I Hope She Sees This Bro
Writer Helena Fitzgerald dives into why she loves the poems she loves
Today’s newsletter is written by Helena Fitzgerald, whose newsletter Griefbacon I loved so much I would block out time after reading it to allow myself all the feelings I needed. Here’s one I still think about. Griefbacon is currently on indefinite pause, but Helena says it “may return one day.” Helena writes fiction and non-fiction and has written for a slew of publications including The Atlantic, The Cut, Hazlitt, Nylon, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Marie Claire. But today she’s writing here about her love for love poems and poetry’s ability to make you feel like your most normal emotions are special.
I want a poem to punch me in the face. I want a poem that I should have seen coming that still comes out of nowhere. It should turn around that fast, catch me unaware. Good poems work down at the same level of language as insults, where four syllables is brutal and perfect, and five syllables is a humiliating failure. Poems that work for me are the ones that make me angry all over again about an offhand comment that someone I barely knew made twenty years ago. I want poetry to hurt my feelings, to pull the same invisible strings as music and the light at the seams of day sometimes do: this shouldn’t make me feel this much and I don’t know why it does. I go to poems craving a sneak attack, the affronted recognition of wanting to ask the writer, a stranger, but how did you know that about me?
A friend of mine runs a poetry newsletter called “Pome,” that’s just that - one poem each day in an email in a neat and easily screenshottable font. I always open them with a feeling of dread, as though opening a door I know to be rigged up with a bucket of ice water. Most of Pome’s dedicated readers, or at least the other ones I can see online, seem to also be looking for this same stomach-churning emotional jolt. The poems from the newsletter often go very minorly viral through people posting screenshot after screenshot all captioned something like “how dare you?” or “Pome has murdered me once again,” or “this is a personal attack on me.” On any given day, all of us who repost the same poem with a caption like this, one after the other, believe this poem to be about us, our specific life and our particular emotional circumstances, and no one else’s.
Of course I know this can’t be true, but that trick of relatability, the sense that the poem knows too much, is what gets me.
Here is one of my favorite poems, Hera Lindsay Bird’s “Pyramid Scheme,” :
“i don’t know where this poem ends
how far below the sand
but it’s still early evening
and you and I are a little drunk
you answer the phone
you pour me a drink
i know you hate the domestic in poetry but you should have thought of that before you invited me to move in with you
i used to think arguments were the same as honesty
i used to think screaming was the same as passion
i used to think pain was meaningful
i no longer think pain is meaningful
i never learned anything good from being unhappy
i never learned anything good from being happy either
the way i feel about you has nothing to do with learning
it has nothing to do with anything
but i feel it down in the corners of my sarcophagus
i feel it in my sleep
even when i am not thinking about you
you are still pouring through my blood, like fire through an abandoned hospital ward
these coins are getting heavy on my eyes
it has been a great honor and privilege to love you
it has been a great honor and privilege to eat cold pizza on your steps at dawn.”
Not all poems have a “you,” but that dizzy sense of being at once inside and outside the poem, of its privacy and distance being exactly what makes it available for me to scoop up and take home with me into my own life, is the selfish thing I return to in poetry. “Pyramid Scheme” is a relatively long poem, and the rest of it doesn’t sound like this, although the second-person address shows up in the second line, the speaker’s relationship to that “you” is unclear, and not made sentimental yet. The earlier half builds a neatly opaque tower of references, speculating about money and geometry, referring to love in an offhand and theoretical way. Bird only breaks into the unbridled direct address, a declaration, near the end of the poem, once the reader thinks they know what is happening, once they have stopped expecting anything to change. The poem turns a sharp corner from theorizing and it becomes apparent that the author was speaking to exactly one person all along, that this was all for their benefit, and that we the readers are merely eavesdropping.
I know there are poems other than love poems. I really do. But I also know, if I’m honest with myself, that I will always try to read every poem as a love poem, turning it upside down and sideways to see if there is some way the light hits it that would show it to be about how people love each other or fail to do so, that would seem to make it a whisper from just one person to just one other, something cut out from the bottom of a heart and sealed in a box and mailed to a single address. A lot of poems are about love even when they don’t seem to be and even, or especially, when they are full of rage, or full of the larger bleakness of the world.
My dad wanted to be a poet although I don't think he ever pursued it enough for it to inconvenience him. He ended up teaching other more famous, usually dead, people's poetry to high school students instead. By the time I was born, he wasn't doing that either. He talked about poetry a lot, though, in a way that made obvious how much he missed having a captive class of teenagers to convince that poetry was important, and those at-home lectures are probably the reason for my own ongoing interest in poetry, my belief that it matters more, ultimately, for writing to work on the level of line and sentence, rhythm and turn, break and music, than it does for any other parts of a piece of writing to succeed or make sense or hold together.
When I moved into an apartment on my own for the first time, my parents mailed me the last boxes of my stuff they still had in storage at their house. But they accidentally sent the wrong box: not my old papers and documents and sentimental hoarding, but theirs. This box contained whole journals full of the poetry my dad wrote for my mom when they first got together. I considered keeping it, and whatever old photos and planners and apartment leases and ticket stubs it might contain but I felt profoundly like I was crossing a line I would regret crossing and so I boxed it back up without looking any further than that and gave it back to them when they came to visit. I only managed to read half a poem before I dropped it like it had scalded my hand; I felt like I had seen too much. The first line of the first sheet of paper in the box made it clear that the poem I was reading was a love poem, and even just the suggestion of that private view into a private room was too much to see of my own parents. The same thing that normally compels me toward poetry was what made me seal up that box and never look at it again.
The sense of trespassing that I felt opening the box of my father’s poetry and discovering poems about my mom has something to do with the way in which poetry feels separate from other types of writing, and the ways -- both fair and unfair, both reasonable and bullshit -- that poems, and poetry, are understood to be inherently and openly personal. It was hard to distinguish between the poems in that box and a journal entry in a way it might not have been if I had come across an unpublished novel or set of short stories. Poetry can feel like eavesdropping, and this overheard quality is one reason the direct second-person address, “you,” works so well in poetry in a way it rarely does anywhere else. I love the sense that a poem is a subtweet, and most of my favorite poems are written in a private language that I do not speak, directed to an audience of one, where the one is not me. Most of my favorite poems really just say “hope she sees this bro.” At the same time, the very specific “you” makes the poem open-ended, leaving a window cracked for me to climb inside the private room in the poem. I know that the “you” is not myself nor anyone I love, but the trick of the kind of love poem that feels like eavesdropping is that it also becomes a porous container, one that I can fill with my own specific concerns, my own loves and wrongs, with whomever the “you” is in my mind on the particular day I read the poem. Perhaps this is another reason I couldn’t read my dad’s poetry about my mom: It left no space for me to enter the poem on my own selfish terms.
Frank O’Hara, probably my favorite poet, wrote almost all of his poems to a “you,” and the you was always shifting, not just because he loved many people — from celebrities to personal acquaintances to lovers and partners to arguably the city of New York itself in arguably his most famous poem, “Steps,”— but because he used the awareness that his reader would be looking for the poem’s specific subject as a way to tease and evade the reader, to keep us interested. The expansiveness and the elusiveness of the second person address in O’Hara’s poems at once pulls us close and keeps us at arm’s length. My phone’s lock screen is the last stanza of “Steps:”
“oh god it’s wonderful
to get up in the morning
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much.”
The you here is embarrassingly direct, as is the sentiment. And love you so much. What could be more obvious, less sophisticated? But the last line is so big as to become small again; it is all of us reading it, but also it is none of us. The more confessional the poem is, the more it shuts us out, reminding us, the readers, just as we find these emotions relatable, that their declaration is for someone else, and is closed to us. The “you” may never really be known or named at all, making the poem bigger than anything that can be pinned down. Poems are small enough to become this large, to invisibly dissolve into another substance and become inextricable from it.
I think about this stanza when my husband brings me coffee in the morning; when I wake up and it’s beautiful outside and I go and sit on my stoop; when it’s a Sunday morning with little to do and the absurd luck of home and love feels briefly tangible. Just as I do when a devastating Pome email arrives in my inbox, I decide that these lines were written for me, that there is no situation to which they could better apply, that somehow I have some kind of ownership here, by virtue of my exact connection to the exact feeling in this poem.
But the fact that the poem, written by someone I have never met, works on me this way means that in fact the opposite is true, and perhaps that’s what I’m looking for from it. The poem has nothing to do with me at all. The reminder that these feelings are nowhere near as specific as they feel is a relief; the poem offers the reminder that my situation, and my feelings about it, are not special. A poem is often a place to sit down at the ground floor of self-interest, base teenage emotions, lust and jealousy and regret and personal betrayal, and then climb upward into something larger from it.
Today is the last day of our (self-defined) poetry month. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have! If you’ve really enjoyed this month, please consider subscribing! I’ll be writing on Friday about how much your support means to me, how it has sustained me through this hard season, and what’s next. : )
Painting is “Daughter Tanya on a Windowsill” by Aleksey Korin (1912)