Half a Double Sonnet
by Mary Jo Salter
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
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
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.