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 am currently experiencing a strange period. My husband passed away last year, on the day before Thanksgiving. We held a small family memorial in November, a public memorial in February, and will inter his ashes at a small ceremony in April. I am dreading the end of these memorials because I have read that after the final ceremony, usually the burial, the spirit of the recently departed will know that all is well and they will leave to allow the family to move on. We have received many signs that he is here with us, and I don’t want that to end. I dread it so much. Is there a poem for me?
Don’t Let Him Leave
I won’t pretend to have any experiential referent for the dread you’re feeling, nor will I serve you up any impotent platitudes. What I will offer is “I Wash the Shirt,” by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. Swir grew up miserably poor in war-torn Poland but wrote some of the most rending love poems of the era, including a long suite for her parents, from which this poem is taken.
For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood
When someone leaves us, no invocation, no elegy, no sense can summon them back entirely. “Washing this shirt / I destroy it / forever,” Swir writes, but of course, the smell of the shirt was always a totem, a synecdoche. Her father was gone before the scent washed away and also still present after. An old shirt, a picture in its frame, a voice on an answering machine can, under the right conditions, bloom into a moment of wholeness—an instant of being-with-again, of visitation.
You mention that you have received many signs that your husband is still with you, and this tells me that you have made yourself permeable to such check-ins. What makes you think your husband would stop these to “allow” you to move on? Such an allowance would imply that such “moving on” is what you want or need, which doesn’t seem to be the case. “In the twentieth century, grief lasts at most a year,” the poet Nazım Hikmet laments—but of course, real grief never really goes away absolutely. As in Swir’s poem, some relics fade while others remain and new ones appear. The trick is in knowing where to look. Remain open to the visitations when they come.
I’m a super newly sober human. I’m having a time dealing with it. As a nonbinary/gender-nonconforming person, I don’t see myself reflected in a lot of poetry, especially poetry that centers on addictive behaviors. Any guidance would be much appreciated.
Newly Sober and GNC
Dear Newly Sober,
First of all, shout-out to you and your new sobriety. For an addict in early recovery, any period of sobriety can be a Herculean trial. An hour, interminable. Twenty-four hours, unimaginable. The intersection of addiction and queerness, and the way in which one of these things can sometimes limit the availability of support for the other, is a foundational obsession for the young nonbinary poet torrin a. greathouse. Here’s a link to their “Burning Haibun” (content warning for homophobic language).
If alcoholics drink to forget and poets write to remember, then alcoholic poets find themselves in the center of a fascinating friction. “once, i tried to drink myself into blackout or erasure myself into something more poem than memory,” greathouse writes. For me, so much of recovery has been centered on salvaging, pouring verse (my own and others’) into the cavities of my own knowing. “Burning Haibun” examines the virtues and limitations of this process while also deftly leaning into the doubleness of erasure experienced by so many queer addicts—erasure by addiction, yes, but also erasure inscribed by domestic, familial, or cultural violences: “we have languaged our history / into burnable things.”
Do you have a poem about how America-centric this world is when you’re a non-American who’s bitter about it?
I don’t know that any single poem could adequately encompass that, and I wouldn’t even describe “The Difference,” by Ishion Hutchinson, as being particularly bitter—but! I do think it’s invested in the ways “America first” jingoism pollutes not only our relationships to the world but also our relationships to language.
This poem was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Paris Review, and I bring it to you here in full:
They talk oil in heavy jackets and plaid over
their coffee, they talk Texas and the north cold,
but mostly oil and Obama, voices dipping
vexed and then they talk Egypt failing,
Greece broken and it takes cash for France not
charity and I rather speak Russia than Ukraine
one says in rubles than whatever, whatever
the trouble, because there is sea and gold,
a tunnel, wherever right now, an-anyhow-Belarus,
oh, I will show you something, conspiring
coins, this one, China, and they marvel,
their minds hatched crosses, a frontier
zeroed not by voyage or pipeline nor the milk
foam of God, no, not the gutsy weather they talk
frizzled, the abomination worsening
opulence to squalor, never the inverse.
“I rather speak Russia than Ukraine // one says in rubles than whatever, whatever / the trouble”—entire nations, histories are flattened to a currency, and then there’s a syntactical placeholder—“whatever”—that cipher. The horrifying thing is how unsurprised any of us would be to overhear these sentences while sitting in a coffee shop or walking down a busy Manhattan street. The horrifying thing is how their presence in Hutchinson’s poem defamiliarizes them, makes us alive to the violences inside our own vernacular.
“They marvel, / their minds hatched crosses,” he writes, and the marvel, the crosses appear right there in the poem itself—“voyage or pipeline,” “the milk / foam of God.” Then Hutchinson’s ending. This ending! Is there a better, more succinct description of American colonialism (of land, of politic, of mind) than “the abomination worsening / opulence to squalor”? And look at all those negations in the last third of the poem—“not,” “nor,” “no,” “not,” “never.” The poem is almost resisting itself, resisting the reinscription of violence inherent to its very grammar.
How do we oppose the rah-rah bravado that dismisses anything not American as ancillary, important only in its proximity to Americanness? How do you cut out a worm once it’s already burrowed inside your tongue? Roethke tells us that the serious problems in life are never solved but that “some states can be resolved rhythmically.” Hutchinson’s poem invests itself deeply in that promise.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published by Alice James in the U.S. and Penguin in the UK. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.
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