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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

poem is on green column below red sign

poem is on green column below red sign

 

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.

 

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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.)

 

 

 

 

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poem is on twiggy branch

poem is on twiggy branch

 

This Morning

by Javier Galvez

 

This morning

The sun broke

my window

and came in laughing

 

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Along the same path:

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Poem is in center-right of photo. Poem Elf is in black.

 

Gift

by Czeslaw Milosz

 

A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

 

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I just returned from beautiful New Jersey (yes, beautiful: it’s much more a garden state than an armpit) visiting my sister Wizzie.  All weekend I was charmed watching her children play outside.  A slight chill kept me indoors, observing them through the glass, but spring sunshine made the front yard irresistible to them.  My four-year old niece Emily has a presence somewhere between a fairy and an imp, both creatures most comfortable in open air. I could have watched her play for days on end.  She’d ride her scooter back and forth on the driveway, singing, laughing, sometimes frowning.  Then she’d hop off to examine the dirt or to sit talking to herself.  At one point she knelt on the front stoop, hands folded, eyes closed, praying to the “Mother of God,” as she later admitted, for favors unknown.

 

Watching her made me think about how little time I spend outdoors and how disengaged I can be when I am.  Sometimes when I’m outside it’s as if I’m checking off a list: soak up Vitamin D, check; feel gratitude for cumulus clouds, check; raise heart rate hiking up hill, check; detox lungs with cold winter air, check; and so on.  It’s a far more detached experience of nature than I had as a little girl, playing with bugs and shouting in the wind.

 

That’s why I’m so drawn to  “This Morning” and “Gift.”  Both poems describe a communion with the natural world I miss.

 

ImageThe first poem, even though the setting is indoors, captures that childlike delight in the aliveness of everything out of doors.  One of my favorite chapters in the wonderful P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series covers a similar theme.  Seven-month old twins John and Barbara Banks, the younger siblings of Jane and Michael, lie in their cribs talking to a starling, the wind, the sun, and of course, to Mary Poppins.  The conversation is not a back-and-forth of baby babble and bird warbling, but a fully grammatical and meaningful communication.

 

“How soft, how sweet you are! I love you,” said Barbara, holding out her hands to its shining warmth.

 

“Good girl,” said the sunlight approvingly, and moved up over her cheeks and into her hair with a light caressing movement.  “Do you like the feel of me?” it said, as though it loved being praised.

 

“Dee-licious!” said Barbara, with a happy sigh.

 

Later, the twins are devastated to hear that in just a few months, when they turn one, these conversations will end.  Barbara asks Mary Poppins if she won’t be able to hear the wind anymore once her teeth come in. Mary Poppins answers with what could be a battle cry for poets everywhere:

 

“You’ll hear all right,” said Mary Poppins, “but you won’t understand.’

 

The idea that some joyful knowledge was forgotten in growing up was an entrancing idea for a girl like me who didn’t want to give up fairy tales, who looked at adolescence as loss and adulthood as the end of fun.

 

The poet’s relationship with nature in the second poem, “Gift,” is less one of giddy happiness than equanimity.  The poet works in his garden by the sea with great contentment.  Maybe it’s my age, but I’m beginning to value contentment over happiness.   It’s is the more reliable sister, the one who stays after the party to help with the dishes when happiness has flown out the door for the next gig.

 

Milosz’s contentment has a Buddhist flavor.  He’s content because he’s detached from those things that cause suffering: in order, greed, envy, bitterness, and regret. With the lifting of the fog, his vision is clear.  He’s focused on the present, not on the past or the future. It’s a cliché these days to say every day’s a gift but it probably wasn’t in 1971 when Milosz wrote the poem, and somehow even today he makes that idea as fresh as the New Jersey spring I wish would come to Michigan.

 

I left the poems on a nature trail a block from my sister’s house.  After sticking the poems on tree branches, I sat down to tea and scones with three of my sisters and my mother while my brother-in-law prepared bacon and eggs in the kitchen. I knew how lucky I was.  Like Milosz, I had no desire to be anywhere else or be anybody else.  Our time together was brief and all the more valuable for that.  A day so happy.

 

I found “This Morning” in an old college anthology of my sister’s, but I can’t find out much about poet Javier Galvez. I can only tell you he was born in 1947 and is probably a Mexican poet and wrote a book called Encanto Chicano.  Anyone know anything more?

 

Czeslaw Milosz by Faber BooksI wrote about Czeslaw Milosz in an earlier post.  If you don’t mind, I’ll just copy the biographical sketch I wrote previously:

 

Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries.  He grew up under Csarist rule, and later lived under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally survived Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen.  Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”

Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century.  Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp.  He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.

 

Because the poem has Buddhist overtones to me, I was interested (as I always am) in the poet’s spiritual side.  He was Catholic, but did not want to be considered a Catholic poet.  For those interested in his Catholicism, you can read his discussion of belief here.  The essay is from 1982, long before the abuse scandals, so when he writes of the “remarkable successes of American Catholicism,” he’s not being sarcastic.

 

 

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