These Short Poems Have Been Saving Me

Lately I’ve had to call on words for little shots of strength. Some use tequila; I use poems short enough to memorize. Their lines float around in my head, counteracting the insidious words that are less productive, less kind.

Yes, I’m talking about the kind of life & soul rebuilding that comes at the end of one life phase and the start of another. Me, right now — I’m on a ship in new waters. Before, I’d been on a really nice boat. The kind that you’d point at if you were on the shores and say wow, how’d she get so lucky to score a place on that very plush Axelrodian yacht? It had beautiful interiors. But it was not going to any of the islands I wanted to visit; I was locked away in my suite and never could feel the wind flapping around my face. Now I’m in a scrappier sailboat, jumping from island to island. It’s rugged. The wind is temperamental, sending me off course occasionally. My hair has never been crazier, and I’ve never been happier.

By this I mean to say, I’m in the uncharted territory that comes after a break-up. So I’ve been navigating by constellations, and by poems I can call on for spiritual guidance. I don’t always know what they mean; I just know they speak to a part of me that does.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert


Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
^has there ever been a poem that better captures the bittersweet fondness that crusts over the end of a relationship? That you can’t call it failing, really? Just the end of something that might have once been good? “Coming to the end of OUR triumph.” It’s taught me not to beat myself up so much. It wasn’t a failure, really.
“Rain” by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

This poem, too, teaches me to be kind to myself. It’s all been wonderful, this life — I’d make every choice again.

“may my heart” by ee cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

And this little poem reminds me not to let my heart freeze over.

What are your favorite short poems?

Jeannette Winterson’s a Star

I’ve read writers who write good paragraphs, and then writers who write paragraphs in sentences. Jeanette Winterson is the latter type. Take this example from her novel Gut Symmetries (which I haven’t read, but…)


just damn, and it keeps getting better

Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene when she was at the shiny, enviable age of 26. She’d left home 16 years earlier after coming out as a lesbian, and her life experiences are printed all over her first novel, Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit. The semi-autobiographical novel is about a girl’s journey out of a fervently religious Evangelical household in an English mill town through discovering and embracing her lesbian sexuality. Though of course she never quite makes it “out,” because we can never make it out of our families. But anyway. It’s a damn good book, and I’m sure Jeanette’s mother would get mad at me for saying “damn” but luckily for both of us, she’s not my mother.


Jeanette–but which one??

Winterson’s narrator, also named Jeanette, looks back and writes about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Jeanette was adopted as an infant by this mother, a woman who believes in stark binaries, to be groomed into becoming a pastor. All her life Jeanette is aware of her mother’s “calling” for her to join the church. But her destiny collides with her desires when Jeanette awakens to romance, to the Melanies and Katies of the world. It’s so interesting tracing the logic Jeanette uses to have love for women and church in her life, and when the icy realization that the community won’t let her do this begins to seep in.

Jeanette’s mother is kind of person who warrants an entire book being written about her, with enough idiosyncratic antics and wild beliefs that you stick with Jeanette to see how she navigates loving her mother and knowing she must leave her if she’s to survive. The title stems from one of the mother’s proclamations that oranges are the only fruit. But of course they’re not.

You’d think a book about a girl being shunned by her community/realizing her community is batshit would be bitter. But it’s not. It’s poignant, funny, and terribly kind to the people that she lost along the way.


from Oranges, captures the poetic urgency of her way out

Winterson sprinkles in some fantastical elements in Oranges in brief fairy-tale-esque sequences mythologizing Jeanette’s journey out. Her book The Passion (which I think is my favorite Winterson) takes this speculative fiction to a whole new level. It’s about a love affair between a Venetian thief and a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Mostly I was swept away because it has extremely delectable quotes on love in it, and there’s nothing I quite like like good love quotes. Great stuff like, “I say I’m in love with her. What does that mean? It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly, she explains me to myself. LIke genius she is ignorant of what she does.” JEEEEZ. I mean, really, the woman knows how to write about the human experience and the human heart in ways that ring bells of truth.

Yet I know I’m being self-indulgent by swooning over how good The Passion is because it’s just a book that I would very much like.  Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit stuck with me for its sheer humanness. Knowing that it’s a true story certainly doesn’t make the reverberations any less strong.

It’s a comfort to know that I’ve only read two of her books, and there’s so much thought-provoking heartbreaking humanness to come.