Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to.
April 28: weakness / strength
Sometimes I think my poetry is weak.
It’s not a commentary on the unique 21st century conundrums of technology and privacy. It doesn’t always deal with cutting-edge social controversies or current events or social justice. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my identity is relevant to the poem. But sometimes I write about waiting for someone to come home, or wanting someone to change; about being alone, about love, about seeing myself in nature. Sometimes I write about vulnerability and grief.
A while ago, I was talking to a friend about getting published. Kind of cool, I thought, to get recognized when all I do is write little love poems.
He stopped me in my tracks. “What could be more important than little love poems?”
I have to say I agree. We live in a world where too often simple humanity is seen as weakness, where kindness is seen as an absence of strength rather than an absence of tyranny, where talking about feelings is less important than talking numbers. I want so much to be in a world free of this toxic masculinity, but I still feel doubt that my softness is valuable.
This worry over weakness and strength is found in Elaine Equi’s poem, “Lazy Bones,” recently published in American Poetry Review:
Sitting in the waiting room
sucking on the sweet paranoia
of a Shirley Jackson story.
Sitting among silk tulips
and paper roses,
the frosted glass panels
and pale pink walls
of the radiology center.
Then led to a dark cubicle
for the imaging of my skeleton.
Dave, the tattooed technician
slips a pillow under my knees.
I want to tell him,
“My bones are shy.
I don’t exercise.
I love coffee.
They know they’re weak
and don’t like being photographed.”
I was intrigued by the word “weak”, and by the speaker’s advocacy for her bones. She identifies her bones as ‘shy’ as if they are actually humans who don’t like being photographed. The reason given: “they know they’re weak.” The speaker wishes to express this sentiment to Dave, the technician, who is in the position of looking at her (and her bones) and potentially judging them. To stave off the embarrassment of being seen, she wishes to reassure him that she already knows her weaknesses. It’s the same phenomenon of getting up in front of a class to perform a speech and apologizing first: “I know this isn’t very good, but it’s the best I can do.” But the bones do not speak in first person; the speaker wishes to speak on their behalf: “They know they’re weak” (emphasis added). This shows that she feels responsible for their weakness, as we can see from the lines that immediately precede this one: “I don’t exercise / I love coffee.” Here, the speaker is criticizing the actions in her life that have made her bones weak, and therefore critiquing her own character weaknesses as she notices her physical ones.
But she also uses the poem to establish sympathy. Weakness seems allied to softness, gentleness, in the feminine, gentile setting of the waiting room. And she is, after all, here to seek medical help, an act of bravery in my opinion. he speaker must admit that she is weaker than she would like to be, weaker than a healthy person should be, but why should she apologize for that?
This poem seems to suggest that we all have moments when we are weak– we are not always at our peak condition. Sometimes it is because of injury or disease, sometimes because of emotional distress. We also may have moments when we are seen as weak because of our identities, our ages, our gender, our class. We may find embarrassment or judgement in those moments, and may try to avoid it by apologizing or self-deprecating. Instead, we should sympathize with ourselves. It is okay to be soft and vulnerable, and when we feel tired and weak, we should accept the kindness of a pillow gently slid underneath our knees.
Writing about this weakness, these moments of humanity and need, is the role my poetry seems to be serving in my life right now, and in doing so, I think it is making me stronger.