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poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign

poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign

 

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all

 

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

 

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

 

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Poets have always found seasonal change useful to show the cycle of life and the fleeting nature of time. Falling leaves and acorns, Margaret are you grieving, The Last Leaf and all that. But poet Thomas Lux shows that teeth can serve as markers of time as well. After all, teeth sprout and shed. New ones replace the old. Baby teeth are even called deciduous teeth, a lovely term once common in scientific circles.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.18.46 PMThe life cycle of teeth, however, is slightly-to-much more disturbing than that of an oak tree. The arrival of the first tooth may be a sweet moment for parents, but once baby uses that dear little tooth while breastfeeding, it’s all downhill. Big teeth come in, too big for the face, the beginning of the end of cuteness. Then come bills for cavities and braces, wisdom-teeth removal, root canals, bridges, capping if there’s an accident, whitening if there’s money. Teeth yellow, rot, and lengthen as we grow old, and when we die, teeth—the hardest substance in the body—outlast every other part of us, including our bones.

 

Lux’s poem follows a similar path from sweetness to darker territory, beginning with the title. Was there ever a a title more adorable than “A Little Tooth”? The rhyme scheme, too, is as charming as a rhyme scheme can be. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but the pattern reverses and rights itself (A, B, C, and then C, B, A, and back to A, B, C), skipping along, moving the poem through time at a clip. The poem’s structure, clever and compact, tempers its sinister side with lightness. The diction does the same.

 

Originally I was going to leave “A Little Tooth” in some graduation-related site, but one day I drove by a psychic storefront and realized the poem’s narrator sounds very like someone who would work there. Besides, my original plan wasn’t very nice—these predictions are too dark for parents celebrating a milestone. Here is not the psychic who announces, “You will be a star among stars” or even, “You will meet a tall dark stranger.” This one says, “It’s all/over.”

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.42.46 PMThe narrator’s dire predictions remind me of the evil fairy in Grimm’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Furious at not being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s christening, she predicts that the baby will prick her finger on her fifteenth birthday and die. Like Grimm’s tale, the predictions in Lux’s poem hinge around the child’s burgeoning sexuality. The baby tooth marks the beginning of her carnal desires (meat/directly from the bone) and her eventual attraction to unsavory types (in her parents’ eyes): cretins and dolts.

 

Fortunately, parents’ lives are separate from their children’s, or can be. The father will find himself in the Land of No Regrets. His won’t be an easy life—there’ll be hard work and experiences that leave him and his wife worn down, flyblown, as Lux puts it—but it seems a happy one, all things considered. The return to present tense from the future tense of the middle stanza lends a settled air to all the anxious ruminations over a baby tooth.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.17.04 PMThomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist–his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.

 

Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.

 

He lives in Atlanta where he directs the poetry program at Georgia Tech. I know he has a daughter, but I can’t find out much more about his personal life, beyond this wonderful anecdote from the amazing Mary Karr (taken from her 2005 essay in Poetry about getting sober and converting to Catholicism):

 

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

 

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

 

For what? I wanted to know.

 

. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

 

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

 

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

 

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

 

In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?

 

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.

 

You can read her complete essay here.

 

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poem is inside magazine in hotel bathroom

 

Baby Listening

by Billy Collins


According to the guest information directory,

baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.

 

Baby listening—not a baby who happens to be listening,

as I thought when I first checked in.

 

Leave the receiver off the hook

the directory advises,

and your infant can be monitored by the staff,

 

though the staff, the entry continues,

cannot be held responsible for the well-being

of the baby in question.

 

Fair enough, someone to listen to the baby.

 

But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,

lying there in the room next to mine

listening to my pen scratching against the page,

 

or a more advanced baby who has crawled

down the hallway of the hotel

and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.

 

Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

 

Poetry want to have the baby who is listening at my door

as well as the baby who is being listened to,

quietly breathing by the nearby telephone.

 

And it also wants the baby

who is making sounds of distress

into the curved receiver lying in the crib

 

while the girl at reception has just stepped out

to have a smoke with her boyfriend

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.

 

 

Recently I googled I hate poetry and poetry sucks. (Professional curiosity or laundry avoidance? I leave it to you.)  While not as many people seem to hate poetry as hate Barry Manilow (let’s hope the poor fellow stays clear of internet searches), there’s still a sizable population who loathe and detest la poésie, a French word for poetry that I include to further annoy poetry-haters Merely hating poetry is not enough for these folks.  They seem to feel it’s necessary to create t-shirts, bumper stickers, websites, comedy routines and yes, even poems, to announce their feelings.

 

Online I found three objections to poets and poetry:

  1. Poets take themselves too seriously 
  2. Poetry is hard to understand
  3. Poetry is depressing

 

Shirley Temple by moviemag47Into this discussion let me introduce poet Billy Collins.  Collins is the Shirley Temple of the poetry world, impish, charming, irresistible, a goodwill ambassador come from a misunderstood country, winning over friends and allies with every production.

 

“Baby Listening” can serve as a response to the three objections outlined above.  To the charge that poets are pretentious and poems impenetrable, I say look how reader-friendly Collins is.  His language is clear, his tone conversational.  Collins has said that poems should “begin in clarity and end in mystery.”  The fact that this poem begins with the poet’s own confusion over the term “baby listening” does not contradict his modus operandi.  From the beginning the reader knows exactly what’s going on:  Collins is reading the directory of a seaside hotel off the coast of England or Scotland.

 

Collins has also spoken of the need to “establish hospitality” at a poem’s beginning to invite the reader in.  Let me help you into this poem, his tone seems to say, like a friendly stranger saying to an old lady, Let me help you into this taxi.  Then he buckles his reader in and the taxi takes off for a crazy ride.

 

But even with a writer as considerate and dedicated to clarity as Collins, reading poetry requires effort. Poetry haters are right that poetry isn’t always easy to understand.  We’re used to language that only means one thing at a time, and poetry feeds on ambiguity:

poetry is a  place . . .

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.


In the worlds of law, science, math, and cooking, each word’s referent must be crystal clear and singular, else a lawsuit, explosion or failed exam may result.  Collins italicizes the legalistic wording of the hotel’s directory to highlight the difference between poetic and prosaic language.

 

Poetry’s magic, Collins says, is that all the babies in the poem can exist at once.  The  babies can be associations, connotations, images, meanings, or anything else that flashes in our brains when we read a line.

 

For example, notice how evocative the poem’s language becomes as we move from the clarity of the beginning to the mysteries of the end.  The baby cries into a “curved receiver.”  The curve suggests a mother, but the “mother” in this case is a girl earning an hourly wage who doesn’t take her responsibilities seriously.  She slips out, also unwatched by a mother (who probably would not approve of smoking and canoodling), to meet her boyfriend, and sex is in the air—

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.


The image sets a scene—something out of Local Hero, a favorite movie of mine—but also works to insert danger under the surface of the poem.  The dark ocean is so much bigger and more powerful than the helpless baby and the unhelpful girl that their safety is uncertain.

 

So why the danger and the darkness?  The poem began with such lightness and comedy, with sweet babies crawling down hotel hallways and pressing little ears to the wall.  Why does the poet have to put one of the babies in mortal danger?  Why, the haters ask, does poetry insist on being depressing?

 

Collins provides a good answer in an interview he gave to The Cortland Review.  In response to a comment that in a post 9/11 world, people were trying to live life more fully, he said:

Poetry has been saying that for a few thousand years. Seize the day. Do it now. The sense behind that imperative is that we don’t have an unlimited number of days. Television says the same thing all the time—’Everything’s going to be OK.’ Contemporary novels are saying, ‘Things are not OK.’ What poetry is saying is ‘Life is beautiful but you’re going to die.’ So much of poetry asks us to look at life from the perspective that death enhances life.

 

Which explains why after reading this poem I really wanted to hold a baby again, to kiss its little ears and feet; and why I remembered so sharply what it was like to be a young girl kissing a boy on the beach at night.  It all passes so quickly and then it’s gone forever.

 

The Chicago hotel I left “Baby Listening” in did not offer baby listening, but they did offer wake-up calls, a service Collins performs in every poem.

Billy Collins is considered the most popular poet in America.  His readings have been called “the literary equivalent of Beatlemania” and he once commanded a six figure advance for book, almost unheard of for a poet.  He served 2 years as the poet laureate of the United States, and has taught and published in the most desirable of places.  You can hear him read a few poems here, and read a previous Collins’ poem-elfing here.

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