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.
It’s been a long road of broken partnerships. Now, at the ripe age of sixty, I finally see the thread that ran through my disappointing and hurtful romantic choices. I had always found the wounded and the angry ones exciting. Oh my, the endless compromises. Today, I have found myself with a happy man. So simple, so drama-free, and so damn exciting. I would love a poem that addressed the journey that can lead to companionship and the love that can come when lives have been lived and time seems to be palpably limited.
Wallowing in Love
I am so heartened to hear you’ve found, at last, a partner who nourishes and celebrates you! The little phrase in your letter, “Oh my, the endless compromises” was such a rending moment—I hear so much knowledge, painfully acquired, in that little utterance.
To celebrate you, to celebrate your joy, I give you Rita Dove’s “Happenstance.”
When you appeared it was as if
magnets cleared the air.
I had never seen that smile before
or your hair, flying silver.
As soon as I read your letter, I thought of the first two lines of this poem—the sudden rush of clarity, relief, awe that comes when you finally set eyes on someone truly worthy of your cherishing. The poem takes place in an instant, in an instant of an instant, the time it takes to call out a name.
I called softly so you could choose
not to answer—then called again.
You turned in the light, your eyes
seeking your name.
But of course the poem really takes place over a lifetime, lifetime enough for hair to “fly silver,” for yearning to have been made wise by despair. What an occasion for gratitude, then, that such yearning should at last be met in the light. I am so happy for you, Wallowing. May your days of endless concessions be over.
I’m the mother of two young, beautiful boys and I’m devastated that I think my relationship with their father has to end. We bring out the worst in each other. I feel guilty, and sad that their little world is about to shift so drastically. I don’t want them to suffer because their parents have forgotten how to love each other. But I also have a sliver of hope that maybe, after I recover, I’ll be able to be the happy, playful mother I expected to be. Do you think that’s possible?
For you, I offer Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying.”
How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Gilbert offers an alternative way to look at the dissolution of a romantic relationship. You and your beloved went to Provence! You created two beautiful boys! That is triumph. And while yours may no longer be a shared romantic journey, the separate paths you find yourselves on now will be made richer for having known that achievement.
To answer your question plainly: yes, of course it’s possible you’ll now be able to recover into a happier, more joyful mother. I’d go so far as to say I expect it’s even likely. You’ve come to the difficult but, from the sounds of it, necessary decision to extricate yourself from a partnership that is no longer serving you or your boys. Over time, I expect you’ll be able to focus the resources (temporal, psychic, financial) you had been spending to keep your relationship afloat onto celebrating your own triumphs, and the triumphs of your boys.
I am a middle school English teacher. I love my job, my subject, my classroom, and, of course, my students. But this is an utterly one-sided love; my students are alternately bored or tortured by my presence. So often, I feel as if I am pouring all my emotion, creativity, and intellectual passion into a void. Yet I cannot be resentful, because of course I should have no expectation that sixty-four young adolescents would be brimming with appreciation for the work I do or for my devotion to them. And yet … and yet … some days I just wish I could read a poem that captures the heartbreak of the teacher who loves, but is not loved in return. Does this poem exist?
The English Teacher
Dear English Teacher,
Ahh, thank you for this. As a former middle school English teacher myself, I am abundantly familiar with the frustration voiced in your letter. It’s a frustration most succinctly captured, I think, in Russell Edson’s “The Academic Sigh.”
Some students were stretching a professor on a medieval torture rack. He had offered himself to show them how an academic might be stretched beyond his wildest dreams like a piece of chewing gum.
Of course, it’s a professor in the poem, but Edson’s poem works doubly well for K–12 teachers. I remember so clearly that interminable, thankless stretching. I remember too the condescension from my friends in other disciplines—how I graded into the night and their tone when they said, “Oh, it’s so good that you do that,” the way they’d commend someone for picking up a piece of litter on the side of a road.
Suddenly something snaps.
What happened? sighs the professor from the rack.
We were just stretching an academic when suddenly something snapped; you may have heard it …
Ultimately, I always came back to one simple idea: it was my job to love my students, but it was not their job to love me. It’s an easy understanding to articulate and infinitely difficult understanding to fully embrace. It’s a kind of horizonal Zen koan you march toward forever and, as though it were the horizon, never actually meet.
Of course, sometimes, as you know, they surprise you—a shockingly exemplary work from your most vocal antagonist, or an earnest and heartfelt letter from the student who never spoke in class. That’s the gas in the tank. Your first priority should be caring for yourself so that you can continue to find those moments that make all the stretching worthwhile, to build a sustainable pedagogy that’ll keep you from “snapping” like Edson’s teacher.
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 College.