by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate
Between January and March 2016 hundreds of writers submitted powerful poems of overcoming grief and trauma. Four poems in particular stood out that captured the healing potential of the writing process.
The quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize was one such example.
This is a letter to someone important to me who died.
I know it’s been awhile since you’ve been gone
And so much has changed, baby boy.
So many flowers of gloom have begun to bloom.
Your mother is still a light,
But she can no longer be mine.
I’m sorry I let you down,
But so much has changed, baby boy.
Your mother is about to be a wife
And your baby sister is on the way.
And me, I’m just trying to find my way.
You still are the light of my world,
The first son of sons I will have
And the first heartbreak of heartbreaks I will feel.
It’s been a long time—four years if you want to be real
And though I don’t write to you as often as before,
The pain and the anger are still so very real.
Watch over your mother ‘cause I can no longer.
Watch over your sister ‘cause I won’t be able.
Make sure they stay strong because someone has too.
May God bless your soul,
Little angel of mine.
This poem captures the grief of its author while making an important statement: writing brings light to the dark corners of who we are, of what we’ve been through. In the poem, the child is the image of light revealing the author’s difficult feelings that need to be voiced. Though the author’s life may still be full of the flowers of gloom, their poem suggests that the naming and sharing of the hurt is a part of finding their way.
But finding the way is a long process when the pain runs so deep.
I JUST THOUGHT YOU SHOULD KNOW
I just thought you should know what I’m doing now.
I am a happy person
Who spends a lot of time with our child and my family.
I just thought you should know how I’m feeling.
I am depressed
Because our daughter is one now and you don’t even know her.
I just thought you should know what I’ve been through.
Since the last time I saw you, I have changed so much.
The time that I gave birth to our child was especially important to me.
I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that our daughter will get to know you.
I just thought you should know what I don’t miss about you.
I am glad I don’t have to worry about being alone anymore.
I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way you used to be a part of my life.
I just thought you should know that I hope you can be a part of our daughter’s life.
I admire the grace in the poet’s voice. Even though the father of the child has fallen short—even if only in his absence—the poet hopes for a future relationship between the father and daughter—a selfless wish as the poem implies the romance between the poet and the father has ended. The poet’s honesty also defines the poem. The poet admits missing the father still, though she is glad she doesn’t “have to worry about being alone anymore”. This indicates that the poet has found solidarity in themselves and/or found sufficiency in the togetherness they have with their daughter. Either way, the letter that may never be answered reveals the author’s strength as a parent and an individual.
This theme of letters of loss continues with the next author who takes a unique approach. This author chooses to imagine the perspective of the one they’ve lost as a way to speak comfort to themselves.
LETTER OUT OF DARKNESS
I want to imagine the voice of him
To share any and all feelings with me
Since time apart now has made it all dim and I need this letter to help me see:
I want you to know that I think about
You, especially when in times like now;
Your fragile heart leads to feelings of doubt,
And in peace, your mind just will not allow.
It is difficult for me to write this
To you, because I am depending on
The words you may choose and those you may miss.
I trust you know me still, words not foregone.
I see how your life has been since I left
And I want to tell you so many things.
I sense all your happiness bereft
So remember what good thoughts of me brings.
I wish for you to understand something
Else about me, that I have truly loved once
And before her I had felt but nothing.
Yes, her name was yours! Then we became us.
If I could, I would never change our time
Together. I am sure you will also agree
That this be the most regrettable crime:
We gave each other a love which was free.
If you find no one who will listen to
Your troubles, please speak aloud. Call my name.
I will listen for you, hear you, help you.
What you meant to me there is here the same.
I love you,
The poet, through their lover’s voice, reminds themselves of their own value as an individual and speaks words of encouragement that they can believe—an act which takes imagination in grief, when nothing seems as real as the feeling of loss.
After profound loss—of those we love, of our sense of self after trauma—we have to do what the next poet describes in our final poem of this quarter:
I’m learning how to walk again.
Not necessarily because I didn’t do it right.
More because of the fact that I never knew how to change my pace.
My steps were too light.
The opinions on acidic fingertips
Were what I was most concerned about.
And the confessions from bittersweet mouths.
I’m learning how to consume again,
Always ready with parted lips
Thoughtless and thirsty underneath
The belly of my rusted faucet
Forgetting how to stomach favor
Whenever it manages to come out.
I’m learning how to wait again,
Sitting tight with a furnace in my womb,
Responsibility soon to sprout nails and skim my stretched pink surface.
I’m learning how to bleed again.
With the absence of blood though.
Draining the suicide from the underside of my tongue not nearly as thick
as that copper scented crimson
but just as even of a flow.
I’m learning how to destruct without destroying.
Taking aim at my temples.
My index fingers loaded with accusations and forgotten splinters.
Sliding another insult into the flesh covered chamber.
I’m learning how to sleep again with a mind wide open.
Dreaming of insomnia.
Tracing lullabies on my bed sheets.
I’m learning how to kneel again.
Without ever really bending my knees.
Overthinking asking for forgiveness.
Then remembering that I forget what praying is.
I’m learning how to write again.
Turns out it hardly involves the movement of a pen.
The tap of a key, the swipe of a screen.
It’s just my head, my heart and me.
We can’t do much
But at least we know what we’ve managed to achieve.
And what an achievement indeed: lyrical, profound expression. This author’s learning and relearning makes for great poetry and an important reminder and model for all of us as we attempt to heal and as we write letters for ourselves and others in similar situations. A thanks to this poet and all poets for inspiring the continuation of this process of writing our way out of the darkness.
Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.