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 am a poet myself; I write about the strength and love my family provides for me, and about my identity as a daughter. A few months ago, I found out that my father has a second family and has been hiding years worth of lies. Since confronting him, he has become offensive, threatening, and hurtful. He refuses to acknowledge what’s happened and insults me instead. Even more than feeling betrayed and rejected, I feel like my sense of self and of reality is crumbling. I keep second-guessing my father and our family’s life together. I would love to read a poem that provides some comfort or affirmation as everything familiar falls apart.
Dear Former Child,
We are accustomed to thinking of the future as unknown. The past, on the other hand, often feels like a stable coordinate from which any number of futures might be charted. Your father’s betrayals have complicated that clean narrative line from where you’ve been to where you’re going—a line that often constitutes a central pillar of identity. But you are a poet. You have practiced something other than narrative.
I want to offer you a poem I turn to when the coordinates of my life feel unmoored, not because it directs me to feel more grounded, but because it nourishes the possibility of being exactly where I am, wherever that is: Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript”:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
I like to think of the poem’s title not so much as a remark at the end of a text, but more in terms of its components: post, script—what occurs when you are on the other side of how you’ve been writing your story. This story—the one that, for so long, you called truth—was a dwelling place. What you grew there is yours, even after you’ve had to move out. Grieve as you need to, but don’t relinquish what you’ve made.
You signed this letter “Former Child,” which indicates that you’re connecting with a self who has been harmed by the very person supposed to protect your needs while holding space for the ways you’ve grown up. Parent yourself now. You know how. Bring your love and your strength forward to new relationships, including, first, your relationship with yourself.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly.” Don’t try now to fix this moment into a future past. You don’t need to rewrite your whole narrative now. Just be present. Practice noticing: how the wind feels, how the light looks. Just be here now, wholly, with your blown-open heart. Beauty will reenter. You will find yourself there.
My best friend of thirty years died this past March. Life is just not the same without her. I have a wonderful husband and other friends, but she was my person.
I’d love a poem…
Thanks for what you do,
Missing My Friend
Dear Missing My Friend,
As I write this, I am listening to Jason Moran’s “Cradle Song.” At the beginning, the song is a simple piano melody, punctuated by the sound of a pencil. As the song continues, the pencil falls away. The piano’s music grows surer, more elaborate, soars. When Moran was a child, his mother would sit with him during his piano lessons, taking notes. In Moran’s song, the pencil is at once a recording of his late mother and a note back to her written from his present, as a brilliant musician in the world—a life that has everything to do with what she made possible.
I’m so sorry to hear that your friend, your person, has passed away. I recognize in your note her enduring presence in your life. For you, a short poem by W. S. Merwin, a remarkable poet, as well as an antiwar and ecological activist, who died last week. The poem is called “Separation.” It reads in its entirety:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
On one hand, Merwin’s poem speaks to the ways that the loss of a loved one can feel all-consuming. On the other, “Separation” reminds me that loss is a change in the shape a relationship takes and that, like all revision, loss is a creative act.
Like Moran’s “Cradle Song,” Merwin’s “Separation” recalls how the death of a loved one is a profound loss and how we carry it forward. The shapes your own future might take offer your friend ways to live on—not only because you hold her with you, but also because she made you possible. I hope that amid all else you find a kind of company—an invitation—there.
I know that it is an unhealthy trope, the idea that an artist (in this case, a writer) must be tortured and sad to produce good art. But it’s hard not to be seduced by a good “gut punch” line in an insightful poem, or be drawn in by the heartbreaking twist in a love poem—including in your own work. Still, I want to channel some positive emotions for my art: for example, I now love a boy that loves me back just as kindly, and I want to put my joy into words but cannot seem to find any. Do you have a good poem to show that art can come from happy places?
Happiness-Induced Writer’s Block
Dear Happiness-Induced Writer’s Block,
Oh, I love this question! I am so happy that you are in love and that you want to offer your joy to your writing! I’m sitting in a gorgeous flood of joyful poems, thinking about which one I most want to share with you. In the very first installation of Poetry Rx, Sarah wrote about the poem that came immediately to mind: Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” from his collection by that same name. Gay is a poet and a gardener and has a genius touch for allowing beauty to bloom. “I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude / over every last thing,” Gay writes. And he does—he holds his generosity like a magnifying glass over the world’s beauty. The form of the ode enlarges love by attending to it. Even elegies, I think, are often forged in joy—but contoured by the fact that what we love cannot last.
Then there’s James Wright’s “Today I was Happy, so I made this Poem”: “I see that it is impossible to die.” And Li-Young Lee: “There are days we live / as if death were nowhere in the background; from joy / to joy to joy…” And Osip Mandelstam: “Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree. / It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power / And it was all aimed at me.”
But the poem I most want to offer you today, is not so much about joy as it is coauthored by joy. For you, Vera Pavlova’s “I am in love, hence free to live”:
I am in love, hence free to live
by heart, to ad lib as I caress.
A soul is light when full,
heavy when vacuous.
My soul is light. She is not afraid
to dance the agony alone,
for I was born wearing your shirt,
will come from the dead with that shirt on.
Love, Pavlova’s poem recalls, gives you the strength to move further into being alive—to risk more, whether that may look like. It’s okay—beautiful even—to walk into this new mode of writing without knowing what you will find there. Love will catch you.
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.