Kiss Off: Poems to Set You Freeby Mary D. Esselman, Elizabeth Ash Vélez Bestselling authors of The Hell With Love
The editors of "The Hell with Love" are back, applying their irreverent view of life and love to help melt the hardest heart. For anyone who's been let down by life and love, these poems reveal that the most important person one can fall in love with is oneself.See more details below
The editors of "The Hell with Love" are back, applying their irreverent view of life and love to help melt the hardest heart. For anyone who's been let down by life and love, these poems reveal that the most important person one can fall in love with is oneself.
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By Mary D. Esselman Elizabeth Ash Velez
Warner BooksMary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash Velez
All right reserved.
One day, it just happens. You completely snap. Your last single friend announces her engagement to the schmo she met two months ago, or your married boss hits on you just when you think you've managed to impress him with your work smarts, or you're forced off the sidewalk by a J.Crew couple and their double-barreled baby stroller. It's all too much. It might not be dramatic-a sudden freak-out or breakdown. It could simply be the cumulative effect of watching the world surge past and around you-the showers, the weddings, the new houses, the better jobs, the damn baby photos. Everyone else seems to know what she wants-and how to get it-yet you consistently feel overlooked, underloved, and, let's face it, screwed, in every way except literally.
You know you shouldn't feel this way. You don't want to become some whiney malcontent. But you can't shake this unresolved restlessness, this nameless dissatisfaction with your life. You've tried to put it in perspective-there's real tragedy in the world, real crisis and pain-you know, you know, you know. You know Fran the receptionist still aches for her husband, dead ten years, and you watched your friend Meg fight a brutal, losing battle with cancer. You've seen what illness and death and estrangement can do. You carry all sorts of loss within you.
That's why the baby stroller people or the smarmy boss or the schmo-marrying friend put you right over the edge-you're tired of losing people and losing hope. You feel a great longing for companionship and connectedness, for knowing that what you do means something, for gratification and peace of mind, but it keeps eluding you despite your best efforts. And every reminder of this longing cuts into your spirit again and again until you just can't take it. When will you stop feeling so bereft, mourning what you've lost (friends, true loves, your mother's approval) and what you've never had (the little household of your dreams, a soul-fulfilling vocation, your mother's approval)?
One way to start feeling better is to give yourself permission to kick and wail and grieve. Let the poets in Hurting help you express all of it-the rage, the despair, the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life agony. Think of this section as one big scream of frustration. All we know is that we just feel pain, the kind that comes from being scraped in the same place over and over again. Like the speaker in Lola Haskins's "Love," we're raw with feeling, oversensitized to everything that's ever hurt us. We don't know quite what's hit us, we just feel our skin's been ripped off.
But deep down, we really do know what's hit us-crushing disappointment after disappointment. Some big (your parents were supposed to stay together forever), some small (that cellulite was supposed to disappear after you went off the Pill), and some that we try to say are small when we know they're really big (we were supposed to have snagged The One, flex-timed The Job, and delivered The Kids before The Fertility Plunge). Tack on general injustice, poverty, and terror, and you feel too bruised to bear it.
What gets us is the "why" of it all. Why us? Did we ask for any of this? Weren't we entitled to something else? The speaker in Dorothy Parker's ironically named "Fulfillment" seems incredulous that this kind of pain is her reward for becoming a reasonably well-raised adult. "For this my mother wrapped me warm ... And gave me roughage in my diet"? she asks. All so I could "grow to womanhood" and "break my heart to clattering bits"?
Talk about roughage in the diet-when you feel this forsaken, every disappointment seems too tough to digest. And we make matters worse by chewing each one to death! Somehow, perversely, we feed our own despair. We keep careful track of every little thing that has hurt us, we nurse our grudges, we stay in the very situations that bring us down.
Look at the lovers in Anna Akhmatova's "We Don't Know How to Say Goodbye." The two of them are a picture of gloom-he's moody, she's his shadow, and they're sitting on a frozen branch in a graveyard outside a church where masses for the dead are being said. Not exactly a Harlequin romance! So why are they still together? If she wants to stop feeling "so different from the rest"-if, like a lot of women we know, she wants a sunny bungalow of family happiness-then why is she willing to settle for his stick picture of a mansion in the snow? Why can't she find a way to say goodbye?
Maybe it's because she can't conceive of any identity for herself outside of him. Maybe it's because some relationships are just too difficult to sever-you can't just cut your father or your boss out of your life, no matter how "moody" (try "abusive") they are, can you? Or your oldest friend? Sometimes staying stuck in misery seems easier than razing your old life and building a new one.
Perhaps that's why the woman in Deborah Garrison's "Worked Late on a Tuesday Night" is alone and forlorn in the deserted streets, trying with no success to hail a cab home. This is not the first time she's been here, cold but "too stubborn to reach/into [her] pocket for a glove." Seems she's too stubborn to reach, period. For protection from the cold or for a better life than what she's got. She knows she's "not half/of what [she] meant to be," so why doesn't she change her life instead of just "cursing/the freezing rain"?
Why? Because of a little thing called pride. Who wants to admit, "My life is a disaster, and every little part of me feels broken!"? We made the choices that led us here. We never meant to be alone and heartsick, but we did choose this job, this city, these relationships. We thought we were building a life for ourselves; now we're supposed to realize that instead we were slowly crumbling inside, helping along the decay of our ovaries and the dilapidation of our souls, a la Emily Dickinson's "Crumbling Is Not an Instant's Act"? That's outrageous and unfair and infuriating. How could we have known it would all work out this way? What should we have done differently?
And even if you do swallow your pride, even if you do admit you feel used up and useless, like the gum-decayed mother in Elizabeth Ash Velez's "Thursday, 11:00 A.M.," or smushy and rotten like a pear spoiled "from the inside out" in Jane Kenyon's "The Pear"-then what? You're supposed to have the strength and wherewithal to just chuck everything and start over?: "Okay, this life sucks, so hmmm, I know what I'll do-I'll just quit my job and move somewhere perfect and do something much better, never mind that I haven't a clue where to go, what to do, or how to pay for any of it! Yippee, it's a plan!"
Not likely. At this point in Hurting all we know is that we've had enough, and we're too defensive and confused to do much about it. So instead of radically changing the big things in our lives, we usually opt for making last-ditch efforts to change the superficial things. Maybe if we tightened our torso, we'd feel more in control, so it's off to Pilates class. Maybe if those frown lines disappeared, we'd feel less anxious, so it's off to the BOTOX doc. Like the girlchild in Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll," we run "to and fro apologizing" to ourselves for not being the person we always dreamed we'd be. As if we're offering one last desperate sacrifice to the God of Happiness, we cut off our noses to spite ourselves. There, I've done everything I can, we think. Now give me a better life!
And when no better life materializes, we truly fall into the kind of despair William Butler Yeats describes in "The Second Coming." We can't fix ourselves, we decide, because everything falls apart-our bodies, our lives, the world. No center holds anything together; it's all anarchy. So why bother trying to be the "beauty of the world, the paragon of animals," why bother trying to be some perfect Gap person in a shiny little Pottery Barn life? Like Hamlet, we tell ourselves there's no point. The world is nothing but a "foul and pestilent congregation of vapors," and we amount to nothing but a "quintessence of dust."
Okay, fine then, you think. I'll stop trying to please everyone else. I'll stop blaming myself for everything wrong in my life. I'll stop worrying about the misery of the world. Who needs any of it, anyway-the sea and trees, red ripe tomatoes, office blowhards, artsy posers? As poet Deborah Garrison eloquently says, "Fuck them all" ("Fight Song"). Or as poet Etheridge Knight more delicately puts it, "fuck/the whole mothafucking thing" ("Feeling Fucked Up").
So! Terrific! The Hurting poets have done such a good job of expressing all your sorrow and outrage that here you are feeling like a one big F-word piece of dust. This is supposed to make you feel better?
Well, we think it's a start-at least you're acknowledging your pain. It's real, and it hurts, and you're sick of it. The trick is how to move on from here.
What you don't want to do is stay trapped in this fuck-you frame of mind. If you isolate and alienate yourself from the world, you'll become the creature in Stephen Crane's "The Heart," squatting in a desert of your own making (like an angry loser on Survivor). Sure things were bad before when you were sitting in that cold graveyard or being pelted by the freezing rain-but is this really an improvement? You've felt frustrated in your efforts to evolve into a fulfilled, happy person, but did you really mean to devolve into this-a naked, bestial monster eating its own bitter heart out?
Of course not. Ultimately what you want is what the speaker in Knight's poem is pining for-something and someone to love, so that "[your] soul can sing." Allow yourself to rant-fuck 'em all-but then get out of Hurting, fast. If you want gg to love life again, you'll need that heart of yours, and the less bitter, the better.
She tries it on, like a dress. She decides it doesn't fit, and starts to take it off. Her skin comes, too. -Lola Haskins
For this my mother wrapped me warm, And called me home against the storm, And coaxed my infant nights to quiet, And gave me roughage in my diet, And tucked me in my bed at eight, And clipped my hair, and marked my weight, And watched me as I sat and stood: That I might grow to womanhood To hear a whistle and drop my wits And break my heart to clattering bits. -Dorothy Parker
Excerpted from Kiss Off by Mary D. Esselman Elizabeth Ash Velez Excerpted by permission.
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