Poem twins, part 3: Two boys, three penises

poems are on swing seats


Half a Double Sonnet

by Mary Jo Salter


for Ben


Their ordeal over, now the only trouble

was conveying somehow to a boy of three

that for a week or two he’d be seeing double.

Surely he wouldn’t recall the surgery

years later, but what about the psychic scars?

And so, when the patch came off, they bought the toy

he’d wanted most. He held it high. “Two cars!”

he cried; and drove himself from joy to joy.

Two baby sisters. . . One was enough of Clare,

but who could complain?-considering that another

woman had stepped forward to take care

of the girls, which left him all alone with Mother.

Victory! Even when he went to pee,

he was seconded in his virility.





The Boy         His Mother

by Grace Paley


she said

you were a wonderful boy this evening

at a dinner among friends     so attentive     so

grown up     the boy’s heart     oh his ribs

may crack with happiness     he runs dangerously

out into the street     calling     come come every-

body it’s this way     we’re going this way     he turns

wants to look up into her face     come Mother     she

laughs and follows     but there’s no help     his eyes

are tipped with tears


in only

a few birthdays love will find his whole body

beat at his skin to get out     out     his knees

weakened     he bows his head     kneels

before the other     a girl     love-threaded

as he has been     begging relief




When I found out, thanks to a loose-lipped sonogram technician, that my third baby was going to be a boy, I thought I was going to throw up. I didn’t know anything about boys! I didn’t like boy things. I didn’t get how boys think. I wasn’t interested in the boys’ toy aisle, the sporting equipment, trucks and superhero figurines. I was judge-y of the boys in my daughter’s class, who seemed to take up all the air in the room with their loud and careless ways.


Boys are all different, of course, and my boy-dread could have been allayed by the arrival of a Little Lord Fauntleroy. But I happened to get just the variety of boy that had made me so nervous. Joe was a huge baby—my most painful delivery—and a boisterous, ball-obsessed toddler. My fears were allayed nonetheless. I hadn’t realized just how charming, affectionate and tender-hearted little boys could be.


That’s why I love these poems. Grace Paley’s “The Boy   His Mother” and Mary Jo Salter’s “Half a Double Sonnet” bring to life two particular little boys so completely I can almost smell their sweaty heads. Paley’s boy boldly running out into the street but still wanting his mother’s approval, Salter’s little guy driving his toy car “from joy to joy”—I’d scoop these fellows up on my lap if I could.


Salter’s sonnet follows eye surgery and a resulting double-vision. It’s a clever little poem, so light and fun you don’t realize how perfectly crafted it is. The poem begins with “they”—both parents worry and observe—but ends with Mother. The boy has her all to himself, a victory only matched by having two penises. (And if that doesn’t just say it all, folks.)


Paley’s boy is older and just as bold but more tender-hearted, more sensitive. Paley captures human interaction with delicacy and masterful use of white space.


I’ve read this poem dozens of times over the years and only now wonder what exactly makes the boy teary-eyed. The back-and-forth with mother and son are so natural and relatable to my own experience that I never questioned why he might be crying. That his mother laughs, making him feel diminished? That he turns to find she is not right behind him, that she has to be asked to follow? Or that he has some premonition of a future he’ll forge on his own, without her? It’s all of those, I think, packed tightly in a loose format, and that’s what’s so fantastic about this poem.


Both mothers look to the future. The boy in the street and the boy with the eye patch are previews of the men they’ll become. Mothers worry about these little forecasts, some mothers more than others (I am on the More end), but these two seem even-tempered, amused. I like them as well as their darling boys.



I left the twin poems on a set of swings the first day of fall. Fall reliably sets parents thinking about their children growing-up—another school year, a bigger pair of shoes—and can be a sad season for the excessively sentimental among us. Salter’s and Paley’s poems are just the right counterpoint. No clinging allowed, they tell us, just enjoy the ride from joy to joy.





Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1954, and was raised in Baltimore from age nine. She went to Harvard and Cambridge, and taught for many years at Mt. Holyoke. She’s currently a professor at Johns Hopkins, back in her native Baltimore.


She’s served as editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Atlantic Monthly and New Republic. In addition to eight books of poetry, Salter has published a children’s book, written a play, and collaborated with jazz composer Fred Hersch on a song cycle performed at Lincoln Center.


She was married to poet Brad Leithauser with whom she had two daughters.




Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.


She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.


She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.


She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.


Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.





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