Finding Poetry in Illness

A reader’s journey of self-transformation from disease to ease.

On the winter solstice of 2008, I am wobbling in orange Wellies atop a bed of rocks and sea anemones, making my inelegant way to the “big rock.” Cupped in my right hand is a medicine bag holding a healing crystal from a shop in Mill Valley, California, along with several more rocks gathered on the trails of Mount Tamalpais. I also hold a handwritten copy of Joanne Kyger’s “The Crystal in Tamalpais.” My life is not ordinarily so rock-centric, and I am not generally a frequenter of New Age stores; Kyger’s poem has inspired my uncharacteristic gathering of talismans. Here at the “clam patch” near Duxbury Reef in Bolinas, I will mark the beginning of a journey—one that will last three years, with poetry riding shotgun.

It’s chilly and I’m feeling faint as I concentrate on avoiding tidal pools of unknown depths. “Jennifer Nix just might drown here” scrolls through my mind like a Facebook status update as I reach the giant boulder, which I now see is intricately festooned with barnacles, sea moss, and leafy strands of kelp.

I take the crystal from the medicine bag and read aloud into the mist. Halfway through the poem, I get to why I’ve come:

                                                                            Go out to
the rock. Take out of the medicine bag the crystal
that matches the crystal in Tamalpais. And
                                              if your heart is not true
                                              if your heart is not true
when you tap the rock in the clam patch
                                                            a little piece of it will fly off
                                                   and strike you in the heart
                          and strike you dead.

 Of course, I do not believe a tiny piece of rock could strike me dead, though I’m happy to see my Tamalpais crystal remain whole after being tapped against what I hope is the famed rock. Nor do I intend to arrive, at this moment, at an absolute determination about whether my heart is true. I aspire only to begin the process of trying to know.

Six weeks earlier, I learned that I was, at age 42, in a state of advanced kidney failure. I had three options: death, dialysis, or transplant. In the tenebrous first days of my new reality, I grew most attached to the idea of death. There were no children to leave behind, and in my disconsolate state, I believed my husband would be better off with any woman but me. I developed the romantic notion of a sojourn at a Mediterranean villa followed by a jump from a cliff. I am not being glib.

But then life seduced me into wanting to stick around. I refused dialysis and spent the next five months subsisting on cucumber and eggplant, wending through the health care maze, and waiting for a kidney.

All the while, I obsessed over whether I deserved someone else’s kidney. As my husband, family, and friends stepped forward to be tested as potential donor matches, I couldn’t stop asking myself whether my heart was true. “The Crystal in Tamalpais” found me a month into my confusion by way of the coincidences and connections that occur when a heart and mind are open to poetry. My childhood exposure to Catholicism didn’t infect me with any particular religious faith, but as I stared down mortality, I craved contact with something beyond the self—some advice, some confession, perhaps some ethereal, knowing comrade to steady me as I sat in examination and waiting rooms or lay awake in bed every night.

Hoping to satisfy this craving, I reached for the small collection of poetry books I owned yet rarely flipped through. Poetry had not resonated for me in the years I’d  spent venturing through the ranks of journalism, publishing, and activism in New York, Boulder, and San Francisco. Perhaps because I now lived in Marin County, I was initially drawn to the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. By chance, I opened first to “Avocado” in Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island and landed on these lines: “The great big round seed / In the middle, / Is your own Original Nature— / Pure and smooth, / Almost nobody ever splits it open / Or ever tries to see / If it will grow.”

After devouring that book, I sought more information about Snyder, and eventually landed on “The Crystal in Tamalpais” (Kyger is Snyder’s former wife). In that instant, the goal of performing such a ritual in Bolinas reframed my nightmare as a quest. A poem had cracked the titanic block of dread and let in some light.

Those who haven’t suffered serious illness rarely understand how isolating it can be. Suddenly I was cut off from all the strong and healthy people scurrying up their ladders of success. Being weak in America—where a presidential candidate can declare that the uninsured should be left to die, and audiences cheer!—feels shameful, and I just wanted to hide. Once I invited poetry in, though, it was as if the entire human chorus had started looking out for me. When light returned, I could see clearly the kindness of so many people in my life—in particular Jimmy, who would become my living donor. Without my disease, I might never have known how blessed I am by my relationships.

After my visit to Bolinas, coincidence hovered about. I joined Facebook, rocket-fueling new connections. Some days I asked for poems, and friends sent Kim Addonizio and Sandra Cisneros, Mary Oliver and Robert Creeley. One day I asked for some music to lift my spirits. Sixty-five people responded, one with Leonard Cohen’s “Here It Is,” which its sender called “a Zen poem, or an anthem for Buddhists.” That phrase reminded me of another Cohen song, and I started digging up all my old Cohen CDs. Moments later I was listening to his growling croon on “Anthem,” and his words echoed the revelation Kyger had spurred in me:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Over those months of waiting, I traveled deepest into Gary Snyder’s writings, picking up his collections of poetry and essays and, when I felt well enough, visiting the spots around Marin that appear in his work. My anxiety was quelled by Snyder’s commitment to Zen Buddhism, nature, native cultures, and the many forms of love. “Finding the Space in the Heart” is a favorite: “O, ah! The / awareness of emptiness / brings forth a heart of compassion!

I needed to move toward Zen as much as possible in those turbulent days. Snyder, along with Cohen, mentored me in the ways of patience and acceptance.

Cohen provided a constant soundtrack at our Sausalito cottage in the time leading up to the transplant, and on reading his poetry I was exhilarated by the mélange of life and death, sex and longing. These lines from “The Correct Attitude” in Book of Longing spoke to me of the importance of not clinging too hard to life, or to anything, and became a mantra: “you have the correct attitude / You don’t care if it ends / or if it goes on.” On the night before surgery, I calmed myself with these words. If I didn’t wake up, that was okay, too.

Thankfully, on May 22, 2009, I did wake up. I then benefited from a nearly magical coincidence. A few weeks earlier I had posted a Cohen poem on Facebook; an acquaintance saw it and wrote that he was playing drums on the Leonard Cohen World Tour. Exactly three months after my surgery, my husband and I found ourselves backstage after the concert in Barcelona—on Cohen’s 75th birthday, no less. The thrill lingers still.

Indeed, the two years following the transplant consisted mainly of euphoria. I felt like I was in my 20s again. The world seemed radiant, rife with promise. During this period I encountered a new connection to poetry, an email list run by a New York journalist I had met through Facebook. The poems arrived once or twice a day to my inbox, little moments of reflection to which no reply was expected.

Months later, my new friend wrote to ask how I liked the poems. I answered, “I'm always struck by how in tune the poems are with whatever is going on in my life or mind at that moment. I first marvel that some soul once created each poem, and then I’m amazed that these gifts find me without any effort of my own, via a conduit I’ve never met in person. I often dream of poems now, and wake thinking of some line.” That, he offered, is how you know they are working.

Among the hundreds of emailed poems were old favorites by Seamus Heaney, Mark Strand, and C.D. Wright (from “Clockmaker with Bad Eyes”: “Love whatever flows. Cooking smoke, woman’s blood, / tears. Do you hear what I’m telling you?”) and new-to-me poets such as A.E. Stallings, Tony Hoagland, and Don Paterson. Lines from the first stanza of Paterson’s “Why do you stay up so late?” gave me a tickle because on the day the poem arrived in my mailbox, I realized it had been almost exactly two years since my day among the rocks in Bolinas.

 ...remember that day you lost two years ago
at the rockpool where you sat and played the jeweler
with all those stones you’d stolen from the shore?
Most of them went dark and nothing more,
but sometimes one would blink the secret color
it had locked up somewhere in its stony sleep.
This is how you knew the ones to keep.

As is common among transplant recipients, however, joy abandoned me around the two-year anniversary of my surgery. There were problems with my medication, and I grew fearful that my body would reject the new kidney. Sinking into depression, I also felt guilty and unworthy, frustrated and lonely. Exacerbating depression’s onset was a transplantation of another sort: my husband’s work led us to leave behind friends and the beauty of Marin for a stint in Baltimore. Due to my psychological state, I lacked the tenacity I could once have trained on progressive publishing and political work. I stepped away from an offer to consult on a congressional campaign and a related grassroots organization I was then helping to launch, as well as a potential political book project.

I knew the bottom was dropping out again when I realized I was spending “superhuman amounts of time” (to quote Jonathan Franzen) criticizing myself, obsessing about my health, and crying. I recognized that I needed to discover new ground once more. I did not want to be reliant on still more medication, so I fashioned my own course of alternative therapy and embarked on an intense affair with poetry in May 2011. After months of mixing it up with the human chorus, I emerged in February 2012 as a woman reborn.

During this gestation period, my days consisted mostly of cruising online poetry sites and joining their lists, “spinning” ad infinitum on the Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app, and binge-buying poetry collections, anthologies, and magazines whenever I entered a bookstore. This time I wasn’t just looking for an answer to whether my heart was true; I was trying to cast away all conventions that defined or controlled me, to determine my own code and, as Snyder wrote, to split open my own Original Nature, to see if it would grow.

I began with C.K. Williams’s “Dream” (“Mad dreams! Mad love!”) and ended with Kyger’s “[He is pruning the privet]”: “You are not alone is this world / not a lone   a parallel world of reflection / in a window keeps the fire burning.” In between, I found Swithering by Robin Robertson and through “Trysts” met him on the riverbed. Ada Limón’s “Crush” cut “the right branch / and a sort of light / woke up underneath.” I ached for the current between Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and the ancient liberties taken by Cavafy and Catullus. I luxuriated in the ecstatic poetry of Mirabai and mused on the grand time Jane Hirshfield and Robert Bly must have shared while making their translations. I grabbed onto Kevin Young’s shirttails for a wild ride, and I was no less than razed and rebuilt by Richard Siken’s “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”: “The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell. / Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.” Mary Oliver’s West Wind dazzled me with its investigation into longing, and in American Primitive I cherished Oliver’s “The Plum Trees,” with its advice that “the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums.” My mouth watered for Elinor Wylie’s “Wild Peaches” as I encountered these lines: “When the world turns completely upside down / You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore / Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore.” Then I read William Stafford and James Fenton on peace and war, found John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, and Honor Moore, fell into “Rapture” by Galway Kinnell, and burned with revelation on the day David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” told me:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

It was heady and hearty stuff, and each nudged me closer to finding my way. When I found the phrase “constant creation of ‘self’ is a tricky / mess” in Kyger’s “[He is pruning the privet],” I knew my manic search for meaning was finally winding down. The months of dialogue with poetic minds had delivered me from depression’s hold.

“One’s life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character,” Donald Hall wrote in Unpacking the Boxes. I am at such a new beginning. It is time to apply my mind once again to matters outside as well as inside myself, to new work and the routine matters of existence that give life its form. I have finally arrived back at my true self, after nearly three years. I have found my balance between euphoria and despair, and I have poetry to thank for riding alongside, helping me navigate from disease to ease.

Originally Published: May 9th, 2012

Jennifer Nix is a former editor-at-large for Chelsea Green Publishing, a producer for NPR’s “On the Media” and staff writer for Variety. Her work has also appeared in New York, the New York Observer, the Nation, the National Law Journal, the Village Voice, and Wired, as well as on Salon, Huffington Post,...

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  1. May 10, 2012
     Charles Ludeke

    An old priest once told me that a person, no matter their state or trouble in life, can find something in Psalms that speaks directly to them. I think this is true of all good art. Thanks for the testament to poetry and for the illuminating insights.

  2. May 10, 2012
     Jennifer Nix

    And thank you for your very nice comment, Charles. I agree.

  3. May 10, 2012
     Kyle Erickson

    This is a beautiful and inspiring piece, Jennifer. Thank you.

  4. May 11, 2012
     Bo Mackison

    I read your article at one of my own low ebbs, floundering about the
    poetry sites while trying to pull myself out of the muckiest depths of
    a cyclical depression. I mediately wondered "maybe I should read
    these very poems" and that would propel me on my own road of
    recovery. And then I reconsidered and told myself I had no business
    dealing in magical thinking, that I was to instead kick myself in my
    backside, pull myself up by the bootstraps I don't own, and force my
    way back into mainstream health.

    And then I rethought the issue, decided I much preferred poetry, and
    perhaps a poetry path of my own choosing would be the better path
    to recovery. So I now choose to be kind to myself, ease myself out
    of the house, and head to library/bookstores in search of words.

    Thank you for sharing your path of inspiration. Thank you very

  5. May 11, 2012
     Andrew Burke

    Thanks, Jennifer. And all the best to you in your life. I
    have been an avid Snyder fan for forty odd years - he has
    taught me one hell of a lot.

  6. May 12, 2012
     Susan de Wardt

    Jennifer I am astonished by your deep connection to poetry and your beautiful story about poetry and healing. Thank you for setting out so clearly the poems that inspired you. The active links make it possble for me to enjoy your selections as well. I am grateful

  7. May 12, 2012
     Carolyn Cordon

    I loved reading this and I agree that we can all find
    truth in the words we read. I believe deeply in the power
    of words, and I find hope and help in my own words and the
    words of others.

  8. May 12, 2012
     Holly Wren

    Although I've not been faced with serious illness, I recognize the
    reassuring and euphoric capacities of total immersion in poetry. I can
    honestly say that it saves me over and over, and gives shape and clarity
    to my life.

  9. May 12, 2012

    Thank you for sharing that Jennifer. I am happy that you
    overcame your illness and strive to live life fully. My
    husband and sister, who are both young and healthy were
    both recently diagnosed with different types of
    treatable cancer. Although I do not know how they feel
    inside, I do want to be there for them every step of the
    way. Your article sings a tune of surrendering hope that
    life in it's bitter sweet complexities offers us daily.
    I'm happy that poetry opened your ears to its music. And
    you remind me and give me the strength to know that we
    all can make a difference. The key is to follow our
    passions. I am happy that poetry awakened this in you. I
    wish you all the best!

  10. May 12, 2012
     June Kite

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Now I have more poets to look
    up! I am one year into an emotional journey of my own, aided by
    poetry. "Love Poems From God", where I first met Mirabai, has
    been a treasure. Ceremonies have ensued, so I enjoyed the
    sharing of yours. My neighbor has started a local workshop based
    on Kim Rosen's "Saved by a Poem". I am memorizing Rumi's "That
    Lives in Us". Your story brings me encouragement. I will be sharing

  11. May 12, 2012
     June Kite

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Now I have more poets to look
    up! I am one year into an emotional journey of my own, aided by
    poetry. "Love Poems From God", where I first met Mirabai, has
    been a treasure. Ceremonies have ensued, so I enjoyed the
    sharing of yours. My neighbor has started a local workshop based
    on Kim Rosen's "Saved by a Poem". I am memorizing Rumi's "That
    Lives in Us". Your story brings me encouragement. I will be sharing

  12. May 13, 2012

    Sat and read without moving, enjoyed every moment.

  13. May 13, 2012
     Ross Cohen

    Cohen's song "Anthem" has seen me through some tough times as well.
    I love his ability to find beauty in imperfection and grace in defeat.

    This is a lovely article. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  14. May 14, 2012
     Jane Herschlag

    Dear Jennifer Nix,
    I was glued to every word in your essay, Finding Poetry in Illness.
    Decades ago, I also found poetry to be my healer. Unlike you, I was
    not an avid reader of it, but a compulsive writer of poetry. When my
    repressed childhood of extreme abuse burst into my consciousness, I
    often could not sleep. It was during my childhood years that sleep
    made me a target for my father’s abuse. So fear kept me trapped in
    wakefulness, vacillating between the two—I must be crazy; it can’t be
    true—If it’s true, I’m so disgusting that I can’t let anyone see me.
    Prior to memory bombarding me, I had kept my brain in lock-up,
    never wrote, barely read. I was unaware that I was avoiding, at the
    cost of really living, whatever might trigger memory. Once the lid
    blew off of repression, and reality filtered or exploded into
    consciousness, besides my analyst, only writing brought relief.
    Being such a novice, it was of poor quality, but journal writing and
    poetry brought a measure of coherence to my chaos. The stream-of-
    consciousness flow led to many revelations. My husband, my analyst,
    and writing were my staunchest allies. I became a poetry addict. The
    process of writing, like dreaming, reveals many truths about
    ourselves, and the world around us. Pen and paper can be our private
    dream interpreter and analyst. As is well documented by prisoners,
    writing gives them a feeling of self-worth and self-knowledge. I
    believe that all the arts can heal, but for me, writing yields the most
    I printed out your essay because, no longer needing the catharsis of
    writing, I want to better acquaint myself with the authors who you
    found so instructive. It is always great to learn. Thank you,

  15. May 15, 2012
     margaret Hoskins

    At 88 years, I fear I do not have time enough to follow through on all the poems mentioned in this inspiring article. I could not stop reading, fascinated from beginning to end !
    I began my training as a poetry therapist in a psychiatric hospital specializing in work with young girls. Then a move four years ago precipitated a panic attack, This led to a diagnosis of a bi-polar condition--would that poetry could be substituted for the present medication!

  16. May 15, 2012
     Ahava Shira

    What an inspiring, exhilarating piece. I am a poet who has definitely
    used poetry to heal. ALthough most of that was in writing my own
    poems, I still find breath and breadth in others' beautiful and powerful
    use of words. Thanks for sharing your important journey. It helped me to
    remember that poems, although not especially valued in the
    marketplace, are truly vital to our lives.

  17. May 15, 2012
     Jennifer Nix

    I'm so very moved by all of your comments. Thank you for taking the
    time to share with me also.

  18. May 18, 2012

    Thank-you so much for this. I too, have felt saved by
    poetry.i lived in Marin in the 70's and found magic
    there. Now i live in Oakland and I am from baltimore.
    i don't know if you still live in baltimore.
    rocks have also saved my life without me exactly
    knowing. thank-you again
    ellen There is some beauty in Baltimore too- the henri
    moore statues at the baltimore museum of art, the stone
    streets, the greenness, the shambhala meditation place,
    the stony creek quaker meeting, the sheppard pratt
    quaker little meeting. thanks u

  19. May 24, 2012

    I could not match the beautiful beauty you fuse words
    from dialogue with some secret self inside that lifts
    and inspires another person to higher mansions.I have been in that 'dark night of the soul'where pain,fear
    despair,lonelinesss were unwelcome guests.Poetry also found its way to lay a path of 'ease to disease.'Of a sudden reading you, an immense, overwhelming feeling of
    intimate knowing swept through me,I would need a screed
    of paper endless as the sky blue to describe it! A perfection piece,that slips inside my eyelids gentle as
    a baby's breath,deals with matters beyond my reach of
    wholeness and health, and gives me hope,hope to go on...
    Your 'Finding Poetry in Illness' found me and I loved you. (Yes,I write poems,but ever- striving to be..a poet.)

  20. June 19, 2012
     Lynn Lawrence

    I was quite taken with your transcendent esssay and hope to wend my
    way through all the poems you cited. Like others, 40 years ago, I also
    discovered Gary Snyder and hope someday still to get to Stehekin to
    hike. I wanted to mention another favorite to you, a poet by the name
    of Rachel Hadas. She recently wrote a book called Strange Relation,
    about losing her husband to a long debilitating illness. Poetry -hers,
    and others, got her through. She is also an inspiration. And Gregory
    Orr, who found the courage to survive when he began to write poetry.
    Thank you for taking me and many others with you on this inspired
    and courageous journey.

  21. June 19, 2012

    Here is the quote that I posted on my blog when referencing your site. Hope you are inspired and encouraged.
    "We shall not cease from exploring
    and the end of all our exploration will be
    to arrive where we started and know
    the place for the first time.
    T.S Eliot

  22. July 1, 2012
     Amit Sonawane

    This is gorgeous! I might just start reading poetries again because of this post :)