doctor.
On the other side, you’re the body again,
and the shadow is again shadow.
You can enjoy anything—
you don’t remember
how clumsy the old hands were
how picky the tongue.
When you smile, every tooth is a perfect circle,
when you write, every letter is a perfect circle,
when you weep, sorrow comes clean out.
Hello again, you say. Hello again.
Your will is not being taken from you. Your joy in your new love is still expanding, if you let it. Whatever happens “on the other side” of your new romance will happen regardless of your anxieties, your histories, your futures. You might as well settle into joy while it’s around.
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.