Blackened Glass

I have gone around and around with the title of this poem. I don’t like it as it is. It’s too stark, bland, clinical, vague, or…something. But after wrestling with it for the better part of three days, I’ve given up. It’s adequate as a descriptor of the poem’s matter, and, while it wouldn’t leap out from a table of contents screaming for attention, it’ll have to do. I’ve never been much good at titles. Ask my dear, long-suffering poetry professor – I didn’t give any title at all to the first several poems I turned in to her last year. Once I reach the end of a piece and have devoted all my energy and concentration to editing and revising it, I have nothing left in me to give to the title. Sometimes I get lucky, and a possible title leaps out at me from the dark and dusty corners of somewhere. Usually I don’t. Usually I end up in the nether regions of the internet, reading about psychogenic pain or what makes glass a suitable substrate for mirror-making. Right? I don’t know either. If you have any brilliant title-suggesting feelings, feel free to share. But I warn you: I’m quite particular. Thus the reason I haven’t found a good one myself yet.

15 February 2016

On the Powerful Uselessness of Empathy

This carpet smears, salted snow wept deep
into the pile, melted, warmed, cooled again. Stained,
shaded, wet, this carpet. Like your eyes.
Green-blue and gritted, an odd, ocean shade. Not
like your eyes. They are shot somehow
with silver. You catch the light as we sit, the last
circle, blooded thoughts bare. You cast
shadows in my lungs. My heart
slides—I’ll cough, look down.

You place a hand on her shoulder. So that
is how one ought to respond? I see.
Come here. Come here. Let me hold
you like this, my sister, here, my sister, in
the space beyond this streaming abyss. Take
this offered line, sunk above the grey
lamentation at our feet. I too
break. Your eyes shatter, mirror-laced.

I tread the lofted, soaking brine, caught in the print
of a boot heel in the rug. Oh, I, of little
faith! I would step forward, put my own
shook hand on her shoulder, follow your
lead, tell her I see—! But shame heavies me, forces
my face to the floor. I shudder back, hot, dizzy
with this hum of graceless mess vibrating
in my ears, too close. Do you see how I stumble?

You shake your hair back from
your face, toss the strands of deep and
scattered ache over your shoulder, draw near
to me. You have fought to turn
the mirrors to the wall, to see me
without projection. How are you? What do you
expect of me? My eyes flick to yours for
a coward’s moment. An answer without words is
still an answer, of a kind that I excel in. Do not
wait. I’ll go—but you surround me before
I can run, caught and held, weak in an embrace I
try not to feel. It is vast, howling night
in this sanctuary where the lights are going
out. I fight to tuck the waves away, to soothe
the heel-crushed carpet to slumber, but I
fail, reeling in this beating fever.

What I don’t understand is everything
she is, everything that rips into her whole
rigid self, pulls ragged strips from the soft
flesh of the eviscerated heaving inside, but
what she doesn’t understand is how
I feel the gutting too, and how I would give
any part of who I am to take this away, and
I can’t, and I have never made this
any less heavy, and I know that, I know
she won’t show me the pus of her leaking
wounds, control dashed from her hands, and I
understand that I can’t understand, and I would
give, would give, would give, and what she
doesn’t understand is what you don’t understand
is how much that kills whatever I had
inside me that was ever somehow strong.

What you don’t know is how hard
I must fight to keep hold of myself when my
heart flounders to escape its tether. This
is the heaviness of shame, and I struggle to clutch it
all, because I can’t hold the weight of my own
weightlessness, my own uselessness, the way
I make her have to bear me. I turn
myself, careful, from your silver-shot eyes, press
my fingers to numb my cheeks, feel my face
hard against your shoulder. Swallowed by
disgrace, I flee, stumbling, lungs still
clotted with shadows. I have no right
to the tears I lost my grip on, the stain
on your jacket. I am not the breaking one.

You reach out as I rebuild, your fingers on
my shoulder, this time. I cannot take
your hands. Mine are too shame-filled. I cannot take
any more without letting something
fall. Your eyes still spread their wept silver. I cannot
look you in the face. The pieces of your mirror
cut, but I, ashamed, was already bleeding.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. I don’t have a title for you, but you’re in good company – Anglo-Saxon poems don’t have titles either in the original.

    I very much appreciate the poem – a visceral description of that kind of empathy so loud and crippling that one can barely stand, and one frustratingly becomes crushed rather than someone who can help and be supportive and impart strength. Part of me fears hearing the pain of others for this reason – though I can’t help being aware of it.

    One question – is the “you” addressed primarily a personification of empathy? It took me a while to tell if it was that or a third person. Not that that should be made too clear – the ambiguity leaves open the possibility of shades of a Christ figure, though also perhaps a rival in love – but there are complicated ways that can maybe be the same thing theologically. Thanks for sharing it.

    Like

  2. But for a title, “Through Empathy Darkly” might work.

    Like

    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      I like the title suggestion – I was playing with the “through a mirror darkly” phrase myself, but couldn’t find a way for it to work. What you’ve suggested is a lot closer to what I was looking for–thanks!
      And yes, the “you” is a third person. But also, I suppose, a third person who in this case was a sort of personification of empathy. Most of my poetry has thus far only included two figures, so I was wondering how a third would be received. But I don’t think it need be too obvious–I hope it’s indistinct enough that people coming from many different perspectives and situations can find something to relate to.

      Like

  3. Lalaithiel says:

    This is gorgeous, and something so relatable. The fifth stanza is my favorite, but all of it is so powerful. I actually like the title, especially how “powerfully useless” could be interpreted different ways until you start the poem. Thank you for sharing this with us. <3

    Like

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