How Katharine Whitcomb’s Sad Poems Lifted Me from the Blues

A few weeks ago I was blue. I can’t say exactly what caused my melancholy as I rode the bus to work that day amid passengers whose ears were occluded with ear buds and whose thumbs busily scrolled the smudged surfaces of their smart phones; or as I sat in my cubicle attending to my projects that promote the conservation of the earth’s resources amid the latest news reports of climate change deniers and coal-train advocates; or at the end of my workday when I made my way in a gray drizzle from my downtown office up to Capitol Hill where I stopped in at the Rancho Bravo taquería. By that time I had blinked back tears several times that day.

After I sat down with my enchiladas, and as I ate (because low spirits have seldom affected my appetite), I thought back to when I was younger, in my late thirties through my late forties, when I experienced these blue days more often and for extended periods of time. Every year when I visited my doctor, she would ask, “How are you doing?” There in the sanitized examining room, my face would crumble and tears would make a slow crawl over its scrunched topography. I knew the cause: not enough hours in the day to deal with job and family, trying to find the ground below my feet as my life both spun in a vortex and sagged to a standstill. And now it seems as if that period has evaporated.

I’m in my sixties now. Most of life is behind me. Maybe this fact is what occasionally pulls me down into the dumps. Or thinking of how quickly my children went from helpless, swaddled infants to grown women finding their way in the world. Or how much time I devote outside of my day job to writing stories that may be read by only a handful of people. But bigger things also weigh me down—the degradation of the planet, the denigration of women and the steady erosion of their reproductive rights, the proliferation of guns in our communities, racial and social inequities, and on and on. Sometimes it all hits you at once.

I was starting to text my husband about the little black hole into which I had sunk, knowing that he would do his best to coach me out of it, when I sensed someone at my shoulder. I turned to find a man whose face was bloated and reddened from addiction. He pointed to my paper plate. “If you don’t plan to eat the rest of that, I can finish it for you.” I looked at the remains of my enchiladas, bits of tortilla and spicy pork strewn with slivers of rice and specks of beans—surely an unappetizing sight to anyone but me who had already forked the best of it into my mouth.

I reached into my backpack for my wallet and fished out some ones, enough to cover a plate of tacos. He became effusive with thanks, but I waved him off rather rudely. “Go,” I said. “Buy some dinner,” I added a little more civilly.

So my sadness increased at the thought of this man and others like him, reduced, for whatever reasons, to asking for the uneaten food on other people’s plates. I took my deflated and depressed self to Hugo House for an evening of poetry readings. All day I had debated whether or not to go, feeling like a good mope at home would have been a more suitable way to spend my time. But the line-up was a stellar one, headlined by Mark Wunderlich and including local poets and University of Washington faculty Andrew Feld and Pimone Triplett, as well as Katharine Whitcomb from over the mountains in Ellensburg where she teaches at Central Washington University.

Triplett read first, followed by Feld, both giving good, strong readings. Mark Wunderlich dazzled. But before him was Katharine. When she took the stage, she warned us that the first few poems she would read were sad poems. I thought, go ahead, make me sadder. I leaned forward, ready for the blow. But I didn’t get sadder.

Katharine did make me catch my breath, particularly with two of her poems—one about a father and daughter in a boat on a lake and a moment of deliberate separation; another about a woman isolated on a retreat, not a visitor in sight, who encounters a dead bird on her porch and is confounded about what to do with this dead companion.

It wasn’t so much the sadness of the poems—reminders of aloneness or loss of connection—that got to me. It was the beauty of Katharine’s expression of that sadness, both the words she wrote and how she physically voiced them with her delivery that was a natural, down-to-earth, truth-telling. Words. Images. Art. They’re what lifted me up and out of the blues.