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.
My niece is about to graduate high school. She has had to deal with a lot the past few years, including the death of her mother. I’ve watched her grow from an infant into the amazing young adult that she is today. I see how she’s getting ready to navigate all the complexities of life after high school. She is a talented artist and poet, and I’m so excited to discover what she does with the rest of her life.
I wish that I could protect her from any unhappiness or difficulties, but I know that I can’t, and I realize that our challenges help us grow. Can you please share a poem to remind her that even though the world can be scary and contains pain, she is strong and resilient?
Dear Proud Aunt,
Throughout my life I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which, in the throes of my most miserable episodes, I tend to seek out anguished art, art indelibly inflected not by joy but by the strain of having lived and lost. It seems like the logical thing would be to mainline uplifting art, children’s baking shows and classic show tunes. But inexorably, when I’m sad, when I’m lost, I find myself searching for other sad, lost voices.
For a long time I thought this was maybe a particular strain of masochism, native to my own messed-up psychic ecosystem. I really wanted to stick my thumb into the wound, it seemed, really wanted to amplify my despair. Over time, I began to realize that this wasn’t necessarily straight masochism, but rather a desperate leaning into commiseration. I wanted to hear other people say, Yes, I was there, too, and I lived to make art out of it.
For your niece, I prescribe Joy Harjo’s “Remember.” The poem opens:
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Your niece has been given a terrible pain to carry. But, you say, she’s also cultivated substantial gifts as a poet and artist. With those, I hope she’ll be able to alchemize her pain into experience, strength, and hope for the people who encounter her work. Yes, I was there, too, and I lived to make art out of it. All is in motion, is growing. All language comes from this.
I would like to see a poem for a skill I’ve picked up (unwittingly) from my mother: complimenting people in a way that feels insulting.
Example: Oh, another new plant? How … nice.
On behalf of daughters everywhere,
Genetically Passive Aggressive
Dear Passive Aggressive,
Stop that! No, seriously, here’s Paul Tran’s “Scientific Method.”
Though it couldn’t hold me, I clung to the yellow-facedevil as though it was my true mother and I graspedthe function of motherhood: witness to my suffering,companion in hell. Unlike infants with wire mothersI didn’t hurl myself on the floor in terror or tantrum,rocking back and forth, colder than a corpse. I hadwhat Master believed to be a psychological baseof operations. Emotional attachment. Autonomy.
The poem orbits Harry Harlow’s famous “wire mother” experiments. Tran’s rending lyric suggests that the “function of motherhood” is to be a witness to suffering, a companion in hell. In an increasingly hellish world, it is a profound gift to have a mother with whom you can laugh, commiserate, joke. But can the two of you survive without making the lives of others more hellish? Here’s hoping you can find a way to move beyond “cruelty concealed as inquisitition.”
I am hopelessly searching for a way to become spiritual again. Once, poetry provided a way back into my spirituality. However, because of the changes I have undergone, including being far away from home, where it was easy to find spirituality, I’m now struggling. Could you recommend any poetry that speaks to this?
Poet in Exile
Dear Poet in Exile,
My poetry life and my spiritual life have become inextricable, that Venn diagram just one big circle. In writing, I’m granted access to some part of me, or some part of not-me, that is greater than my intelligence, bigger than my experience. The poet Chen Chen writes, “My poems are braver than I am, but I am constantly trying to catch up.” Even the most skeptical writers talk about hours flying by, or such-and-such a phrase “just coming” to them. It’s hard to speak about what happens when we write without mining the language of the supernatural because so often what we write seems to know, see, hear more than we do.
For you, I offer Fanny Howe’s “Yellow Goblins.” It’s a short poem, and it begins:
Yellow goblinsand a god I can swallow:Eyes in the evergreensunder ice.
It’s a strange, gnomic poem, and the opening couplet, “Yellow goblins / and a god I can swallow” is among my favorite opening lines by any poet about anything. I have no idea what it means; in fact, I doubt it’s particularly interested in meaning. Maybe poetry itself is a yellow goblin, a god we can swallow. Certainly, it’s a kind of “interior monologue,” a “voice,” a “place to surmise / blessedness.”
I’m as confused as anyone about the spirit, but that confusion generates in me a passionate and insatiable curiosity. Luckily, there are millennia’s worth of poems written expressly around, through, and against this curiosity. I hope this bit of Howe’s poetry leads you to the countless other poets wondering and wandering alongside us.
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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.