What a Poem Adds to a News Event

Mackenzie Powell

Substance abuse has been an issue in the United States for a long time. During the pandemic, the rate of substance abuse spiked. In the article, “Substance use during the pandemic” the American Psychological Association outlines the clinical and scientific portion of the increased amount of substance abuse. The article also explains that those who abuse substances are more likely to develop COVID-19 as they state, “On top of the other risks arising with substance misuse, those with substance use disorders (SUD) are both more likely to develop COVID-19 and experience worse COVID-19 outcomes, including higher risk of hospitalization and mortality” (Abramson). By providing statistics and reporting an overview of the situation they further elaborate on the severity of the issue as they explain, “13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. Overdoses have also spiked since the onset of the pandemic. A reporting system called ODMAP shows that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses” (Abramson) The information provided in the article is crucial to understanding the significant effects of COVID-19. This article is strictly informative and does not provide examples of the effects on individuals and family’s which removes emotion and potential empathy from the understanding of the situation. This is where poetry can help make the connections by providing emotion and telling a story that is unique to the poet. The poem, “How to Celebrate Your Daughters 33rd Birthday When There is No Going Back,” adds a different perspective and highlights the significance of increased substance abuse in a way that can create distinct and personal interpretations from each reader. Poems can add a greater understanding of the emotional impact of an event than a clinical article.

Undoubtedly, “How to Celebrate Your Daughters 33rd Birthday When There is No Going Back,” written by Susan Vespoli, shares the poet’s perspective. Vespoli takes her readers through her daughter’s birthday while giving subtle hints about the daughter’s substance abuse. The first five lines of the poem tell us a lot about the perspective of Vespoli as she states, “Go south and then west to a distant unknown/ address. Drive past junk yards, steel shops, stacked/ car parts, and a billboard for weed pizza. Breathe. /Remember the last time you saw her, Christmas, /and before that, the car ride between hospital stays” (Vespoli lines 1-5). Vespoli makes key observations about her surroundings and makes her audience aware that the neighborhood she is driving to is definitely not the suburbs. She reminds herself to breathe which also tells a lot about her perspective and personal experience with her daughter. Vespoli may be breathing to prepare herself, to suppress emotions, or to ease anxiety. All of that is up to the interpretation of the reader. It adds emotion and gives the reader a place to make personal connections. She also goes back to the last time she saw her at Christmas and the hospital. She is likely going back to these last instances to prepare herself for her daughter’s potential appearance. This poem is about what is left unsaid just as much as what is. If the reader reads between the lines, they can find all of the nuances of the poem and its author as she alludes to her daughter’s addiction. The author’s perspective is given in these first five lines and the tone of those lines continues throughout the poem. The author seems to be preparing herself, but she also lets it be known that this is not new.

Consequently, the poem highlights substance abuse and its profound impact on Vespoli’s life, and she establishes the significance throughout her poem. Vespoli touches on the impact that this has had on her life near the end of the poem as she highlights, “Ask/if she’s taking care of herself. Listen to the wind howl. / See her eyes dance backward. Worry. Swirling/dust outside the window. Look how she opens/the card, finds a trace of who you two were then/ is still here in this empty unfamiliar room” (Vespoli 18-23). In this excerpt of the poem, Vespoli speaks of her loss and the fact that one can grieve the life of one who is still living. She drove over to see her daughter on her birthday with cake, presents, and a card, but she explains each step as she is going through the motions. There is a detachment and a sense of self-preservation left up to interpretation of the audience. The readers can also assume by the fact that she is still trying and wants to reconnect with her daughter that the author loves her daughter very much. However, there is a lack of hope in this poem which also adds to the weight of the issue of substance abuse. Perhaps, her daughter was clean before COVID-19 or in rehab and now she feels she has lost her again. The weight of the impact of her daughter’s substance abuse in Vespoli’s life can also be interpreted by the dryness of the poem. The poet words each line with blunt phrases like, “Follow her/through the front door into a house with no furniture” (Vespoli 16-17). She does not add a lot of description of appearance of the house, but she also lets the readers know the situation and her perspective with her manner of phrasing. The details of the house are not as important as why she is there and her current relationship with her daughter.

Subsequently, Vespoli’s poem provides different ideas and a unique perspective which can turn a statistic given by a clinical article into something an individual can personalize and empathize with. Every reader may interpret this poem in a slightly different way, but that is the beauty of poetry. It adds depth to something that others may see at face value. There has been a rise in substance abuse in the U.S. due to COVID-19. What does that mean for each U.S citizen? Straying away from numbers and correlations, a poem can immerse a reader into an issue where they have no prior knowledge. The article “Substance use during the pandemic” states, “Kentucky has seen increased emergency room visits for overdose-related incidents during the pandemic” (Abramson). While this information is important, if you don’t live in Kentucky or struggle or know someone who struggles with substance abuse, this may not mean much. However, Vespoli makes this more personal and tangible in her poem, ““How to Celebrate Your Daughters 33rd Birthday When There is No Going Back.” For example, at the end of the poem Vespoli alludes to the fact that her daughter may be high on drugs as she narrates, “Put your arms/around her, feel her wobble” (Vespoli 23-24). Nothing in this poem seems to be said without intention and Vespoli subtly lets her readers know the state her daughter is in. At the beginning of the poem when she mentions several hospital visits, this creates the personal connection. The entire poem can be connected to the statistic, but it creates sentiment and tells a very personal story. This story, when read by the audience, gives those statistics more meaning. While Vespoli’s poem can be interpreted in many ways, the important thing to remember is that it makes it personal. She does not provide her reader’s distance from the situation as she takes them step by step into a day that should be happy but is hollow.

Conclusively, a poem can add understanding to a newsworthy event that an article may not be able to interpret to people with feeling. Both articles and poems are important to the understanding of an event such as COVID-19. However, poetry makes things personal which may make people more motivated toward action or sharing their story. Substance abuse is a weighted problem in the United States. Susan Vespoli crafted a poem that generates more compassion and empathy toward the problem of substance abuse. Poetry makes a difference by telling a story and sharing a new perspective that could open the eyes of those who read it.

Works Cited

Abramson, Ashley. “Substance use during the pandemic.” American Psychological Association, 1 March 2021, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/03/substance-use-pandemic. Accessed 19 March 2021.

Vespoli, Susan. “”How to Celebrate Your Daughter’s 33rd Birthday When There Is No Going Back.” Rattle, 7 March 2021, https://www.rattle.com/how-to-celebrate-your-daughters-33rd-birthday-when-theres-no-going-back-by-susan-vespoli/. Accessed 19 March 2021.