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’ve been in love with and dating a man for almost a year now. He’s vibrant and interesting in all of the ways that I admire—he pursues old hobbies, constantly seeks out new ones, and curates his time to be the best version of himself he can be. But oftentimes, this leaves me feeling left in the dust, like I am less than him, like I am a shadow in the wake of his constant transformation into a better self. Even when we pursue our mutual hobbies and interests together (even ones I know I’m quite good at), he somehow manages to surpass me in skill, making my achievements feel lesser. Even though I love him so much, every time I see him I end up feeling small. Do you have a poem for this feeling of love that dwarfs you?
At the Pedestal’s Base
I offer you “My Love Sent Me a List” by Olena Kalytiak Davis, which is more or less about this exact situation. It begins:
O my Love sent me a lusty list,
Did not compare me to a summer’s day
Wrote not the beauty of mine eyes
But catalogued in a pretty detailed
And comprehensive way the way(s)
In which he was better than me.
One important clarification—does your beloved hold these things over your head? Does he catalog “in a pretty detailed / And comprehensive way the way(s)” he is more successful than you? Does he condescend to your achievements? If yes, it sounds like he is perhaps not the prize you make him out to be, that he may be neglecting a key part of his journey toward self-improvement. It strikes me as a huge red flag when you say, “every time I see him I end up feeling small.”
It’s possible that part of the situation might also be your difficulty perceiving your own self-worth, which could be rooted in any number of things. I hope you feel you can discuss this with a real professional, and with your partner. I love that the last word of Davis’s poem is “me.” It all starts and ends there—you can tell your partner how you feel, you can interrogate how and why he’s making you feel this way, you can do the work to begin repairing your own self-esteem.
I am someone whose entire expertise in the world is concentrated into a tiny dot, poetry, way out in the margins of human interest. My spouse is a poet, too, an incredible one, but they can also draw, paint, play the clarinet, identify birds by their calls, etc. When I taught Paige to play chess, a game I’ve played my whole life, it only took them a week before they were beating me. When we take walks to memorize poems together, Paige will have an entire sonnet memorized by heart before I’ve got the opening quatrain.
But at no point in our relationship has Paige ever lorded these things over me—we keep playing chess and I learn to be more patient in my moves, we keep going out to memorize poems and my slowness means we get to take longer walks. If your beloved is making you feel defective or lesser than them, maybe it’s time for you to take the example of Davis’s speaker and send him a list of your own.
My (lesbian) wife is a hoarder. I recently told her that I needed to move out of the house we shared because it was making me physically and emotionally ill. I had hoped that couples therapy would help us through her unwillingness to help keep our place clean and healthy. She made a therapy appointment for us—then, a few days later, informed me via text that I had violated our marriage vows, that she considered my attempts to address the hoarding to be intimate-partner abuse, and that she wanted a divorce. I just wanted to live in a place where I can breathe. Can you share any poems that address losing someone you love because of hoarding?
It is so difficult to lose a beloved to a glitch in their brain chemistry, and I’m sorry your wife is suffering from what sounds like a pretty intense case of hoarding disorder. The cruelties you describe, the accusations she’s levied against you, are typical of the cries psychopathology makes when trying desperately to protect itself from external intervention.
For you, I offer Rigoberto González’s “Casa,” a poem in the voice of an immigrant hoarder’s house, fed up:
I am not a time capsule.
I do not value pithy things like locks
of hair and milk teeth and ticket stubs
and promise rings—mere particles
of dust I’d blow out to the street if I could
sneeze. Take your high school jersey
and your woman’s wedding dress away
from me. Sentimental hoarding bothers me.
I love so much the image of the house sneezing out all the useless junk, like so many motes of dust. If only it were that easy! The separate journeys you and your wife now face will each be far more difficult than a sneeze or a simple farewell. I hope you are each able to find your way to the help you need.
I have recently had an old friend come to me and tell me he’s been in love with me since the first time we met. I had been in love with him, too, but then I went to the hospital for an undiagnosed mental illness. Since then, it’s been difficult for us to communicate. He doesn’t know how to approach me, nor I him. Do you have a poem that may be able to soothe either of these frustrations? I am beside myself.
Crazy in Love
Reading your letter, I thought immediately of this poem by Jenny Xie:
Never mind the distances traveled, the companion
she made of herself. The threadbare twenties not
to be underestimated. A wild depression that ripped
from January into April. And still she sprouts an appetite.
Insisting on edges and cores, when there were none.
It can be horrifying to have your life upended by mental illness just when it’s starting to get good. When your brain—the same organ that controls your heartbeat, your breathing, the contractions of your intestinal muscles—is conspiring against your happiness, what hope can there be for joy? “A wild depression that ripped / from January into April” might have seemed endless at the time, but eventually? May arrives. Edges, books, and “the hard daybreak.”
I hope the hospital gave you what you needed to begin moving down the path toward wellness. And if that path is wide enough today to accommodate a companion, then I hope you can call him to your side. Maybe try something gentle to break the tension—a walk, a movie, or a poetry reading—something that’ll allow your gazes to be parallel, not intersecting. But the urgent thing is that you are tending to your own healing, your own recovery, with the help of trained professionals (poets don’t count).
The ongoing work of loving someone always begins inside yourself. Xie says: “She had trained herself to look for answers at eye level, / but they were lower, they were changing all the time.” You might meet a lover at eye level, but look a little lower and you’ll find your own hands. They’re changing shape, reaching for, then eventually holding, whatever they need to make you well.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book is Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.