Poetry Rx: Poems for Social Distancing


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Poetry Rx

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. It’s back after a short hiatus, with Claire Schwartz on the line.

© Ellis Rosen

Dear Poets, 

I feel overwhelmed by the ambient anxiety in the air right now. My hands are raw from washing, and I can’t stop refreshing the news. How do we continue to move through our lives when a virus is spreading, events keep getting canceled, and the only way to greet our loved ones is with an elbow bump? Are these the end-times we keep bracing for? I wonder if you might have a poem that reminds us how to stay close to one another while we’re all “practicing social distancing.” Or a poem that will be nice to read when we’re all quarantined? 

Thanks,

Lonely COVID

Dear Lonely,

These days feel like … a lot. For you, a poem, that refuses the overwhelmingness of enormity, calling us back to the possibility of our life-size actions, June Jordan’s “On a New Year’s Eve”:

Infinity doesn’t interest me
… and let the powerful lock up the canyon/mountain
peaks the
hidden river s…

let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
called
magnificence

Lonely, I think so many of us would answer to your name these days. The prospect of being shut up in our own discrete spaces, the events planned to bring us together canceled one after another—it does feel lonely-making, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: in many ways, the virus does not promote social distance so much as it exposes the distances that already characterize our societies. People who continue to go to work while sick are evidence of the lack of paid sick leave. People not seeking medical care when they’re ill are a direct result of our lack of universal health care in the U.S. Conferences frantically seeking options for remote participation reveal how too many of us have ignored the calls for more accessible options that people with disabilities have been making for years. Jordan writes:

it is this time
that matters

it is this history
I care about

the one we make together
awkward
inconsistent

Every avoidable harm is also an instruction for how we might better care for one another. Social distancing is isolating, yes; it is also an act of connection. It is a commitment to our communal well-being, to diminishing both the harm your body may experience and the harm it may cause. How else can we care for one another? Text your friends to check in on them. Pressure your elected officials to make hand sanitizer and medical care available to people who are incarcerated or living in shelters or otherwise vulnerable. If you’re able, donate to your local food pantry to ensure that students usually dependent on food in schools have enough to eat if their schools close. Building a world that cares for all of us is an act against loneliness, and when the virus subsides—as it eventually will—let’s continue to build that world. We’ve needed it all along.

—CS

 *

Dear Poets,

I graduated college seven months ago and every day I feel like I’m sinking deeper into nothingness. I haven’t been able to get a job in my chosen field—journalism—and almost all my friends have moved away from my city. I’m working a barista job that I love but it doesn’t feel like a future. My father urges me to follow my passion, but I look inside myself to find it and come up empty. I avoid returning the messages of loved ones and mentors because I’m so ashamed of what I am—I can’t let them see. I don’t try meeting new people—how? I try to write for myself but everything I write is such dreck that it makes me ashamed that that’s all I can create. Is there a poem for this emptiness and shame that feels so singular and so isolating?

Yours,
Nobody

 

Dear Nobody,

Who are you? Joan Didion says that she loves being small and a woman because people underestimate her, and consequently she finds herself in all kinds of spaces where she wouldn’t be allowed if they knew what she was capable of. That is to say: I don’t think Nobody is the worst person to be, so long as you focus not on how others perceive you but on the wideness of possibility that comes with not knowing exactly who you are. I want to offer you a poem for reconnection with yourself, Kabir’s “Untitled [I talk to my inner lover],” translated by Robert Bly:

          I talk to my inner lover, and I say, why such rush?
We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and the ants—

perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb.
Is it logical that you would be walking around entirely orphaned now?

When I was little, I wrote fan letters to a constellation of people held together only by the random gravity of my love: Michael Jordan, the Queen of England, my great aunt, Yo-Yo Ma. I recently wrote a fan letter to a poet I adore, and it was a beautiful reconnection with that child-part of myself who loves without any self-consciousness, who writes only to testify to what I love, who puts something in the world without expecting a response. In the matrix of measurements that adulthood can feel like, it can be rare to take direction from your interior compass.

Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.

You may not have your dream career—and believe me, I feel your frustration there—but career aspirations are just one form your questions take in the world. Don’t deny yourself what you have. Let yourself love the job you love without holding it up to a future where it falls short. Face the people you love thinking not of how your face looks to them but of how beautiful their faces look to you. Allow yourself the freedom of not-knowing for a while. Move toward what you love without judgemnt. Follow your curiosity. You’ll make your path by walking it.

—CS

*

Dear Poetry Rx,

When I was a child, blissful as could be in the ocean, my parents would stand on the shore frantically waving their hands, urging me to come in closer.  Any time they looked away for a moment, I stole another length of sea and happily drifted a bit farther out. Now, at thirty-two years old, I have found myself moving back into my mother’s home, of all places, for a myriad of reasons (health issues, career change, finances, et cetera). While I am grateful for her welcoming me back, it is hard to not feel like I have failed in my quest for independence, adventure, and distance. I need a poem to remind me that the girl who had no fear of sharks or riptides still lives inside me. That as stuck as I may feel, the ocean and all the faraway land masses still call to me, just as loudly as they ever did. That even if there is no shoreline in sight on the other side of the water, one most certainly awaits. That above all else I still have my feet. 

Sincerely,
Sneaky Swimmer

 

Dear Sneaky Swimmer,

When I read your beautiful letter, I thought immediately of Adélia Prado’s “Lesson,” translated by Ellen Doré Watson, whose blissful opening scene reminded me of yours:

It was a shadowy yard, walled high with stones.
The trees held early apples, dark
wine-colored skin, the perfected flavor of things
ripe before their time.
Clay jugs sat alongside the wall
I ate apples and sipped the purest water

The lines I love most:

Then my father appeared and tweaked my nose,
and he wasn’t sick and hadn’t died either;
that’s why he was laughing, blood
stirring in his face again,
he was hunting for ways to spend this happiness

These lines teach me something about what poetry can do—hold what will be against what has been so that the past is made present again, this time shimmering with the veneer of loss. And in gathering the past and the present, the lesson promised in the title emerges:

I always dream something’s taking shape,
nothing is ever dead.
What seems to have died fertilizes.
What seems motionless waits.

The girl who stole another length of sea isn’t gone; she’s becoming. What sent you home is the same current that you rode out into the ocean, all those years ago: you’ve always known exactly where you needed to be. You are still swimming. The tide came in. It will go back out, and you’ll drift far from shore once again.

—CS

 

Want more? Read earlier installments of Poetry Rx. Need your own poem? Write to us!

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.

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