Poems Speaking to CAPS Staff During Quarantine


COMPARTMENT C, CAR 293 (1938) BY EDWARD HOPPER

The psychological effects of systemic racism, police brutality, and unequal access to healthcare, coupled with the impact of quarantine and increased isolation negatively impacts our mental health.

With all that stress it is totally normal if you are more anxious or depressed recently or have witnessed more increased fluctuations in your mood and quality of sleep. You are doing the best you can during stressful time.

To help regulate the emotions that feel ineffective at this time, first we must articulate and locate the wound- before we know where to focus our healing.

Easier said than done for sure, but the good news is that poetry and the arts help with this labeling process.

In hopes that the readers will get a chance to connect and know us a little better, CAPS staff members shared some poetry that is speaking to them right now. We hope that you find strength and joy in these poems and know that CAPS is here for you this school year so please call us to be connected to mental health resources.

Langston Hughes
Credit: NPG Winold Reiss c. 1925
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of W. Tjark Reiss, in memory of his father, Winold Reis

Poems Speaking to Staff Members

Leslie Montana

“I don’t really have a favorite poem but this one has made an impression on me.  Though we are not really accustomed to listening, the poem describes ways nature is always trying to communicate with us and imagines a world in which our relationship is more reciprocal.  It feels so much more comforting and real.  I hope this poem will inspire others to take a minute to notice and appreciate what nature offers us each day.”

What if…?

by Kai Siedenburg

What if the leaves,
stirred to singing
by the breeze,
sing with even more joy
when they notice
you are listening?

What if the small white flower
quivers with delight
when you notice
her tiny
yet honorable
contribution
to the beauty
of this world?

And what if
that brief moment
is all she needs
to know that her life
is worth living,
all her efforts
not in vain?

What if the trees
feel the depth
of your pain,
and are quietly
reaching toward you,
offering solace
with everything
they have to give?

© Poems of Earth and Spirit by Kai Siedenburg

Joe Murray

“The visual is powerful. Sometimes we feels small but our place in this world is no more & no less than any other. To quote Mother Teresa, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” For me it is a call to simple acts of kindness, selflessness, & compassion.”

Song of Myself

By Walt Whitman

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars

© Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass (: Norton, 1973)

Mirella Flores

“There is something about short poetry that I really like. I think Rupi Kaur does a wonderful job saying so much with little words. I also love her use of images to add to the poem. I love this poem so much that I often include it in my bio at counseling centers (its on my UNC bio). What I love about this poem is how it captures pain and validates it while simultaneously allowing flowers to grow up it. It also reminds me how to hurt is beautiful because it means we have loved, and that is a gift.”

but what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and lives

- rupi kaur

© Kaur, Rupi (2017), the sun and her flowers

Dave DeVito

“This is one of my favorite Dylan tunes (I know, technically not a poem, but he’s my poet.) I was surprised to see that Joan Baez actually wrote it (I guess she’s my poet too.) Anyway, for me the poem defies the typical youth-worshiping sentiments that consumerism projects and recruits us into. Instead, the words suggest that youth is about energy and commitment, something we can demonstrate and access for years beyond our teens and 20’s.”

Forever Young

By Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay
Forever young.

May you grow up to be rightous.
May you grow up to be true.
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you.

May you always be courageous,
Stand upright, and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young.

May your hands always be busy.
May your feet always be swift.
May you have a strong foundation
When the winter changes shift.

May your heart always be joyful.
May your song always be sung
And may you stay
Forever young.

© Bob Dylan (1974)

Sara Stahlman

“Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairy Tales twists traditional fairy tales with feminist ideology. Upon the cover are the words: “Await no princes to save you through their lips touching yours whilst you are in unwilling slumber. Wake each other up instead.” The book touches on the stories that many of us watched on Disney movies and heard at bedtime. Gill gives them new moral imperatives, gleaned from the lessons we all learn as we move through the patriarchal world. I loved every poem in this book! I share with you the one below for both its brevity and wisdom.”

Four Spells to Keep Inside Your Mouth

by Nikita Gill

‘I respect myself’ – the most powerful incantation that will change your whole life if you believe it when you say it.

‘My heart is too valuable for you’ – the spell that will set you free from any destructive soul.

‘I believe in you.’ – the best gift you can ever give anyone else.

‘No’—a single, commanding, two-letter spell with the ability to liberate you if only you learn to use it unapologetically and cast it without fear.

© Gill, Nikita (2018) Fierce Fairytales: Poems and Stories to Stir Your Soul

Ché Wells

“I love this poem because it is titled Don’t Quit! which is an important stance to carry through all life experiences. The title Don’t Quit can be used through life experiences and said as a mental reminder for yourself or shared aloud as a mental reminder for others. This poem talks about the beauty in trails that seem like failure but reminds us all Don’t Quit. This poem reminds us its ok not to be 100% just as long as we remember Don’t Quit. 

My second submission is a just cause I wanted to be extra and thrive. I love this because I think its important that we always try to thrive when we do things in life. We also have better outcomes if we do it with passion, compassion, humor, and our own unique tailor made style. Through these times of uncertainty we should thrive by depending on and what we all have inside of us.” 

“Don’t Quit.”

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out–
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit–
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

– Author Unknown

Wendy Kadens

One of my clear favorites is The Guest House, by Rumi. Especially during the Pandemic and isolation, the need to make space for, even welcome, the full range of emotions and experiences speaks to me. Rumi captures so much of what real mental health is, tolerating, leaning into, welcoming everything with the knowledge that nothing is permanent. When he speaks to these phenomena as “a guide from beyond” I also see it as “a guide from within.”

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

©Rumi (2004), The Essential Rumi HarperOne 

Elizabeth McIntyre

I like this poem because I really enjoy the connection to nature; the reflection on grief as an evolving process, as it sometimes feels never ending; and the sentiment that we are forever changed by those we love and lose.”

When Great Trees Fall

By Maya Angelou 

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

© 2015 by The Estate of Maya Angelou
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. 

1877 Winslow Homer “The New Novel”

Allen O’Barr

“I like this one because it reminds me that we are beings of the earth and the sky. That we are physical form and spirit together.  Like a fortune I once got in a cookie:  you are not a human being having a spiritual experience, you are a spiritual being having a human experience.”

Dirt and stars

Is it reasonable at this time in the universe to blend the dirt with the stars?

If it is, what does it take?

In what seems to be a chaotic and unsafe world,

A time of dichotomous reality that pulls us into factions

A reality of scarcity where peaceful coexistence seems less probable

A reality forged in many ways by what we are told is and is not possible

A reality in which, until recently, silence seems to be less frequent

How do we even think about the dirt and the stars?

Its fast but its not all fast

This is a choice

Its loud but its not all loud

This is a choice

Its scary…but its exquisitely beautiful and painful

And alive

It’s a choice to be alive

So dig deep and look up and let it flow.

But I am so anxious

Because I am so afraid

Because I am so tired

And they tell me, 

I tell myself

That its not possible

That its not even real

And I am so tired

And scared

So I go under the covers, sealing the edges with the flat surfaces of my body

And I hide

And its dark

And stagnant 

And hot

So I throw off the covers and breathe in the fresh cool air

See myself as I am, knowing that “the covers” is not a lasting choice

Restless I get up and choose to stand

Choose to walk outside

Choose to put my hands in the dirt

Choose to look up and try to believe

That magic is real and that I am part of it

And that even if I am delusional

That I choose love over fear

And blend

– Author unknown

Malini Basdeo

I love this poem because fostering self-love and acceptance can be difficult and tiring at times, but putting in the hard work can lead to beautiful results.”

first
i went for my words
the i can'ts. the i won'ts. the i'm not good enoughs. i lined them up and shot them dead
and then i went for my thoughts
invisible and everywhere
there was no time to gather them one by one
I had to wash them out
I wove a linen cloth out of my hair
soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water
carried it in my mouth as i climbed
up my braid to the back of my head
down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean
it took twenty-one days
my knees bruised buth
i did not care
i was not given the breath
in my lungs to choke it out
i would scrub the self-hate off the bone
till it exposed love

self-love - rupi kaur

women on her hands and knees with a cloth appears to be washing a floor of tacks

© Kaur, Rupi (2017), the sun and her flowers

Anthony Teasdale

“I love it because I have always read it as being about the choices we have in life, that we often make the best decision we can in a moment with the information (including our instinct/gut) available to us at the time, and that both roads hold possibilities and we give up something making a choice, but we also gain something.   It is hard to know what that something (or somethings) will be until time passes.  It is best to make the choice and move forward along the road to experience life in that choice instead of staying stuck at the fork/divergence in the road because of fear of making the wrong choice.  This means more to me now as a therapist. People often stay stuck because of fear, because they want to know EXACTLY what is on the path and want a guaranteed outcome.  But we often can only know that in life by living it, and we often get beautiful things we didn’t expect from the choice, and we get NOTHING out of staying stuck at the fork in the road.”

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Kyle Alexander

“Month after month of quarantining during this pandemic make the past and the future feel entrancing. It’s easy to live in these spaces and ruminate, especially as our orientation to time during COVID-19 feels unstable. This poem by Ross Gay reminded me of the importance of trying to anchor yourself to the present, and the beauty and peace that brings.”

Sorrow Is Not My Name

BY ROSS GAY

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No

matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.

There is a time for everything. Look,

just this morning a vulture

nodded his red, grizzled head at me,

and I looked at him, admiring

the sickle of his beak.

Then the wind kicked up, and,

after arranging that good suit of feathers

he up and took off.

Just like that. And to boot,

there are, on this planet alone, something like two

million naturally occurring sweet things,

some with names so generous as to kick

the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,

stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks

at the market. Think of that. The long night,

the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me

on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.

But look; my niece is running through a field

calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel

and at the end of my block is a basketball court.

I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.

      —for Walter Aikens

Ross Gay, “Sorrow Is Not My Name” from Bringing the Shovel Down.  Copyright © 2011 by Ross Gay. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. 

Other Staff Submissions

“My favorite poem is Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. It’s my favorite poem because it is super inspirational! This poem was an English project when I was in middle school, and throughout the years, it has still stuck with me. It has always been motivation for me to stay persistent even through difficult situations.”

Mother to Son

by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

©Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted by Harold Ober Associates, Inc.

Dance, when you’re broken open

by Rumi

Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

©Rumi (2004), The Essential Rumi HarperOne 

DARK TESTAMENT: VERSE 8

by Pauli Murray

Hope is a crushed stalk

Between clenched fingers

Hope is a bird’s wing

Broken by a stone.

Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —

A word whispered with the wind,

A dream of forty acres and a mule,

A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,

A name and place for one’s children

And children’s children at last . . .

Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope

And a world where I can sing it.

Give me a song of faith

And a people to believe in it.

Give me a song of kindliness

And a country where I can live it.

Give me a song of hope and love

And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.

© Dark Testament and Other Poems Pauli Murray, 1970

Listen:

Written and compiled by Kyle Alexander, B.S., M.S.W., L.C.S.W., (He/Him) a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at UNC CAPS.

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