Cameron Awkward-Rich's "The Cure for What Ails You"

Thoughts on distance.

The Cure for What Ails You

is a good run, at least according to my mother,
which has seemed, all my life, like cruelty —

when I had a fever, for example, or a heart,
shipwrecked & taking on the flood. But now,

of course, this is what I tell my friend whose eye
has been twitching since last Tuesday, what I

tell my student who can’t seem to focus
her arguments, who believes, still

that it’s possible to save the world
in 10-12 pages, double-spaced & without irony

I’m asking Have you tried going for a run?
You know, to clear your head? this mother-voice

drowning out what I once thought
to be my own. I’ll admit that when that man

became the president, before terrified I felt
relief — finally, here was the bald face

of the country & now everyone had to look
at it. Everyone had to see what my loves

for their lives, could not unsee. Cruelty
after all is made of distance —

sign here & the world ends
somewhere else. The world. The literal

world. I hold my face close to the blue
light of the screen until my head aches.

Until I’m sick & like a child I just want
someone to touch me with cool hands

& say yes, you’re right, something is wrong
stay here in bed until the pain stops & Oh

mother, remember the night
when, convinced that you were dying,

you raced to the hospital clutching
your heart & by the time you arrived

you were fine. You were sharp
as a blade. Five miles in & I can’t stop

thinking about that video. There’s a man
with his arms raised

in surrender. He was driving
his car. His own car & they’re charging him

bellowing like bulls I didn’t shoot you, motherfucker
you should feel lucky for that. Yes. Ok.

Fine. My body too can be drawn
like any weapon.

from BOAAT, 2017


I remember first reading this poem when it was published in BOAAT, a journal I really and truly adore. And it’s funny, because I remember what first drew me to it — it was the opening line, the poem’s conceit. The cure for what ails you:

is a good run, at least according to my mother,
which has seemed, all my life, like cruelty —

when I had a fever, for example, or a heart,
shipwrecked & taking on the flood.

That was four years ago. I was almost certainly in the midst of some marathon training block, prepping for New York or Boston. I was looking, as I certainly and often do when I read — and maybe you do, too — for little gems of my own experience, filtered through the words of someone else. Which isn’t exactly how one should read, at least not always. But it happens. Sometimes we look, in other words, for writing that offers us permission to be ourselves. And so how could I not love a poem that began the way this poem did?

Now, years later, despite not being able to run at the moment, I still love this poem. And, having spent some time with it recently, I love it even more for the way in which it enacts the very distance it alludes to in those opening lines. The poem begins in the realm of subjective experience and also ends in the realm of subjective experience:

My body too can be drawn
like any weapon.

But in between, the poem travels. It travels from the intimacy of personal sickness — when I had a fever — to the beauty of platonic friendship — what I tell my friend whose eye / has been twitching — to the terror of politics — when that man / became the president — to the realm of the universal — Cruelty / after all is made of distance — back to the intimacy of personal sickness — Until I’m sick & like a child I just want / someone to touch me — to the tenderness of a child acknowledging their mother — Oh / mother — to the fear and anxiety and hate imbued within this present moment that encompasses so much of history — There’s a man / with his arms raised / in surrender — and back, again, to the self.

Through such movements, the poem enacts distance. But — and maybe this is the key point — it doesn’t distance. Distance itself from itself. Distance itself from the world. Distance itself from you, the reader. No. Rather, the poem travels so far but remains within itself. It’s as if it is saying: this is what a self can hold. And also saying, since the poem begins with the very act of making distance, the very act of running: this is what a self, so often, must endure.

And maybe that’s part of what drew me back to this poem — the contemporary moment, which is a prolonged, extended moment that forces so many people to enact great acts of distance within themselves. Which is another way of saying that so many people today are made to endure so much, and not in ways that seem entirely visible. Loneliness, for example, is an act of great endurance. And it is nearly invisible, drawing people further inside the rooms they are made to make of themselves. Witness, too, is an act of great endurance, and though the act of witnessing is in the viewing, there is the feeling of it. And the feeling of it is invisible. But such feeling enacts a great distance within the self. And that distance can be unbearable.

I’m drawn toward the movement within this poem because of the way in which it reminds me of what a poem can do, which is something I think about often when writing these little essays because, well, that’s part of the point of writing these little essays. At least for me. They help me pay attention to the small and large and in-between things that a poem does and can do. And this poem is, at once, an acknowledgement of what suffering can be good for — when it is done willingly, of one’s own accord — and also an acknowledgement of how much suffering is placed on those who don’t ask for it, those who are, like the driver in the final lines of this poem, simply living, or trying to live, in a world that so often does not want them to live. Or those who are, like the student in the beginning of this poem, trying, un-ironically, to make the best of their thoughts and their talents and their desires.

My girlfriend recently asked me to read a series of essays by Anne Helen Peterson about the trap of graduate study. In the first essay, Peterson writes:

Many of these master’s programs have refined a mode of recruitment that caters to a deeply American sensibility. They’re meritocracy traps, engineered to attract students who’ve been inculcated with the idea that they’re smart enough, good enough, and most importantly, hard-working enough to beat the exceptional odds against their success, or even just earning a living wage, in their chosen field of study. 

It was hard not to think about that passage when I revisited this poem by Cameron Awkward-Rich, where the speaker writes of a student

who believes, still

that it’s possible to save the world
in 10-12 pages

There’s a tenderness to Awkward-Rich’s words that allows us to believe that his speaker still has hope for their student. Hope that their words can push through the “meritocracy trap” that Anne Helen Peterson describes, that their words can “beat the exceptional odds against their success,” cement some change, and offer hope or criticism or something that might lead to a world better than the one that existed before such words. And yet, there is still the conceit of Awkward-Rich’s poem. The very idea of distance. And the way that the speaker knows that such words are caught up in their own reality, are placed at a certain distance — by virtue of academia and such — from the world in which such words might offer some form of valuable critique.

There is distance everywhere, Awkward-Rich seems to say. And this point is made clear when he writes:

Cruelty
after all is made of distance —

sign here & the world ends
somewhere else. The world. The literal

world.

These lines stopped and stunned me the first time I read this poem, and they stay with me now. They stay with me in the midst of ongoing examples, discussions, and critiques of American imperialism. And they stay with me, too, in the distance that exists when distinctions are named and finalized and written into law as a result of American politics. They stay with me when I think of the deep and lasting consequences of systemic racism, misogyny, patriarchy. I feel a deep welling within myself when I think of the truth of the lines above. Cruelty is made of distance. It’s true. And it feels so profoundly true in our contemporary moment, when so many things — feelings, ideas, and more — are said to be so intimately felt and shared (more so than ever before) as a result of a shared connection across the bounds of the internet. And yet, despite that (or maybe, even, because of that), so many things still sit at a remove. Suffering is so often so quickly and seemingly intimately beheld, and yet it exists so far away. In this time of seeming-closeness, we are so far apart.

But that is perhaps one reason why I still read poetry. Or, at least, still try to. Not because of what poetry tells me or issues forth to the world. But rather because of how much I value the experience of dwelling within the landscape of someone else’s mind and within the landscape that such a mind portrays. If one hallmark of an individual mind is to make disparate connections between disparate things, then a poem is a statement of such individuality. It is — or can be — a blueprint of individual connection-making. And, as such, a poem can be a testament to one of the many varieties of a self that exists within this world, which is a big and wild world, so full of potential connections, and so full of disparities with which to make such connections. In other words, a poem is, so often, a deliberate display of humanness. Why is this special? Look around. Watch things. Listen. To dwell within a deliberate display of humanness feels, so often and so sadly, like a rare and beautiful thing.

And so I think about why I first loved this poem, which goes back to its title and the subsequent first line:

The Cure for What Ails You

is a good run

I am writing this on a Friday night, just a few hours after an MRI that was scheduled for roughly six months after a surgery that transplanted cartilage in my knee after nearly a lifetime spent running, in large part, because I do (or did, but probably still do) believe in what the mother of the speaker of this poem said. When I was younger, I used to insist on going out for a run whenever I felt a little sick. I grew up in Washington, DC, not far from Rock Creek Park, which, if you’ve ever been to DC, is a bit of a gem of a place. This gorgeous, ridge-lined park that cuts right through the heart of the city. If my sinuses were clogged, I’d go for a run. If my head felt a little heavy, I’d go for a run. If my body felt achy, I’d go for a run. I don’t know if it made things better, but it felt better knowing I had some sort of solution for whatever present-moment of pain I was feeling.

To speak about the experience of reading a poem can sometimes feel, these days, like a bit of a hyperbolic display of too-much-goodness. I’ve said things before like: this poem shattered me. Or this poem fucked me up. Or this poem broke me open. None of these things are literally true. And these expressions have often been slightly base attempts to win the approval of the world wide web. I often resorted to such hyperboles because it felt scary — and uncritical — to talk about the experience of reading a poem in blunt, specific terms. And yet, there is something about reading a poem that feels like an act of critical generosity, an expansion of the self. As in: today’s poem began with a kernel of shared experience, but then it expanded away from the experience I shared with it and into its own realm of subjectivity. To read a poem is to witness the act of witnessing. And there’s an expansiveness to that — a kind of luminosity, like learning the language of light — that feels really beautiful.

Now, because I am not allowed to run, I want to run more than ever. I want to create distance as a result of pain, and to see if the act of creating such distance lessens the pain. It’s hard to let go — and by let go, I mean let go of so much — because I don’t really know what letting go means. I’ve found myself trying many things to stem the tide of anxiety that wells within me.

I think this is part of an anxiety that comes from deep structural flaws that create intimate personal and subjective conditions that feel simultaneously full of intense pressure and inescapable. And yet, I’m trying to resist the urge to leave. To create distance. I feel forever drawn to Awkward-Rich’s assertion that cruelty…is made of distance. In Dorothy Gallagher’s Stories I Forgot to Tell You, she poses the question:

What is distance if not distancing?

What happens, I wonder, when we understand that we can’t simply leave? What happens when we realize that when we run, we are still ourselves? What happens when we see the attempt to create some sort of physical distance as what it so often is: an escape from acknowledging the near-inseparable intimacy and connectedness of our ordinary lives? And yet, what happens when we acknowledge the attempt to create distance as what it also so often is: a need to make oneself safe because of the danger that sometimes comes as a result of the connectedness of our ordinary lives? What happens when both of these things are true? And what happens when we see things for what they are, which is all of us — which is to say, each of us — here, in the same place, so often suffering, no matter the distance? If cruelty is made of distance, what undoes cruelty? What love undoes distance? And how?