Khadijah Queen's "Anodyne"

Thoughts on care.


I wish I’d learned to take better care

As if this world tried to love me
A body I used up
on hard ground, flowsy &
sop-studded, misplacing words

I keep to settle for pain

Pitch breaks in—
body leaning into quiet
I couldn’t ask for, what I needed

& thought I couldn’t afford. A shun,
undone, a hush a shudder through

thinned fascicles of flesh &
flimsy bone, walkward
in a lost idiom. Are we on a heartway?
We could pretend. Calculate

how immaculate hardship
covets itself

Acts like it aches for more.

from Anodyne (Tin House, 2020)

You can find this poem in the index of First Lines that Express a Universal Truth. You can also find it in the index of Second Lines that Express a Universal Truth.

I mean, read them again:

I wish I’d learned to take better care

As if this world tried to love me

The title of this poem (and the title of Khadijah Queen’s latest book) is often professionally used today to refer to painkillers. But when used colloquially, the word takes on expanded meanings. Generally, anodyne refers to anything that is soothing, calming, relieving. Some have used it to refer to death — death being a kind of ultimate relief (if you see it that way). Others have used it adjectivally to describe anything that is unlikely to provoke disagreement. An anodyne opinion, one might say.

I love reading this poem with these varied definitions in mind. In particular, I love the complexity this poem presents if you consider it in relation to that final definition. If this poem is an anodyne poem, if it were, in actuality, a soothing, impossible-to-disagree-with poem, well, then it wouldn’t hold the kind of weight it does. The truth is, if one uses that definition, this poem is not a kind of anodyne — not, at least, in relation to the very world this poem critiques. Our society is not a society that teaches or models the kind of “better care” this poem mentions from its first line. Rather, this society models the opposite. It pushes people into positions where “better care” is no longer an option. This society awards the ruination of the self. And then it doesn’t care about the ruination of the selves it leaves behind. As such, this poem is less anodyne than critique. This poem longs for care.

By the way, a worthy side note: this poem is wonderful to read aloud. Some of the lines just fill the mouth. I mean, come on: “A shun, / undone, a hush a shudder through // thinned fascicles of flesh & / flimsy bone.” Feel how those words and phrases mesh into one another, how the mouth just blossoms with the fullness of shun and undone, with the soft, shag carpet-like fabric of hush a shudder through. Or, later: “Calculate // how immaculate.” This poem is pure music. I do not want that to go unsaid.

But yes, on another note, the contrast between one of the connotations of this poem’s title — anodyne — and the very world this poem critiques is part of its complex power. You notice in these lines:

misplacing words

I keep to settle for pain

And you notice it later in these:

body leaning into quiet
I couldn’t ask for, what I needed

& thought I couldn’t afford.

If care is a topic of this poem, it is not a care that is handed out or modeled by the very world this poem is borne from. The speaker “settle(s) for pain.” The speaker leans into a quiet they “couldn’t ask for.” Inherent in this poem is a critique of a societal complex that privileges pain as something that is given. A complex that turns people away from what they need — “quiet” — because it is unaffordable, deemed unnecessary for so many.

And that’s part of the sad genius of the multiple-meaninged title of this poem. In refusing to be a kind of anodyne for the world on its own, the poem pokes holes in all the anodynes offered in the world itself. What good are painkillers in a world where pain is normal? What good is society — as it stands — if it models pain rather than care? If the need for an anodyne is so visceral, doesn’t that say something about our world, and what it drives people toward?

Not long ago, I studied a selfie I took of myself at the end of a day of teaching, and immediately found myself scrolling back through my photos to find one I took on my first day back in school, just after a summer plagued by COVID, approaching a fall that would be plagued by more. I am a more than partial judge of myself, but in the most recent selfie, my hair seems thinner. There are bags under my eyes. I stare at the camera with the thousand mile stare of someone who is exhausted, as so many of us are. I couldn’t stop toggling back and forth between the two photos. I knew I was reading more change into the most recent selfie than probably existed, but I also knew that I was more tired, more stressed, more exhausted, and more defeated than I had perhaps ever been in my life. And my first instinct was not to make some grand proclamation about the state of caretaking in this world. No. My first instinct was one of frustration. Where has my life gone, I found myself thinking. For what good is all of this?

Khadijah Queen encapsulates the very real pains of caretaking in the final lines of this poem:


how immaculate hardship
covets itself

Acts like it aches for more.

That final line — Act like it aches for more — viscerally enacts the feeling of living in a world where pain is seen as the norm. Speak it aloud, and you can hear the cracking of knees, the sharp break of a bone, a mind shattering against the too-much-ness of the world. In this world that normalizes the experience of pain as something necessary for whatever we mean by success, hardship does, in fact, covet itself. It does ache for more. And when you are engrossed in a caretaking role — which so many of us are, whether parents or nurses or teachers or more — that very hardship does seem to ache for more of itself. When you witness pain, you pain yourself to resolve the pain. It is, for lack of a better phrase, a painful cycle. Because once the pain resolves itself — if it even does — you are left in the world that caused that pain, bracing yourself for the next foray into the very pain such a world causes.

Anne Helen Petersen, in her seminal essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” sums it up well when she writes:

If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation.

Petersen is not even talking specifically about caretakers in that essay. She’s talking about all kinds of laborers: freelance workers, tech workers, temp workers, and more. She’s talking about literally everyone caught up in a system that does not facilitate collective attempts to cultivate care, but rather facilitates and encourages individual attempts to find one’s limit, break it, and then find the next one. Simply because it’s required. Simply because that — not the more sustainable thing — is the norm.

And so, when Queen asks “Are we on a heartway? / We could pretend,” that very idea of pretending stands out. It’s really here that the poem becomes a critique of the very system that Petersen also critiques in her essay, a system that exploits labor at every turn, a system that pushes people into physical and mental states that require care and then asks them to either pay for that care or ignore their need for care. Any attempt, Queen seems to be saying, to attest that there is some kind of holistic harmony in our system is an act of pretending.

I haven’t stopped thinking of Anne Boyer’s book The Undying. In it, she writes:

The exhausted are the saints of the wasted life, if a saint is a person who is better than others at suffering. What the exhausted suffer better is the way bodies and time are so often at odds with each other in our time of overwhelming and confused chronicity, when each hour is amplified past circadianism, quadrupled in the quarter-hour's agenda, Pomodoro-ed, hacked, FOMO-ed, and productivized. 

Just as Queen points out that our lives are steeped in pretending, Boyer calls this life a “wasted life.” I know, I know. It feels harsh. But it’s true. If pain and exhaustion are the operating principles of a life geared toward profit and complicity, then care itself becomes a commodity. It is no longer a state of being, a way to orient yourself toward both your own body and the bodies and minds of others. Rather, care is simply a way to rejuvenate yourself to try again — and try harder — at the goals this society sets out for us. To produce, to earn, and, because of such actions, to separate ourselves from one another, until we become individuals pretending we are a collective, engaged in some reckless pursuit of the unimaginable.

One problem with our current system is that it takes any action that once held some kind of moral weight — I’m thinking of servant leadership, martyrdom — and turns them not into models for justice, but rather into models for a continued insistent pursuit of the things our society extrinsically values — wealth, for example. And then, as if that were not enough, our society sells those actions back to us as models for justice. Do you want a better world? Be a martyr for it. Do you want to lead a community toward justice? Be a servant leader. The problem is, because those examples don’t exist within a larger community that values and centers care, such models lead us head on into exhaustion. And then, it is our good intentions that ruin us. We become cynical, defeated, at odds with ourselves and one another. And the fight for justice becomes just that — a fight. And we get more exhausted fighting for it.

Just recently, I read about how Amazon — as part of an initiative called WorkingWell — placed meditation booths into their warehouses for stressed-out workers. As the article states:

WorkingWell is a mix of "physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support” meant to “help them recharge and reenergize."

What a sad world, that the company that only recently pushed back against unionization efforts from its employees imagined this as a solution to its problems. And that’s the problem, too, isn’t it? That the problem wasn’t our workers are tired, stressed, and overworked — how can we fix our own systems so that we value their lives? But rather: our workers are tired, stressed, and overworked — how can we fix them so that they can continue to provide value to our system?

When I read today’s poem, I am reminded of what it might mean to find value in one another, not for the work we produce, but for who we are, both simply and complexly, as collective stewards of a larger community and the various communities we inhabit. The truth is, for all the pain this world forces us into, we model care on a daily basis. We are each caretakers of something or someone. So many of us live each day juggling the needs of our intrinsic labor — the love we sustain, the lives we help keep living — with the needs of our extrinsic labor. We check in with friends. We feed our pets. We help our parents or children or aunts or loved ones get in and out of bed. And then we go off to work, where some of us do the same kinds of things with others and all of us try, simply, to earn the money that will allow us to take care of ourselves and others. There’s so much care involved in being alive. And for many, that care comes at a cost. And for many still, that care comes at a cost they cannot afford.

We could pretend, as Khadijah Queen writes, that we are on a heartway, or we could not pretend, and see this for what it really is. The problem is that, as labor becomes more and more individualized and siloed, we lose the collective and individual agency required to insist that society reimagines itself and recenters care as an inherent value. What then? I’m not sure. I turn to today’s poem not as an anodyne, but as a reminder that care must be at heart of every interaction I have in this world. There must be a world where pain is not so prevalent that an entire industry must exist to soothe it. And there must be a world where death is not seen as a relief, but rather as a simple but present reminder that we are finite, frail, and limited. Such things do not have to be synonyms for pain. They can be reasons to live a life that seeks value in one another.

A note:

I hate to engage in any form of self-promotion, but here is some. This summer, if you are interested, I am teaching two virtual workshops for The Stables — a creative collective based in Philadelphia.

The first is a 3 hour poetry workshop on Sunday, June 27th. In it, we will use the phrase “Let me begin again,” borrowed from Terrance Hayes’ poem “The Same City,” as a way to explore reimagination and permission. It will be a fun one (I hope!). Cost is $30. You can sign up here.

The second is a 4-week workshop that meets for a couple hours each Tuesday in July. This one — titled “Permission to Be Generous” — will use generosity, allowance, and a love of the word “and” as a way to give ourselves permission to write into the so-much-ness of ourselves, and refuse endings (at times). This will be a more typical poetry/multi-genre workshop in the sense that we will be generative and generous, and will hopefully emerge from the four weeks with some work we are proud of, some new understandings of permission and allowance, and some good company. Cost is $75. You can sign up here.