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.
There are so many poems that I’ve read about being hurt. But what about hurting those whom you truly love? I need a poem to navigate this feeling of being the bad guy.
When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility? Your note made me consider the particular challenges of writing about causing harm. Writing about one’s own violence sometimes feels like flaunting one’s complex interiority—a beautiful rendering would be its own kind of absolution. The harm doer’s persuasive telling can draw us willfully into their orbit.
I want to offer you a poem not of solace or pardon, but one that crucially refuses reconciliation and, in so doing, holds space for the difficult work of reckoning: Sharon Olds’s “I Could Not Tell.”
I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story:
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
When I had one foot in the air
The title marks both the speaker’s shame of leaping off a bus with her child in her arms and the impossibility of assembling a narrative one cannot fully know. The distortions of both shame and memory pose a problem for language. Can one ever really tell the truth about the harm one does, or is the real work in positioning ourselves to listen well, to do better? The anxious repetition of negations that opens each stanza—“I could not tell,” “I would not remember,” “I have never done it”—structures something powerfully irreconcilable in the poem. This is a poem that breaks open the speaker’s own story about herself. It takes seriously the vulnerability of precious connection:
I have never done it
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life’s life in her hands.
I hope Olds’s poem keeps you company as you learn how to love better. Continue that guardianship of holding yourself accountable.
—CS Read More