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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

English professor's poem featured in The New York Times Magazine

Joyelle McSweeney, a professor of English and the director of Creative Writing Program at Notre Dame, recently published a poem featured in The New York Times Magazine titled, “Kingdom.”

McSweeney was inspired to write “Kingdom” after she experienced tragedy.

“Well, that poem was written in the early months after we lost our little baby, who was born with an unexpected birth defect and died when she was just 13 days old,” McSweeney said. “I had to come back from the Children's Hospital to my house where my 10 and 7-year-old daughters are and explain to them that their baby sister had died.”

Following her daughter's death, McSweeney said her main priority was keeping her other daughters' worlds “right side up.”

The title “Kingdom” comes from a Bible verse which states, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” McSweeney said this verse encapsulates the grief she experienced.

“Many other things are within you, like the isolation of grief. It’s like this whole planet of grief is within you,” McSweeney said. “Everyone else is on a different planet than you and then they pay a lot of grief that is within you.”

While McSweeney said it did not take long for her to write the poem, the writing process did anger her at times.

“I must confess that I almost got mad at myself for that too, for writing, for being able to write and I made myself stop writing and then it was very, very hard to start again,” she said.

Poetry was an ideal medium to communicate McSweeney’s grief because it holds a unique ability to communicate powerful sentiments, she said.

“There’s just the intensity and a sonic force to poetry that makes it special. And so more and more I just found myself really thinking about poetry.”

The last lines of “Kingdom” describe a postcard arriving from a doctor. McSweeney wrote that she was “cheered to learn that there are flowers even in hell.”

“So this is another example of how painful it is to receive even acts of kindness when you’re suffering and how painful it was to keep having art and beauty arrive,” she said.

Her comfort, when not in her poetry, was and remains in South Bend, she said.

“I would just walk my dog and cry. I would just be like one of those people that’s falling apart right in front of your eyes, but I almost felt safe,” she said “Because other people are falling apart, right? ... It was strangely comforting.”

After writing about such a personal event and then publishing it, McSweeney said she is still navigating through the decision to share a poem about such a personal experience with others.

“This poem was about a time of feeling drawn to art and then being pushed away by art, feeling drawn to life and being and wanting to push life away, and also that it is both public and private,” she said. “Like obviously it’s about this very private experience.”

McSweeney said publishing the poem was a unique experience because even though the poem is available to be read by the public, it is still about a deeply personal experience.

“But once you publish it, it becomes public. Even as it’s private. It becomes public and private at the same time, and that’s the paradox. That’s the thing that keeps it spinning,” she said.

Even though “Kingdom” has a special meaning to McSweeney, readers will develop their own interpretations of the poem and relate to it in their own way.

“For how people read the tone, or what’s being discussed or all that will just be totally a matter of who they are and where they’re positioned, but hopefully the intensity and the acuteness will transfer,” she said.