“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for Depression -The Toast

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3/27/11. Poet Laureate Tina Chang on Fifth Ave in BrooklynPlease email all questions you would like poetry to answer via advice@the-toast.net, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line. Previous installments can be found here.

A while ago I walked home from work and was not sure if I would kill myself when I got there. As I rounded the last block to my front door, my cellphone rang; a cousin I didn’t know well wanted to go out to dinner. We met in my driveway and went out to a restaurant that was not particularly good; I got home late, and then I went to bed and got up again the next day. I didn’t feel markedly different or better, but even I could recognize this as a moment of grace. 

How can I pursue and recognize these things, even in the depths of my depression? I don’t expect anything to make me feel better, or to fix me; but I want to know how to look for kindness when I do not know how to anticipate it or deserve it. Poetry seems like a safe place to start. 

Reader, your question is a challenge for me, both in the directness of its asking, and in the nuance it demands—not a poem in which to catalogue depression’s particular horrors, nor to seek platitudes for ordinary sadness—and I thank you for it. I wonder if today we might think about the depth of depression you describe as grief in the way it ebbs and surges, the way it disrupts, its recurring spectre of death. Grief demands attention, a painful and often grudging respect, but it is also not a place to dwell forever. You recognize this, and so let us ask the poets for their wisdom.

Before we do so, however, should you find yourself contemplating actual self-harm, let me direct you towards a variety of resources and hotlines in a variety of different locations. Okay? Then, on to the poetry.

Right from the title, Tina Chang’s poem “The Idea of Revelation” both demands change and consciously makes it abstract. Her poem opens with forceful negation: “It wasn’t holy so let us not praise gods. / Let us not look to them for bread, / nor the cup that changed water to wine.” Some people will want you to see your depression as a gift or a blessing. Fuck that. You don’t gain sustenance from something that winnows your spirit. You get it from the phone buzzing in your pocket, a seed in your hand. And yet.

Chang redirects us to “look to the bend of the road / that reaches. A silver blur across / the skyline, woman standing on the farm” and in doing so, literally brings our attention from the gods to the solid ground—almost. She tosses in that silver blur so lightly that it’s easy to miss its ambiguity. Is it merely an airplane, or something more uncertain, otherworldly? Here Chang performs the loveliest grammatical magic trick: the period after reaches. Reach often a transitive verb, meaning that it takes an object the verb is done to. Roads commonly reach destinations, not outward into undefined air, like an arm stretching. The road almost seems to be reaching for that unworldly silver blur, yet in mimicking cruel life, Chang divides them from one another with a caesura, a midline punctuation stop that causes the reader to pause, to consider that separation.

Where she sows endings, Chang also sows beginnings. The woman on the farm holds seeds, and:


will work

the earth, bounty in the vault


of cosmos above her, heat

lightning that lassoes in its manic



There is a sense of process and connection in these lines. The seeds the woman sows on her farm become bounty ambiguously located above her, the cosmos imagery suggesting an afterlife, the lightning a potential bringer of death (the silver blur?) but also a connector between land and sky. There is death eventually in everything: “Man never existed / but to invite danger.” I fear this isn’t very comforting. Try it this way: in the midst of the grief ringing through this poem, Chang finds for us so many points of light, in new beginnings, in the inexplicable mysteries of the universe. Can you see this as the kind of grace you’re seeking, Reader? They do not eclipse your suffering, but they suggest that it is cyclical, shot through with the opportunity of surviving a little longer. You can sow your own survival in connection. You knew this when you answered the phone in the street, and you can know it now.

Chang continues with another devastating clause: “Loveless one.” It isn’t appended to the sentence before or after as simply a tragic form of address; in placing it on its own, it becomes a statement and a state of being. A pause on which to hang your bad feelings before the poem turns yet again and gallops in a different direction, describing “an army of men / saluting from bayonet to bomb.” The lines invoke violence, but never actually describe it, except to note the expertise of the men. When death is a call coming from inside the house, is it any wonder that you grow expert in sabotage?

I also want you to see how the verbs work here: “They were expert.” Over and over Chang uses variations of the verb “to be” instead of more active, descriptive verbs. “It wasn’t holy” negates being, “the shine that is seed” shunts being into dependant clause construction,“ “There was once an army” relegates to past tense, and even “Man never existed” uses a different verb to perform the same task. This slows the poem down, requires you to focus more on the condition of being or no longer being, but without stagnating it as overuse of “to be” often does. When contemplating mortality, being takes on a much more active quality. The only active verbs thus far are “Let us look” and “she will work.” Consider the imperative, the diligence. Sometimes all you can do is exist, but the call to attention is ready when you are.

At last we get to the “you” of the poem that Chang’s use of “us” suggests: “You stop the clock in your paltry chest. / The one that says choose, choose.” The narrator might be talking to herself, to an unspecified subject, to you, the reader. In the wake of grief or depression, continued existence may absolutely feel like a constant active choice. The you of the poem seeks backward movement, but also a cessation, which Chang so deftly signals back to the clock metaphor: “Ring the alarm.” Death is supposed to be a bad thing, right, heralded by ambulance sirens and late night phone calls? The poem acknowledges that you may feel it to be a release from something, not an emergency. But it also has some rhetorical questions it would like you to consider.

The final three stanzas are the most direct, demanding you consider:


What can your past now say to you

that has never been said before? What

of that clock that forbade you to move



Dear reader, you come to me, aware of the grace you have been afforded, so these are the questions I hope you can ask yourself, in the moment of emergency when the clock is in your hands, but also in the morning when you wake up feeling not much different. I realize that no one was ever saved by simple retrospective thinking, so I do urge you to take up these questions with the aid of kind and competent mental health assistance. The second question in the stanza is aptly doubled; on first reading it seems to be asking what stalled the urge to continue, past wanting death or to death itself, but it’s also asking about the heart-clock itself. What about that ringing phone stayed your hand, sends you to me for poems to provide gentle aid with perspective on grace and kindness?

Sometimes grace and kindness fail to identify themselves. Chang acknowledge this, asking “What of the clock that asked / for nothing but passage, the minutes / careening into you like a fitful arrow.” Sometimes all you can do is carry the pain through time, itself injurious. Why bother? Chang doesn’t answer, but instead resolves the poem with an abrupt change of tense: “Once you tired of wanting, / a face to break, you started the clock again.” You’ve been here before, and you survived. The sentiment may seem pat. Perhaps consider it diffusion. Like grief, it isn’t going to disappear, but you can learn to give yourself distance, to begin consciously moving forward again. Not once, continually.

Managing depression is sometimes rewiring self-destructive urges, but it’s also about learning crisis management. When you are planning harm, how can you catch yourself, less to cease wanting to break, and more to reroute that destructive energy? I have one friend who reads Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” as part of her crisis plan. When winter threatens to do me in, I return to “Mayakovsky.” Starting the clock isn’t a single grand gesture. It’s learning from how you’ve survived this far, and seeking out the tools to restart it again and again and again. All my best wishes to you, dear Reader. May you find the tools, the moments of grace that you need.

Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.

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