“There is Just Us”— Poets Finding Themselves Out of the Ashes
by Shaun McMichael
This spring (April-June 2015)’s collection of poems submitted to Pongo built upon the past winter’s themes of finding solidarity within the self in response to trauma, neglect and conflict with family—things all of us can relate to on some level. Many of these young authors chose this past spring to face and embrace themselves. They did so fully, courageously admitting their contribution to their own difficulties and outlining the vital role they play in their own recovery. Their forthrightness deserves our admiration, their words our analysis.
Let’s start with this quarter’s winner:
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
by a young woman, age 16
When I was small,
I would listen to fairy tales and wish I was a princess.
I would dress up in a dress,
put on makeup and a crown,
and feel as if my prince was on his way.
He never came.
As I grew,
I wanted a superhero to save me from my demons.
Someone to come down,
pick me up and fly me away.
Far, far away.
He never came.
Now, I want a villain.
Someone to blame
for everything I get mad for.
To blame for my hardships, my bad times, and the deaths.
He never came.
There is no prince
waiting to sweep you off your feet.
There is no superhero
waiting to save us.
There is no super villain
waiting to cause terror.
There is just us.
We make worlds and dream of fantasies.
But that's all they are.
I wish I got saved by my superhero,
got my prince,
defeated my villain.
I didn't get rescued.
No prince is on their way,
and no villain is here to blame.
My prince is me.
My hero is me.
My villain is me.
I am the protagonist.
I am the antagonist.
I am my story.
But I'm just me.
I can't fly.
I can't throw mountains.
I can't shoot lasers out of my eyes.
The odds are against me.
Not in my favor.
But that's my story.
The story of me.
The story of the non-special me.
I don't have powers.
I don't have anything special.
But i have me.
And that's all I need.
The prince probably met someone else.
My hero probably saved someone else.
My villain probably terrorized someone else.
But that's fine.
Because I can make my own story
With only me.
This is a coming of age story in a few short stanzas. The poem’s beginning tracks the author’s craving for some external force—even a malign one—to intervene in their life. But none do, leading the author to the existential conclusion “there’s just us.” This is a frustrating reality for many of us—this feeling of aloneness. But rather than live in frustration, the author’s locus shifts from external to internal: “I am the protagonist. I am the antagonist. I am my story”.
These short declaratives are packed with insight and grant the author some freedom. “…I have me. And that’s all I need…I can make my own story.”
Might we all repeat these words and reminder ourselves of our own sentience in the narrative arc of our lives.
But it’s not always so easy being the author of our own story. We sometimes have to make hard decisions about certain things we have to cut out of our lives. Our first honorable mention reminds us of this:
by a young woman, age 18
The truth about recovery?
It’s a process meant to break you.
Recovery is a demanding bitch.
A shadow of what you are
beating you senseless into what you are striving to be
Pulling you up by your withered wrists.
And robbing you of every inch of the skin that you’re comfortable in.
Because comfort was not part of the agreement.
But having a powder blue glove shoved heavy and cold into your gut is.
Pulling out pills and broken wreckage.
Chipping the decaying hate from the fleshy walls of your stomach.
Placing compliance in your mouth
because if it doesn't hurt then you don't really want it.
Taking your eyes and pulling them out because they're both dry glassy and haunted.
Giving the drums to your ears a different base
Because everything you shoved down those raw and rubbed canals was dank garbage.
Taking out razor blades and dusty pill bottles because depression and anxiety
Forced you to forget what grieving in moderation is.
Another powdered glove spots a forgotten fuck up.
Or as you knew her,
A skeleton of a girl with her head still bowed for thin.
Recovering is pain and damaging truthfulness
Meant to mold you into a new you
But leave enough scars
So you never forget the process
From which you rose from black ashes
Like a cautious but strong phoenix.
The final image of the phoenix is hard earned and beautiful. The poet has spared none of the details (as no poet should) describing the ash they’re rising from. But the poem isn’t trying to dissuade us from the road of recovery. It’s bracing us for the ironic pain of getting better. “It doesn’t hurt when you don’t really want it,” the poet writes. The detox process that feels like it’s going to kill us, is the same thing that lets us fly free.
This also poem admits that part of the perceived noxiousness of the recovery process is allowing others to help.
But it’s worth it. Our next poem reminds us all why:
WHERE AM I
by a young woman, age 14
I don't know who I am
I don't know what, do you?
Where am I? Where am I?
I don't know, do you?
I try to remember everything that happened
I just can’t seem to remember
I look around the room and I see nothing but white
I can barely see a thing. What happened to my sight?
I look down at my arms and all I see are bandages.
Blood bleeds through.
I haven't felt this way in ages,
I don't know what happened and I'm the only one here.
I don't see my mom. I don't even know if she is here.
What the hell is going on? I hate feeling this way.
Can someone tell me? I can no longer stay.
Before you know it, the room gets dark.
I open my eyes and I hear my dog bark.
It was all just a dream. Thank god I'm okay.
Wait, never mind. That used to be me every day.
I've been five months clean.
If I can do it, you can do it too. Trust me.
It’s not a fun scene.
I've been so strong. I'm so proud of myself.
When I look in the mirror today, I say ‘wow, you’re a star!
You did it yourself.’
So don't give up, no matter what you do
because if I got through then you can go through it too.
This poem comes to us from a voice a little further over the hump of recovery. Yet, hospitalization is recent enough to be remembered as a palpable nightmare.
But the poet has lived through it. Because of this, they’re able to not only tell themselves they can do it; they can convincingly inspire others to do the same.
Part of healing is differentiating ourselves from the wrongs others have done to us. Our final honorable mention is an example:
by a young woman, age 15
I just thought you should know what I'm doing now.
I am a very sad and lonely person
who spends a lot of time online
because I don't have anything better to do or anyone to talk to.
I just thought you should know how I'm feeling.
I am depressed
because you have put me down nearly my entire life, always criticizing me.
I just thought you should know what I've been through.
Since the last time I saw the real you, I have suffered so much.
The time that you claimed I was arrogant and stupid was especially damaging to me.
I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that you can grow up and be a better person instead of bringing me down.
I just thought you should know what I won't miss about you.
I am glad I won't have to worry about your constant reminding me of my imperfections.
I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way we used to get along and laugh and smile as children.
I just thought you should know that I miss the old you,
and I hope that person reappears while you're away.
Unlike the first poem in this blog, sometimes there is someone to blame, at least in part, for how we feel about our lives. People have sent us messages that we’ve internalized. This author teaches us the first part of purging these messages from our self-concept is naming the wrongs done to us—particularly by someone who was as dear as the brother in this poem.
The poem also reminds us that we are all at different stages in our healing. For this poet, the wounds are still fresh and the path to moving beyond the hurt is uncertain. Acknowledging where we are can help us aim for where we want to go.
One thing is certain however: poetry continues to be a venue for us to express ourselves wherever we’re coming from. We want to thank our authors for reminding us of that.
We also want to thank all the poets who submitted work to Pongo in the 2014- 2015 academic year. Keep writing authors and keep reading readers. Expression is hope!