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.
I’ve been betrayed by my best friend, my mentor, and my first (and only) lover.
He was a narcissist, a cheater, and a liar—but I didn’t recognize it quickly enough. I left him and am doing all I can to heal, but my half-closed wounds rip open at the slightest irritations. I crumble when a mention of him is floated between mutual friends, or when I discover another of his countless mistresses populating my “Suggested Friends” list on Facebook. He’s a successful man, and for him, life has gone on. I, on the other hand, feel ashamed and insignificant. Worse than the pain is my anger: I keep rewriting our breakup script, inserting scenes where I finally get to make him feel my pain.
Do you have a poem to help me surrender my rage?
Eaten By Grief
Dear Eaten by Grief,
I’m sorry that you’ve experienced this betrayal, and I’m glad you’re taking on the work of healing.
For you, Camonghne Felix’s “Yes, It is Possible”:
For most of my life I remained unaware of this
the way a wingless arm is unaware of the conceit
of flight, but now I know that, yes, it is possible
to be allergic to a person, it is possible for
the body to be wholly autonomous in how
it chooses to preserve itself …
At first, the comparison is jarring. How could the glorious possibilities of flight be akin to revulsion felt for another person? Felix’s poem reminds me that what seems, at first, like a disjointed metaphor can be joined in the living of it. It takes the whole poem for the speaker to find the joy of flight. The poem ends:
… I couldn’t stomach
a morsel, my receptors stunted
with the shock on an imminent shift
I wept and cocooned myself into
a sweat until, at once, it stopped—
and I woke to myself at the kitchen table
fingering cubes of fresh wet aloe into my mouth
as if life itself were some benign victory I’d won.
Let me be clear: I do not believe poetry requires suffering. I do not believe that pain is the greatest teacher. I do believe that where you are—wherever that is—holds lessons for how you might grow and that, sometimes, you have to be still to hear that lesson. You name this person as your “first and only lover,” which is to say these ways of knowing are new to you. “no matter what // you think you want, it’s the body that decides,” Felix reminds us. Let it. You are angry. Let anger be your cocoon. When it has done its necessary and transformative work, you will leave it behind. You will find other loves, and you will find them using a newly honed understanding of the kindness that good love requires.
Just over two months ago, I unexpectedly met someone. We became close quickly and soon started dating. I had gotten lost in manipulative and unhealthy dating experiences in the past, and so having someone who genuinely encouraged me to be myself and to pursue my own passions and goals was refreshing and sweet. I greatly admired his passion and willingness to work hard for the things he wants to do. I loved that we could still be our own individual brilliant selves and walk down our individual paths together—or so I thought. Recently he decided that he wants to prioritize his own pursuits and has no interest in investing time and effort into a relationship. Though he tells me it’s not me, my brain still won’t stop trying to figure out what I did wrong. I don’t know how to even be mad because his ambition is one of the things I love about him. And though now I have more time to focus on myself as well, I wish we had more time together. Why are there not more hours in the day or energy in our bodies? Was it really love if it felt like work? I am very thankful for what was, but I am mourning for what could have been. I am disappointed that it was over so fast and sometimes the hurt makes me wonder it would’ve been better if we never met. Do you have a poem for this kind of grief?
Wishing We Had More Time
Dear Wishing We Had More Time,
When I read your letter, I thought immediately of a poem that takes its title from a Tarot card: Diane Wakoski’s “3 of Swords”:
Oh how can I tell you, she loves you,
but wants to be alone,
wants to be in your wrist,
but not in your house. See,
she is outside the window now.
You look at her.
It does not mean you should try
to bring her inside.
I understand that particular kind of spinning heartbreak—“It’s not you. It’s me.” Because the truth is, in the context of a relationship, those boundaries become murky. In the wake of hearing that line, I’ve asked myself over and over again, “But what is it about me that doesn’t fit the life you envision?” And here’s another truth: sometimes trying to imagine what might have been is necessary self-reflection that will position you to love better in the future. And sometimes, instead, it is a way to wrap yourself so tightly around the past that it prevents you from moving into the wideness of what might be. In “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver writes:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
Against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Oliver’s poem speaks most directly to death, but I think it also addresses heartbreak. What you have now is an opportunity to do that work, to move through the letting go.
In his beautiful essay about (among other things) Tarot, Alexander Chee writes: “I wanted one of those mirrors, the ones positioned so you can see around a corner, but for my whole life. That’s what I believed the Tarot could be.” After turning over his own desires, Chee crafts not an answer, but a question: “What can you trust of what you can’t see?” Pitch your life into the not-knowing. So much possibility resides there.
I am a young woman who has been facing chronic pain since my early teens. Sometimes, looking at the countless years ahead with this invisible disability feels crushing. I still do my best to live a full and vibrant life, but sometimes it is inevitably marred by the pain. Is there a poem that talks about looking down a long road where you will have to balance what sometimes feels like a double life, which few others can understand?
Dear Painfully Aware,
Before Meghan O’Rourke was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease but after she began to feel disconcerting change in her body, she found herself suspended between what she knew to be true and the world’s denial of that truth. O’Rourke recalls: “Doctors were telling me they couldn’t find anything wrong, so I was thrust back upon this question … Are my perceptions real? What does ‘real’ mean?” For O’Rourke, a poet, language posed both problems and possibilities. In her poem, “A Note on Process,” O’Rourke writes:
There is no way to demarcate suffering. What one ‘feels’ when
‘suffering’ is not like a date in history but like a day that cannot
So much popular language around illness coerces a narrative. I hope you feel better. Get well soon. How do you tell a story without a beginning, middle, and end? What your body knows is that the fictions so many of us try to sustain—that life might, at some point, be pain-free—really do not hold. O’Rourke’s poem is comprised of sixty-one prosaic fragments. She remembers: “I couldn’t make sense of what those pieces were about, so I pushed them into this more essayistic form, where you’re pressed to make sense of things.” The form opens the connections between the poem’s subjects: illness, gymnastics, adolescence, longing for a child, aging.
O’Rourke affirms the loneliness produced by what, as you say, “few others can understand.”
A year earlier, something had gone awry in the minute biological
particulars of my body. No one understood what it was. Trapped
in a body that wasn’t working right, I couldn’t work, couldn’t
think. Time got sticky and meaningless. The fatigue so profound
it swallowed me.
Everyone’s tired, a friend said, from across the chasm, one day when I
managed to get out of the house.
Illness is also a kind of expertise. You know what your body knows. When your body’s knowing pushes against what the world tells you, what else might you have to teach the world?
There is nothing sustaining about sickness
and because there is no end, there can be no ‘goal’
and because there is no goal there is
: so what is there?
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.