Memories aren’t always pretty, a fact that Jenny Qi’s poem, “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass,” directly addresses. Earlier this year, as a fourth-year medical student, I had the privilege of listening to patients’ stories in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for substance use disorder. Over the course of a few weeks, I saw complete strangers begin to confide in each other. I was in the room when people finally confronted painful memories that they had kept safely buried.
In Jenny Qi’s poem, the narrator tries to write one kind of elegy for her mother, the kind in which her mother is laughing, the kind that only remembers her mother’s generous spirit, “so greedy for living, so hasty for love,” but the narrator always returns to the memory of her mother lying face down on the floor, and the doctor’s accusatory stare. Notice how, in the last stanza, the word “elegy” does not appear. How the narrator excludes that memory from the elegies that she’s writing. She writes about how her mother keeps quarters in her car for the less fortunate, but she only thinks about her mother lying face down on the floor. In this way, Jenny Qi skillfully differentiates what can and cannot be eulogized, as understood by the narrator.
However, my time with the patients in IOP has taught me that even the worst memories are valuable. What I love about this poem is that Qi clearly understands this. Even though her narrator doesn’t include the last memory in an elegy she’s writing, the poet does. In trying to write an elegy of her mother that presents her life truthfully, Qi has down just that—with nothing held back. As I think about how Qi accomplishes this, I’m brought back to the poem’s title, “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass,” which emphasizes that the following work is the result of an ongoing, continuous process. How the act of writing, or remembering, could eventually lead to the truth.
From the patients in IOP, I have learned that self-discovery is a process. That memory is as much a verb as it is a noun. As I continue on my journey towards becoming a psychiatrist, I will keep in mind the stories of the people I met in IOP, remembering that these stories are ongoing and alive.
Ting Gou is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School, interested in psychiatry and the relationship between memory and identity. Her first chapbook, The Other House, was selected for the Delphi Poetry Series at Blue Lyra Press and was published in 2016. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart three times and appear in the Bellevue Literary Review, Best of the Net 2014, decomP, Ghost Ocean Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, r.kv.r.y., Superstition Review, and Word Riot. Her poems also appear in JAMA, Chest, Anesthesiology, Medical Humanities, and elsewhere. She is a poetry reader for The Examined Life, a literary magazine published by The University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine