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 column has run weekly for over a year, and now, our dear and busy poets must slow it down to once a month. Never fear — they’ll still be here, just a bit less often. This month, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
Two years ago, I came out of the closet to my family by introducing them to my girlfriend. They responded fairly negatively, expressing their disbelief (“we would have known if you were gay”) and disapproval (“it’s not something we believe in or support”). I have pushed back in many ways—bringing my girlfriend to family functions, being hypervisible online, and proclaiming the steadfastness and validity of my relationship in frequent and intense fights. In the wake of this, my relationship, which did not have a strong foundation to begin with and shouldered the normal fears and anxieties that accompany any romantic partnership, suffered greatly. The more unstable my relationship became, the more strongly I held on to it—I fought for her so hard in the public arena that I didn’t know how not to in the private one. At times, it was volatile and abrasive, yet I fought for it still.
After two years of what felt like pushing the boulder of “us” up a mountain, we decided to call it quits. Now I am both heartbroken over losing her and losing myself. In her absence, I am struggling to find mooring. How do you mourn a relationship whose primary purpose was to validate your queerness, both to yourself and others? How do you maintain an identity in the absence of the person it was formed around? Perhaps most of all, can I keep her in my life without making her my compass?
Broken Heart, Broken Self
Dear Broken Heart, Broken Self,
I’m sorry your family did not respond with the affirmation you deserve. Your queerness doesn’t need to be validated. It is valid because it is. You need—you deserve—to find a way to enter the truths of yourself regardless of how other people see you. That is difficult, beautiful work. I want to offer you a poem I hold very close because it stabilizes me to do just that: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck.” The poem begins with the speaker preparing for their journey by making use of the instruments the world has offered them:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
As the speaker descends, the received stories—the book of myths—will not serve. The speaker needs to cast them off to find the truth they need:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
You now need to let go of the story—the messages you have received about what counts as valid—so you can get to the thing itself: the truths of your own beautiful desire.
The wreck is a space where everything is broken. That is to say, it is a space where everything can be assembled anew. It’s a terrifying and possibility-filled place. Your former girlfriend is not your compass there. She cannot be the tool by which you navigate your own interior space. When we use someone else as an instrument in our own story, we do them damage. In reconciling them with what we need to believe about ourselves, we cannot remain attuned to what they need. And we harm ourselves, too, because we deny ourselves the power of looking directly at our own truth. I don’t know how or whether you can keep your former girlfriend in your life. That is, of course, something that is up to both of you. I do know, however, that as you take on the ongoing work of learning who you are and what you believe, you will be better equipped to move toward relationships—in whatever form they come—from a place of truth and generosity.
I have been submerged in a sea of grief since March, when my father passed away suddenly. He is my one and only constant thought everyday. His absence feels more like an echo than a silence. There is a void in me that I know will never be filled. But my sadness intensifies when I attempt to understand the pain of others, mainly that of my mother, who has lost the love of her life too soon. We live in different countries, and I think about her, about the heaviness of the word widow, about her broken mornings. How she has to make one cup of coffee instead of two, or how she sits at the table to eat alone every evening. Is there a poem about the pain of others? How we can carry it as if it was our own, hoping that this might lessen its weight?
A Sad Daughter
Dear Sad Daughter,
I’m so sorry that you’ve lost your father—and that your mother has lost her love. When I read your note, I thought immediately of a Ross Gay’s poem “Ending the Estrangement”:
from my mother’s sadness, which was,
to me, unbearable, until,
it felt to me
not like what I thought it felt like
to her, and so felt inside myself—like death,
like dying, which I would almost
have rather done, though adding to her sadness
would rather die than do—
This poem considers the ways we carry the sadness of those we love—how their sadness becomes our sadness, even as we hold it differently than they do. The jostling of the poem’s opening lines reflects the child’s motion, as they try to position and reposition themselves in order to find a stance that might allow them to support their mother without buckling themself under the weight of her suffering. As the poem ends, the speaker grows still so that their mother’s sadness might reach them. When the sadness finally reaches the speaker, it arrives with that particular kind of beauty that connection brings:
…when last it came
drifted like a meadow lit by torches
of cardinal flower, one of whose crimson blooms,
when a hummingbird hovered nearby,
I slipped into my mouth
thereby coaxing the bird
to scrawl on my tongue
its heart’s frenzy, its fleet
with whom, with you, dear mother,
I now sing along.
Your father’s absence turns you toward your mother. Look how, thinking of him, you trace the contours of her life: her making coffee, her sitting down at the table alone for breakfast. What care limns your noticing. Perhaps, in time, there is a way to turn that care into company. Send your mother a mug to offer her a bit of happiness when she pours her coffee, send a sweet text when you know she is sitting down to breakfast—these are notes to a song you can sing with her, even across distance.
After an extended struggle with his health, my paternal grandfather passed away last month to little fanfare. My father’s sisters don’t get along so they decided, without deciding, that there would be no obituary and no services. While I wasn’t particularly close to my grandfather, the thought of his life going unacknowledged hurts in ways I cannot describe. Can you offer any soothing words?
Dear Craving Acknowledgement,
In her memoir, The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander writes about the period following the sudden loss of her husband:
I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do … I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.
Grief is an unwieldy thing. Ceremony performs the dual function of paying tribute to a person who has passed and mapping a way forward for those of us who remain. Ritual gives form to formless territory, offering us a route to the other side.
For you, Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372),” which insists on the possibility of a path through disorienting difficulty. The poem ends:
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Dickinson’s poem reminds me that time itself holds the transformative function of ceremony. As you move forward, you will remember your grandfather. If it feels useful to you, you might consider offering that memory an external form. Perhaps you might conduct a private ceremony. On the anniversary of his death, take a walk to a lake he loved—or one that you do. Plant a tree in his honor so that, if you choose, you have a flowering spot to return to.
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.