Xanax, 1 mg, as needed, which is up to me,
I guess, who needs or doesn’t that cold white
Flower at the brain’s stem. And what am I trading:
Skeptical irony for spiking adrenalin, even, a wash,
I think, when I talk to my wife in the hospital
For her second pulmonary embolism in two weekends.
Oh, I was clearer-headed than that winter’s day, as sharp,
As numb, knowing the road to the ER, the routine
Of triage and waiting, good at pretending it wasn’t,
Nothing was happening. Are you taking care,
The good wishers all ask, and yes I say, meaning
I’ve got my mechanisms of defense all in place,
Got one foot moving ahead of the next, and
That’s all folks, until the pills wear off, and what’s
Left is what I started with, minus whatever this new
Need is I’ve learned now that I know what’s needed.
– by Jordan Smith
Does poetry need to speak across generations to be great? This one won’t. The first line virtually eliminates it from “classic” status, if it ever sought such, by including the name of a pharmaceutical and nonpoetical dose that will fade from collective consciousness in a few years when other, better psychotropics are created. Nobody will want to read a poem with a footnote on its first word, even if academics were willing to provide such explanatory text for a contemporary poem.
No, this poem is written with a short shelf life – it is like fresh fish or corn on the cob, meant to be enjoyed soon or not at all. This is not a poem for future generations; it is ours alone.
Is it a good poem? I think it is – the description of the anxiety prevented by the Xanax as “that cold white flower at the brain’s stem” is a striking image, and the levels of meaning brought forth by the word “need” gives it a richness beyond its immediacy. Xanax is a habit-forming drug; has the speaker created a need for it, or is he freshly aware of his need for his wife, or is it a reference to the prescriptive advice to take the pills “as needed”?
It’s a thought-provoking little poem. Depending on how you read it, each line has 5 or 6 stressed syllables, with no rhyming. He plays with cliches in the poem – “that’s all folks”, “one foot in front of the other”, “good wishers” instead of well-wishers. The resort to cliche is not a weakness; it is a means of conveying the dead-brained banality of keeping moving in painful times.
Over a quarter century ago, I took creative writing classes from Jordan Smith, and argued with him about the necessity of structure. His relationship with form was casual and fleeting, while my own was dogmatic. I haven’t corresponded with him since I wrote him a note after reading his book, “An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns“. I was pleased to find an entire book by him available for free online, called “The Flute Is Zero“, and borrowed “As Needed” from it.
(Buy Jordan Smith’s poetry here, or wherever you buy poetry.)