Pushcart XLII: Natasha Trethewey, “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

"Dancer" by Marvin Posey

“Dancer” by Marvin Posey

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

We’re often reluctant to sit still for another person’s pain, and will do what is necessary to not let it touch us too deeply beyond a polite sympathetic murmur. This is particularly true when the victim’s behavior seems to contribute to the tragedy a friend now deals with. “What was she wearing?” “Did he eat right and exercise?” “Did she try antidepressants and therapy?” Because, of course, rape/cancer/suicide doesn’t happen to people who do everything right, and while our compassion is boundless, we often act like it must be carefully rationed for only the most deserving. And of course, nothing like this could ever happen to us, because we are smarter than that.

Here, the speaker offers bitter advice in the wake of reactions she’s received when revealing her mother was murdered by her husband. It basically boils down to: If someone doesn’t get it, don’t bother trying to explain.

to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down….

The specific examples cover a wide swathe of dismissals. One of the most enraging, in the context of a poem, is the professor who tells the poet to write about something else. Or maybe the most enraging is the juror who thinks couples should “work it out.”

The final stanzas convey the reality of the speaker’s world:

….one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—
you carry her corpse on your back.

I believe the speaker will put the corpse down when she is ready. If that isn’t soon enough for the rest of the world, too bad. She has learned to cope with that, as well.

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