Poem Review: Anxiety

We are living in hard times. 2020 shocked us. We came out of the year believing that the pandemic was over, but 2021 has brought the pandemic closer to us.

Along with fatalities, casualties and economic setbacks, mental health of COVID survivors and society at large has become a major challenge to deal with. Having seen mental health issues close quarters and still being on it, it is natural for me to explore this topic.

I play Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes 1 to 5 in a loop while I write this review. The music flows into my ears, unstringing my nerves and steadying my breath. There is something magical about piano. It flows into your heart, soul, skin, nerves and mind, like water. There is no place that it cannot be.

What could be better than exploring the topic I am ‘anxious’ about than diving into our favorite and familiar methods — reviewing poems. From three different continents — North America, Africa and Australia, poets Priya Patel, Akinkunmi Akinbode et Adebankemo Oduguwa and Allison Rose Clark bring us anguish and hope in their poems.

Poem 1: ANXIETY

Image by agymishel from Pixabay

I am slowly drowning
The water is so cold and deep
even the fish
are scared to swim with me
I think this is called anxiety
With arms spread wide
I float in and out
on the surface of sanity,
waiting for the next big wave
to finally take me away;
waiting for someone to save me
In the end, I just keep swimming
I wonder, for just one moment
what the quiet would be like;
the sudden warmth of closing my eyes
and for just one moment,
drown myself in tears
I’ve never done that before,
cry I mean, wipe tears away
with the palm of my hand;
proof that I too am human
In the end, I just keep swimming …

~ Priya ©️, March 2, 2021

Commentary on Poem 1:

The poem is free verse, and comes with an 5-line construct.

Let us assume that you don’t know how to swim and are alone in your boat. Somehow, the boat drifts into deep waters, and suddenly, a wave topples the boat. You are now in the water, deep and dark, without knowing how to swim, the surface is undulating. You are starting to choke…

A poem brings out this ‘drowning in the deep ocean’ situation — a situation that we face in our daily lives. Problems and situations that we don’t know how to handle and in turn that make us anxious — the fear of the depth, the fear of the next wave that might topple us, the desire to live, all combined into one knot, somewhere deep inside us, in our guts… let us dive into the poem now.

With arms spread wide
I float in and out
on the surface of sanity,
waiting for the next big wave
to finally take me away;
waiting for someone to save me

The poet narrates her experience in first person. The drowning is ‘slow’ and the experience is prolonged and traumatic. It is a double whammy for the suffering person.

Fishes are never scared to swim. If the protagonist sees that ‘even the fish are scared to swim with her’, it is because of her scared mental frame, which sees fear even with the Pisces who live in water.

“Everything else than sea is a torment to a fish”
Rumi

The creatures remain with their expertise — swimming, and at home — at sea, like Rumi says, but the protagonist feels that the fish is out of place — scared to swim in the sea! That is really an out of place feeling. The poet calls it ‘anxiety’. So we get it. Anxiety is the out-of-place feeling.

If anxiety was an out of place feeling, then how would the protagonist respond? Anxiety paralyzes minds and bodies. The poet illustrates this with a visual. The protagonist ‘floats in and out on the surface of sanity’. There is a world where objectivity and reasoning make sense.

But once you are in ‘sinking’ mode, you lose this ‘common sense’ as you are overwhelmed with anxiety. The ‘surface of sanity’ is the border between ‘anxious insanity’ and ‘serene sanity’. Floating in and out of this surface is a fringe behavior that makes the person’s actions unreliable.

Now let us look at the physical demeanor. The poet vividly portrays the scene — the protagonist is floating with her ‘arms spread wide’ — a gesture of giving up, because her mind is frozen and unreliable, crippled by overwhelming anxiety.

So what is she waiting for? She is waiting for the ‘next big wave’. There is an anticipation. The word ‘next’ indicates that there is an event in the past, a ‘previous’ big wave. Therefore, the anxiety, if we appreciate the protagonist’s past, stems from a previous event. It goes back to the backstory I had presented in the start of this discourse. The ‘big wave’ is a disruptive event, that can put her future in jeopardy.

Stop here for a moment. If you were in that situation, floating with arms wide, and drowning in and out of the deep and cold sea, waiting for the next wave, unsure — anxiety builds — that creepy, knotting feeling inside.

This line ‘waiting for someone to save me’ seems to be an afterthought by the poet. It trips the flow of the poem, but makes sense, if you are holding on to the overall meaning. As one is immersed in their own mental wallow, the thought of ‘seeking help’ is positive action. Yet, it makes sense, because, it shows the first sign of the protagonist wanting to exit the situation.

The two scenarios are contrasting. On one hand, she waits for the next big way to hit, but on the other hand, she waits for somebody to rescue her. A classical dilemma of the anxious mind!

In the end, I just keep swimming
I wonder, for just one moment
what the quiet would be like;

She keeps herself on the ‘surface’, as she still ‘keeps swimming’. Her own thoughts wander back to the fringe of sanity. Somewhere, ‘for just one moment’, the protagonist wonders ‘what the quiet would be like’. Quietness, to the tumultuous mind is a dream.

“Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button. Shutting it down. All of it. — Amir”
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

That is a wish, dream. And that dream — the wish for quietness — comes and goes in the protagonist’s mind in the blip of a second.

the sudden warmth of closing my eyes
and for just one moment,
drown myself in tears
I’ve never done that before,
cry I mean…

The dream is trapped in the ‘closing my eyes’, says the protagonist. Once the eyes are closed, the actual quiet moment is born. The ‘quiet’ that was a wish before, now becomes real. ‘ Just for one moment’, again.

She ‘drowns herself in tears’; Note the difference between the external situation of drowning in her situation — mentioned in the opening lines, and the internal letting go, ‘drowning in tears’. The first part is beyond the protagonist's control, the second one — the crying—is about taking control.

I’ve has never done that before’, she admits. So far, she had been waiting for the big wave to consume or someone to save, but when she spent ‘one moment’ thinking about the quiet, she let go, and from her closed eyes, ‘warm tears’ flow. She ‘cries’.

wipe tears away
with the palm of my hand;
proof that I too am human
In the end, I just keep swimming …

As the protagonist ‘wipes tears away with the palm of her hand, crying proves that she too is human.’ Indeed. Crying makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability makes us human.

“Do not apologize for crying. Without this emotion, we are only robots.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

At some point time, crying is about letting go. Beyond that, a decision has to be made to act. The act is — to ‘just keep swimming’. So if you realize that when anxiety paralyzes the mind, at some point, ‘acceptance’ and ‘letting go’ set in, and action is inevitable. The inner quiet is the ultimate panacea for the anxious protagonist.

“Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.”
C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

The poem leaves us with a mixed feeling — the natural anguish of the situation and the inevitability of dealing with it.

Poem 2: RARE ESCAPADE

Image by Felicia Ruiz from Pixabay

Laced with turbulence deep in the blue,
People flourished sailing on,
But the fear is…onlookers don’t feel the waves…
Until we mastered to prevail,
We move!

Oceans winks ; anxiety flipped
The risk was sweet
A class with zeal that dares the freeze
We smile like time to come
An epic moment for our fear to succumb.

The grieved and the oppressed
The morning dew and the sunset
The season and it affairs
A clue to a pleasant mindset

Our heads bow,
The boat yet moved,
Her mind skipped,
My head hurt,
In all, all we had is us and we can’t feed the beasts with none.
We must move to the satisfying shore.

~Akinkunmi Akinbode et Adebankemo Oduguwa © 2020

Commentary on Poem 2:

Each one of us is born with a gift. This gift is a hidden somewhere, like a gem in the womb of the sea. The purposes of our lives is to find out this hidden gem, polish it, and present it to the world. But this is definitely not an easy matter.

Somehow, in our minds, we have thoughts that hold us back. Poets Akinkunmi Akinbode et Adebankemo Oduguwa bring out the mental blocks, the anxiety and the final solution in bringing our the opportunity. Here in their own words-

The summary of the poem is actually what you go through life’s adventure… We are so much afraid of the unknown but the resources available to scale through shouldn’t be the determining factor to getting to the peak of your success… ~Akinkunmi

The ‘fear of the unknown’ creates the anxiety, and the challenge is within, than without.

Laced with turbulence deep in the blue,
People flourished sailing on,

Deep in the blue’, brings back the same memories as Poem 1. The ‘deep blue’, metaphorically represents life. ‘Laced with turbulence’, is the deep blue — that is, troubles in life. The poets acknowledge the challenges in life.

People have succeeded in the past. Millions lived their lives before us. There are those mighty examples of the past. The ‘people flourished sailing on’, indicates that deep blue has been conquered before.

But the fear is…onlookers don’t feel the waves…
Until we mastered to prevail,
We move!

The ‘flourishing’ in the past did not happen without effort. It happened because ‘we mastered to prevail’ (practice) and we ‘moved’ (action). A journey across the deep blue comes through ‘practice’, and ‘action’.

But when one stands on the shore and looks at the sea, there is that fear — the fear of the unknown enters the mind. ‘Onlookers doesn’t feel the waves’, so they are daunted and awed by the magnitude of the deep blue before them.

The tentative human stands at the edge of water and dips his toe in the foam. When a wave come towards them, they step back. They don’t get wet. Their minds are comfortable when their feet are in terra firma. That is the fear of the unknown. For those who practice and act, this fear is non-existence. This fear of unknown is anxiety. It is this anxiety that separates the onlookers from the masters.

Oceans winks ; anxiety flipped
The risk was sweet
A class with zeal that dares the freeze
We smile like time to come
An epic moment for our fear to succumb.

May be, the onlookers overthought. May be, their minds were overwrought. They were scared to take the plunge. The scare — the fear that held them back — the anxiety, is the one that was pushing them to the edge. Anxiety is always a fence sitter.

“It’s OKAY to be scared. Being scared means you’re about to do something really, really brave.”
Mandy Hale, The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass

Did we say that the poets were serious, especially about anxiety? Nope. There is that subtlety of humor that comes out — ‘ the ocean winks’. It says ‘come to me, take the plunge, master me’. The invite is too tempting, the fence-sitter takes the plunge —’the anxiety flips’. The temptation, the lure, the attraction — is too much to ignore. ‘ The risk was sweet’, wasn’t it? Indeed, the plunge is taken!

The momentum created by the ‘risk taking’, which ‘flipped the anxiety’ is sustained by ‘a class with zeal’, say the poets. The class is attributed the mastery that brings the flourish, as we have seen earlier. This brings us to zeal.

Zeal is the spring of curiosity and enthusiasm that challenges the remnants of anxiety or uncertainty, if any that might have lingered in the corners. The zeal ‘dares the freeze’; the freeze here is the mental inertia.

“Saw a little girl touch a big bug and shout, “I conquered my fear! YES!” and calmly walk away. I was inspired.”
Nathan Fillion

The ‘zeal’, ‘practice’ and ‘action’ that we have seen so far has cleared the cobwebs of anxiety in the minds of the ‘master’. So ‘we smile like time to come’ — a smile of confidence and a certain future (‘time to come’). That moment is ‘epic’, as it is the ‘point in time for the fear to succumb’, obliterated by the confidence gained.

The grieved and the oppressed
The morning dew and the sunset
The season and its affairs
A clue to a pleasant mindset

We have seen that the evolution from the ‘onlooker’ to the ‘master’ is a combination of zeal, risk-taking, practice and action. All these factors have evolved from within. The poets help us take a look around though. The external factors — ‘the grieved and the oppressed’ — indicating the state of people, the time of day — ‘the morning dew and the sunset’, the weather and time of year — ‘the season and its affairs’, are enjoyed by a person who has a still mind, and has overcome anxiety and the internal tumult. The poet unveil this with ‘a clue to the pleasant mindset’.

Our heads bow,
The boat yet moved,
Her mind skipped,
My head hurt,
In all, all we had is us and we can’t feed the beasts with none.
We must move to the satisfying shore.

The boat yet moved’, it could be in the deep blue sea, or from the shore to sea. It reflects a state of progress. It requires an effort, in such an effort ‘our heads bow(ed)’. You might notice a bit of first person here. Both the poets are about to go on a voyage.

The effort to master takes its toll. ‘Her mind skipped, my head hurt’ might possibly indicate the effort to cope. The poets reconcile to their situation — accept it ( all we had is us and we can’t feed the beasts with none). The poets, while acknowledging the struggles, risks and rewards of the voyage in the deep blue, eventually, have to reach the ‘satisfying shore’. The shore here is a destination, a milestone — which is driven by a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Overcoming the anxiety would be worth it, if the goal is reached.

The poem brings about a multidimensional view of the ‘journey of anxiety’. Kudos to the poets for providing an in-depth experience.

Poem 3: PANIXIOUS PL EA

Image by Claudio_Scott from Pixabay

Calm my anxious
Spirit.
Still my racing
Thoughts.
Give me peace
Within my heart.
Make worry
Take a stroll.
Let desperation
Drift away
Like currents
Carry water.
Relax my body
And my mind.
Some things
I can’t control.

~Allison Rose Clark ©2014

Commentary on Poem 3:

While the first two poems bring out the experiences that people undergo through anxiety, the third poem, ‘Panixious Plea’ by Allison Rose Clark, wrote in 2014, brings out a beautiful recipe for handling anxiety. Anxiety is a physical response to ‘unknown.’ The prescription is simple yet profound. It is so simple that the reader may actually feel anticlimactic. But after going through ‘hell’, it is worthwhile to sit and read the recipe. The world needs healers, and healing starts with self.

Calm my anxious
Spirit.
Still my racing
Thoughts.

A simple start to the poem, brings out the situation and the response. ‘Anxious spirit’ induced by ‘racing thoughts’, is the situation. The mind that is the monkey, is jumping from one branch to another, as new thoughts stemming from anxiety race across the feeble mind. Anxiety is from the core here — from the spirit. The poet implores us not to react, but respond. Respond with calm, and being still. Such a measure response, makes us the observer of the anxiety and thoughts that stem from it, but also the muster a calm response.

Give me peace
Within my heart.
Make worry
Take a stroll.

I love these lines ‘Give me peace within my heart’. Inner peace. The costliest thing a human can possess. Peace within my heart. Peace that settles in the place where emotions are born. It is like dumping a glacier in a volcano spewing lava. The fizz around the collision is undeniable, but what happens after, is infinite calm. The ability to take things as they are, and not to heart — acceptance — is the key to inner peace.

“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it — just as we have learned to live with storms.”
Paulo Coelho, Manuscrito encontrado em Accra

We cannot wish away anxiety. Anxiety is a natural phenomenon, but humans can will it to go away. ‘Make worry take a stroll.’ A calm, almost yogic response.

Let desperation
Drift away
Like currents
Carry water.

Anxiety leads to desperation. Desperation leads to impetuous actions — actions of last resort. It deprives humans of their biggest strength — rational thinking. The poet exhorts us to the desperation drift away.

Currents in water — ocean or river, are not visible, they move underneath. They determine the direction of waterflow, and hence many geological and biological events that ensue. The ‘drifting away of desperation’ is not a superficial process. It is an event inside a human being, and water, the elixir also works to clean the messy leftovers of anxiety. The analogy is more than coincidence.

Relax my body
And my mind.
Some things
I can’t control.

Finally, the prescription to deal with anxiety is out. ‘ Relax my body and my mind’. The words impound the essence, and capture the crux of the entire poem. Many of us may scoff at the simplicity, but in simplicity lies the solution.

So what is the secret sauce? Acceptance. Anxiety blinds us to the fact that there are somethings in our lives that we cannot control. But once we accept that, it is the first big step in relaxing our minds.

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For achieving acceptance, it is about letting go. Let things happen, evolve. Things that happen will happen. Anxiety is a burden that we carry today of what MIGHT happen tomorrow. The poet just simplifies this profound message in this simple line -‘Somethings I can’t control.’

Soup for the Soul:

The three poems provide warm soup for the anxious soul. Life is about living, and worrying takes away the beauty of life. Anxiety is a natural response — a fear of the unknown and uncertainty of the future. Yet, it can be overcome. The recipes lie in the poems.

As much as we savor the soup, we shall let the learnings percolate into your soul — ‘acceptance’, ‘zeal’, ‘practice’, ‘action’, ‘risk taking’, ‘seeking the quiet’ — all contribute to the liberation of our minds from anxiety.

This was one of my more challenging reviews, and caused some anxiety. But as I learnt to listen, engage and write, the anxiety about writing this review vaporized. That is my own experience. I thank oets Priya Patel, Akinkunmi Akinbode et Adebankemo Oduguwa and Allison Rose Clark for their wonderful contributions and consent for this review.

~ Ashok Subramanian

Copyrights for all italicized words and poems acknowledged and attributed to the respective poets.

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Ashok Subramanian

A poetic mind. Imagines characters, plots. Loves Philosophy, Literature and Science. Poetry-Short Stories-Novels- Poetry Reviews-Book Reviews