The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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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.
“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
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
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
just because I’m here
I say nothing
he says my father
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
though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.