blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Ferocious Lullaby: Notes on Poetry and Parenting

For a week after my sons were born in January of 2002, my wife and the newborns and I shared a hospital room. The boys were delivered by cesarean, but this did not make the birthing process any easier or less eventful, and our doctor thought a longer than usual hospitalization was advisable. Unlike most twins, the boys had been carried to full term, and they were big—each of them weighing nearly eight pounds. Noelle needed time to recuperate from the delivery, and the hospital monitored her recovery a bit more carefully than they might have with other mothers of twins, for she was forty-three at the time. There had been a number of complications and scares during the pregnancy, and the extra days we spent on the maternity ward, sterile and antiseptic though it may have been, seemed like something of a respite after nine months of anxiety. We were grateful to know that the boys were healthy, and, for the moment at least, it seemed better to feel a bit bewildered in a hospital room, with the support of nurses and doctors, than to be very bewildered, perhaps even panicked, at home. In fact, we scarcely thought of home, though I went back periodically to check on things and feed the cats. During one of those visits back, I found a large box at the front door. I knew what was in it: twenty-five advance copies of my latest poetry collection. But I was in a hurry to get back to Bloomington Hospital and slid the box inside the door without opening it. I didn’t even mention to Noelle that the books had come until a few days later.

When I look back on this incident, I realize how decisively it marked a change in how I would view myself as a writer. I do not mean to suggest that it evidenced any sort of grand transformation from writerly self-absorption to that state of idealized selflessness that many people say attends the advent of parenthood. No, I was just tired; my mind was on other things. And in the year that followed the boys’ births, I scarcely wrote a word. During that time I was too busy to think much about my silence. We had twins to look after, and we moved halfway across the country so that I could take a new teaching job. From time to time I would page through my new poetry collection, feeling that it made a credible statement, and I had no doubt that my poetic inactivity was only temporary. Just a year or two earlier, I would have found this sort of interruption of my writing life to be profoundly worrisome. Just a year or two earlier, I could have told you exactly what sort of writer I was: an elegiac poet. And I would have allowed that the action of writing three books of largely elegiac verse, over the course of the previous eight years, had more or less saved my life. In the years immediately following my parents’ deaths—they’d passed away within months of one another—I wrote furiously and obsessively about their lives and about my unresolved feelings for them. In the years immediately following the sudden death of my first wife, the poet Lynda Hull, I wrote still more obsessively and still more furiously; now my subject was Lynda and not my parents. And when I married a second time, though I found myself in a nurturing and abiding relationship, I was still drawn to a poetry that was immersed in the intricate rituals of mourning and loss. Partly this was because there were new losses to mourn; we’d long struggled with fertility issues and had experienced three miscarriages. Partly this was because, to be a bit cynical about it, loss seemed to be my brand. The title of the book I chose not to hold in my hands on that day I was focused on getting back to the hospital was Spirit Cabinet, named after a breadbox-like contraption—a little like a piece of furniture, a little like an altar—which the Shakers would stand before, believing that in doing so they might telepathically communicate with the dead. My audience was the audience of the dead, and they were a demanding one. Although I knew better, some essential part of me actually believed Yeats’s lamentable bullshit claim that you must choose perfection of the life or perfection of the work. And I had chosen to perfect the work. Though the work was far from perfect, I felt that I had some mastery over it that I could never achieve in my life. When I started writing poetry again in 2004, I was a different poet: humbler, I suppose, less lofty in my sense of the poet’s calling. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand why that change took place, although the reason itself is rather self-evident. To be greatly reductive—but not too greatly reductive—the fact is that writing is easier than parenting.

Why? If you practice an art for years and for decades, devote a goodly portion of your life to it, the likelihood is that in that time you will become more skillful. And there is a smaller, but still credible, likelihood that over that time you will, indeed, get better as well. You won’t ascend the ladder to Parnassus in any steady and systematic way; you’re not on some Hegelian escalator that neatly and predictably moves you upward. Instead you stagger and stumble, get waylaid and sidetracked by tangents, reach plateaus and Sargassos where you are maddeningly becalmed, make the occasional breakthrough, but only very occasionally. Still, the movement is upward.

Contrast this with the experience of parenting, an activity that in my experience is fraught, perplexing, and at least as mysterious as whatever we call creativity. Yes, there are moments when the delights eclipse the exasperations, and, yes, children grow up, leave for college, and if they don’t move back into your home after this, burdened by a hundred grand or so of debt, you can perhaps consider your task as a parent to be for the most part done, and perhaps in some degree to have been successful. But while you are in the middle of this process, confusion reigns, maybe because you want to trust that it is a process. Yet that trust seems stymied—over and over again. I have lost count of the times when the sadly large number of psychotherapists and psychiatrists I have consulted over the decades have reminded me that “there is no owner’s manual for parenting.” They are right of course, and even if there existed a manual for child-rearing as long and as detailed as the Talmud, I can’t imagine it would offer advice on how to, as I was made to do an hour or so ago, quell an altercation between two sixteen-year-old boys as to whose turn it is to get the Xbox, an argument that almost escalated to fisticuffs. And stepping in to fix this problem does not make you a Solomon, as my solution was an improvised and half-assed one involving those sorts of briberies and promised punishments that the experts say never really work. This was followed by various self-recriminations: Why did my wife and I let them have the Xbox anyway, allowing them to practice shooting behemoth soldiers and aliens rather than read Tolkien or Harry Potter? Why are they couch potato-ing when they could be at the pool or the gym? Why are they couch potato-ing when they could be doing a chore? And of course, why did they have to interrupt my writing while all this was going on, and why does even asking that final question make me feel like a bad father? And, why, when I write poems about my children, do I often feel that those poems are essentially disingenuous, for in them I always seem to characterize myself as at least a reasonably good father? And I needn’t add that to characterize myself as a “good father,” whether disingenuously or more earnestly, in my case carries with it a hefty component of white male privilege. My wife’s efforts at parenting are vastly more time-consuming and systematic than mine have ever been, and she manages to do this while at the same time seeing to the care of her disabled sister and her elderly mother and aunt, both of whom suffer from dementia. That said, we nevertheless live quite comfortably. No dictator (at least not yet) is at any time soon plotting to execute my spouse and arrest my children in the way that Stalin did with Akhmatova; I am not at any point soon apt to be sent to a madhouse, leaving my wife and children in abject poverty—that was poor John Clare’s fate, and will not be mine. Furthermore, I have the advantage of possessing decent health insurance.

However, to acknowledge that practicing an art is hard while the practice of parenting is harder does not make the relationship between the two things any less inscrutable. And, like so many of my writer friends who are parents, I often find myself regarding the two processes as oppositional rather than complementary. But this was bound to happen. At least since the Romantics—on whom we can place the blame for a great many artistic idiocies—the myth of the artist as solitary creative warrior devoted to art above all else has held us all in its thrall, even though we should know better. Furthermore, those who could perpetuate that myth have almost exclusively been members of a highly elitist men’s club, a Mar-a-Lago of Poetic Makers, who, like Don Draper in Mad Men, also went to great lengths to hide their real identities. William Carlos Williams put in long hours in his medical practice in Paterson (he assisted in the births of over 3,000 babies), and every day for almost forty years Wallace Stevens sauntered in his three-piece to a formidable desk at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. But we have been programmed to believe that this pair’s real work was at the service of the imagination. And both poets exerted considerable effort in order to foster that notion. In not a single poem does Stevens write about (or mention) his wife and daughter, or his job, though presumably he spent at least as much time with his family and his torts and codices as he did with his writing. And Williams, the apostle of “no ideas but in things,” seems for the most part to place his immediate family within the category of ideas and abstractions. Williams’s two sons don’t even play bit parts in his work, and the poems we remember to his wife Elsie—think of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”—are essentially elaborate performances designed to wheedle forgiveness for his various infidelities. And then there’s Rilke. That arch-romantic, that exemplary sufferer—who spewed out endorsements of the virtues of solitude with the same sort of assembly-line consistency as Starbucks steaming up venti lattes—is remembered for those decades of creative agony which eventually resulted in the Duino Elegies and not for the fact that he abandoned his wife and infant child for Paris and his gig as Rodin’s secretary. Rilke’s significance does not nullify his status as a deadbeat dad and high-end gigolo, dependent on the financial (and sometimes sexual) largesse of various countesses and the ever-indulgent and supportive Lou Andreas-Salomé. Yes, Rilke idealized women, but that idealization carried with it an element of the perverse. In what is arguably his greatest lyric, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” the poet’s thesis is that Eurydice is better off in hell—perfected somehow in death, inert and eerily at peace, and thus more delectable; she has been turned into a kind of sculpture or holograph. It’s a characterization that Sylvia Plath mercilessly lampoons in her heart-wrenching final poem, “Edge.” Who would have thought that Rilke had so much in common with Bill Cosby?

When the impersonation of the Romantic myth of the artist meets the real-life challenges of artistic practice, the differences between myth and reality are all too apparent. Here is a description of a meeting between two of our most considerable contemporary poets, Adrienne Rich and Robert Duncan. It did not go well, at least according to Rich’s account, which appears in What Is Found There, a selection of her journals and notebooks.The entry needs to be related in its entirety:

One rainy day in the spring of 1960 . . . Robert Duncan arrived at my door, sent to me by our mutual friend Denise Levertov. I had a sick child at home, and we sat in the kitchen drinking tea. My son played fretfully in his high chair, sometimes needing to sit in my lap. Duncan began speaking almost as soon as he entered the house . . . the fretful child, my efforts with the tea were in another realm from the one whence he spoke. . . . I remember only vaguely what he talked about: poetry, the role of the poet, myth. I knew he was a significant experimental poet (and I still think his poetry truly serious and original though occluded in certain ways). It was clear he inhabited a world where poetry and poetry only took precedence, a world where that was possible. My sharpest memory is of feeling curiously negated between my sick child, for whom I was, simply, comfort, and the continuously speaking poet with the strangely imbalanced eyes, for whom I was, simply, an ear.

Later, driving him back to Boston in the rain, I realized my car was running on empty. Nervously, I eased it out of rush-hour traffic into a filling station. Duncan continued to talk, the monologue, perhaps, of a gifted talker, which can be started up, like a record, when the person doesn’t know what to say.

I have thought since then that Duncan’s deep attachment to a mythological Feminine and to his own childhood may have made it unlikely for him to meet—in any real sense—so unarchetypal a person as an actual struggling woman poet caring for a sick child. But also, Duncan was then trying to write—against the political and poetic tenor of the times, and through the medieval-nostalgic filter of his own vision—openly gay poetry. Like Gertrude Stein, I’m sure he needed the veil of language, and of a highly discursive personality, that could at times be switched off but that also could be used as protection. I too was using my poetic language as protection in those years, as a woman, angry, feeling herself evil, other. A conversation between two such poets was not possible, on that rainy afternoon.

We do not think of Rich as a writer with a comic streak, but the scene between the two poets in the kitchen mixes consternation with dry wit. We conjure Rich lifting her croupy son from his high chair and placing him in her lap, and all the while Duncan obliviously yammers on, presumably about the esoterica which figures so strongly in his poetry—Rosicrucianism, say, or the songs of the Goliard poets. And later we imagine Rich pumping gas, her son in the back seat, a pacifier in his mouth to stop his crying, while Duncan leaves the passenger seat, standing beside his fellow poet in the rain, still blathering on about Lilith or Osiris. One of Duncan’s plays features a character named “Orphic Scold,” and that term seems in this situation to fit the poet to a tee. Like Orpheus himself, the maenads could cut off his head, but the head would still, as Alan Dugan’s great send-up of the Orpheus myth would have it, go on “talking, talking, talking.”

Yet the end of Rich’s recollection of her meeting with Duncan strikes a far more melancholic tone. The two poets had much in common; both would later write some of the most enduring poems of protest against the Vietnam War; both became crucial figures in the canon of LGBT poetry; both were adamant idealists during a time when the prevailing outlook among American poets was one of spiritual exhaustion and desperation. They had much to talk about on that rainy day in 1960, but Duncan had been trained to declaim rather than to talk and had the luxury to exercise that training—over and over again. Rich, on the other hand, carried a heavier burden. Her position as a woman poet and caregiver during the bleak conformity and pro forma misogyny of Eisenhower America always threatened to exhaust or preoccupy her into poetic silence. Many other factors contributed to the two poets’ miscommunication, but the presence of Rich’s sickly son during their confab certainly affected their dialogue in crucial ways. Rich had no choice but to be a caregiver first and a poet talking shop second. Duncan seems to have been so busy spouting his “Big Ideas” that he could not recognize the anxieties and ambivalence attending his fellow poet’s situation. “Poetry, the role of the poet, myth”—all the high-flown Romantic pieties—ultimately had the last word in this sadly dispiriting meeting between poetic greats.

Mind you, this conversation took place nearly sixty years ago; our mores and aesthetics are different now, our gender roles more fluid, and the Romantic clichés have been debunked. Or have they? Here is a late poem by a much-beloved American poet who died only a few years ago, Jack Gilbert, entitled “A Kind of Courage.” It was probably written when the poet was on the cusp of eighty. If you know Gilbert’s work even passingly, you know that it employs “courage” with the same sort of buzzword frequency that boot camp sergeants reserve for the word “guts”. The poem begins quite promisingly, but the ending is something of a mess. Although it is only thirteen and not fourteen lines long, it suffers from the sort of structural disintegration that mars so many sonnets, where the octet comes on like gangbusters, but the sextet falls into dithering:

The girl shepherd on the farm beyond has been
taken from school now she is twelve, and her life is over.
I got my genius brother a summer job in the mills
and he stayed all his life. I lived with a woman four
years who went crazy later, escaped from the hospital,
hitchhiked across America terrified and in the snow
without a coat. Was raped by most men who gave her
a ride. I crank my heart even so and it turns over.
Ranges high in the sun over continents and eruptions
of mortality, through winds and immensities of rain
falling for miles. Until all the world is overcome
by what goes up and up in us, singing and dancing
and throwing down flowers nevertheless.

The triple portrait—the young shepherdess whose existence has already been egregiously circumscribed, the “genius brother” downtrodden by mill work, and the mentally disturbed ex-lover—is sketched with exquisitely terse precision. But with “I crank my heart even so and it turns over,” the poet introduces a bumbling and anachronistic metaphor—likening oneself to a jalopy is a singularly unpromising way to portray the inner life—and with this the other characters completely disappear from the poem. The effect is jarring, and the gesture is completely self-absorbed: “Enough of this oppression, rape, and madness! Let’s talk about me!” And that talk is puzzling, if not absurd. Toward the end of the poem, Gilbert’s jalopy heart seems now to be soaring the stratosphere. And then, for good measure, he decides to toss some flowers and singing and dancing into the mixture. Yes, Jack Gilbert gave up a great deal for the sake of poetry, and much of his verse is exacting and moving. But much of it is also afflicted with a sense of ascetic (and aesthetic) entitlement. He’s careful to remind his readers that he knows the goat paths of Santorini with an exceptional intimacy, but he wouldn’t be caught dead driving a kid to a soccer game in a minivan.

Let me now offer a poem by Beth Ann Fennelly, who has written about the experience of parenting, both in verse and in memoir, with an acuity that seems to me almost unparalleled among the poets of her generation. “Not Knowing What He’s Missing”—which she dedicates to Gilbert, although it doesn’t seem that the two poets were personally acquainted—manages to be both an homage and indictment:

The old poet writes importantly about the hungers.
About Brahms, being greedy for intensity, hot
sunlight on small weeds, fierce honey from hives
abandoned far up the mountain. And the women,
their flavors and flaws. The places he’s had them,
Paris, Japan, dire Copenhagen, stony islands in Greece.
And now he is eighty, and wishes to be in love again.
Sometimes his wishes sound like bragging.

She reads his poems gratefully in her small
Mississippi town. It’s an undramatic life, yet
these past months she seems to have found the intensity
he yearns for. This also sounds like bragging,
though she doesn’t mean it to. If she could, she’d let him
bear her secret. She’d let all the great men bear it,
for a few hours. Then, when she took it back,
they’d remember how it feels to be inhabited.

Last night the secret kicked her awake. She grew
hungry. She didn’t want to roll-heave out of bed,
but the secret demanded. She walked to the kitchen, stood
eating handfuls of cereal from the box while the birds
sang in the dark. Remembering what a racket
birds can make. Finally, the secret was content. She tried
the bed again, facing the rising sun. The secret kicked
so hard the mattress shook, but the husband didn’t wake.

Fennelly begins the poem with a wry pastiche of Gilbert’s signature style—its chiseled imagistic precision, its reliance on sentence fragments for dramatic effect, its exoticism. As the opening stanza unfolds, Fennelly’s stance turns from one of tribute to Gilbert to a gentle lampooning of his late romantic posturing—“dire Copenhagen, stony islands of Greece,” his objectified beloveds who are made up of “flavors and flaws” like vintages at a wine tasting. Yet Fennelly is careful to avoid overt sarcasm: “Sometimes his wishes sound like bragging” is a bittersweet critique. The speaker softens her tone still further by referring to herself in the third person. How can her “undramatic life” in small-town Mississippi compare to Gilbert’s bardic adventures in Paris, Perugia, and Japan? But the speaker insists that she has found fulfillment, so much so that to speak of it also seems to her like bragging. We have all heard the cliché: if men were to experience pregnancy and childbirth, then that sense of male privilege I have previously mentioned would diminish considerably. But Fennelly cannily refreshes the cliché and does so with risky brio. The third stanza’s scene of the pregnant speaker “eating handfuls of cereal from the box while the birds / sang in the dark,” followed by that distinctly Gilbert-esque fragment: “Remembering what a racket / birds can make,” is perhaps the poem’s most affecting moment, something quotidian that is at least as lyrically resonant as any of the older poet’s greedy intensities. The poem’s concluding image—with the speaker awaiting the dawn while “the husband” slumbers on, entirely oblivious to the speaker’s night of quiet reverie—is a perfect closing gesture. One final element of the poem deserves special mention: for the speaker to refer to her pregnancy as “the secret” is a daring gesture, one that could come across as precious and self-consciously sacerdotal. Yet the term seems exactly right for this context: the conflation of maternity with creative empowerment is by no means heavy-handed.

Fennelly’s poem seeks not merely to debunk the romantic conception of self that Gilbert so adamantly strives to typify. She acknowledges the seductive pull of its self-mythologizing and—implicitly—the ways in which poetic tradition has validated that stance. Antonio Machado once observed that in order to write poetry, one must first invent the poet who will write it, which is a flintier but no less lofty way of Keats insisting that poetic composition takes place in “the vale of Soul-making.” Gilbert, like so many poets before him, took such injunctions with unquestioning earnestness. This meant playing the role of “Jack Gilbert,” a character that seems modeled as much on Hollywood as it does on Byron or Shelley. Photos of the young Jack Gilbert circa 1962, recent winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize when that distinction really meant something, show him staring pensively at the camera in the manner of a second-string leading man from the early 1960s: he’s Tom Tryon, Richard Chamberlain, or Terence Stamp. Of course, in time “Jack Gilbert” would truly become Jack Gilbert; the mythmaking impulse would be fulfilled. Fennelly is astonished by this transformation—who of us, as poets, would not be? Yet she also sees how delimiting such single-minded devotion can be. And how callous: when Robert Lowell showed Elizabeth Bishop his sonnets about the breakup of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, poems which plagiarized agonized passages from Hardwick’s letters to Lowell, then chopped and channeled them for the sake of better phrasing and a smoother meter, the horrified Bishop admonished her friend not to publish them, famously telling him in a letter that “art just isn’t worth that much.” Of course writers turn their lives into material, but the unfettered practice of art for art’s sake can easily become a form of hubris. Fennelly’s poem, among other things, uses Gilbert’s example to remind us of this.

Yet for Bishop and Fennelly to assert this claim does not mean that either writer is belittling or dismissing the value of artistic loftiness. Far from it. But they are keen to remind us that somewhere in “the vale of Soul-making” is a strip mall adjoining a row of dealerships that sell Subaru Outbacks, Volvo Wagons, and yes, minivans. Monkish service to one’s art does not necessarily make one a better practitioner of that art, though it can. And homeliness, for want of a better word, must have its say. From the bric-a-brac of memory and a forlorn childhood, from almanacs, from a child’s awkward drawings, from a tea kettle, and a rainy September day, Bishop fashioned what is arguably the greatest sestina in the language. And from a box of Cheerios or Shredded Wheat, Beth Ann Fennelly finds the means to assert her own artistic integrity, and in the process is able to beat Jack Gilbert at his own game. The sanctity of her art is not diminished by her role as a mother, as a teacher, as a breadwinner. And Fennelly, an academic with a position much like my own, would surely admit that she, as I do, has it easy. Neither of us must struggle with poverty, with racial prejudice, with homophobia, or the direct results of the lunatic governmental xenophobia that is slowly but inexorably inching the US toward authoritarian rule. Although I cannot speak for Fennelly, I am fairly confident that these cultural and societal woes distress her as much as they distress me.

Yet during an era as turbulent as ours, it is a small good thing to devote oneself to the art of poetry, even poetry whose subjects are, for want of a better word, domestic. And because the domestic implicitly insists upon the dignity and gravity of the private life during a time when the culture would prefer to reduce us all to demographics, to write meaningfully about domestic life is in and of itself a political act, a point which the verse of the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer makes again and again.

To speak of the “dignity and gravity of the private life” is all well and good. But perhaps even to assert that claim may be a form of aggrandizement that cannot help to solve what I earlier cast as a practical dilemma: the fact that raising children is not easy, and poets who chose to do so must not only resist the tired romantic reverences but also the tendency to see the process of raising children and that of writing poetry as oppositional. And when someone succumbs to thinking in easy dichotomies, the result can be mere pettiness, a churlish oversimplification that brings out the worst in us. Who of us poets who parent has not at times guiltily envied the caregiving rituals of, say, the British Royal Family? If I were Prince Harry, I could turn the task of fathering largely over to others and see my children by appointment. And I sometimes have felt a reluctant admiration for John Updike, who, in an oft-told anecdote, had a comically short meeting with a friend of his teenage son; the friend was a great admirer of the novelist’s writing. The son and friend approached the closed door of Updike’s study, all the while hearing the steady percussive tap of Updike’s fingers on his IBM Selectric. “Dad,” said the younger Updike, “I’d like you to meet my friend Colin.” Updike stopped his typing, held out his hand to be shaken, and replied, “Pleased to meet you Colin”—then immediately returned to his typing. I love this story and feel a little bit ashamed for doing so.

Writing is said to require solitude, but parenting is built upon deeply embedded social interactions unique to primates, ones that allowed our species to evolve and survive over hundreds of thousands of years, social interactions designed in no small measure to protect and nurture children whose process of maturation is longer than that of any other species. These interactions involve a bonding between child and parent that is perhaps the thing that most uniquely characterizes us as human. Years ago, a graduate student of mine, a single mother of three young children, wrote a thesis on the verse of Sharon Olds, a poet widely praised for her poems about motherhood. I am not a great admirer of Olds’s work, but something my student said in her thesis has resonated with me over the years—more so during the time since I have been a parent. Olds’s writing, she said, inspired her above all because she knew of no other poet who better expressed what my student termed “the ferocity” of the link between a mother and a child. I don’t think I am going out on a limb when I say that fathers do not experience this ferocity to the same degree as mothers do. Yet I have on many occasions felt a deep protective ferocity for my sons’ well-being and safety. And perhaps even John Updike, in seeing grainy iPhone footage of agents of the Border Patrol literally tearing the children of asylum seekers from their mothers’ arms, footage which today we are seeing with horrific frequency, would pause from his typing, from his WASP-y characters in their throes of midlife crises, from his chiseled prose, and weep.

There are poems to be written about those Border Patrol agents. Fiery and militant poems of shock and condemnation. Poems of the sort that figure prominently in the early activist poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. But I would like to now focus on a different sort of Rukeyser poem, for it derives from the spirit of maternal ferocity which my student so memorably identified. Rukeyser enjoyed a long career, and her Collected Poems, published in 1978, is some 600 pages long. Critics generally agree that her early work, most notably her great documentary-long poem, The Book of The Dead, published in 1938, is her best. Rukeyser’s late work, beginning with 1968’s The Speed of Darkness, also has its admirers, for it served as an important inspiration for the renaissance in feminist poetry that began in the early 1970s. The poems of Rukeyser’s middle period, roughly from the mid-1940s to the mid-’60s, is for the most part unread. The middle-period poems differ significantly from the early and late writing; they tend to be introspective and mystical, reflecting her reading in Buddhism, Hinduism, and various esoteric traditions. They traffic in a homespun mythology and a hermetic symbolism that can sometimes be inscrutable. While Whitman is the model for Rukeyser’s early verse, the middle-period work echoes the prophetic books of William Blake. This change in Rukeyser’s stance reflects her personal circumstances as much as her thematic interests. Rukeyser’s communist affiliations had brought her to the attention of the FBI, who kept a lengthy surveillance file on her (one that, remarkably, can now be accessed on the FBI’s website). Her retreat to quietism may well have been self-protective during the era of McCarthyism and blacklists: thanks to a right wing slander campaign, Rukeyser was fired from a teaching position at Sarah Lawrence. Also, Rukeyser was bisexual, and the Red Scare carried with it a strong element of homophobia. Then there was the matter of the birth of her son in 1947, after a short and disastrous marriage that left her to raise her child as a single mother. Raising a son while also trying to eke out a living as a freelance writer surely placed a strain on her poetic productivity. For much of the 1940s and early ’50s, Rukeyser lived in San Francisco; she was later asked by an interviewer how the San Francisco poetry renaissance that championed figures such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Duncan impacted her work. Rukeyser’s reply: “I was too busy pushing a baby carriage to notice.” Yet in this period she produced her strange and haunting work of poetics, The Life of Poetry, and some remarkable poems about parenting, among them a ravishing sonnet sequence entitled “Poems for an Unborn Child.” She also wrote this poem, published in 1951:

Night Feeding

Deeper than sleep but not so deep as death
I lay there dreaming and my magic head
remembered and forgot. On first cry I
remembered and forgot and did believe.
I knew love and I knew evil:
woke to the burning song and the tree burning blind,
despair of our days and the calm milk-giver who
knows sleep, knows growth, the sex of fire and grass,
renewal of all waters and the time of the stars
and the black snake with gold bones.

Black sleeps, gold burns; on second cry I woke
fully and gave to feed and fed on feeding.
Gold seed, green pain, my wizards in the earth
walked through the house, black in the morning dark.
Shadows grew in my veins, my bright belief,
my head of dreams deeper than night and sleep.
Voices of all black animals crying to drink,
cries of all birth arise, simple as we,
found in the leaves, in clouds and dark, in dream,
deep as this hour, ready again to sleep.

Neither Kate Daniels nor Adrienne Rich, in their very different but equally worthy editions of Rukeyser’s Selected Poems, choose to include this poem. Yet I find it one of Rukeyser’s most singular achievements, perhaps the best example of her desire to allow physicality and myth to comingle. Rukeyser is one of our greatest celebrants of the body—what reader of her work could forget the opening of one of her most famous poems, “The Speed of Darkness”: “Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis / Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt / Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child”? The speaker of the poem, awakened by the night-cry of her hungering child, seems to exist both within and outside of her physical being, a condition that is expressed through various paradoxes: “I . . . remembered and forgot. On first cry I / remembered and forgot.” It is a shambolic state of apperception and stupor. But let’s remember that “shambolic,” a term with largely pejorative connotations, derives from the same Sanskrit root word that gives us the term “shaman.” The shaman who travels to the spirit world must journey there by the means of a waking dream. It’s the same visionary entrancement that propels Roethke’s villanelle, “The Waking,” written at almost the same time as Rukeyser’s poem: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” In her shaman-travelling, Rukeyser’s speaker suspects she has arrived at a state of mystical oneness with both the seen and the unseen: “I knew love and I knew evil: / woke to the burning song.” Although the opening stanza’s imagery is often decidedly hermetic, Rukeyser’s insistent rhythms and use of anaphora act as a visceral counter-valence to any obscurity. Most of the time, at least. I have no idea what the “sex of fire and grass” is doing in the poem and can’t for the life of me determine whether Rukeyser is referring to the gender of fire and grass or to their sexual activity. (That said, I have never suckled an infant, and surely never in the middle of the night. But as the father of twins I have made my share of shambolic visits to cribs, bottles of formula in hand: it’s easy to have an out-of-body experience during these times.) But I do think it is fairly easy to interpret the meaning of the “black snake with gold bones.” It’s the Ouroboros, the snake with its tail in its mouth that in numerous mystical traditions, particularly alchemy, symbolizes infinity. And this reading is further validated by the reference to gold burning in the opening of the second stanza: the alchemist’s crucible was where base metal was supposed to be transformed into molten gold. I do not find this symbolism overwrought, in part because it is melded with the urgent act of the speaker finally answering her infant’s hungry cry. Her action is first of all instinctual, as the exquisitely rendered iambs of “and gave to feed and fed on feeding” suggest. But Rukeyser’s image of the mother and her suckling child is superimposed in the reader’s mind with the symbol of the Ouroboros; the mother and child become themselves a figuration of infinity. Alchemical transformation is suggested as well thanks to the “gold seed,” the “bright belief,” and (somewhat unfortunately) those wizards. As the poem concludes, Rukeyser elaborates upon a trope that is often found in verse of the mystical tradition, not least among metaphysical poets such as Donne and Vaughan: darkness is seen as nurturing, sustaining, a harbinger of dawn and renewal, but a fraught one. The Swedes call the final predawn moment “the hour of the wolf,” reminding us that this is the time when, in hospitals, terminal patients are most prone to expire, just as it is also the time when babies are most frequently born. There is little of the metaphysical in Rukeyser’s final lines, however. Instead, mother and child are about to fall into a profound, exhausted, and restorative sleep. Like Whitman, Rukeyser often flies off the rails in her poetry: certainly there are places in which she seems to do so in this poem. But these excesses and infelicities somehow only enhance the poem’s magnificence, its sense of wonder, and, above all, its ferocity.

Two final questions, and they are important ones: Is it possible for a male poet to write of parenting with the same wonderment and ferocity that is evidenced in “Night Feeding”? Could it be that these qualities are ones uniquely afforded to women poets? The bald and reductive answer to the first question is “probably no,” just as the answer to the second question is “probably yes.” Yet one of the primary challenges of writing poetry is to both honor and to interrogate its received wisdoms. With that in mind, let me introduce you to a pair of poems by Craig Morgan Teicher, who strikes me as a younger poet of unusual ability. They appear in his third collection, The Trembling Answers, published in 2017. “Self-Portrait Beside Myself” follows in a century-long tradition of self-portrait poems, one that more or less begins with Rilke’s “Self-Portrait in the Year 1906,” his homage to the grave near-abstractions of Cézanne’s self-portraits in oil. This subgenre is one that has become something of a craze among contemporary poets—Lisa Russ Spaar has even edited a substantial anthology of them. And as with any craze, many of the efforts in this mode seem a bit hackneyed. Not so with Teicher’s poem, partly because it strives to confront the subgenre’s innate solipsism, and partly because its self-reckonings derive from circumstantial necessities, ones that the speaker seems barely able to cope with, let alone to master. Interestingly enough, the movement of the poem is, like “Night Feeding,” discombobulated and almost somnambulistic—the poem could only take place past nightfall and could only be written by an exhausted parent whose caregiving chores are far from over. Here’s the poem’s opening:

We’ve been lucky—March is over
and my son is still alive. My daughter
is about to crawl. And the golden
sunset light recalls
distant childhood light.
I feed my son while he sleeps
through a hole in his tummy
when the night nurse
has the night off,
and when I go to the mirror
it’s to see if the ocean-eyed man
the teenager I was had hoped to become
is anywhere in there.
The teenager is; he wants you
to see him, help him, tell him
he’s strong and gently
dramatic. He wants
to be part of a story, even
if not a true one. He wants
to fuck like mad,
even if I don’t.

The disarming series of short statements that open the poem have the same mixture of observational precision and panic that is found in much of Robert Lowell’s verse—and as the poem continues we see many of the tonal and syntactical shifts that characterize Lowell at his best. There’s also some of Lowell’s sly craftiness: the poem may appear improvisational, but in fact it is highly deliberate. The almost-precious lyricism of “the golden / sunset light recalls / distant childhood light” is followed by the speaker’s description of feeding his son, a passage that is both heart-wrenching and matter-of-fact. When the speaker is subsequently compelled to gaze at himself in the mirror, an action that in almost any other poem would be haughtily self-aggrandizing, Teicher’s tone instead seems humble and bewildered, perhaps because of the jagged cascade of prepositional phrases that ends with “is anywhere in there.” Who stares back at the speaker? The teenager or the weary father? We see these not as chicken-or-the-egg questions so much as ones that come in the form of, “Haven’t-I seen-this-gesture-in-ten-thousand-other-poems,-most-of-them-written-by-talented-but-already-excessively-professionalized-MFA-candidates?” But there is much more than skillful narcissism at play here, as we can see in the poem’s conclusion:

Standing over my son
at night, I feel quiet, only then,
no need to be me or anyone,
just listening to him breathe.
I can divide all life
into breath and waiting
for the next breath, and
the calm in the troughs
between. I wanted
to show you I could see the world
without me in the way; I can’t, not
even for a little while. I’m beside
that man watching over his son,
impressed with him and his humility.
But if that’s what it takes,
to keep my son safe—admiring
my better self rather than
being him—then ok. That’s ok.

James Wright memorably aspired to write what he called “the poetry of a grown man,” and what makes Teicher’s poem so quietly compelling is that it not only achieves that goal, but also outlines the process of maturation through which that desire is accomplished. Let’s call it a dialectical poem, one in which the poet passes through the various stages of poetic development, eschewing what Frank Bidart termed “the lies / of mere, neat poetry” for something more durable, exchanging the bric-a-brac of poetic effects for agape and awe. The poet chooses not to serve himself or his facility with technique, but to serve his obligations—and I would go as far as to call them sacred obligations—to his son. Teicher does not idealize or sentimentalize these duties: they are seen as hard work, and meeting them requires accommodation rather than an aspiration to something grand. Or to something that is grandly rhetorical: it takes nerve to close a poem with “ok,” let alone to use that word twice in the same line. Teicher makes a provisional reckoning with his world, but his reckoning is no less resonant for that.

Teicher’s The Trembling Answers returns again and again to events such as those described in “Self-Portrait Beside Myself.” The everyday trials of parenting and the unique challenges of caring for a special-needs son are often the occasions for the poems, but to properly honor those challenges Teicher must also relentlessly question the very nature of writing verse, all the artistic posturings that were easy to profess before he became a parent, but which he now must soberly reassess, and do so with no small measure of self-doubt. Three of the book’s poems bear the same querulous title: “Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography.” Teicher is a prolific reviewer and critic of poetry, whose tastes are refreshingly catholic. Several of the book’s poems display—and perhaps even show off—his considerable erudition. They are decidedly literary undertakings: there is an elegy that questions the nature of elegies; he has the chutzpah to call one of his poems “In the Waiting Room,” and a long autobiographical effort entitled “Edgemont” is steeped in the strategies of Lowell’s Life Studies. Yet even in that poem there is none of Lowell’s patrician theatricality. It is Teicher the vulnerable parent, the vulnerable husband, and the vulnerable, flawed (and often clueless) American male entering midlife whose voice emerges most strongly in his collection. And, like almost all of the rest of us, he feels most vulnerable during the middle of an insomniac night:

Video Baby Monitor

We can’t give up watching
Cal through the night, through

the glassy fog of a little
screen, X-ray vision

piercing the skin of the dark.
He is seven, ever unsafe,

no baby, my baby, my son.
Already, the camera on

Simone broke, she’s three,
and we won’t replace it.

But Cal is different, his health
as tricky as wisdom, possessed

only by not knowing.
The monitor lies. I have been

here before, wrote this
before, am here now in these

very words. A watched
pot never boils, so perhaps

a son on a screen never
dies. Like the eyes

of a painting this image
follows wherever we move.

Surveillance is love, love
is every moment the last.

Barely moving picture, memory
of now, sleep, be still, be

safe. Night is long, life short.
I cover you with my eyes.

This truly is an evocation of “love’s austere and lonely offices,” pellucid and immediate, even when it offers statements that in other contexts might seem belabored (“Surveillance is love, love / is every moment the last.” “Night is long, life short.”) The initial description of the baby monitor screen begets an elaborate conceit in which vision gives way to the visionary, in which we are given a kind of looking that seeks, as Bishop would have it, to “look our infant sight away.” I am hesitant to offer my superlatives through this mash-up of literary references. But the poem seems worthy of them. And the poem also knows when it must jettison literary affection, when it must abandon versifying, for simple utterance. And yet even the most plainspoken passages of the poem have a quality of incantation: “Barely moving picture, memory / of now, sleep, be still, be // safe. Night is long, life short. / I cover you with my eyes.” Incantation is perhaps too high-flown a word. The poem’s closing might be better described as a form of lullaby—a word I sheepishly confess that I have scrupulously refrained from employing in poems. Yet Teicher’s poem ends with one of those splendid paradoxes that characterize so much of the poetry that I love: the poem is a ferocious lullaby.

During the weeks in which I’ve been writing this, I’ve worked on it sometimes in my study, and at other times outside on the porch, for it’s been a lovely spring. At other times I’ve tapped out notes on my phone while waiting in the pediatrician’s office, the first time with Jake, the second time with Luke. Sometimes I couldn’t take the phone out, though I wanted to—for example, while I was sitting between the boys as they sat in adjoining chairs in the orthodontist’s office. Let me add that my wife must attend to at least three times as many parental obligations as I do, but I try in my often bumbling way to spot her. This past weekend, she took the night shift after Jake began a cycle of hourly vomiting. During the day shift, while she slept, I took over the vomit vigil: bucket, cold towels to the forehead, crushed ice for him to suck on. When he got a little better, I went back to the laptop, sitting nearby him while he dozed before the TV screen. My progress was slow, partly because I was tired, partly because Jake had chosen to view Transformers: The Last Knight, wherein Mark Wahlberg and that lovable crew of alien robots with a proclivity for turning into Mack Trucks once again save humanity. Periodically, I would pull up the Huffington Post on the laptop to see footage from a Border Patrol detention center, a refurbished Walmart that now features cages, several honest-to-God cages, each of them holding a score or so of five-year-olds, who have no idea where their mothers have gone. This segues into footage of the attorney general, a vile little homunculus, drawling—or is it gloating?—about a policy of “zero tolerance.” The weekend drags on. Luke at one point again expresses his desire to join the NRA, and I worry that this time he’s not merely baiting me. By Sunday Jake is somewhat better. At one point my wife observes, “God, this is hard—and we have it easy.” Later in the day the two of us have a fight, in front of both the children. Later, we make up. Still later, she tells me she can’t wait to read my essay.  

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