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.
I am a young woman living in New York. I am the daughter of an alcoholic. When I was twelve, my mom stopped drinking, and we began a long conversation about the nature of addiction. We spoke about our genes and the importance of drinking cautiously (if at all).
Two years ago, I went through my first breakup (we were together for five years), and I have since surrounded myself with new friends (many who drink heavily). I feel as though I am starting to depend on alcohol to bring me the comfort that my partner once provided. There is a large part of me that would love to be sober, but it seems there is a larger part of me that enjoys the instant gratification and social ease that alcohol brings.
I am searching for a poem that will encourage me toward sobriety and/or capture this dual nature within myself.
Afraid of My Own Addiction
I want to recommend to you a poem by Lynn Emanuel, called “Frying Trout While Drunk, ” in which the author describes her mother’s addiction to alcohol as entangled with her mother’s addiction to a man. This may not be your mother’s experience at all, but I chose this poem for you because of the last section, which reads:
mother, wrist deep in red water,
laying a trail from the sink
to a glass of gin and back.
She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
in love with a man of lechery so solid
you could build a table on it
and when you did the blues would come to visit.
I remember all of us awkwardly at dinner,
the dark slung across the porch,
and then mother’s dress falling to the floor,
buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.
When I drink I am too much like her—
the knife in one hand and the trout
with a belly white as my wrist.
I have loved you all my life
she told him and it was true
in the same way that all her life
she drank, dedicated to the act itself,
she stood at this stove
and with the care of the very drunk
handed him the plate.
I am not here to pass judgment, nor am I here to tell you what you should or should not do. You requested a poem that might encourage you toward sobriety, and I thought for a long time about what kind of poem might supply that encouragement. The author of this poem writes, “When I drink I am too much like her,” and I sense that you are afraid that your mother’s vulnerability to addiction might be yours as well—that you might be too much like her in that way. If that is the case, perhaps it is worth reminding yourself of the obstacles she had to overcome, the details of her addiction that are easy to forget when you are in the middle of a party. The narrator of Lynn’s poem cannot escape the sensory memories of her mother’s alcoholism: the sound of the dress buttons, the red water, the white belly of the trout. Wrapped around these details are unspoken but implied feelings: of pity, of protectiveness, of regret. I am sure that you hold your own memories of your mother’s battle with addiction. It may be painful or difficult to revisit them, but doing so might remind you of the less glamorous side of alcohol. There was likely a bad time before there was a choice to get sober. At the moment, alcohol still feels like something you have control over. But the choice to avoid alcohol doesn’t have to be thought of as being forced to have less fun at a party. You could also think of it as an opportunity to intentionally choose a path that leads you and the ones you love away from familiar pain. And that is a brave choice to make.
Two weeks ago, I started dating a person who I’ve become very fond of. He is intellectual, hardworking, and pragmatic, characteristics that all serve as a nice balance to my rather impulsive and emotionally driven tendencies. He respects my body and continually reminds me to never apologize for saying no. I have never felt so seen. I adore him, I do. But holy shit, I am so scared! I am scared of all of this being way too good to be true. As a black woman, I’ve always felt inadequate. It’s honestly a bit jarring to jump from the state of feeling rejected to the state of feeling admired. Poets, please guide me to some words that can fuel me with bravery as I learn to accept romance and all of its wonderful gifts.
Dear Newly Seen,
Thank you for sharing this love with us! I am so happy to hear that you have found someone who is making you feel seen and loved in the way you deserve. You mentioned that you are used to feeling inadequate, and I immediately thought of “Black Girl Magic” by Mahogany Browne, which begins,
They say you aint posed to be here, Black girl
You aint posed to wear red lipstick
You aint posed to wear high heels
You aint posed to smile in public
You aint posed to smile nowhere, Black girl
You aint supposed to be more than a girlfriend
You aint supposed to get married
You aint supposed to want no dream that big
You aint supposed to dream at all
You aint supposed to do nothing but carry babies
And carry weaves
And carry felons
And carry families
And carry confusion
And carry silence
And carry a nation—but never an opinion
Cause you aint supposed to have nothing to say,
Black girl, unless it’s a joke
You aint supposed to love yourself Black girl
You aint supposed to find nothing worth saving in all that brown
Mahogany’s poem begins with voices that are aimed directly at black girls and women to make them feel inadequate. (You can watch the author perform her poem here.) If these are the kinds of voices that have been coming toward you your whole life, of course your new love feels too good to be true, of course you feel undeserving. It is so hard to drown those horrible voices out. I am so glad that you have found a partner who seems dedicated to reminding you of your shine. You deserve a love that is as brilliant and appreciative as you are. I know that a new relationship by itself is not enough to undo a lifetime of negative messages. (Nor should the burden of that be entirely on his shoulders!) I know that a stranger writing to you through the internet to say, “You are worthy of all this love!” is also not enough. But on days when you start to feel unsure, between your man, your friendly neighborhood Poetry Rx columnist, and Mahogany’s poem, perhaps we can all remind you:
You are a Black girl worth remembering
And you are a threat knowin’ yourself
You are a threat loving yourself
You are a threat loving your kin
You are a threat loving your children
You Black Girl Magic
You Black Girl Flyy
You Black Girl Brilliance
You Black Girl Wonder
You Black Girl Shine
You Black Girl Bloom
You Black Girl, Black Girl!
My neighbor, whom my family and I are close with, was recently given only a few months to live due to an unusually aggressive cancer. My sister is painting a portrait of his cat to give to him and I don’t have any artistic talent. I have a deep love of poetry and literature and feel like I could give him some poetry to read in his last days. He is taking it very well and seems to have accepted it and is at peace with it. Do you have any recommendations for poems to give to dying friends?
Dear Compassionate Neighbor,
You may have heard that last week we lost a poetry titan, Mary Oliver. The poetry community has mourned her by sharing her poems on social media, and by writing her tributes. It has been a reassuring reminder that even when a person leaves us, so much of who they are and what they mean to us remains. Mary Oliver wrote beautifully about death, and at first I considered recommending her poem, “When Death Comes,” which contains the lines: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” as well as the famous line, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” But this poem strikes me as being more relevant to a person who still has a lot of time left on this earth. For someone whose death is much nearer, I want to share a poem with you that is not necessarily about dying. It is a short poem called “Praying” which goes:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
I love this poem so much, because it works perfectly as a description of praying, but is also excellent advice on how to write a poem. “Just pay attention, then patch a few words together,” feels so honest to my poetic practice. For your neighbor, as he looks back on his life of blue irises or vacant lots or small stones, I hope the end of this poem will resonate with him: this life is not a contest, but a doorway into thanks. If what comes next is silence, then in it, another voice may speak.
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.