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, Sarah Kay is on the line.
I am writing to you for some clarity or company. At thirty, I have found myself in some kind of threshold state. I’m grappling with the tragic loss of a person I loved, mourning a future that got lost in the past, and also celebrating the births of so many of my peers’ new babies. I have been at the hospital witnessing—or on the other side of the phone hearing about—these big ends and big beginnings. I feel like I’m spinning: a compass who doesn’t know whether to point toward the exits or the entrances. Are the exits and entrances are the same? Babies come out of the holes in our bodies, surgical or anatomical, and loss feels the same way: I feel like she was torn from my body somehow, leaving an emptiness, a wound. I guess I don’t really have a question, except to say, does this seem familiar to you? Are you spinning, too?
Caught in A twirl
Dear Caught in A Twirl,
So much of your letter does indeed sound familiar. During a bout of despair I once asked my mother whether growing older was just one wound piled upon another until we are just a collection of hurt, and she answered, unironically, “No, sometimes someone gets married or has a baby!” At the time I probably rolled my eyes or laughed at her stubborn optimism, but I have since grown to take her answer quite genuinely. My best friends are also having babies or getting married, big beginnings I am grateful to witness. And at thirty we are both already starting to encounter some big endings, too. I am very sorry for your loss. I want to share with you Robin Beth Schaer’s poem “Holdfast” which begins,
The dead are for morticians & butchers
to touch. Only a gloved hand. Even my son
will leave a grounded wren or bat alone
like a hot stove. When he spots a monarch
in the driveway he stares. It’s dead,
I say, you can touch it. The opposite rule:
butterflies are too fragile to hold
alive, just the brush of skin could rip
a wing. He skims the orange & black whorls
with only two fingers, the way he learned
to feel the backs of starfish & horseshoe crabs
at the zoo, the way he thinks we touch
all strangers. I was sad to be born, he tells me,
because it means I will die.
In a small footnote to this poem, Robin adds, “As my son encounters the world for the first time, I re-encounter it with him, both of us reckoning together with how to live and how to die.” I think that is perhaps what you and I are both doing: just trying to reckon with how to live and how to die. One of the ways to do the former is to take every opportunity to spin your compass toward reasons to celebrate. Just as you wonder whether entrances and exits are the same thing, I think celebrating is the same thing as gratitude. Your peers are having babies! Worth celebrating. You loved someone so fully! Worth celebrating. Even—and especially—when her absence feels terribly heavy. The world will do its part to spin you toward hurt often enough. When it is available to you, I hope you orient yourself toward joy. These beginnings, and maybe even the endings—they are evidence of how lucky you were to experience something miraculous, no matter how brief. Celebrating does not have to be in opposition to grieving. Both can exist inside you at once. The second half of Robin’s poem feels especially right for you today, and I most want to send you this line: “We should hold each other more / while we are still alive, even if it hurts.” Hold those new babies. Hold the ones you love, and the ones who love you. Spin your compass toward them.
Almost a year ago, I was left with no choice but to take a really good look at myself. This looking grew into a commitment to tame my triggers and heal my traumas. Taking off the haters-gonna-hate armor I usually wear, and confronting my own shortcomings, has been painful. Right now, I’m stuck in a cycle of feeling incredible guilty for things I’ve said and done, and who I’ve been in my past. The voices in my head box me into my worst moments, instead of toward my ability to grow past them. I’m in pursuit of different voices—ones that will leave room for openness and transformation and becoming. How can I be self-critical without tearing myself down completely in the process? I was hoping you could help me find a poem to ground me in admitting the need to change while also holding onto the ability to forgive myself. To forgive, in general.
In Search of Forgiveness
Dear In Search of Forgiveness,
I want to recommend to you a poem called “Under One Small Star” by Wislawa Szymborska, as translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak (p. 192) which begins,
My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
This poem is full of both apologies and the seeking of forgiveness. The first few lines seem a little tongue-in-cheek to me, as though the poem might be making light of the very notion of seeking absolution, but very soon thereafter, many of the requests seem genuine. In fact, I love this poem precisely because so many of the lines feel like mantras I might repeat while lying in bed at night, berating myself for whatever mistakes I’ve managed that day. “Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home. / Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger,” sit in my stomach like a rock. Later on in the poem, Wislawa writes,
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live, since I myself stand in my own way.
And these are the lines I most want to send your way. You cannot be everywhere at once, you cannot be what everyone needs you to be, always. You cannot do all your healing or atoning overnight. It is not a straight line. There will be more failures and more hurt feelings and more doing to undo. But remember that you are also your harshest critic. You are the one beating yourself up the worst. You are the one most often standing in your own way. To quote Wislawa, “My apologies to great questions for small answers,” but my small answers to your great question are: just do what you can, when you can, and be gentle and patient with yourself in the same way you are gentle and patient with the ones you love dearest—the ones for whom you were willing to self-examine in the first place, the ones who are rooting for (and invested in) the healthiest, most honest version of you, and who will work with you to help you get there, as long as it takes.
I love adventures. Be it small ones to a new coffee shop, or big ones to far-flung corners of the world. The joy of discovery, of doing something different than the norm, is something that energizes me and drives me forward. But what’s particularly wonderful is that I’ve met a lovely man to share these adventures with, and we’re getting married in August. I’d love a poem that captures the joy of adventuring with a partner in crime. Can you help?
I have a very small poem for you, but it is one of my favorites. It is by Rainer Maria Rilke and here it is in its entirety:
Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.
I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
You come too.
I love that this poem is all at once a prayer, a wish, a request, a story, and a promise. Which is maybe what marriage is, too. Congratulations to you both, and here’s wishing you a lifetime of adventures side by side.
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Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York City. She is the codirector and founder of Project VOICE and the author of four books of poetry: B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.