517: They'll Ask You Where it Hurts the Most

517: They'll Ask You Where it Hurts the Most

517: They'll Ask You Where it Hurts the Most


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Does it ever seem to you that what gets the most currency these days is pain? Art about pain? Writing about pain? I’ll admit I love a sad poem that breaks me open, moves me to tears. But sometimes it worries me when the saddest art gets the most praise. It feels like the world is telling people that the saddest story will win, that the saddest story is the most important story. 

I remember in graduate school, trying to write the heaviest poems I could... because that’s what I saw being praised. And after graduate school, I remember someone asking me to write a poem for their magazine about my border story. They wanted to know about my suffering when I crossed the border. They did not seem to care that, despite my heritage, I was born in Northern California. I have no personal border story to speak of. They also didn’t seem to care that I would have much rather written about trees. 

I worry about the commodification of suffering. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve turned down because they’d rather focus on my pain rather than my resilience or my generational trauma rather than my generational magic. I want to write about trees. I want to write about joy and praise and the interconnectedness of the world. I want to write about those things because I want to feel those things.

Today’s poem allows us to see that pain can transform into a beautiful defiance. And that sometimes when we are asked to show our suffering, what we need to show is that unstoppable light in us... that part of us that, like all things, wants to flourish. 

They'll Ask You Where it Hurts the Most
by Kwame Opoku-Duku

Blessed be the bitterness

at your core, that quiet light

growing quieter still,

like the dull moan that escapes

your lips while you dream.

They’ll ask you, child,

what you know of suffering.

They’ll ask you where it hurts

the most, when the pain changes

like wavelengths of light

in the evening sky, when the cries

of the ancestors ring out to you

from the ocean, when their words

vibrate in your diaphragm

like a listless, queenless hive.

You may forever, child,

feel a type of way, but you

must get up every morning and watch

the sun rise from the ocean.

Remember to love your lover,

remember the goodness

and righteousness of deep red

against her skin, the color of the ocean

on her toenails. Remember the ancestors

who praised the gods at the sight of land.

One day, child, you will join

them, on a beach in Accra,

where you will pour out libations

for those who have yet to come.

Until then, stand with your arms

stretched toward the sky. And though

termites may eat you from within,

pray to grow into a wise, old tree,

for the dignity to praise alone

the sun and rains. Pray to become

a garden, to distinguish what nourishes

us from what is keeping us alive.

"They'll Ask You Where It Hurts the Most" by Kwame Opoku-Duku. Used by permission of the poet.