Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons: we each swim through the deep waters of childhood, and when we grow up, we sometimes arrive on the shore of parenthood. “One generation passeth away,” Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “and another generation cometh.” The messy parade of life continues. There are many fine poems that express the push and pull of parent and child, a journey through choppy seas that leaves a long wake. Here are some of our favorites.
Poem For A Daughter
“I think I’m going to have it,” I said, joking between pains. The midwife rolled competent sleeves over corpulent milky arms. “Dear, you never have it, we deliver it.” A judgment years proved true. Certainly I’ve never had you as you still have me, Caroline. Why does a mother need a daughter? Heart’s needle, hostage to fortune, freedom’s end. Yet nothing’s more perfect than that bleating, razor-shaped cry that delivers a mother to her baby. The bloodcord snaps that held their sphere together. The child, tiny and alone, creates the mother. A woman’s life is her own until it is taken away by a first particular cry. Then she is not alone but part of the premises of everything there is: a time, a tribe, a war. When we belong to the world we become what we are.
How intelligent he looks! on his back both feet caught in my one hand his glance set sideways, on a giant poster of Geronimo with a Sharp’s repeating rifle by his knee. I open, wipe, he doesn’t even notice nor do I. Baby legs and knees toes like little peas little wrinkles, good-to-eat, eyes bright, shiny ears, chest swelling drawing air, No trouble, friend, you and me and Geronimo are men.
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store and the gas station and the green market and Hurry up honey, I say, hurry hurry, as she runs along two or three steps behind me her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down. Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown? Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her, Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry — you walk ahead of me. You be the mother. And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says, hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.
My friend says I was not a good son you understand I say yes I understand he says I did not go to see my parents very often you know and I say yes I know even when I was living in the same city he says maybe I would go there once a month or maybe even less I say oh yes he says the last time I went to see my father I say the last time I saw my father he says the last time I saw my father he was asking me about my life how I was making out and he went into the next room to get something to give me oh I say feeling again the cold of my father’s hand the last time he says and my father turned in the doorway and saw me look at my wristwatch and he said you know I would like you to stay and talk with me oh yes I say but if you are busy he said I don’t want you to feel that you have to just because I’m here I say nothing he says my father said maybe you have important work you are doing or maybe you should be seeing somebody I don’t want to keep you I look out the window my friend is older than I am he says and I told my father it was so and I got up and left him then you know though there was nowhere I had to go and nothing I had to do
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
My mother wants to know why, if I hate family so much, I went ahead and had one. I don’t answer my mother. What I hated was being a child, having no choice about what people I loved. I don’t love my son the way I meant to love him. I thought I’d be the lover of orchids who finds red trillium growing in the pine shade, and doesn’t touch it, doesn’t need to possess it. What I am is the scientist, who comes to that flower with a magnifying glass and doesn’t leave, though the sun burns a brown circle of grass around the flower. Which is more or less the way my mother loved me. I must learn to forgive my mother, now that I’m helpless to spare my son.
childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re Black you always remember things like living in Woodlawn with no inside toilet and if you become famous or something they never talk about how happy you were to have your mother all to yourself and how good the water felt when you got your bath from one of those big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in and somehow when you talk about home it never gets across how much you understood their feelings as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale and even though you remember your biographers never understand your father’s pain as he sells his stock and another dream goes And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that concerns you and though they fought a lot it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference but only that everybody is together and you and your sister have happy birthdays and very good Christmases and I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy
At The IGA
Franklin, New Hampshire
This is where I would shop if my husband worked felling trees for the mill, hurting himself badly from time to time; where I would bring my three kids; where I would push one basket and pull another because the boxes of diapers and cereal and gallon milk jugs take so much room. I would already have put the clothes in the two largest washers next door at the Norge Laundry Village. Done shopping, I’d pile the wet wash in trash bags and take it home to dry on the line. And I would think, hanging out the baby’s shirts and sleepers, and cranking the pulley away from me, how it would be to change lives with someone, like the woman who came after us in the checkout, thin, with lots of rings on her hands, who looked us over openly. Things would have been different if I hadn’t let Bob climb on top of me for ninety seconds in 1979. It was raining lightly in the state park. and so we were alone. The charcoal fire hissed as the first drops fell. . . . In ninety seconds we made this life — a trailer on a windy hill, dangerous jobs in the woods or night work at the packing plant; Roy, Kimberly, Bobby; too much in the hamper, never enough in the bank.
Acupuncture And Cleaning At Forty-Eight
No longer eating meat or dairy products or refined sugar, I lie on the acupuncturist’s mat stuck with twenty needles and know a little how Saint Sebastian felt with those arrows piercing him all over, his poster tacked to the wall before my fourth-grade desk as I bent over the addition and loss, tried to find and name the five oceans, seven continents, drops of blood with small windows of light strung from each of his wounds, blood like the blood on my mother’s pad the day she hung it before my face and said I was making her bleed to death, blood like my brother’s that day he hung from the spiked barb at the top of the fence, a railroad track of stitches gleaming for years on the soft inside of his arm, blood like today when Dr. Ming extracts a needle and dabs a speck of red away, one from my eyelid, one from my cheek, the needles trying to open my channels of chi, so I can sleep at night without choking, so I don’t have to fear waking my wife hawking the hardened mucus out, so I don’t have to lie there thinking of those I hate, of those who have died, the needles tapped into the kidney point, where memories reside, tapped into the liver point, where poisons collect, into the feet and hands, the three chakras of the chest that split the body in half, my right healthy, my left in pain, my old friend’s betrayal lumped in my neck, my old love walking away thirty years ago stuck in my lower back, father’s death, mother’s lovelessness lodged in so many parts it may take years, Dr. Ming whispers, to wash them out, telling me to breathe deep, to breathe hard, the body is nothing but a map of the heart.
I Go Back To May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges, I see my father strolling out under the ochre sandstone arch, the red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood behind his head, I see my mother with a few light books at her hip standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its sword-tips black in the May air, they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody. I want to go up to them and say Stop, don’t do it — she’s the wrong woman, he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of, you are going to want to die. I want to go up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it, her hungry pretty blank face turning to me, her pitiful beautiful untouched body, his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me, his pitiful beautiful untouched body, but I don’t do it. I want to live. I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips like chips of flint as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
“Poem for a Daughter” is from Poems 1955–2005, by Anne Stevenson. Copyright © 2005 by Anne Stevenson. Reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books.
“Changing Diapers” is from Axe Handles, by Gary Snyder. Copyright © 1983 by Gary Snyder. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
“Hurry” is from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, by Marie Howe. Copyright © 2008 by Marie Howe. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
“Yesterday” is from Migration: New and Selected Poems, by W.S. Merwin. Copyright © 1983, 2005 by W.S. Merwin. Reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency and The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.
“Those Winter Sundays” is from Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1975, 1972, 1970, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
“Brown Circle” is from Ararat, by Louise Glück. Copyright © 1990 by Louise Glück. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
“Nikki-Rosa” is from Black Judgement, by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright © 1968, 1970 by Nikki Giovanni. Reprinted by permission of Harper-Collins Publishers.
“At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire” is from Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon. Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Acupuncture and Cleansing at Forty-Eight” is from The Trouble-Making Finch, by Len Roberts. Copyright © 1998 by Len Roberts. Reprinted by permission of University of Illinois Press.
“I Go Back to May 1937” is from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds. Copyright © 1987 by Sharon Olds. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.