In the 80s, no one really acknowledged child abuse unless you showed up with a black eye or an accusation of satanic worship. (Seriously, that was a thing. Google “Satanic Panic.” People served prison time for that nonsense.) It was not until my 30s that I realized how common it is to grow up in an abusive household, with drug addictions present. Consequently, I grew up feeling much different and alienated from other people. However, I was fortunate to have access to books, especially poetry, toward which I naturally gravitated.
In college, I read Li-Young Lee’s poem, “This Room and Everything in It,” and felt, not so much satisfied, but enlivened. The speaker describes his failure to tether the ephemeral to the concrete:
useless, useless . . .
your cries are song, my body’s not me . . .
no good . . . my idea
has evaporated . . . your hair is time, your thighs are song . . .
it had something to do
with death . . . it had something
to do with love.
As a young writer, this poem showed me how language can comfort and how it disappoints. I felt less alone, more rooted.
Joy Harjo’s description of the “horses who licked razor blades,” in her poem, “She Had Some Horses,” eased me into the understanding that, at least in the privacy of my reading time, my darkness had a safe home in which to tear up the furniture and scream out the window. The last three lines of the poem make room for contrast and the inability to reconcile.
She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.
These were the same horses.
In a world where I was expected (and often times still am) to remain stable and affable, even during my deepest grief, these words comforted. I could own my complexities. I did not have to beam with resilience or cut myself down in lament, as so often are the roles offered to women, sometimes, in oscillating fashion.
At this point in my life, I’m in the role of teacher, sharing literature with my college students. My students are wonderful. I love having a job where I get to hear about everything in the world that is new: the latest ideas and shifts in our culture at the very beginning, from brand, new adults. Some of my students have already experienced deep conflicts in life and some have not. For the latter group, I have found it helpful to contextually frame particularly dark poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” so that students are not turned off immediately, citing Prufrock’s “problem” as “just some low self-esteem.” Sigh.
But this semester was different. This semester ended with all of us scattered across the country and communicating online. People are afraid. My students, not surprisingly to me, have remained kind, in their correspondence, and have done amazing jobs completing their work during a time when focus eludes. For their final assignment, they wrote a reflection on the text they most appreciated during the semester. I did not have any concrete notion as to what to expect from this assignment.
When I read the essays, I was moved to find that many of my students found comfort in these texts, especially during this global pandemic. One student wrote that since the “immortal feel” of his college experience has been “ripped” away from him, he relates more to Gilgamesh, and the grief he felt, when Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu. Another student had, before the pandemic, experienced Petrarch’s “Sonnet 189” as simply “morose,” but now that he has witnessed illness and isolation, reads the poem from a new perspective. Sappho’s poetry resonated with a student who wrote that she now understands how it feels to want to be near someone, knowing that she cannot.
Of course, I don’t want my students to suffer; I just know that they inevitably will (or are) and that books can provide a balm.
The week that our university went online, I learned that my mother had passed away. The weather was beautiful that day, and I sat on my red swing in the backyard and played fetch with my puppy until night came. I have always felt better outside. Maybe it’s because nature never asks you to change or to conceal your emotions. It will just sit with you.
I came upon the poem, “In Perpetual Growth,” by Amy Gerstler, that week. She describes the “human desire for peace” and the hope that “for every hurt / there is a leaf to cure it.”
I hope that, especially during this time, you find a “cure” that soothes you.