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’m in a stable tumultuous relationship. I love my partner dearly, and she returns my enthusiasm. Some of the time. There are days when I feel love radiating off her, and others when I could not buy a kind word or any showing of support. I realize all relationships have ups and downs, and I’ve come to accept and respect my partner’s moods. Still, I find it very difficult to cope with things when I am on her bad side, especially if I myself am suffering. I try my best to communicate this to her and not to be so sensitive. Despite knowing that things inevitably will revert to normal, I feel very abandoned and unloved in the moment. I’m not sure if I’m being unfair or overly needy or what.
Confused in Love
Your note put into language something I’ve experienced: a stable tumultuous relationship. One in which things are regularly turbulent and, at the same time, some joy or good love or possibility prevents collapse. Here’s what it’s taken me a long time to understand: If the relationship requires your smallness for stability, the relationship is not stable. You are waxing and waning to keep things from toppling. You are absorbing the instability. Of course, people are complicated. Intimacy is work. But there is a difference between the care of being with someone when they feel something other than joy and a relationship whose structure requires you to change your own shape. For you, a poem about honoring the shape of your own gentle impulses, Aracelis Girmay’s “The Woodlice”:
The beauty of one sister
who loved them so
she smuggled the woodlice
into her pockets & then into
the house, after a day’s work
of digging in the yard
& after the older ones of us
had fed her & washed,
she carried them into
the bed with her, to mother
them, so that they would have
two blankets & be warm
The tragedy of this poem is that one sister’s tenderness, her urge to care, is soon eroded by the older sisters who “know better”:
being elders to that sister,
we, having seen strangers
in our house before, we, being
older, being more ugly & afraid,
we began, then, to teach her the lessons
of dirt & fear.
We learn these lessons of dirt and of fear—these barriers to tenderness—and then we name them instinct. Your first instinct, the one that is sensitive, that needs your partner’s love manifested through kindness is beautiful. Nourish that. You deserve it.
My letter will not be as eloquently written as those of other people who have reached out to you, but that ties to my problem. My roommate, whom I met a year ago and who has proven to be a kind and sparkling person, is in the process of losing her mother. I have no idea what to say. I know there are many ways to show up for someone who is grieving, but I would love to give her poem. I’d like her to know life will be okay without the person who brought her into it, but I don’t know if such a promise can even be made.
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
A few poems came immediately to mind. I thought of Dorianne Laux’s “Death of the Mother,” which offers something about the knottiness of kinship, and makes space to hold the complexity of living within the devastation of loss. Every sturdy relationship also teaches us how to live without it. Its final lines: “You taught us how to glean the good / from anything, pardon anyone, even you, awash as we are in your blood.” I thought of Elizabeth Alexander’s “Autumn Passage,” which tends so beautifully to the dying body, it feels to me like it shepherds it into a gentle elsewhere. I thought of Tracy K. Smith’s “The Speed of Belief,” which moves with the not-knowing that death makes. And I wrote about one of my most cherished elegies here. But there is too much I don’t know. I don’t know your friend’s relationship with her mother. I don’t know the shape of her grief or how it will move or what she needs. What I do know is that you thinking of your friend, your commitment to being there with something that she might need, to being there even when you don’t know how exactly that will look, that is the balm. That is the buoy. The poem I want to offer you, to offer your friend, more than anything is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Paul Robeson”
That Time, We All Heard It.
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
After a terrible experience with love a few years ago, I more or less shut off any ability to feel truly romantically vulnerable with another person. But now that’s changing! I’ve started seeing a man who makes me feel butterflies. He’s smart and kind and well-adjusted; he makes me laugh, and when we’re together, all the bad things in the world feel a bit less terrible. I’m trying to take things one day at a time and luxuriate in the joy of feeling this way—something I thought I no longer was capable of doing. But I’m also terrified that I’ll mess things up, and have my heart broken all over again (though I’m trying not to give that anxiety too much power). Is there a poem for me?
Allergic To Vulnerability (And Maybe Also Happiness?)
How wonderful to be with someone who opens you to so much joy! When I read your letter, I thought of Kaveh’s response to another letter: “Now that I’ve left, for the time being, the proverbial (and literal) gutter, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of living a life I’d be pained to lose.” Nothing we love will last forever. Joy always carries with it the shadow of grief. Denying yourself happiness out of fear is only a way of clinging to grief. For you, a poem that refuses to make false assurances that heartbreak won’t come again, but that reminds us, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, that “no feeling is final.” Patrick Rosal’s “Brokeheart: Just like that” a poem I cherish for the music it builds:
What like—what may be—depression and
And just like that everyone knows
my heart’s broke and no one is home.
Just like that, I’m water.
Just like that, I’m the boat.
Just like that, I’m both things in the whole world
rocking. Sometimes sadness is just
what comes between the dancing.
And bam!, my mother’s dead and, bam!, my brother’s
children are laughing. Just like—ok, it’s true
I can’t pop up from my knees so quick these days
and no one ever said I could sing but
tell me my body ain’t good enough
for this. I’ll count the aches another time
Poems and music, in their compression and movement, teach us this: you might have your heart broken again, but you have this good thing now.
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.