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.
I was in an abusive relationship for several years, and two years ago today the man I’d been involved with died by suicide. We had not been in touch for a long while before his death, but I’m still not through dealing with all the damage from our relationship and completely unequipped to know how to grieve him. Is there a poem that might help me make more sense of an overwhelming amount of conflicting emotions?
Still Not Over It
Dear Still Not Over It,
I thought a long time about which poem to prescribe you, and kept coming up against the reality that no poem would precisely correspond to your exact experience (unless you wrote it!), nor would any poem help you “make more sense” of a situation that is aggressively hostile to sense—a man claimed to love you but he hurt you, you freed yourself but he died and now you need to learn how to grieve him despite his abuse. It’s profoundly irrational, which is to say, it’s profoundly human and true.
I give you Kevin Prufer’s “Black Woods.” The poem ends:
Listen to yourself. Did he step inside you?
Listen to yourself. Is he trapped inside you?
Let go of me. Is it black woods in there?
It seems to me a poem deeply invested in exploring our inherently illogical response to grief. The chilling, unforgettable closing repetition of “Listen to yourself” is, of course, what the griever can never do, not really, so overpowering is the noise of grief itself. The open, bracketed spaces remind me of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho—here are moments too thundering for history to keep them, the silences not silences at all, but rather typographical concessions to the failure of a medium.
This sounds like an excruciating situation, and I hope so much you have people in your life with whom you can speak about it. Prufer’s poem offers a glimpse of the irrational heart of grief warring with the omnipresent pressure to conceal it, to move beyond it and once more conform to convention. I hope you find the freedom to argue, grapple, and grow with the grief you’re experiencing.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Read More