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.
The women who raised me suffered so many missed opportunities, and I am seized with guilt about it. I construct vivid images from the stories I know. I imagine my grandmother as a married seventeen-year-old woman-child, patiently waiting for the local florist to pass by our house so she could catch a whiff of the fragrant champac flowers she had no money to buy. How long did it take for her to give up on this tiny desire, I wonder? I imagine my mother doodling soft hands offering lotus obeisance to who-knows-which-god, over and over in the margins of her book. She must have been giving away her tenderness, surely? I see my aunt posing shyly for a photo, which is now torn in half. In a year, I will defend my doctoral thesis. This should be a vindication. But it doesn’t feel that way. Is there a poem for the taste of ash in my mouth right now?
What your foremothers had to survive so that you could be where you are today is a complex burden to bear. I know that feeling, the guilt you describe. It can seem impossible to feel proud or excited for what you have in front of you when you know that they were not gifted the same opportunities. It can feel hopeless: something you can never fix or undo. Perhaps instead of feeling hopeless, it is our job, and maybe even our responsibility, to dream bigger than our foremothers could have imagined, to continue stretching the universe of what is possible for the girls and women who come after us. I am grateful you wrote this letter, because it allows me to recommend a poem that I think is perfect to start a new year. It is called, “Imagine the Angels of Bread” by Martín Espada. (You can listen to the poet read his poem here!) The poem begins:
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
The poem continues to imagine a year in which the most vulnerable are returned dignity and reparations. And at the end of the poem, Espada offers us this benediction:
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
We cannot go back in time to fix what the women of our families endured. But we can remember that our lives were built on their ability to imagine a better world and their willingness to make sacrifices for it. We can carry their history and their struggles, while still carrying hope. We can make them proud. We can promise our daughters, nieces, and goddaughters a future that we are willing to work hard for. We can follow a compass that points us toward justice with every step. Let that taste of ash in your mouth give way to the promise of every humiliated mouth being filled with the angels of bread.
I am a teacher and mother who is within striking distance of fifty years old. The last decade has been difficult. I divorced at forty, then lost my parents, lost my home and financial stability, raised my children mostly on my own, and survived breast cancer. Now that my life seems to have stabilized a bit, I find that I am depressed and rudderless. After all these battles, life feels like an endless loop of uninspired events and open time. Do you have a poem that can help jolt me out of my malaise? Or accompany me in it?
Alive But Not Really Kicking
Take that thing that happened. To you.
Open it like a concealed rose. Hold it up
to the nose of someone else. Let them
tell you that you still smell sweet. So
sweet. Let that person who loves you pluck
petals out of the gully of your wound. Let
her shave them into points and sail them
back into your heart like paper airplanes. For
that fist at the center of your pulse is of what
you have always been made, despite
your fingers being tipped in thorn. Use them
now to shred the sheets. Shred the night.
You described a list of losses that would leave anyone feeling rudderless. I am so sorry that you have had to experience so much hardship. I love Tara’s poem, because it is a call to arms for your heart. It carries a much-needed reminder that you have a fist at the center of your pulse, and that there is someone who loves you, who thinks you still smell sweet. That person doesn’t need to be a romantic partner. They could be a child or a friend. When you are feeling lost, allow the ones who care about you to sail love into your heart like paper airplanes. At age fifty, you have so much more life to live. On the other side of all these crises, life is finally starting to sparkle. I don’t want you to miss it. What you have gone through does not make you damaged, it makes you wiser, braver, and stronger. Tara instructs: “Take that rose, the one your flesh wounds / around. Open it and open it and open it. / Toss bits of your scar into the air / like goddamned wedding rice. Or bird seed. / Let some of them sprout. Into so much green / green new day it makes your shins hurt / with how much you want to run. Forward.” Forward, friend. Forward.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, it is over between me and the man I’ve been dating for four months. I thought we had a good thing going, but when a conflict arose, I texted him something unkind. I was immediately apologetic, but since then, he has asked for space and continued to push me away. He won’t even meet up and talk. I yearn for him to be vulnerable with me, for us to be vulnerable with each other. I’m frustrated that he has run away, without even officially calling things off. It activates my fear that my unpleasant emotions are not worthy of love. Do you have a poem that describes this desire to connect to someone who doesn’t want to connect with you, and the feeling that you might be unworthy of a deeply intimate connection?
Sad and frustrated
Dear Sad and Frustrated,
I first started replying to your letter by writing about how I find ghosting to be a lazy act of hurtful cowardice. But then I realized I was just projecting my own hurt from being ghosted in the past onto you, and not paying enough attention to what you were looking for. So I reread your letter and found myself thinking about a poem called “Imagining Him Running at the Sight of Deer” by Yesenia Montilla. (Scroll to page seventy-four in the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, issue 5). The poem starts:
I was not there, but she tells me the story over & over
how after spotting a mob of deer he ran like someone
who is afraid to become the other becoming, the sound
an animal makes all guttural, bottomless & rooted. He
who feeds me joy & sorrow equally, with golden tongue
& eyes so bright I imagine stars once living in the hollow
sockets of his caramel face. & let’s be clear, he ran
from deer, because he knows that beautiful doesn’t always
equal tame & that gentle things are the ones that risk it all —
Which is to say, if deer could talk, they will tell you something
about wanting to kill a thing & about being killed.
& we oblige. We kill them for sport & with great
carelessness—& we do each other the same. So he ran from
deer, because maybe he understands that one day the targeted
animal will fight back. It will straighten out his long neck like
a heron & his eyes will become wild & this is what being hunted
does to a man, I mean deer, I mean any animal on this earth.
I want you to know that I empathize with you. I know the desperation of wanting someone to be vulnerable with you and feeling them pull away. As I mentioned, I know (and despise) the specific hurt of someone not willing to engage. But when he doesn’t answer, there isn’t any way to know his motivation for running. Instead, your mind runs in circles trying to guess what is wrong with you, what you should have done differently. I know, I have been there. I want to offer you this poem because it allows for another possibility: that his running away is not entirely tied to you. Maybe whatever it was you said that hurt him echoes a past hurt he knows he can’t re-engage with. You aren’t responsible for that past hurt—you could not have known that you were pressing on a bruise. Being hurt in the past can leave a person always looking for signs of danger, always looking for reasons to run. I don’t want to excuse his behavior of disengaging or ghosting, but I want to help you find some peace. It seems you are a gentle thing. You’re willing to risk it all. Maybe he thinks he recognizes something he can’t help but run from. Maybe what he’s running from isn’t you, but a shadow your silhouette reminds him of. Maybe it is you he is running from, and it is simply timing that is against you. Maybe it’s his loss that he’ll never know what would have happened if he stayed. When you can’t change someone’s mind or change their behavior, sometimes knowing there were factors at play that were there before you arrived, or that you have no control over, can be permission to let them go.
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.