Family Matters

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


in Archive


I’ve got to spend at least a week with my family this holiday season. How will I survive?

— Doug

You know what I hate? Every time I complain about something that bothers me, someone says casually, “Hey, why don’t you write a poem about it.” Like I say, “This jerk splashed a puddle of muddy water on me as I was walking to work!” or “I got laid off,” or “God, I feel really miserable, so miserable that I can’t feel my arms anymore,” and someone says, “You know what? That’d make a pretty good poem.” Like just now, I’m having trouble formatting this column, so I call a friend for help because I’m not computer savvy and I’m getting so frustrated and finally she tells me just to write a poem about it. Jeez, don’t give up on me, people!  Yes, I often turn my sufferings and annoyances into poetic inspiration but that in no way means that I’m impervious to or undeserving of human comfort. Sometimes I just want someone to hug me and buy me ice cream. Sometimes I want someone to commiserate with. I do not want to be told to write a poem about it — I do not want to be handed off to poetry like some cranky adolescent that nobody has the patience for. I like people, too. So Douglas, I don’t know much about you, but if you’re already a poet, I’m not going to tell you to write a poem about it, because I don’t want to make you feel dismissed in any way and you probably already have. If you don’t write poetry and you haven’t been told to “write a poem about it” over two dozen times, then writing a poem about it might not be a bad idea. We love poems about crazy family members:

Grandma Climbs

Grandma climbs a chair to yell at God for killing

her only husband whose only crime was forgetting

where he put things. Finally, God misplaced him. Everyone

in this house is a razor, a police radio, a bulging vein.

It’s too late for any of us, Grandma says to the ceiling.

She believes we are chosen to be disgraced and perplexed.

She squints at anyone who treats her like a customer, including

the toilet mirror, and twists her mouth into a deadly scheme.

Late at night I run at the mirror until I disappear. The day is over

before it begins, Grandma says, jerking the shade down over

its once rosy eye. She keeps her husband’s teeth in a matchbox,

in perfumed paraffin; his silk skullcap (with its orthodox stains)

in the icebox, behind Uncle’s Jell-O aquarium of floating lowlifes.

I know what Mrs. Einhorn said Mrs. Edels told Mr. Kook about us:

God save us from having one shirt, one eye, one child. I know

in order to survive. Grandma throws her shawl of exuberant birds

over her bony shoulders and ladles up yet another chicken thigh

out of the steaming broth of the infinite night sky.

(Philip Schultz)

If you haven’t reached the age where time is passing you quicker than a startled jackrabbit, where you’re starting homeopathic treatment for bone loss though it seems like just yesterday you were rocking out in mini-skirts, you will soon enough, so just enjoy it. Enjoy those seemingly endless hours with your family because they will truly never come again. At no other moment will time seem to last as long than when your uncle is retelling that story about the giant carp he caught in Mexico. Feel those minutes tick, tick, tick — and relish in them. • 15 December 2009