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 recently had an uncomfortable interaction with a member of my fiancé’s family. This person met my dad, and then later commented to me that they were surprised by “the way he looked.” What they meant was, even though they knew of my pacific-islander ancestry, they were surprised my father was brown. I have been stuck on this interaction, and on other moments in my life when someone has made thinly veiled racist comments to me assuming that my light skin color means I am willing to listen to their derogatory, bigoted bullshit. Is there a poem to help with the frustration and guilt of moving through a world that affords me more safety and privilege simply because I was born with lighter skin than my dad and the other people whom I love dearly?
Passing Through Life
I am sorry that you had to experience that moment of disappointment with a member of your future family. I am sorry that this isn’t the first time—and likely won’t be the last time—you’re faced with other people’s racism. I empathize with your desire to differentiate yourself from that way of thinking. As nonblack people of color with light skin and/or “passing privilege,” it is our responsibility to take advantage of moments when we can be the ones educating, building empathy, and confronting antiblackness and racism, so that those burdens are not always (/only) placed on the black and brown people we love. I want to share with you a poem by Danez Smith, called “What Was Said on the Bus Stop.” The entire poem is beautiful, but I want to point you to the middle of the poem, where Danez writes:
solidarity is a word, a lot of people say it
i’m not sure what it means in the flesh
i know i love & have cried for my friends
their browns a different brown than mine
that i have danced their dances when taught
& tasted how their mothers use rice
different than mine. i know sometimes
i can’t see beyond my own pain, pass
but black & white, that bullets
love any flesh. i don’t know how to write this poem
i want to say something about all of us
without speaking for all of us, i want to
say i know it’s foolish to compare.
(what advice do the drowned have for the burned?
what gossip is there between the hung & the buried?)
& i want to reach across that great distance
that is sometimes an ocean & sometimes just a few inches
& say, look. your people, my people, all that has happened
to us & still make love under rusted moons, still pull
children from the mothers & name them,
still we teach them to dance, & your pain is not mine
& is no less, & i pray to my god that your god
blesses you with mercy, & i have tasted your food & understand
how it is a good home, & i don’t know your language
but i understand your songs, & i cried when they came
for your uncles, & i wanted revenge when you buried your niece
& i want the world to burn in child’s memory
& i have stood by you in the soft shawl of morning
& still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, somehow, we breathe.
This isn’t a poem to assuage your guilt about passing. But it is a reminder that solidarity in the flesh means honoring those you love by making room for their food, their dances, their people, their grief, and their rage alongside your own. Though it is different, though it is foolish to compare, though it is impossible to speak for them, or for anyone, it is not foolish to love fiercely. It is not foolish to stand up for and stand by a different brown than your own. It is necessary. And it is the only way any of us will survive.
I’ve recently moved to the other side of the world from my closest friends and, despite the various different technologies keeping us together, I am feeling helpless to provide the emotional support they often need. I feel I am watching, useless, as they experience hardship and struggle. During times when words feel empty, what I really want to do is provide my presence and a hug. I need a poem for these times when words won’t do.
An Aching Friend
Dear Aching Friend,
I want to recommend to you a poem by Rachel Eliza Griffiths called “Chosen Family.” I love this poem in its entirety, but especially want to share this section with you:
When you find your people
they won’t ask you where you came from because they’ll already know
& if they don’t they’ll be busy putting good food on your plate & asking you
if you’re hungry or broke. When you find your people they’ll tell you
to use any bathroom you want, marry anybody you want, work side-by-side
together for long hours in close quarters without any fear of being harmed.
When you find your people they’ll throw the ball to you, offer you
their love song & say you need to listen to this track & dance with us
whether or not you know all the steps. When you find your people
they’ll say Do You Remember & you’ll say Yes until you remember together
the different ways the whole thing happened. When you find your people
they’ll say wear whatever you want, wear the tightest dress, wear the hot pants,
wear your birthday suit. They’ll say we love your skin & drag & natural hair
& we love you naturally so please just live & don’t let anybody kill you
or tell you they’ve killed you & you’re just fine the dead way you are. When you
find your people don’t leave them & don’t let them off the hook when they are
in the wrong. When they are trying to take themselves out of the world
lay your hands on them & call them yours & yours & yours.
This poem is a reaffirmation of what you already know: that if you are lucky enough to find your people, it is vital to hold onto them. The poem doesn’t offer an easy solution for how to do this when you are far away, but here is what I will offer: the number one thing I’ve learned from years of being on the road, is that thinking about the people you love is not the same thing as showing them you love them. And there is no better way to show someone you love them, there is no bigger gift, than your time. Spending time with the people you love is the best thing you can give them and yourself. That means traveling to them, when you can. That means sometimes calling them to talk, sometimes calling just to listen, and sometimes calling just to sing into their voicemail, “I am thinking of you and they are playing our song in this café.” It means making them care packages that are personally designed with their preferences in mind. It means sending them videos you think they might love, or poems you think they might need. So that they can feel the way you lay your hands on them, even across great distances, and know that they are yours and yours and yours.
I need more feeling in my life. I live in a nice, midsize city, work for a nonprofit that makes me feel fulfilled and busy, have casual friends and acquaintances and a supportive family. I am comfortable in my home, always have enough to eat, can afford to buy books and take weekend trips, and have hobbies I partake in. I am blessed, I realize this, but I am also empty. I don’t have time to travel to strange exciting places, and I have not yet met someone whom I can love deeply and richly. Please send me poetry that makes me feel excitement about the world around me, or poetry that, in economic ways (I really hate self-indulgent, long-winded poems) expresses deep, deep feeling.
Content, in need of content
I want to share with you a poem by Elizabeth Acevedo called, “You Mean You Don’t Weep at the Nail Salon?” which begins:
it’s the being alone, i think, the emails but not voices. dominicans be funny, the
way we love to touch—every greeting a cheek kiss, a shoulder clap, a loud.
it gots to be my period, the bloating, the insurance commercial where the
husband comes home after being deployed, the last of the gouda gone, the
rejection letter, the acceptance letter, the empty inbox.
a dream, these days. to work at home is a privilege, i remind myself.
In your letter you describe a unique kind of absence that I feel very familiar with: everything is fine, but something is not right. There is a loneliness or emptiness sitting somewhere beneath the good work and good books and casual friends. Elizabeth carries a similar disquiet, it seems, and I love this poem for the way she searches for the cause, but ultimately doesn’t put her finger on it. Instead, she shows us a moment of shared tenderness between strangers at the nail salon, when that loneliness rises to the surface. I don’t have a solution for how to fill the emptiness you’re feeling. But I do think that recognizing it and permitting it to bubble to the surface when it needs to, is certainly a better way of navigating it than trying to bury it. It helps me to know that regardless of the many possible causes, there are others (whom I love and respect) who carry a similar loneliness at times. Reading the final lines of Elizabeth’s poem make me feel like it is me whose hand she has reached across time and space for, in kinship, in emptiness, in hunger.
when the manicurist holds my hand, making my nails a lilliputian abstract,
i close my fingers around hers, disrupting the polish, too tight i know then, too tight to hold a stranger, but she squeezes back & doesn’t let go & so finally i can.
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.