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 1 AM where I live now, and it’s yet another sleepless night for me. For the past four years, I lived in another country across the world, but I recently had to move back home due to some paperwork-related issues. My expat life was exciting and it transformed me. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and gave me my best friend and new hobbies and interests.
But I’m now stuck back in my hometown, unable to make any future plans until the issue is resolved. I have no close friends here, there are no interesting events, and a good time for most people my age is to get wasted. My days are spent going to the gym and to the same two cafés (it’s a pretty small city) to study or read.
I’ve been trying to stay positive, but the thought of wasting my life like this has been keeping me awake for quite a while now. Do you have a poem for people who feel left out of life?
Stuck In Limbo
It is a miserable thing to find yourself in an inescapable and undesirable station, and it doubly miserable, I imagine, to find yourself stuck there through no fault of your own. I’m sorry the soulless, violent winds of bureaucracy have blown you so far from the transformative new life you relished.
For you, I offer Solmaz Sharif’s “The End of Exile.”
As the dead, so I come
to the city I am of.
The speaker in the poem arrives in Shiraz, their so-called home, but is startled at the feeling of being “without,” of lacking and of being outside looking in. This is, of course, not exactly the experience you describe, and yet in a way it is the experience of all displaced peoples. In a room full of Iranians, I feel like the least Iranian person. In a room full of Americans, I certainly don’t feel particularly American. That liminality has become my home, and it is a home I carry with me wherever I go.
To watch play out around meas theater —audience as the dead are audienceto the life that is not mine.Is as notas never.Turning down Shiraz’s streetsit turns out to be sucha faraway thing.A without whichI have learned to be.
Such dislocation is painful but powerful. When you’re inside a place or a culture, it’s easy to become dulled, habituated to its textures—sonic, human, and otherwise. But dislocated from it, looking at it from the outside, you can see those textures with acuity. It’s why so many of history’s greatest writers have, for one reason or another, found themselves writing from a position of alterity—the remove grants them a defamiliarized perspective not afforded to the status quo’s comfortable and dominant.
I wish you didn’t have to bear this forcible expulsion from your beloved new home, with its bouquets of new hobbies and interests. But I hope you can use this time while you wait in your old hometown to read, to write a lot, and to build something new from your singular vantage point.
One of my first loves, the person with whom I learned to love poetry, is getting married soon. Though our relationship ended nearly a decade ago, we have kept in ill-advised contact for most of that time. Often, in the last few years, we discussed whether we should give it a try again—with the prospect of marriage always lurking in the background.
Neither of us, however, was sure or brave enough to leave our current relationships. Barring any promises that we could make it work, and with a lot of social pressure to move forward in his life, my ex is now engaged while I am stubbornly very far from that milestone.
Given the messy nature of our communication, I decided recently that we could no longer be in touch. It was objectively the right thing to do, but I am full of anger, regret, and loss. I am hoping you could recommend something that speaks to these tangled and stifled feelings.
Forever Holding My Peace
Dear Forever Holding,
Here is Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning To His Wife.”
I give you back your heart.
I give you permission –
for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound
It sounds like a messy tangle, yes. Anger, regret, loss—Sexton doesn’t shy from any of it. The rending, immobilizing gift of a line like “I give you back your heart. / I give you permission.” Then the scathing final movement of the poem:
She is so naked and singular
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
Those last six lines devastate me. You’ve done an exceptionally difficult thing. I hope you and your ex can now set out, wholeheartedly, on the separate paths you’ve chosen.
I recently heard about the death of an acquaintance. I had thought it was caused by a chronic, physical illness that I didn’t know about, but then I heard that she took her own life. Since then, I have been walking around in a weird shroud of questions: Was there anything I could have done? Would it have made a difference? What can I do now? How do I deal with this pain, doubt, anger, and guilt? I’m also surprised that I feel so intensely—we weren’t that close. Despair seems to seep easily into my mind. I’m wondering if you have some words to soothe this muddle of mine.
I am sorry to hear about the loss of your acquaintance. There is, of course, nothing useful to be said in situations like these. I will offer only that you are not powerful enough to affect, to have affected, the trajectory of someone else’s disease one way or another. Frankly, nobody is that powerful.
For you, I offer this poem by Danez Smith.
what happens when you
ask for a kiss, it’s all
tongue, you don’t
unlatch, you suck
face until the body
Speaking directly to a personified suicide, Smith asks what has become of their friends (they look for their friends inside a tulip but find only “the yellow heart,” they look for their friends under a cup but find only air).
dear suicideyou made my kin thin air.his entire body dead as hair.you said his name like a dare.you’ve done your share.i ride down lake street friendbareto isles of lakes, wet pairsstare back & we compareour mirror glares. fish scareinto outlines, i blarea moon’s wanting, i weartheir faces on t-shirts, little flaresin case i bootleg my own prayer& submit to your dark affair.tell me they’re in your care.be fair.heaven or hell, i hope my niggas all thereif i ever use the air as a stair.
All of the emotions you describe—the muddle of pain, doubt, anger, guilt—braid together in Smith’s address. The rhyming inertia of that final stanza, its singsong, Plath-like quality, reminds me of a child desperately singing to themselves in a corner, hands over their ears. Plath famously rises with her red hair to “eat men like air,” while Smith contemplates eventually using that “air as a stair.” It’s an utterance that feels at once intensely intimate and completely transient; it seems here the only reasonable way one might hope to speak to a force that is at once “a kind of mother” and “a kind of freedom.”
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.