Poems of Despair

June 2, 2020

Yesterday I did a few things to try to make myself feel better while my country is on fire in the midst of a pandemic. I worked out–on facetime–with my trainer. Then I went for a walk–sunshine, blue sky, beautiful blooming things. I was listening to an early Joan Baez album, nothing political, folk songs about love gone wrong. But then she hit a few piercing high notes, and I started to weep. And there was no solace–not in the blue sky, nor the poppies nor the peonies, not in the wisteria vines nor the clematis draped over fences. There was no solace anywhere. And when I said so later to friends they all offered bits of hope–things are about to change, wait until fall, it’s bound to get better. Everything sounded like tired bromides. When I refused to be cheered one said, “Well, I’ll leave you to your despair.” And I thought, yes, please. There are times when we need to just sit with it, and with its cousins grief and helpless rage. When I read poems written in the midst of despair it’s as if an understanding stranger is sitting with me for as long as I need. Maybe some of these will do that for you. And I’d be grateful if you want to add your own suggestions.

 

#340

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

 

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

 

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

 

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Emily Dickinson

*

 

ASPEN TREE

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother’s hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Paul Celan

*

 

SHEEP IN FOG

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Sylvia Plath

*

CHARLOTTESVILLE WINTER

Tomorrow is history, lead singer of nothing;

unfurnished spirit, chair

selected from the curb–

little manual on

my desk, the oven door.

Franz Wright

*

SMALL PRAYER

Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day

May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes.

Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen,

That time may find its sound again, and cleanse

Whatever it is that a wound remembers

After the healing ends.

Weldon Kees

 

 

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22 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply Pattie Heyman June 2, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    I am so grateful for how deep you go within and outside in the political crisis of now. I love that you allowed yourself to sit with the despair and then brought us these rich poems of despair that totally resonate for my own within and with-out.

    • Avatar
      Reply sharonbryanpoet June 2, 2020 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks, Pattie. I really appreciate that.

  • Avatar
    Reply Sharon Klander June 2, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    Thank you so much, Sharon, for sharing these!

  • Avatar
    Reply Sharon Klander June 2, 2020 at 9:11 pm

    The Weldon Kees poem is especially perfect for today–

    • Avatar
      Reply sharonbryanpoet June 2, 2020 at 9:17 pm

      That one often speaks to me in low moments.

  • Avatar
    Reply Tina Schumann June 2, 2020 at 9:39 pm

    Yes to all of this Sharon. If ever there was a time to wallow it is now. Despair is as valid an emotion as any of the others. My husband asks me why I watch movies that make me cry and I say because I NEED to feel this way right now. There is (usually) a kind of restoration that takes place. As far as poems that come to mind for me I found that these three, much to my chagrin, all offer some small moment of redemption. So perhaps they do not rate as true despair poems. Deep despair does not offer redemption or let us off the hook. I enjoyed that your samples did not. I immediately thought of (ironically perhaps) “Live” by Ann Sexton, as it goes as far into personal despair as one can and still finds redemption (though we know that did not last for her). Also, “Having it Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon https://poets.org/poem/having-it-out-melancholy and finally “Disappointment” by Tony Hoagland. https://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php%3Fdate=2003%252F11%252F09.html. Thanks for this today.

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 2, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    Oh, thanks for these. I know the Kenyon–and in fact didn’t include it because of its glimmer of hope. But it’s very moving. I’m about to go look at the Hoagland. I think we always want to see the end of it, because despair is terrifying. But sometimes there really is no hope–not of getting what it is we want. There’s a poem called “Hopeless” in my book Flying Blind about a young man who is dying reducing his hopes one by one until the only one left is to be buried in a plain pine box. There’s always hope if you define it that small.

    • Avatar
      Reply Tina Schumann June 3, 2020 at 12:37 am

      I have Flying Blind. I will look for “Hopeless.” Our times certainly are forcing us to look for the small hopes.

  • Avatar
    Reply Robin Lindley June 2, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing this vivid writing at a dark time for our country, for humanity.
    Best wishes Sharon

  • Avatar
    Reply Pat Collins June 2, 2020 at 11:42 pm

    Thank you, Sharon, for sharing these powerful poems in a painful time. I feel at one with these voices of suffering and grief, but there are so many acts of kindness and valor around me that give me hope.

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 2, 2020 at 11:53 pm

    You’re welcome. I see beautiful acts of kindness myself. But I think for me hope can be an excuse for not taking action: I hope everything works out for you, I hope that man I see berating his terrifies son won’t beat him when they get inside (that happened when I was staying in Rockport, and I did nothing). I see a lot of kindness right now, and the sight of police kneeling with protesters brings me to tears. But I don’t think it gives me hope anymore–all of that can be washed away by violence in seconds, as it was at Kent State. We underestimated the forces against us then, and I think that’s probably even truer now.

  • Avatar
    Reply Alegra Loewenstein June 3, 2020 at 1:28 am

    Did you see the video of the 12 year old boy singing, “I just want to live”? He sits in despair and helpless rage along with these poets. I can only hope I find strength and creativity to emerge from this grief ready to take meaningful action. How to save what feels so so broken?

    • Avatar
      Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 1:41 am

      I did see that–heartbreaking. You ask the central question–how to save what feels so broken? Good to hear from you.

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 11:22 am

    from Peter Makuck: “Thanks, Sharon, for sharing your workout, walk, and despair. I needed those poems too.”

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    from Grace Schulman: “Thanks, Sharon. All other comments fail me, wordless before a maimed world.”

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    from Grace Schulman: “Sharon, words came back. For two nights running I heard from my window on University Place (you’ve been there), screams, shouts, sirens, helicopters, broken glass, fire, and saw a cop car smashed, a man injured left lying on the ground. I remember the Sixties, standing on that same corner with my picket, chanting with the group, “We Don’t Want Your Fucking War!” But that was the Sixties, and the goals were clear: that is, here there were two distinct groups: the peaceful protestors and the outside agitators. The glass breakers, the fire setters, were not the protesters but criminals who couldn’t care less what the protests were about. Reform, I wanted to shout. “We Don’t Want Your Fucking Injustice.””

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Grace, this is so moving. Yes, I can still picture your apartment–what a wonderful evening that was. I’m in a quiet residential neighborhood in Seattle now, but my previous apartment would have had a view of the marches and smoke and tear gas. I too remember the sixties, and the goals–end the war in Vietnam, work for Civil Rights. I remember a little tear gas myself. I thought we were on the verge of big changes for the better–and then Kent State ended those hopes and there’s been a backlash against the values we stood for ever since. That’s one of the things that leads me to despair.

  • Avatar
    Reply Sharon Klander June 3, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    Since your post yesterday, I’ve been re-reading poetry from my own library for those poems of despair I often turn to. Here’s one of them:

    THE STORY

    If it rained tonight
    I’d lie down
    For a thousand years.

    —-As if nothing had happened;
    As if the story
    Wouldn’t retell itself forever:

    No more mother, no remembered loves, and my pulse
    Purified, the only sound,
    As I lowered myself into the depths . . .

    But the bells are ringing up the hill,
    Punishing bells,
    Recounting all the arguments against me.

    If I’ve created the story of my life,
    Why not now the story
    Of not having ever lived at all?

    Maybe then there wouldn’t be this burden
    Of what was lost
    Almost before it had arrived.

    Maybe then there wouldn’t be this weight
    Of what is
    And what I can feel myself already losing.

    Joe Bolton

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    Oh, yes. This is exactly what I meant. Thank you.

  • Avatar
    Reply Christopher Bakken June 3, 2020 at 2:25 pm

    This is a good moment to turn to poetry, indeed. A poem on my mind these days is Robert Hayden’s ekphrastic poem “Money’s Waterlilies.” I think it hits your mark rather exactly, since the speaker’s despair is so grounded in its historical context, and yet art’s timeless expanses offer at least a glimpse of something left to be praised, if only “aura” and “shadow.”

    MONET’S WATERLILIES

    Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
    poisons the air like fallout,
    I come again to see
    the serene, great picture that I love.

    Here space and time exist in light
    the eye like the eye of faith believes.
    The seen, the known
    dissolve in iridescence, become
    illusive flesh of light
    that was not, was, forever is.

    O light beheld as through refracting tears.
    Here is the aura of that world
    each of us has lost.
    Here is the shadow of its joy.

  • Avatar
    Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    This is beautiful, Christopher, and I didn’t know it before. “That world each of us has lost….” What we could be, what the world could be–or maybe that it won’t ever be.

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