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.
Objectively, I’m doing well. I have a loving partner, a new well-paying job, and, on the side, my writing career is blossoming. However, I have a ceaseless disquieting anxiety that permeates most of my time alone and prevents me from reading and writing. I need a poem that will remind me to keep my head up and maybe clear some of the clouds from my brain.
That’s a tall order for a single poem. I’m writing this to you on my thirtieth birthday, on the heels of a year in which I married my favorite person, started a dream job, and became an official Doctor of Poetry—I’ve had so many sweet occasions for gratitude these past twelve months, I should have cavities in every tooth. And in spite of this, much of my year has felt governed by a kind of thick dread, a persistent doom twisting at the roots of my lungs. The usual factors are partially to blame—the long shadow of a fascistic regime, an oncoming and increasingly inevitable ecological collapse—but it’s more than that. Now that I’ve left, for the time being, the proverbial (and literal) gutter, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of living a life I’d be pained to lose. Louise Glück’s “The Red Poppy” speaks to this feeling beautifully. Glück writes from the perspective of a poppy plant who says things like, “Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me.”
The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
The poppy speaks the same language as its human siblings, the language of the “shattered.”
Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.
I love this poem because at its center is a speaker who is conversational, even chatty, at first. The poppy feels the presence of an identifiable divine, opens up to it in bloom, but even that is not enough to overcome the poppy’s native doom. To know that you’ve been the beneficiary of an incredible bounty, to intellectually understand all the reasons for which you should be grateful, but to still feel governed by dread (the dread of losing everything, the dread of not deserving it in the first place)—what does one do with that? I don’t have an answer, Unmoored, and if you find one I hope you’ll share it. In the meantime, I hope this poem might offer you a bit of company, as it has to me.
Over the past few months, a close friendship has evolved into what feels like an emotional affair. He is married. His wife is slowly dying. I’ve scoured Esther Perel podcasts and Modern Love essays for practical advice, but what I truly need is solace. Am I a monster for allowing myself to develop feelings? Or am I a masochist?
Convinced That I Am Both
I want to begin this with my standard preamble: I very much hope you’re speaking with a professional (a professional poet doesn’t count, that phrase still feels to me like an oxymoron). It is totally understandable that, in the course of trying to be useful to your friend, in the swarm of intense and complicated feelings flying everywhere, you’ve caught a few stray beams. We don’t have separate lobes in our brains for platonic love, romantic love, and grief—it all muddies together in a messy swamp of tiny glands and hormones and electrical synapses.
I offer you Jane Hirshfield’s “This Was Once a Love Poem.” It ends:
What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall.
An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks.
The longing has not diminished.
Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat,
the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.
Yes, it decides:
Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots.
When it finds itself disquieted
by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life,
it will touch them—one, then another—
with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.
Right now, it sounds to me like you may need to take a step back to allow your friend to dictate the shape of your relationship. “It is time to consider a cat, / the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.” Your friend’s wife is dying. I have no experiential referent for what that’s like, but I can’t imagine it’s a clean or straightforward process. It’s possible he fully reciprocates the love you’re starting to feel, but it’s also very likely he’s confused and searching for a kind of intimacy that may no longer be accessible to him during his wife’s illness.
Often, real, rigorous compassion runs opposite our own desire. Longing in Hirshfield’s poem “finds itself disquieted / by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life.” I wish peace for you, your friend, and his wife. I hope you find your longing distractible, the silences bearable, for as much time as necessary for all three of you to remain safe. I hope, after time, you too (you two?) will discover that what you knew in the morning, you still believe at nightfall.
I’m getting married next year to my beloved. Rather than just a celebration of romantic love between two people, I’m thinking about it as a pledge of my love for the universe: its brain-stretching vastness, our smallness within it, and everything in between that exists, is joyful, and both destroys and gives life. Grateful for any words that capture this feeling.
Congratulations to you and your beloved! I recently got married and felt a similar impulse to celebrate not just my love, but also the profound strangeness that there should be such a thing as love, that there should be such a thing as a life to build from it.
For you, I offer one of the poems read at our actual wedding—Nicole Sealey’s “Object Permanence.”
We wake as if surprised the other is still there,
each petting the sheet to be sure.
How have we managed our way
to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn
indebted to light.
Sealey begins the very first line with surprise, awe—how strange, that one should wake and find such a cherished body stretched out alongside their own! The poem moves from one sense of awe to another: how strange that our entire lives have lead us to the ephemeral now, and how strange that once all those moments accumulate into a life, we lose them along with the love we fashioned them into. It’s a perfect poem. It’s all in there. May it hold you both in its expansive awe, as it has held us.
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.