This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features an excerpt from a poem by Mia You.
from Trench Lyric
Every day is a festival.
Every day is a routine.
Every other day,
I have a sonnet.
I mark the hours by using
one substance to get
to the other. I’ve never
been an addict, I tell you,
there was even that one time
I tried to become a smoker, so
bored during that French
immersion program in Middlebury,
VT, I smoked every day
between classes and afterward,
every time, I ate an orange
to feel clean again. I don’t
get addicted, I tell you,
until there was that one time
I was in the train from Utrecht
to Groningen, a two-hour journey,
to teach a class for two hours,
and so busy with the commuting,
teaching and repeating
each day I forgot to pick up
the Sertraline, I was on Day 4
of going “cold turkey,” and if
I’m honest I always thought
I don’t really need it, if I’m
busy enough I won’t notice,
but then there is that one time
I’m in the train from Utrecht
to Groningen, and I’m going
to faint and vomit simultaneously,
with the rest of the journey
and the two-hour class ahead of me,
I put my head between my knees
and think of what happens if I let go,
who will find me, what will they
do with me, who will tell my class
I’m not going to be there, who will
call my husband and how will he
get me, who will get the kids
and tell them what happened, get
it together, Mia, get it together, Mia,
get it together, Mia, get it together,
Mia, and I go and teach my class on
Orlando and narratology, I make it
back to the train, from station to
station, and I make it back home,
and what happens in between
and after I can’t really tell you,
but now I know, I know, I’m
addicted, I tell you,
and everyday is this routine,
and everyday is this festival.
The doctors tell me I need this.
The sonnet will tell me I need it.
And you see me with a mug,
a glass, at work, at a reading,
at home at the piano showing
my son Musette in D Major,
and you don’t know what
happens when I don’t have it.
So I mark the hours by using
one substance to get
to the other. I follow the meter
to get from one line to the other.
I refill the prescription because no
one tells me how to get from this
place to another. I tell you,
I’m not trying to get high,
I’m just trying to get by.
But every day is a festival.
I’m the worst cliché
the neurotic American
telling my Dutch doctor
I got scared by something
I read in The New York Times.
I try to build her sympathy:
“I started taking Zoloft
because I had really bad
(bad? Would ‘severe’ sound
better?) – a severe case
(now it sounds too clinical)
of postpartum depression.
PPD. (I’m not sure why
I clarify by using the initials,
maybe it’s a gesture to show
we’re both in the know but
she’s a doctor and I have it,
so what do we really prove?
I decide to emphasize this
is about bonding rather than
knowing by adding) Right?”
VICTORIA TOLINE NEEDED NINE MONTHS
TO TAPER OFF ZOLOFT. “I HAD TO DROP OUT OF
SCHOOL,” SHE SAID. “MY LIFE”S BEEN ON HOLD.”
She affirms that we’ve
bonded, or that I’ve
used the initials correctly,
or that it’s acceptable
to start Zoloft for PPD.
I realize I could have made
a joke about having PPD
and a PhD.
SOME 15.5 MILLION AMERICANS HAVE BEEN TAKING
THE MEDICATIONS FOR AT LEAST FIVE YEARS.
THE RATE HAS ALMOST DOUBLED SINCE 2010,
AND MORE THAN TRIPLED SINCE 2000.
I don’t tell her I had taken
Zoloft before, back in the
early 2000s, after a policeman
came to my room, after a
friend called the police to
say they feared I was hording
painkillers and drinking and
wouldn’t open my door.
ANTIDEPRESSANTS WERE ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED
A SHORT-TERM TREATMENT FOR EPISODIC MOOD
PROBLEMS, TO BE TAKEN FOR SIX TO NINE MONTHS.
Then I unite us against a
“My American doctor
never warned me against
using medication long-term.”
She affirms again.
THE COMPANY COULD NOT PROVIDE SPECIFIC
WITHDRAWAL RATES BECAUSE IT DID NOT HAVE THEM.
THE COMPANY DECLINES TO SAY HOW COMMON
WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS ARE.
I’m becoming the worst cliché
WHITE WOMEN OVER 45 ACCOUNT FOR ABOUT ONE-
FIFTH OF THE ADULT POPULATION BUT ACCOUNT FOR
41 PERCENT OF ANTIDEPRESSANT USERS
a white woman over 45
who is not even white
and not even that old yet
getting scared by what
she read in the newspaper.
You see? We’ve bonded.
“WE’VE COME TO A PLACE, AT LEAST IN THE WEST,
WHERE IT SEEMS EVERY OTHER PERSON IS DEPRESSED
AND ON MEDICATION,” SAID EDWARD SHORTER,
A HISTORIAN OF PSYCHIATRY AT THE UNIVERSITY
OF TORONTO. “YOU HAVE TO WONDER WHAT
THAT SAYS ABOUT OUR CULTURE.”
She tells me to cut my pills in half.
She tells me to come back in a month
to tell her how I’m doing.
I’ll make an appointment
and forget, just like I did
when I first got started.
I won’t tell anyone how I’m doing.
Every day is this routine,
this song-and-dance, this
“let’s just affirm and forget,”
and I don’t know what
happens if I don’t have it.
For an additional contribution of 50 cents,
I will offset the carbon emission of this poem
by planting a tree
in the yellow woods
where two roads
diverge and I –
I’m not around to hear it,
and I don’t make a sound.
These bodies are my nation.
These decades have been
the homogenous, empty
time of my people:
“The suicide rate among teen girls reached
a 40-year high in 2015, according to new
analysis from the Centers of Disease Control
From 2007 to 2015 alone,
suicide rates doubled
among teen girls.”
“In the United States, approximately 86 deaths in 100,000
among 15-to-24-year-olds are attributed to anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa is most likely to occur among teenage girls
and young women—at least 90 percent of sufferers are females.”
“The Thomson Reuters Foundation released
its results for the world’s most dangerous
countries for women in 2018.
At number 10 was the United States,
the only Western country to be included.”
“The United States is one of only 13 countries
in the world where the rate of maternal mortality
is now worse than it was 25 years ago. Each year,
an estimated 700 to 900 maternal deaths
occur in the United States. In addition, the C.D.C.
reports more than 50,000 potentially preventable
near-deaths per year — a number that rose
nearly 200 percent from 1993 to 2014.
Black women are three to four times
as likely to die from pregnancy-related
causes as their white counterparts.”
“White women between 25 and 55 have been dying
at accelerating rates over the past decade,
a spike in mortality not seen since the AIDS epidemic
in the early 1980s.
According to recent studies
of death certificates, the trend is
worse for women in the center of the United States,
worse still in rural areas, and
worst of all for those in the lower middle class.
Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-
age white women have quadrupled.
Suicides are up by as much as 50 percent.”
“the number of women aged 35 to 54
dying as a result of alcohol-related damage
more than doubled from
7.2 per hundred thousand in 1991
to 14.8 per thousand in 2006”
“And the more we work, the more we drink:
Women who log more than 48 hours at the office
each week are the most likely to drink heavily,
according to another 2015 study published in BMJ.“
We want to have it all, so
we’re birthing and working
and starving and drinking
ourselves to death
You don’t believe that, do you?
This is a trench lyric
because there’s a war
being fought on our bodies.
This is a trench lyric
because there’s a war
we’re told to think
we’re fighting with ourselves.
If you think there’s no war
because there are no “weapons,”
no “soldiers,” then I ask
why do you think
the casualties are so high?
We’re not trying to get high,
we’re just trying to get by.
But this is a trench lyric,
and there’s no way to get out.
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