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’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve crushed, I’ve rejected, I’ve (potentially) stalked, I’ve dated, I’ve idealized, I’ve fallen for fictional characters, I’ve kissed—but I’ve never been in a relationship. I realize I don’t need a partner to live my best life, but all the same, I crave it. I crave a hand in mine, a jaw to nuzzle, an ear to whisper into, a voice reading to me. Is there a poem that expresses this craving without viewing romantic love as a life-altering, world-saving thing?
Not Lonely, Just Looking for a Lover
Dear Not Lonely,
I love this request. And I’m thrilled to be able to recommend a poem by Rebecca Hazelton called “You Are the Penultimate Love of My Life” that starts,
I want to spend a lot but not all of my years with you.
We’ll talk about kids
but make plans to travel.
I will remember your eyes
as green when they were gray.
Our dogs will be named For Now and Mostly.
Sex will be good but next door’s will sound better.
There will be small things.
I will pick up your damp towel from the bed,
and then I won’t.
I won’t be as hot as I was
when I wasn’t yours
and your hairline now so
Many love poems assume that romantic love is a life-altering, world-saving thing. I really appreciate that this poem is an ode to the kind of craving you mentioned, without fixating on the notion of soulmates. I think it makes you human to recognize and indulge in this desire, and wise to still keep it in perspective. I wish you companionship and intimacies of all kinds, in many forms, life-altering and otherwise. A lover not world-saving is still worth craving.
I’m a trans guy with religious parents who are unsupportive when they acknowledge my transness. I mainly feel that I do not belong or fit in with my family at all. Any suggestions for some encouragement or angst that sounds like it would resonate with me?
—Sore Thumb in South Carolina
Dear Sore Thumb,
To know who you are, to be able to name it, and to live as your truest self, requires a level of honesty, courage, and risk-taking that deserves congratulations and celebration. I wish that is what you were receiving from your family. I am sorry that they are unable to fully see you or support you in the way you deserve. There are so many poems I would like to recommend to you. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s book “Not Here” touches on navigating filial responsibility and parental disappointment, and I have recommended it in this column before. I would also love to point you toward Cameron Awkward-Rich, Miles Walser, Danez Smith, Paul Tran, Chrysanthemum Tran, Justice Gaines, Paige Lewis, and Andrea Gibson, who are just a few of my favorite writers whose collective works navigate a vast landscape of trans and nonbinary lives and experiences. I know that when I struggle to untangle the knots in my head and heart, reading other people’s poems often leads me to language I didn’t even know I was looking for. If you feel that you do not belong or fit in with your current family, perhaps you can find some kinship in the language others use to express their transness, their families, their angst, and their joys.
But my job in this column is supposed to be to recommend you one poem, and so I have settled on a poem by J. Jennifer Espinoza, from her chapbook, “Outside Of the Body There is Something Like Hope.” (I love every poem in this chapbook, and it is a limited-edition print, so I also highly recommend grabbing one before it is gone forever.) This poem is not available anywhere online, and so I asked Jennifer and her publisher to give us permission to print it here in full. I’m so grateful they said yes:
My Trans Body
I pick up the phone and send you some words
about my trans body. They float across America
and are careful not to touch anything between
us or worry about who sees them. They just
crackle and spin and soar through the air
observing scenes of everyday events—
many birds moving like a single animal,
trees swaying in place,
men being men to everything’s detriment.
When you hear my words it reminds me
I’m solid matter. In some sense I am
the daydream of an alternate universe.
In another sense I am far too present here.
I say look at my shoulders, look at all I carry,
but all anyone sees is their shape.
No one hears what my legs do or remembers
how I built them from nothing.
How I trudged through the dull grey shit
of a gendered life until I could no longer take it.
They make movies about us being sad
and dying but they never talk about
what it is for us to be alive,
to love life so much we choose this brokenness
just to have the smallest taste of it.
I’m not trying to play with your emotions.
I don’t want to be your inspirational object.
I’m saying I am here now, embrace me
or get out of my way. I have big plans.
They involve staying alive. They involve
claiming my space and never being quiet again.
I am so thankful to Jennifer for this poem—these words about her trans body, floating across America, now on their way to South Carolina. Jennifer’s poem is about her body and her body’s story, and it isn’t the same as yours. But I do want you to know that you, too, are solid matter. I cannot see your shoulders from here, but I care about what they carry. I hope you find kinship with people who recognize and celebrate you choosing a courageous, honest life. Even if you are not ready to say, “I am here now, embrace me / or get out of my way,” I want you to see those words and know that you deserve them. I know you have big plans, and I’m so excited for you.
I’m feeling quite lonely this week and I was wondering if you knew of a poem that both acknowledges that sadness, but is not consumed by it. I’m feeling very swallowed up in my loneliness and I need a nice poetry life preserver!
We get quite a few letters that inquire about loneliness, but the way you phrased your request really stood out to me: a poem that acknowledges the sadness without being consumed by it. I want to recommend to you a poem by José Olivarez, from his book Citizen Illegal, called “Not-Love is a Season.” The poem begins:
not-love is a season.
i drank fire. a dozen blankets
couldn’t keep me from shivering.
winter is an unavoidable fact.
unless you’re from Cali &
I don’t trust people who don’t know
the freeze of loneliness. the dead
by the birds still chasing summer.
my homies all telling me
i’ll meet someone else. like i want
to meet someone else. my wound deep.
but mine. already time working to ease
my grip on my hurt. I know misery
I love the way this poem recognizes loneliness as a season, instead of, say, a hole one must climb out of. A hole is difficult to escape, and can seem impossible at times. But a season must arrive (“winter is an unavoidable fact”), and it also must pass. That is what seasons do. Already, the narrator can feel time working to ease his grip on his hurt. Your loneliness is here, but will not be forever. It is okay to acknowledge the loneliness, it is even okay to relish it a little bit. But allow room for thawing. Remember that there have been other seasons and prepare for new ones that are coming. As José reminds us: “love is a season that begins like a leaf. / when in the dead winter a tree dreams / of a crown it will one day wear.”
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, including B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.