Poetry heals. That simple premise is the heart of the work of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT), which offers this gathering of healing poems written and collected after September 11, 2001 with Giving Sorrow Words: Poems of Strength and Solace. Then-poet laureate Billy Collins, Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Naomi Shihab Nye, Lucille Clifton, (the estate of) William Stafford and other contemporary poets donated their work and joined with notable poetry therapists to create a trail map for navigating the difficult terrain of tragedy, loss, grief, and healing. The collection uniquely offers writing and discussion ideas for each poem, as well as guidelines for helping professionals. It was my privilege to steer this project during my term as NAPT president (2001-03). Poetry therapists Charlie Rossiter and Karen vanMeenen expertly curated and edited the collection.
Today’s poem is by my friend and poetry therapy teaching partner Joy Sawyer, who actually wrote this poem in a writing group we co-facilitated. Joy spent 20 years as a licensed professional counselor in private practice–15 of those as a registered poetry therapist working in a number of social justice and community settings. For more than a decade, we co-taught a course on Writing & Healing in the Masters of Liberal Studies creative writing track at the University of Denver. She authored two nonfiction books, Dancing to the Heartbeat of Redemption and The Art of the Soul and one collection of poetry, Tongues of Men and Angels. She received the 2013 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association for Poetry Therapy. Now retired from counseling, Joy teaches at the prestigious Lighthouse Writers in Denver.
When You Leave Us
When you move wordlessly
from one life into another,
you will bring all of us
who have ever declared our love,
with our hearts, or with our mouths.
We walk with you arm in arm,
and instead of leaving us at the gate,
you find we all have to enter with you.
We all see a new maple, a bush on fire,
A tiny sparrow perched on a flat rock.
You cannot leave us and we
cannot leave you.
Though you have made your entrance
into a new home,
our old homes are full of the things
you loved. You live on mantles,
in journals, on a recipe card
splattered with sugar cookie dough.
When night comes, we are certain
you hear our voices,
low and full on brick patios,
ice cubes swirling in our paper cups.
Nothing is nearer than love itself,
even when this life has carefully tucked you in,
closed your bedroom window,
whispered its soft goodnight.
We are only steps away from you,
through the clear glass,
on the other side of the pane.
If we listen carefully,
underneath the crickets and the murmur of twilight,
we will still hear you breathing,
as the slow dance that begins among us,
underneath the patient stars.
(c) in the name of the poet or assigns. Used for educational purposes and for the promotion of the poet and personal growth of the reader.
- Make a list of details (“a recipe card/ splattered with sugar cookie dough”) about someone you love who has passed away. Combine these details into a poem or write in honor of your loved one.
- Write anything that bubbles up in you from reading this poem. If it’s emotionally difficult, set the timer for 10 minutes. Take a break, read what you’ve written, and decide if you want to continue. If so, set the timer for another 10 minutes. Repeat.