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.
My girlfriend broke up with me five months ago. She once said to me, “I’ll love you forever.” Even though I knew forever wasn’t likely, her absence still leaves me lonely. I’m looking for a poem that will wrap me in its arms.
Bed is Too Big for Just Me
Dear Bed Too Big,
Mourning has an object. Memory transforms the past—what happened—into a place you can return to. To have been in a relationship with someone is not only to have shared a past; often, it is also to have imagined a joint future. When your girlfriend said, “I’ll love you forever,” she mapped such wide possibility. How can you think about grieving not only what you had, but also the infinite space of what might have been?
To meet this question, a poem I hold close: Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems [(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered).”
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine—tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by the sun…
On one side of the opening line: the proclamation of the relationship’s uncertainty. On the other: the margin’s blank space. Against all that doubt—which, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is also all that faith—is the lover’s body. That profound presence moves the speaker out to nature’s beauty, to the pleasures of alliteration. The lovers’ intimacy charts that wide world, and the poem ends with a powerful affirmation:
whatever happens, this is.
Whatever becomes of the relationship, the speaker has experienced vastness. “There is no life / that couldn’t be immortal / if only for one moment,” Wisława Szymborska wrote. I think love is that statement’s engine. How impossibly possible love makes things feel. From that angle, when your girlfriend said, “I’ll love you forever,” she wasn’t predicting what was to come, which none of us can know, so much as naming a truth: “Perched in this moment with you, I can see out into an infinite future.” What a gift, that you built so much possibility. That expanse was and that expanse continues to be, even if the relationship is no longer. Carry that sense of wild possibility out into the blank space. Beyond what you thought you knew, who knows what you might find waiting.
2018 hasn’t been great. Within the first three weeks, my mom got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and I had to fly away from home back to school for one last semester of college. I successfully finished my thesis, but I never felt like I had time to appreciate my accomplishments of the past four years. Within another three weeks, I got my diploma, my parents renewed their vows for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and then my mom died.
I’m not sure if I want a poem about grief, but I have been grieving. A lot.
Just when I thought I might have been doing better, in another three weeks, my dog died, I had to fly away again (this time to try and start a career), and my college roommate tried to kill herself.
I know that between those spurts were plenty of good weeks, or at least better ones. But I don’t know if they’re enough. I’d like something to let me know that they are.
Searching for Sustenance
Dear Searching for Sustenance,
I’m sorry last year brought you so much heartbreak, and I hope that 2019 brings you joy. But living doesn’t tend to respect the calendar’s boundaries. You wrote asking for a poem to assure you that your good weeks are “enough.” To assure you they’re “enough” would be to weigh the good against the bad. But poems don’t traffic in those kinds of transactions. Poems, though, can map connection where connection is otherwise obscured. Grief is love that registers the transformation loss brings about. You’re grieving so much because you’ve loved so much—your mother, your dog, the place you had to fly away from. Instead of seeking to prove that the joy in your life is sufficient balance against the pain, I’m going to turn your question slightly. Here is a poem that reminds me of the transformational possibilities of tending to moments of joy amidst pain.
For you, “us,” a poem by Tory Dent, a poet whose work described—among many other things—her struggle with HIV/AIDS. The poem begins:
in your arms
it was incredibly often
enough to be
in your arms
careful as we had to be at times
about the I.V. catheter
in my hand
Though the speaker is ill in the hospital, the poem’s first site is not the hospital. Instead, the speaker dwells on the embrace of a loved one, staving off the vocabulary of illness until the sixth line. The lover’s arms can’t take illness away, but they can offer respite—respite that Dent builds into by lingering on it in language.
in your arms
often enough, it was
in that stillness, the only stillness
amidst the fears which wildly collided
and the complexities
of the illness, all the work
we had yet to do, had just done,
the hope, ridiculous amounts of it
we had to pump
from nothing, really
The world offers Dent so little from which to forge hope, so she hones her attention. Dent’s poem reminds us that to pay attention to what brings you joy is to enlarge it. You’ve experienced a season of grief. But, as James Baldwin reminds: “For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” Keep growing the love in your life by attending to it. The seasons will change. They always do.
My mom died a year and a half ago and I still miss her every day. Since her death I feel like my safety net has disappeared and I’m aimless and without direction. Can you suggest something to help me start moving forward?
Craving a Compass
Dear Craving a Compass,
I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s death. When I read your letter, I thought immediately of the opening of Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, The Salt Eaters. The healer Minnie Ransom asks Velma Henry, who has approached her: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter.” Your letter beautifully suggests that you are ready to do that healing work. First, I want to mark that. It is no small thing. And, for that work, I want to offer you two poems by Marie Howe. In her poem “What the Living Do,” Howe addresses her brother Johnny, who died of AIDS-related complications. She writes of quotidian pleasures and frustrations. The poem’s final line is, “I am living. I remember you.” You remember your mother. You are already doing work. Now, you ask, how to do that work in a way that moves your life toward new possibility? For that question, another poem of Howe’s, “The Gate”:
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made.
As in “What the Living Do,” it is not spectacular legacy, but the miracle of ordinary life that connects Howe with her late brother.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
It can be difficult to release grief. Mourning is one way to keep touching what we’ve lost. Howe’s poem reorients loss from clinging to the past towards the futures this transformation opens. What are the forms of living your mother’s life made possible for you? What shape is her absence, what is the space that you can now step into?
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.