Originally written for my capstone publication, Equal To / True.

Poetry is one of those things in my life where I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I noticed its presence. I suppose there are a great many things in my life like that, but it feels, given the significance it has for me today, that there should be some kind of beginning—poetry didn’t just start existing for me one day, although perhaps it did. What I mean to say is, I think it took a good number of years of picking up and putting down the same poem before I ever read it properly, with attention, with intention. I couldn’t say when that was, or what poem it was, because I can’t imagine what on earth I might have been doing before, but now it’s poetry everywhere, all the time, in every corner I look. Even when I’m not looking for poetry I find it. But there was one poem, and one poet, because there always is, because every poet has that one, that one that was a gift, from someone, somewhere, a poem given to you with or without you knowing of its gift-ness, with or without you knowing that it will be that one. It’s nearly always the latter.

Mine is Mary Oliver. She came from my mother, and although I cannot pinpoint the exact date or time, (truthfully, because it was many) I know when I read the first line of Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”, it is her that stands before me, reading out the words the same way she reads scripture. Oliver’s poetry is rooted deeply in spirituality and the natural world—many of her works include instructions that invite the reader to look outwards, to step outside themselves and learn something from the world around them.

I suppose she is largely responsible for my work with poetry as a whole. The months leading up to the fall semester of my fourth year I had been depressed and clinging to poetry (a wide variety of poetry of all kinds, but Oliver’s work in particular) as a lifeline, and more certain than ever that it was what I wanted this project to be about. It wasn’t just that I felt held and comforted by poetry during my depression; my perception of the world fundamentally changed. I noticed things around me in a beloved and meaningful manner. Everything, everything, everything had meaning. Although by no means did poetry cure my depression, what it did instead was make everything more precious. It uncovered things about the world around me I had not been able to see before.

What is it about poetry that makes it so powerful? How does it change what we understand about the world? How does it change what we understand about ourselves?

In December of 1995, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." Three days before the ceremony, he gave a lecture at the Swedish Academy, titled Crediting Poetry. My initial research for this project included listening to an audio of Heaney delivering this speech, and below is an excerpt from the essay I wrote in response:

“Crediting Poetry” was offered to me by my mother in passing, as a sort of I-heard-of-this-and-it-could-help-you-out gesture, but it was halfway into reading the lecture one morning on a Thursday that I realized it was going to be more significant than I had thought. One paragraph in particular, in which Heaney explains to the audience the Kingsmill massacre, left me breathless and off-kilter.

But it was not the gruesome details, or the heartbreaking unfolding of the event—instead, it was the point that Heaney comes to much later in the lecture, when he speaks of truth. If poetry is as honest as the blind truth of everything—if that is what we are led to believe, if we are meant to credit poetry, to rely on it as the purest form of storytelling, evidence is necessary. Heaney knows this, and, according to him, the poems know it too: “[Poetry] knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures.” Good poets know this. Good poems know this. Poetry works in ways that don’t always reveal themselves, even (and sometimes especially) to the person who is writing. But poetry is truthful, always.

This led me to my final iteration of my project theme: the truth of poetry, and how to see the truth of everything through it. When I was diagnosed with depression, truth became something precarious. Having depression is at times delusional—there’s no words or way to communicate the sheer emotion. It’s almost comical how perfectly poetry fits into the puzzle of all that, allowing the poet to abandon what might be considered logical or coherent in favor of telling a story as it should be told. The usefulness lies in the freedom.

The emotional reaction I was having to Heaney’s lecture was similar to emotions I recognized during intense depressive episodes. I wasn’t sure why, or where they were coming from in particular, but I suppose that’s the thing about feelings: famously uncontrollable and severely  interrupting. I began to consider what about this I could experiment with—what was the truth of what I was feeling? What did that truth look like? Feel like? Sound like? Sensations surrounded my studies, and so I tried to put them into words. This is where “Crediting Poetry” was written:

When the world was built
at the beginning, Truth laid the foundation.

It was in those days that we first learned
how to carefully balance upon a string,
held in our own two hands, taught
us to keep our arms stretched out

not in fear of falling,
but to reach further than
we knew

When the world was built
by your own hands,
(by your brother’s hands)
you held the proof,
standing in front of the masked man with a rifle
barrel thrust down your throat
each callus and bruise
evidence of something broken

It could have been
the wall, or the cliffs pressing into the earth
so as not to drown in the wild seas below
or the Crucifixion of it all,
suspended, each atrophied muscle pulling further and further into the night,
but I suppose it perhaps was the single flickering light on the bus home,
lit so they could see just enough
but not everything

When the world was built
and destroyed
and built again
a man stood on a stage
and sang of Truth,
and a tightrope, and outstretched arms

I was next to him when they told him to run
and I could see, the moment before,
his feet rooted to the ground,
sinking into the mud, holding
still, so still, his eyes two pale moons,
and one single heart, clenched in his fists—
but enough about me.

On the fifth day of the new year,
the servant of the Virgin Mary
turned on his heel, fleeing,
into the drift, and no one was surprised
when it started to rain.

All day the bullets resounded, ricocheting,
chest to chest, cheek to cheek,
back and forth, again.

The truth of this poem does not appear in any of the stanzas in particular, but rather in the poem in its entirety. The fourth, fifth, and last three verses all reference the Kingsmill massacre; though there is perhaps a blurry outline of the truth of those events, I have no real connection or knowledge of what actually happened that night. The speaker of the poem provides little context as to their identity; it could be the reader, or myself, the poet, or anyone else. My intention was to tell the truth of the Troubles (a 30-year long conflict in Northern Ireland, and the larger political context of the Kingsmill massacre both Heaney and I reference): a war that was (like most things) a direct result of British colonialism, and the grief of the violence that followed. Once again I was responding to Heaney’s words, but this time through poetry instead of analytical prose. I wanted this poem to be vivid. I wanted to attempt to communicate a shred of the intensity I experienced at listening to Seamus Heaney talk about that night on the hill. Religious imagery, Irish landscapes, and a delicate line of tension throughout. I learned to draw before I learned to write.

But my capstone was about poetry, not the Troubles, and having built myself a base to start from, I returned to the poems I had written in the past few years, all with varying topics and poetic approaches. During the summer, writing poetry had sprung up in full form without warning. I was going through a particularly rough patch after moving back home for a job that was draining and left me exhausted most of the time. There was nothing I held with enough reverence to put down on a page, and I spent most of my nights sitting on the front porch, waiting to be shown something. And then came a poem about magpies, out of the blue, landing right in front of me. It’s not an incredible poem, but it is one of my favorites if only for the immediacy of it. It’s funny that writing poetry is like that sometimes, but the same could be said for depression: sometimes it’s slow and methodical, and other times it catches you off guard, like a baseball thrown too quickly and your bruised cheek.

When God made the heavens and the earth


and plastic and

a house fire and
the crack in the sidewalk

and magpies

trumpets were playing.

I’ve always thought your song sounded like you
were asking a question
what could you possibly have left in this world
to discover

Pick up the first shiny thing you see
and rope it round your neck.
Teach me how to carry your life with you.


the first thing I noticed was the silence.

Magpies in British Columbia inhabit the interior—they stay east of the mountains, and it’s rare to see any in Vancouver.  After I moved there for the first time, I met person after person who told me they didn’t know what a magpie sounded like. The memory of waking up in my home in Edmonton to their loud, brash call seems to be ingrained into me—I can’t imagine a life not knowing that. But the significance of this poem comes from the role magpies play in the ecosystem I grew up in; Edmonton is considered to be the “magpie capital of Canada”, and most people think magpies are pests, the same way seagulls are treated in Vancouver.

How would you describe the existence of something with a poem? More specifically, how would you describe the sensation of longing for that existence? When God made the heavens and the Earth—let’s start there. Whatever you might imagine to be at the start of things, no matter what it looks like, is God—I grew up Christian, and was taught that creation story as truth for a very long time (which is another can of worms for another capstone project) so my beginning was that one. And the longing that I was feeling for the sound of magpies was embedded into my beginning.

and plastic and / a house fire and / the crack in the sidewalk cements (sorry!) the idea of where magpies live in my mind—the inevitability of them, and the sadness of them. It’s really hard to describe—even as I’m writing this now I’m struggling to put into words what emotion I’m trying to convey with this poem, which is why it’s a great example of what I’m trying to communicate with this study. I want the reader to examine this poem and these nouns in particular through the relationship of yourself to the other. Myself and the magpies; myself and plastic; myself and a house fire; myself and the crack in the sidewalk. The idea is for the reader to do the same. This is where the gold of poetry lies—in the way everyone reads a poem for themselves. The best ones are where the poet writes for themselves, too.

I do think magpies sound like trumpets—at least a little, with their brassy caws and sharp chirps, over and over, always something to say. But the line trumpets were playing isn’t just about the sound; it’s also about the celebration. It’s the announcing of an arrival into the world, among everything, declaring the presence in thrill and relief after living a life without. The following stanza is, however, only literal—what else do magpies sound like? What else evokes that same feeling of inevitability and sadness? A question that can’t be answered; moving away from home; silence.

Poems don’t say everything; they say one thing, and, when done right, they say it well enough that it’s all they need to say. This is what I try to put at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading poetry, and writing poetry, and writing about poetry—what is that one thing? Why? Where did it come from? When I’m writing poetry about depression in particular, this is one of the reasons it serves as a form of therapy: the slowness of poetry, and the preciseness of it.

That summer had a lot of different poems about different parts of my depression, and it was healing, but it was also violent; days where I bled through my poetry, spreading my insides out onto the floor and inspecting them. The dog I had grown up with had died in April while I was in Vancouver, and grief ripped me apart a whole province away. Immediately, poetry was a balm like no other, but of course we were not the first to experience a dog dying, so of course there was plenty to soothe: Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, more and more and more. People never stop feeling for pets. People never stop grieving when something dies. And I wanted (and probably needed) to write my own, and like the magpie poem, this one burst out of me a few days after her death.

When I saw the flash of red in the sky,
that sharp rip of light;
there for a second,
and then gone,
I remembered how it felt when they told me you were dying.

Everyone gathered around,
heads tilted up to the stormy sky
trying to catch a glimpse
“It’s called a sprite,” said the man next door
with his hands over his ribs,
and I could see the calluses on his fingers
and each scar gashed through his palm

I thought the sky was falling.
I thought the clouds would crash to the ground
while we watched, futile, empty,
so, so small.

My mother called me today
and we both cried,
1200 kilometers apart
the static of the phone call
and the silence between sentences
holding me when she could not

It takes a lot of bravery to have faith.
It takes all of the strength in your beating, finite heart
to believe in something you have never seen.
The day I met you, I was sure
the restlessness in your young body
and the love in your wet, wide eyes
would make me have faith in

the clouds will turn grey-blue-purple
and the sky will open up,
(my heart will open up)
and when, high above the earth,
that red bolt of energy appears,
jolting, pumping, living,
without anyone looking,
(does god appear if no one is looking?)
I will lift my head,
and close my eyes,

and feel you everywhere.

I’ve never seen a red sprite, but I remember seeing an image of them weeks before, and the image returned to me when she died—the way it looked like a wound, a sharp gash in the sky, the same harshness of the grief living in my body. That became the one thing for this poem. The grief of losing a pet is universal in a way not a lot of things are. It’s a different kind of grief compared to losing a person, but the weight of it still shocks you.

It takes a lot of bravery to have faith / It takes all of the strength in your beating, finite heart / to believe in something you have never seen. The concept of an afterlife, or anything resembling the golden and holy heaven I was reassured was our final resting place my entire childhood has never been easy for me to believe. Belief in general is something hard to wrap my head around. Having faith in something that is invisible, something that only exists in stories, something that allegedly defines the very foundation of who we are—is possibly one of the bravest things I can think of. The feeling of walking into the room where our dog was held for the first time a decade ago was more proof of God than any sermon I have attended at a church. Her bold, unafraid stance, waiting to prove herself, the purest love in her body bursting at the seams.

Poems tell stories in a way other forms of writing can’t. In this particular poem, it’s the story of the red sprite, and the story of my dog, and the story of my grief all at once—they’re all the same story. The linear structure of the narrative mimics that of the healing process; as much as we don’t want it to be true, the only thing that heals completely is time. That’s what I’m trying to communicate with this piece: the shift from pain and loss to memory and peace.

In 2013, during a talk with Krista Tippet for her podcast On Being in Minneapolis, writer Sandra Cisneros made room for questions from audience members, many of whom were Latina, and many of whom were teenagers. The first member introduces herself as Ciclali, and she asks why Cisneros chose to write poetry. Cisneros asks her if she writes poems, and Ciclali says she loves poetry, giggling. “Good,” says Cisneros. “Well, then you know we need to write poetry. Poetry’s the most difficult, to me, of all the literary genres, and the most important, especially right now, when we’re going through so much pain. I think the poets are in the profession of transforming grief to light. They’re like our chamánes. And they’re also in the profession of telling the truth, because you can’t write a poem unless you tell your truth. It isn’t a poem if it isn’t a truth.” The truth of “Death and a Bolt of Lightning”  was that shift, the stages of grief moving from one to the next, and the next, and the next, until you arrive somewhere else.

Truth can be written through prose, and often is—but truth of poetry is different, not revealed through denotative language. Most of the time, they’re small truths; a poem is a small thing. But even a small truth is a rock, and a house, and a world, for someone. And suddenly a poem is not a small thing anymore.

Here’s the first thing to know: the easiest way to break a pattern is to do it physically, so I write a poem and print it out and cut it up and write it again. What new sentences can I make with what I’ve given myself? It’s the poet’s favorite puzzle. There’s no rules about lines, or order—every word matches with every word. But some words match better, and that’s where it gets good. Here’s the second thing: the easiest thing to write about is what you know, so the poem I have written is about blueness, and silence, and sounds, which is to say I have written about depression. What new truths can I reveal? What is hiding in the words I have laid out before me?

Sometimes this exercise can be fruitless, but sometimes it can be metamorphic. The only way I really know if I have been successful with a poem is if it is true to me. I try to make every poem true—I don’t consider it finished until it is. That can take years, and it has. I imagine some poems will age with me for decades before they are ever completed.

The Five Stages of Grief is one of those poems that stuck around for a long time. The title is literal in the sense that there are 5 stanzas and each one describes my own poetic experience with them, but this poem was also written while I was essentially experiencing each stage of grief. There were several factors and several different events I was grieving, but the stages were the same for each and writing this poem was essential to that process. The actual stages of grief are defined in a clear and separatist fashion, but I wanted to experiment with the language and consider how each of those emotions/stages could manifest.

The first one
is whatever I’m in now.
It feels like a sword in between my lungs, keeping me
honest and brief. I cradle my
hips and turn into

The second
reveals bright red anger
and stinging nettle on my fingers.
I haven’t eaten in
three days
and the sink is starting to overflow.

All the hours spent
learning what my life looks like
again and again, and
again you tell me you’ll take the bus home.
I forget to say goodbye.

is the difference
between the square of my door
and the bloody knuckles on my fist
I thought we had finished
with anger
but she lingers, yellow
with age
as most things tend to do
I will close my eyes
and dream of beholding a wide ocean
or else below, holding my breath
until something gives

eventually, when I have lived away my pride
I will discover I am ready for spring
when, no doubt, I will arise
in an unfamiliar place
from which
I will likely
never return.

Denial, or being held over a chasm, balancing precariously, waiting for the other shoe to drop—keeping yourself held there, like a blade. Anger is the only stanza where I directly refer to the stage with its name—it feels deserving, explicit and direct, begging to be named. It draws your attention from everything else, and blinds you. Anger anger anger anger anger. Bargaining, small and shameful. The longest stanza in the poem is depression—perhaps because I feel it the most, or maybe because it’s easiest to write about. This stanza also returns to anger; in my life, anger and depression mirror each other, monstrous in size, overwhelming my senses. And acceptance, not peace, or reconciliation, but a distance, moving away until the grief is unrecognizable.

By no means was the actual processing of my grief as palatable as this poem, but the act of writing allowed me to pay attention to it, to sit with it in the room, to shape the outline of it. I learned to draw before I learned to write. A common experience among those experiencing depression are feelings of dissociation, or a sense of disconnect to the self. This poem was an exercise in pushing past that.

These next poems were written as I began to focus the themes of my poetry towards my depression. I wanted to understand the strength of poems in the context of my depression, and in order to do that, I needed to get into the dirt and work with it. I suppose I started with what feels most comfortable: throughout the years of therapists and counselors and medical professionals, a few coping mechanisms emerged, and one of them was the act of going for walks. In the early stages of the pandemic people raved about “mental health walks”, and it’s indisputable that daily walks are nothing but beneficial in every way. In particular, what became clear as it became more of a permanent practice in my life was how much more interesting life became when I was not drowning in my own sorrow. Depression is a selfish disease a lot of the time—everything becomes something wrong with you, with your life, and it is often too overwhelming to see outside of that.

I’ve presented these two poems together because they are true together and separate. They’re two different shades of the same color, the same word translated into another language. It’s funny to feel lucky about your writing, but that’s really what it is sometimes: a stroke of luck and some words strung together and suddenly you’ve opened a door that wasn’t there before. In addition, rarely have I written something where I know what truth I’m writing about. It’s there, present in the words I choose and how the writing flows out onto the page, but it’s that process that reveals the truth—not the other way around.

I began constructing a series of poems that were mirrors of each other—poems that were similar in structure, or in the words I used, or the poetic techniques. The poems I wrote first were much more linear and comprehensible in my descriptions of depression; I walked like I could get to where I was going without fear / or this heavy black thing I often carry around myself. Who was it that invented the colour blue, other than yourself? For god’s sake, woman, let a little light in. These little stories paint the same image we’ve known for generations when it comes to depression—the struggle, and the darkness, and the longing. Once the poem was finished, I put it into a word randomizer that would shuffle the words as many times as I wanted—this is where it started to get interesting. It’s a computer, so words are assigned numbers and numbers are shifted in position to give a randomized output, and 9 times out of 10 the lines built using this method are gibberish. But as I experimented with this format, it slowly became clear to me that the illogical sentences being produced worked to mimic my depression in a way I had been blind to before.

Often emotions as powerful as those evoked by mental illness are deeply confusing and complex. They take time to decipher, to reach the root of the feeling, and sometimes you never get there. There’s a wall between you and your emotion, distorting it, turning it into something foreign and completely incomprehensible. This new way of writing fully embraced that confusion and frustration. My words were still my own, still forming the foundation of this new language, but this method allowed me to push past the barriers of logical thinking and semantics. This was reaching the truth of my depression.

Poet Rachel Zucker published a series of essays in a collection titled “The Poetics of Wrongness” in February of 2023, and, in a fitting bookend to my capstone, was sent to me by my mother. The essays explore “wrongness as a foundational orientation of opposition and provocation”—in other words, she talks about wrongness being right. In the titular essay, Zucker challenges the concept of wrongness in poetry in particular, and many ways we interpret the purpose of poetry in our contemporary cultural sphere:

The poetics of wrongness is only interested in perfection as a manifestation of the Greek notion of telios, or “completeness”, because completeness or perfection includes the flaws, the weeds, and the poet’s desire to write, which is a necessary and necessarily flawed endeavor.

She goes on to reference “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson, critical of the word choice:

The line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” is almost always construed to mean that it is the poet’s job to dole out truth in small doses or show the dimly lit world in flashes because telling a slant truth is kinder, less blinding, or because the slant truth is more interesting [...] The poetics of wrongness rejects this conception of poetry, rejects the way the infatuation with bluntness has been used to bolster a poetics of coyness and indirection that often slips into glibness, abstraction, and meaninglessness.

What Zucker is getting at (and what I am attempting to) is the idea that truth is only real in one way—there’s not a way to tell a half-truth, or slant truths, or any way to warp a truth to make it more digestible. That’s not truth. Truth is telios, perfection, completeness, wrongness, faults, flaws and all.

Last summer, I sat at my childhood kitchen table as the sun set across the walls and wrote a poem about how wrong everything felt. I was exhausted trying to fight against it, because depression is also a fight, and one that you often feel you are losing. As I was writing, words began to flow quicker and quicker, tumbling out of me, tying lines together, one after another, truer and truer. It didn’t matter if it made sense to anyone else—it was exacting, and, more importantly, it was honest. When I felt finished, I stepped away, and read it once, and again, and the relief flowing through my body was euphoric; relief at having revealed a truth that was necessary, and real, and certain. That poem lives with me every day. I carry it everywhere, holding the words close, like a lifeline, the truth—a tether to the world beyond me, saying, look, look, look, there’s a life in front of you. What will you write about it?