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 month, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I lost my father suddenly on New Year’s Day. I have lived without him for over a year and a half now, and while I’ve found that my heart is more resilient than I imagined, I’ve started to fear the passing of time. The first of every new month feels like it’s stabbing me with the reminder that time will not slow down. I’m scared for this year to end, because right now I can still claim his death is recent, and it scares me that one day it will be in the distant past. I’m scared that I’ll start forgetting pieces of him, or that I’ll stop thinking about him as much, which would feel like letting him die again. I’m wondering if you can give me a poem about how to accept the passing of time and stop seeing it as the enemy.
A Fearful Daughter
Dear Fearful Daughter,
I’m so sorry for your loss. For you, Lisel Mueller’s “Missing the Dead”:
I go home and put on a record:
Charlie Parker Live at the Blue Note.
Each time I play it, months or years apart,
the music emerges more luminous;
I never listened so well before.
I wish my parents had been musicians
and left me themselves transformed into sound,
or that I could believe in the stars
as the radiant bodies of the dead.
In mourning her parents, the speaker laments the fact that no clear record of their lives endures. Where can she look to find them now? But the secret of this poem is that the poem’s first half—ostensibly all about the speaker—is not about the speaker at all. In wishing for a form left behind by her parents, the speaker turns toward the world: “I have never listened so well.” In not having anywhere in particular to seek them, she seeks them everywhere.
“I miss you more than I remember you,” the protagonist in Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous says of his friend who died. In that gap between missing and remembering is a record of living with someone who has gone. Missing is a kind of desire, and desire is a kind of collaboration. It’s not that you’ll start forgetting pieces of your father, so much that remembering will look less like retracing the past and more like re-membering—piecing the past together differently in service of your present and your future. As time passes and the details of your father’s life recede, give yourself space to grieve those transitions; then point to the fullness of your life as proof that he endures.
I am on the brink of my college graduation, and I keep thinking about my old best friend. We began our friendship in sixth grade and were close throughout high school and the first year of college. We were both out of place in the suburb where we grew up, and we brought each other great joy. After the first semester of our sophomore year, she basically sent me a break-up text. It hurt, though I understood that our paths were diverging. I’m upset we cannot celebrate this upcoming milestone together, and I’m upset that that the version of her I’ve seen on social media is a person so alien and unknown to me. I was wondering if you have a poem for the loss of a close friendship, or for the magic that is young female friendship, even if the relationship cannot last. Or, if there is a poem that expresses hope for such beautiful closeness, albeit maybe with less intensity, in our adult friendships as we age. Thank you.
Dear Old Friend,
I responded to a similar note here. I prescribed Langston Hughes’s poem that describes the heartbreak of losing a friend with the kind of reverberating clarity that perfectly holds the wound and, in the shape of that understanding, offers some salve. I love, though, that you’ve asked not only for a poem that deals with the pain, but one that celebrates friendship. I wanted to give you Angel Nafis’s “Omen to Get Your Ass Up,” which captures that life-affirming feeling of being truly seen: “I am saved for a moment / the suspended heaven of being recognized.” Or that ever-exuberant ode: Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” which reminds me how simply being with a friend can induce a wonder that requires the whole world to describe it. The poem I most want to offer you, though, is Aracelis Girmay’s “Moon for Aisha,” which Girmay wrote for her friend, the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon. The poem opens:
I mean to be writing you
a birthday letter, though it’s not
September, the winter already
nearing, the bareness
of trees, their weightlessness,
grace or grief. The windows
of buildings all shining early, lit with light
& I am only ten & riding
all of my horses home,
still sisterless, wanting sisters.
You do not know me yet.
In fact, we are years away
from that life.
It’s not, on the occasion of writing, Aisha’s birthday. And yet, this letter, celebrating Aisha’s being, takes in the whole year and the whole of the women’s lives. Which is to say: Aisha opens a world of possibility—a portal into their wide-flung lives and deep histories and buoyant desires. This is an adult friendship enriched by all that came before they met. As the poem continues, the speaker imagines Aisha before she knew her:
& then, you, all nearly grown,
all long-legged laughter,
already knowing all the songs
& all the dances,
not my friend, yet,
but, somehow—Out There.
Friendship, like other forms of relation, is neither fixed nor linear. For the friends you’ve lost, there are also the not-yets who, someday, will be calling your name—your losses, your dreams—with their whole lives. The next great friendship that will hold you is out there, and, this time, when you meet that person, you will bring more of yourself along.
Two years ago, I was overcome with the irresistible need to write a certain novel. This book would not leave me until I wrote it, and I labored over it for months. Before this, I had a “good job” and decent career ahead of me, and I had always been frightened of giving into my literary urges. But the novel is a fabulist retelling of my father’s death, and I could not walk away from it.
I wrote this novel, and it is now in the hands of editors, and will come into the world someday soon. My pain is as follows: my boyfriend and my mother, those who love me most, have not read my book. I have begged both of them, and they have promised me—sometimes my hope gets rekindled because they will read a page or two, and then abandon it for months. I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. I want more than anything to share this enormous part of my heart with them. If my beloved asked me to read their work, I cannot imagine not rising to the occasion. Furthermore, both of them are readers in the genre that I’ve written.
Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into? I am so scared that my irritation and lonesomeness will turn into wicked resentment, and that it will eat both my art and my relationships alive if untended, but I cannot beg them yet again to read my book.
Dear Bereft Bibliophile,
First of all, congratulations on completing your novel. That’s a gorgeous accomplishment! I’m sorry that your boyfriend and your mother have caused you pain by not reading it. The poem I want to offer you exists in a world different from the one you’ve described. I want to share it with you because I return to it often when I think about the complex ecosystem of love and writing. Monica Sok’s “ABC for Refugees” opens with a father teaching his child how to read:
Cherub-bee-dee how does a man
who doesn’t read English well know that cherub-bee-dum
those aren’t really words-bee-dee.
Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum, like how my father says
Fine then! Leave! My mother shouts, Stupid! Dumb!
The mother is frustrated, but the expression of her frustration—“Dumb!” echoes the space of reading that the father creates: “cherub-bee-dum.” There is kinship there, a convergence even in opposition. The father, “who doesn’t read English well,” opens a world for the child and sets her on a path of flight:
Birds? What are birds?
Thanks to my father, reading with me, I have more feathers.
With what she now knows, the child then calls back to her mother:
Mother, mother. Repeat after me.
We read together before bedtime.
I don’t know why your mother and your boyfriend haven’t read your book, but I wonder whether you might—alongside that question—turn to another question: in what other ways have your mother and boyfriend made your writing possible? To prepare someone to move into a place where you can no longer accompany them is a great act of love. Your loves helped you to build the life that you needed in order to make that novel’s world, even if they won’t visit; in turn, your writing, I hope, transforms you so that you can love better.
I do think there is some loneliness inherent in being a writer. Creating—putting into the world that which did not before exist—means, for a little while at least, that you are dwelling alone. There is also deep comfort in being a writer because you will find readers, people who, for now, are still strangers to you but who, I have no doubt, will find something they need in your words. They will meet you there. To be a writer is to believe that you don’t yet know all of your kin. It is an act of faith that you might find them. Your family, in loving you, has made your making possible, and there will be more, new family waiting for you on the other side.
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.