De-Empathize, or
Escape the Wheel

"All your life you have watched as two creatures 
think they have found in each other 
necessity. Watched as the shell 
then closes, for a time, around them." 
—Frank Bidart, “He Is Ava Gardner”

“To love existence is to love what is indifferent to you 
you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.”
—Frank Bidart, "Visions at 74"

Spinning silk to set itself 
     to a leaflet, caterpillar
whips and whirls a chrysalis, 
     golden pupa, to envelop
empathy and reassurance 
     until it decides to fly.

Cashew trees fructify gray
     shells at the ends of pear-shaped drupes 
to protect the nuts inside 
     from attackers, and should a hand
try to twist the kernel from its 
     pod a venom squirt protests.

When rain teems loudly after 
     midnight and wakes me to listen
to it pour, I pull blankets 
     around myself and let the thrum
remind me I am safe enough 
     to be lulled back to sleep.

We wrongly believe empaths 
     ease emotions, but they cannot
meld with minds like Spock even 
     to understand paranoia
so unique to an another 
     considering their own hurts.

The empath in agony 
     absorbs our wounds to her limit
aware and afraid she may 
     give up her life to sacrifice
although sacrifice is her choice. 
     Shall we not offer mercy?

Plush basset Morgan greeted 
     me with squeaky nose and soft legs
for arms and never again 
     abandoned me to hospitals,
loneliness, or adolescence 
     till shamed parents effaced him.

Passers-by by the hundreds 
     unknown to me on New York streets.
Who are they? Where do they go? 
     What are their names? What’s in their minds?
Walking beside me you hold my arm 
     but I don’t know your thoughts either.

It takes effort to concentrate
     to relax the trigeminal nerves
of my face as they flicker
     and spasm with anxiety.
I believe that if I can calm
     my mien I will calm my mind.

I used to awake trembling 
     every morning awaiting your
delusion knowing I would 
     have to essay some credible
rationale. Your raging response 
     enfeebled all empathy.

When you spit accusations 
     I didn’t even understand
this morning I pictured a 
     komodo dragon spewing venom
that can kill. But I eluded 
     your saliva, your sharp teeth.

As I retreat from empathy 
     for every one I care about
here’s Bidart putting down 
     another wound made by the failure 
of his love. But I maintain 
     tranquility shall cause no harm.


When first I shirked to empathize
     —and I only had to decide—
I found a  blackened tag on 
     my abdomen, twisted and nipped
it, a bright cicatrix now I 
     touch when I hurt for reminding.

Exception: I empathize 
     with my poodle who never hides
his thinking from me. He needs 
     food or water, a walk to pee
or poop, treats, a favorite toy. 
     I need not guess. Inhuman?

Ruskin scorned the pathetic 
     and fallacious in a poet’s 
imposition on nature of 
     emotions invented not known
or inspired but like empathy 
     ultimately selfish.

I de-empathize without 
     descending to the darker side
but instead rise to the joy 
     of light savers...  no lightsabers
threatening cauterization 
     no en garde needed in my hands.

Oh, this hard simple lesson 
     read in a Thomas Mann novel—
Whoever loves more is the 
     one who suffers—reverberates
in patterns of empathy. 
     Its end saddens but liberates.

About the author:

A native New Yorker, James Penha  (he/him🌈) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha

Photo by Pezibear / Pixabay