The Robot Moves!
by Nick Flynn
I pretend I’m afraid, carrying you
on my hip beneath the Cathedral of St. John
the Divine, past all the dead saints, the floor
dug up to lay pipe. I stop suddenly,
grasping at a darkened corner & whisper,
what was that? & your tiny hand
touches my face to soothe me
& you say, it’s alright,
there’s nothing there. As a kid
I made up a game
where I would turn into a robot,
cruel & lifeless, & it wouldn’t matter
if you were my best friend, I’d turn on you
as fast as switching off a light, I’d
come after you, no matter how much you’d plead,
I don’t want to play this game, because
something inside had turned, something
essential, that couldn’t be repaired
with words, like those days I’d come home at dusk
my mother alone at the kitchen table,
she’d look at me over her wine
& say only So?
like I was the stranger.
The third or fourth time I read this poem, a phrase from a much older poem popped into my head: Wordsworth’s famous line, “the Child is father of the Man.” It’s a phrase I’ve filed away in my head with other riddles and koans, sayings I remember more for their pithiness than their pith. I’m just too lazy a thinker to pick apart how someone can be his own grandpa or to dwell on the sound of one hand clapping.
Nick Flynn’s “The Robot Moves!” illustrates Wordsworth so forcefully I don’t have to pick the riddle apart. It’s visceral truth, raw and hard, and in Flynn’s hands, more complicated than just the idea that childhood experience shapes the adult. In the poem, childhood and adulthood are fluid states. Events and memories can fling us from one to the other and back again.
The poem opens with a “game”: a father trying to frighten his child. I played such games with my children many times—most parents do—but now I wonder why. Is the point of scaring children to get them to cling to us, or just a cruel exercise of power? Whatever the speaker’s intentions, the game backfires. The father becomes the child and the child becomes the parent as she offers comfort and protection. I love that darling little hand on her father’s cheek, and the child’s innocent attempt to calm: “there’s nothing there,” she says. Of course there’s everything there, bad childhood memories just beneath the surface of adulthood. It’s not just the floor of the cathedral that’s being dug up.
In the darkened cathedral, two memories emerge from the game, both associated with the coming of darkness. In the first memory, the boy turns into a robot “as fast as switching off a light.” In the second he comes home at dusk to find his mother drunk. These memories spill out in long sentences, the way children tell stories when they’re excited. The further back in time the speaker goes, the more childish the sentence structure, long clauses connected by ampersands which look like little links in a chain.
I don’t want to play this game, says the boy’s friend, which almost could have been the title of the poem. I remember my brother playing a similar game of turning into a robot and crashing into furniture and people. My husband did the robot gig too in our teenage dating years. Come to think of it, he still does now and then. (Again I ask, why? Why do men in particular enjoy pretending to turn into automated monsters bent on destruction?) Remembering that game, the speaker sees in himself an emptiness, a coldness, a desire to wound that links him back to the root memory of the poem, his mother at the kitchen table. The child’s earlier consolation that “there’s nothing there” becomes an ironic commentary on the mother’s cruel and lifeless response to her son’s arrival home.
I left the poem at a movie theater in Florida where I went to see “Captain America” on a rainy day. Every superhero has a weakness or painful memory that nearly causes his or her destruction, and so a superhero movie felt like a good backdrop for a poem about a boy’s imaginative play and very real pain.
Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.
Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.
In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.
(Sorry, I’m unable to download a picture of Flynn. You’ll have to take my word for it that he’s got a handsome Irish face. Link to his website here to see for yourself.)