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 in love, and yesterday I helped the man I love pack all of his belongings and board a bus bound for a city far, far from me. That was his plan before we met six months ago. I am so, so happy for him and the fresh start he has made for himself. But I am also grieving the loss of him and of us, because even though I will visit in a few months, after that, everything is very unsure. Our lives were always headed in different directions and this was likely the only time our paths would or could cross. I am grateful for the time I had with him and how easy it was to feel much more for him than I had ever planned. I am also grateful for the friendship that we plan to carry between us into the future, but the sadness right now is heavy. I’m hoping there is a poem that might speak to this feeling of loss and joy and grief and gratitude. I know I could certainly use something like that.
In Love and Out of Time
I want to share with you one of my favorite poems of all time. It is called, “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart,” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. The poem begins with the narrator diving down to the ocean floor to have a conversation with the Titanic. And after a few exchanges, she gets to the heart of the matter:
To be honest, I told Titanic, My honey’s leaving town
soon and I’m afraid it’s gonna wreck me, so I dove
Well come on in, Titanic said, but I’m not sure I’ve got what you’re looking for.
So in I climbed, through a window between two rust
stalactites, and began to pace her great promenade.
(Which should have been awesome, by the
way—walking by the ghosts of all those waving
handkerchiefs—except that I was in that feeling-feeling-sorry
for-yourself state where every hallway is the hallway of
your own wretched mind, every ghost your own ghost,
so I didn’t take a good look around.)
When I got to the Turkish baths, I sat on the edge of a
barnacled tub and watched weird crabs scrabble at my
I was hoping you’d teach me how to sink, I said. You
who have spent a century underwater with 1500
skeletons in your chest.
I don’t know, said Titanic, I’m kind-of a wreck.
Exactly! I said, Me, too! I’m here to apprentice myself to
wreckage. I’m here to apprentice myself to you! Great
bearded lady, gargantuan ark, you floating hotel. With
enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone I’ve ever loved.
My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told
Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the
I did, Titanic said.
And you sailed right into it?
It was love, Titanic said.
And the band just kept playing? And the captain
stayed at the wheel? What did it feel like to swallow
seawater? Tell me, Titanic, how did it feel?
It felt like a hole in my side and then it felt like
plummeting face first into the ice-cold ocean.
She’s a straight talker, the Titanic.
In your letter, you said that the sadness was heavy right now, and it reminded me of the way this poem suggests that heartbreak is heavy enough to sink a person to the ocean floor, just like a ship. Like the narrator of this poem, you know that your heart has an iceberg with your name on it. You are trying to carry all of the joy and gratitude, while grief and loss come hurtling toward you. Judging from the letters we receive for this column, heartbreak is often the result of one person’s bad behavior: love ends because someone is selfish, cowardly, or does something to hurt the person who has loved them. The fact that your pain is not due to someone’s bad behavior, but circumstance alone, is both a blessing and a curse. It is devastating to have to lose a relationship that has been so meaningful and positive, but it is perhaps easier to be wholly grateful for the gift of whatever time you had together, untainted by soured feelings. The only advice I have for you is to lean into that gratitude and also allow yourself to grieve. Know that you have been lucky to experience this kind of connection, and that this loss does not mean you will not find love again. The end of Brown-Lavoie’s poem is one of my favorite poem endings. I’m not one for tattoos, but if I was, I might get her final line on my body. I certainly hold it in my mind always, and today I send it your way.
The trouble with you humans is that you are so
concerned with staying afloat. Go ahead, be gouged
open by love. Gulp that saltwater, sink beneath the
waves. You’re not a boat, you can go under and come
up again, with those big old lungs of yours, those hard
And your heart, she said, that gargantuan ark, that
floating hotel. Call it Unsinkable, though it is sinkable.
There are enough ballrooms in you to dance with
everyone you’ll ever love.
That’s what the Titanic told me this morning, me, lying next to her on the ocean floor.
There are enough ballrooms in you.
I’ve only ever been to see a doctor when there was something amiss. Swollen nasal passages, forehead a desert to the touch, a desperate hummingbird heartbeat. Almost always there was something they could do, something they could scribble on a piece of paper that someone would understand. I’ve never been to the doctor when there was something right, at least not until recently. Four months ago, two days after my birthday, a doctor signed a piece of paper saying that on June 16, 2019 a wisp of a human that is half me and half its father would be born. And, as always, I was afraid to be happy. And although my name is Hope, that was the very thing I was afraid of. Yesterday, I found out that the kicks and twists I’ve been feeling just under my belly button are produced by a boy, just under a pound. He has all ten fingers and toes. Four chambers of a perfectly beating heart. The right divisions of the brain. The smallest bladder I’ve ever seen. I smiled. So much. I did not hide from happy. I did not purposely forget to hope. Nothing was wrong or amiss. Do you have something for this? For grasping the string of a balloon so tightly that you don’t even notice when the sidewalk disappears from the underneath of your shoes?
—New to Hope
Dear New to Hope,
Congratulations on your healthy pregnancy! I want to share a poem with you by Clint Smith called “waiting on a heartbeat,” which begins:
the doctor says you are there even though we cannot
hear you & you know what they say about the tree
falling in the forest & i know i have never heard a tree
i could not see but i have seen trees i could not hear
little one are you the tree or the forest or the sound we
cannot hear perhaps you are all three you are half
the size of a fingernail they say & every time i hear that
i look down at my cuticles & imagine you sitting
there telling me it’s okay there is nothing to worry
about there is joy in being a father to a mystery
I empathize with your tendency to worry. It is in my nature to be suspicious of hope or superstitious about jinxing good fortune. I am not a parent myself, but I have a feeling that becoming one will simultaneously bring you much more to worry about and also more hope than you are accustomed to. I hope you are able to find joy in being a parent to a mystery, the way that Clint does. That mystery is going to bring with it good news and bad news and joys and dreams that you have never encountered before. And even if you are still not inclined toward hope, perhaps you can focus on faith instead. Faith in how much you are willing to do to provide your son with the love and care he needs, and faith in how much he is going to teach you. You have tied yourself to something better than a balloon, and I am so excited for you to follow him where he leads.
We recently (two weeks ago) lost our sweet dog Nikki after sharing fifteen and a half wonderful years with her. She was my girl, my shadow, and she brightened every day. Though we knew and dreaded the inevitable, it was devastating to finally let her go. I need words to help me restore peace in my heart and to help me get on with life while honoring her memory.
I am so sorry for your loss. I want to share with you a little poem by Ted Kooser, simply titled “Death of a Dog.” The poem goes:
The next morning I felt that our house
had been lifted away from its foundation
during the night, and was now adrift,
though so heavy it drew a foot or more
of whatever was buoying it up, not water
but something cold and thin and clear,
silence riffling its surface as the house
began to turn on a strengthening current,
leaving, taking my wife and me with it,
and though it had never occurred
to me until that moment, for fifteen years
our dog had held down what we had
by pressing his belly to the floors,
his front paws, too, and with him gone
the house had begun to float out onto
emptiness, no solid ground in sight.
It is simply coincidence that the speaker in this poem also shared his life with his dog for fifteen years. I chose this poem for more than that coincidence. Grief is a universal experience, but the specifics of who is lost are unique. Their smell after a bath, the sound of them padding on the carpet—these are the sensory details that are yours alone to miss. I appreciate the way this poem touches on the physical presence of this dog and his symbolic weight, the way he acted as an emotional anchor for this family, the concrete absence of his belly and front paws. If you are feeling that you, too, are now adrift, I hope it helps to know that you are experiencing a grief that others have endured. You can honor your friend by recognizing just how important she was in your life, as a member of your house and family, by sharing stories of her with those who knew her and those who didn’t. That won’t keep you from getting on with your life (life is going to get on with you, whether you want it to or not). It allows you to carry the best memories, as you start learning how to navigate this new terrain without her.
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.