There are certain poems that provide comfort or emotional clarity in a crisis. Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” went viral after the Pulse nightclub shooting. Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” encapsulated the righteous, coiled fury of #MeToo. Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” read at President Biden’s inauguration, made its author a global celebrity by offering some cautious optimism, four years after Donald Trump spent his (poem-free) inauguration bellyaching about “American carnage.”
Publishers are capitalizing on our collective need for comfort and inspiration. Books like “How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope,” “Poems of Healing,” “The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing,” and even the runaway bestseller “The Hill We Climb” tap into that desire. But healing on command is a tricky, if not impossible business in literature. Even Gorman’s poem couldn’t avoid familiar valedictory sunniness, and often purported “healing” works devolve into feel-good “Chicken Soup for the Soul” sentimentality or are too on the nose.
There’s a whiff of chicken soup throughout “How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope,” a collection of contemporary poems edited by James Crews. It’s studded with “reflective pauses” that ask the reader to contemplate and/or journal the emotions its anthologized writers evoke. But the virtue of a good poem is a resistance to such easy prompts, and Crews has assembled an A-list of contemporary writers, among them Ross Gay, Jane Hirshfield, Li-Young Lee, Tracy K. Smith, Alberto Rios and Gorman, who revisits her 2016 poem “At the Age of 18 — Ode to Girls of Color.”
The collection’s strongest poems find a melancholy strain thrumming under the good intentions. Lee’s “From Blossoms” is lush and optimistic — its central image is biting into a peach from a roadside stand — but also acknowledges that optimism involves a bit of wishful thinking: “There are days we live / as if death were nowhere / in the background … From blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.” Laura Grace Weldon finds the perfect metaphor for the past year-and-a-half in a compost heap: “Surely our shame and sorrow / also return, / composted by years / into something generative as wisdom.” Similarly, Farnaz Fatemi’s “Everything Is Made of Labor” balances the muck and mire of living with wonder at our survival, using an inchworm’s slow, persistent slog as a plea to “find the thread / through the dark.”
Such themes have endured as long as there’s been mortality. For the slim, handsome anthology “Poems of Healing,” editor and poet Karl Kirchwey assembles works stretching back to Sappho. And though the book wasn’t produced as a response to covid-19 — Kirchwey writes in his foreword that he began the book in 2018 — it’s organized like a clinical prescription for the current moment. The selections are arranged around headings like “The Illness,” “The Diagnosis,” “The Remedy” and the “Healing.” Its motto might be a line from a C.P. Cavafy poem included: “Bring your drugs, Art of Poetry — / they numb the wound at least for a little while.”
Few of the works have the broad, melancholy, crystalline force of Zagajewski’s “Mutilated World,” which is included in the book. But the range of perspectives are a reminder that even in a pandemic, responses to illness aren’t uniform. D.H. Lawrence delivers a cri de coeur about our collective fate: “Oh build your ship of death. Oh build it! / for you will need it. / For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.” A poem from the 10th-century Persian poet Rudaki rejects easy hope in the face of suffering: “You want to give harmony to the world? / The world will not accept harmony from you.” As comfort goes, Kirchwey’s selections for “Healing” can be ice-cold.
If there’s a central theme to the collection, it’s that illness disassociates us from ourselves, even if we survive it. The disconnect is the odd “formal feeling” Emily Dickinson wrote about, or the sense of forced sacrifice Sylvia Plath wrote about in “Tulips”: “I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.” In its latter poems, the collection finds glints of joy in recovery, “drunk on a sudden pour of time,” as Alissa Valles writes in “Discharge.” But recovery is forever uncertain, as Danez Smith writes: “let this be the healing / & if not let it be.”
The stories in the companion book “The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing,” edited by Theodore Dalrymple, tend to tackle that disassociation from the perspective of the doctor rather than the patient. Some of the classic writers included were physicians themselves, like Mikhail Bulgakov, Somerset Maugham and William Carlos Williams. And the prevailing mood is one of uncertainty. Bulgakov’s “The Embroidered Towel” finds an inexperienced doctor unsure if he’s up to the task; the doctor in Maugham’s “Lord Mountdrago” questions his role in the decline of an officious British minister. Robert A. Heinlein’s “Life-Line” imagines a doctor who can predict the moment of our death, which provides assurance to nobody, let alone the doctor himself.
Throughout, true “healing” is rare. But nothing captures the live-wire mood of 2021 quite like Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” A panicky mother is trying to find treatment for her toddler son’s tumor. Her tone is snappish and funny by accident — which is to say, true. Any attempt at writing a coherent narrative about a child with cancer is mocked by her “nightmare of narrative slop”; support groups feel like a “society of suffering.” A shared illness isn’t a source of grace or gratitude or healing for her, just evidence that illness is what we share.
“In the end, you suffer alone,” Moore writes. “But at the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of others.” In a crisis, a good poem or story can offer a version of that companionship, and that’s not a small thing when the hallmark of the covid era is isolation. But healing? That’s a job for the professionals.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope
Poems of Healing
Everyman’s Library. 240 pp. $15.95
The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing
Edited by Theodore Dalrymple
Everyman’s Library. 512 pp. $18