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 in the happiest, healthiest relationship of my life, which is still going strong despite a period of long distance. My boyfriend is currently searching for a job, his first “adult” job since graduating, but seems to be falling at the last hurdles each time. He is usually a very upbeat and optimistic person, but rejection and his current job in the hospitality industry are having an effect on him that is hard to watch for someone who loves him. I am doing my best to reassure him that “the right opportunity will come along” and “you’re doing all the right things,” but this feels very easy to say without knowing what he’s going through. I have so much faith in him; he’s intelligent and passionate. I’m struggling to know how to help. Everything I say sounds clichéd or false, so until I can work out how to put my feelings into pragmatic advice, I’m hoping there’s a poem that might give him some hope for the future, and make him see himself the way I do.
An Optimist for Two
I don’t have a poem that encourages a partner to feel confident that they will get the job they deserve. But I do have a poem I adore, which is about loving someone exactly as they are, and wanting them to know that they are enough. It is a poem called “Ordinary Sex,” by Ellen Bass, which begins,
If no swan descends
in a blinding glare of plumage,
drumming the air with deafening wings,
if the earth doesn’t tremble
and rivers don’t tumble uphill,
if my mother’s crystal
vase doesn’t shatter
and no extinct species are sighted anew
and leaves of the city trees don’t applaud
as you zing me to the moon, starry tesserae
cascading down my shoulders,
if we stay right here
on our aging Simmons Beautyrest,
dumped into the sag in the middle,
You don’t need to strew rose petals
in my bath or set a band of votive candles
flickering around the rim.
You don’t need to invent a thrilling
new position, two dragonflies
mating on the wing. Honey,
you don’t even have to wash up after work.
A little sweat and sunscreen
won’t bother me.
I know this suggestion might not seem like an obvious pick, but the poem makes me smile (and blush). And when you can’t control the obstacles your loved one is facing or ease their burdens for them, I think making them smile and blush instead is still a holy offering. Whether your relationship is new(er) or one you’ve been in for a long time, I think the sentiment behind this poem is beautiful: I love exactly what you are, and I want exactly what you’ve got. I know that if I was feeling overwhelmed by a job hunt and came home feeling tired and defeated, nothing would surprise and delight me more than hearing my honey say, “Take off your boots, babe, swing your thigh over mine. I like it when you do the same old thing in the same old way. And then a few kisses, easy, loose, like the ones we’ve been kissing for a hundred years.”
The past few months have been pretty destabilizing for me—I broke up with a long-term partner, my best friend/platonic life partner who has been my roommate for the past twelve years is in the process of moving across the country, I’ve been perpetually on the brink of being laid off from the community college where I teach because of budget cuts, and I’ve started coming out to people around me as trans. These few months have been many things, joyous, awful, expansive, overwhelming, et cetera, but at the moment I’m feeling a bit unmoored by all the things that are changing in my life. I think this unmooring is probably something I need in the long run, but in the short run, it’s hard! I’m looking for a poem to bolster me.
I want to share a poem with you by Raymond Carver called “Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying to Get Back In,” which begins:
You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay.
It was raining. The neighbors who had
a key were away. I tried and tried
the lower windows. Stared
inside at the sofa, plants, the table
and chairs, the stereo setup.
My coffee cup and ashtray waited for me
on the glass-topped table, and my heart
went out to them. I said, Hello, friends,
or something like that.
The narrator of this poem then decides to climb up a ladder in the rain to the deck, but finds that door locked as well. On the deck, he looks through the window, and sees the desk he usually sits at. Carver writes:
And it was something to look in like that, unseen,
from the deck. To be there, inside, and not be there.
I don’t even think I can talk about it.
I brought my face close to the glass
and imagined myself inside,
sitting at the desk. Looking up
from my work now and again.
Thinking about some other place
and some other time.
The people I had loved then.
I stood there for a minute in the rain.
Considering myself to be the luckiest of men.
Even though a wave of grief passed through me.
Even though I felt violently ashamed
of the injury I’d done back then.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.
I am sending you this poem because your letter strikes me as an effort to bring your face to the glass. You have been through a lot. Your life has been interrupted in more ways than one, and after all the unmooring, you may have moments where you feel “there, inside, and not … there.” You are pausing to take stock of who you have been and where you are. Perhaps, like the narrator of this poem, you consider yourself to be both lucky and overcome by grief. It sounds like you are holding many emotions at once, understandably. Moments of transition and reflection are often painful, but they are also vital. It seems like you already suspect that the unmooring is moving you in the right direction, but I know that doesn’t mean it is easy to go through. I love the ending of this poem because of the agency the narrator claims. He bashes the window. Even though it interrupts the peace, even though it means walking into a life that has brought pain and will surely bring it again, still he chooses to step back in. Step back into your life. The one that, with its unmooring, is preparing you for whatever comes next.
Every time I experience something good—whether it’s out of sheer luck or the result of my hard work and efforts—I feel scared that this good thing will be offset by some bad thing. It is as though I cannot ever rest easy, always dreading that some unfortunate event will overtake me. Maybe this is because I have been blindsided by bad news in the past. I am not sure whether a poem can actually bring me solace, but perhaps you can suggest one that mirrors my feelings, so that I may know I am not alone in these thoughts.
The One Looking over Her Back
I want to share a short poem with you by Laura Gilpin called “The Two-Headed Calf.” Here is the poem in full:
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
I love this poem so very much. It says so much of what I wish to say to you. Namely: of course things might go wrong. Of course you may have your heart broken, or some new trauma may be lurking around the bend. Of course when the farm boys find the two-headed calf, all manner of terrible things may happen. But tonight, he is alive. And it is a perfect summer evening. And tonight you are alive. And experiencing something truly good. And what might be coming, what might go wrong, is too easy to dwell on. It is too easy to spend all your time worried about the hurt that could be on its way. You’ll miss the moon rising over the orchard in the meantime. Don’t miss it, friend. How lucky you are that for even just tonight, you have twice as many stars in your sky.
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.