Poetry Pharmacy

Jun 29, 2019

Dear Poetry Pharmacy,

A colleague of mine just lost his mother to cancer. It’s hard to know what to say. I’d love to offer him some support — or at least commiseration — with an appropriate poem. Can you help?

This certainly is one of the key uses for poetry: to offer up words in difficult circumstances, when our own voices feel inadequate.

I find a bittersweet comfort in Joy Harjo’s poem “For Keeps,” in which the Native American poet imagines being able to ride to a place where her ancestors wait for her. The mystery of being human — and thus, being mortal — is, in Harjo’s words, “unspeakable” and “everlasting,” but also interwoven with all who came before us.

I also think of Gregory Orr, a poet whose work often centers around loss and acceptance due to early loss in his own family. His poem “Untitled (This is what was bequeathed us)” reminds the reader that when we were left by a loved one, we are also left with the responsibility of keeping that loved one alive in this world—often through the things we say and write about that person.

Both of these poems can be found on poets.org, the Academy of American Poets website.

But the truth is, the choices each of us makes about the poems we reach for in times of mourning are as personal and intimate as they come, so without knowing you or your colleague, it’s hard to select just the right thing. Might I thus recommend getting your hands on Kevin Young’s 2013 poetry anthology, "The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing"? You could look through it yourself to try to find something appropriate, or you could gift the whole volume to your colleague so he can browse through on his own, whenever he needs it.

Thank you for finding space in your life for the remedy of poetry.

Full versions of all poems mentioned in this column can easily be found for no charge online through the site mentioned or by searching for the title and author’s name. Or consult your local librarian! Behind the counter at the Poetry Pharmacy is Arielle Greenberg, Belfast Poet Laureate for 2019 & 2020. Arielle invites you to write in with your poetry needs to belfastpoetlaureate@gmail.com. She will fill prescriptions in this monthly column.

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