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Posts Tagged ‘daughters’

 

poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

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What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

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If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace 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.

 

Image 1She 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.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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I’m trying to get this post up quickly—too many things to get done and my daughter gets home from Cameroon today—so I’ll skip the fanfare and get right to it.

 

I put an assortment of poems for Father’s Day around town.  Three of the poems are fathers addressing daughters. Another poem is a father’s lament for a failed relationship, and another is a daughter’s. One has no mention of a father at all, but it speaks to what I love about fathers.

 

That poem, the one with no particular mention of fathers, is Marge Piercy’s “To be of use.”  I put the poem in the mouse trap section of a popular dad hangout, the hardware store.

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

 

Up close:

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Of course any number of people in the world are useful people, people who do what has to be done, again and again, but I send this poem out to the fathers I’ve known and admired.  Especially the ones who empty the mouse traps.

 

Poem is hanging on a branch

Poem is hanging on a branch

Marie Ponsot’s poem “Hard-Shell Clams” I left in a cemetery.  All those buried wounds seemed to belong there.  The poem is so beautiful it gives me the shivers.

 

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I can’t stop reading it.  That image of the sand just kills me: a glitter like chain mail guarding who I am/from his used blue gaze that stared to understand.

 

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

I posted two poems of fatherly advice together on a local high school.  School is out but maybe someone will come to the gym and find the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “From a Letter to His Daughter.”

 

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Emerson’s advice is classic dad: get over it and move on.  If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a good man, a good father, this is what he might tell his children: Finish every day and be done with it.

 

Miller Williams offers different advice in “For a Girl I Know About to Be a Woman.”

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Some of the advice seems a little dated, but if you substitute other offensive words for “dago” and “wop,” his counsel is sound.  He lists tell-tale signs of a loser and abuser: if a boy tries to change you, doesn’t respect you, himself or even a snake, beware.

 

Poem is on the front bumper

Poem is on the front bumper

I put James Tates’ “Father’s Day” on a golf cart.  No, I’m not accusing all fathers who golf of avoiding their families, but some do.  I remember driving by a golf course one Thanksgiving Day with my mother-in-law.  It was snowing but sure enough two men were golfing.  “Who are they hiding from?” she said wryly.

 

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The father’s invention of a fairy tale to explain his daughter’s refusal of contact is funny and heartbreaking and a much much better version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

I had to do some talking to get the next poem on an ice cream truck.  Poem and camera in hand, I surveyed the situation and realized it would be impossible to tape the poem on the truck without being noticed, so I asked the ice cream man for permission.  I explained my blog, I showed him the poem, I pointed out where I wanted to tape it.  “I don’t get it,” he said. So I read the poem to him and tried to make a connection between a father leaving a treat for his daughter by her bedside and a father who might buy an ice cream treat  (that might also stain a mouth blue) for his child.  “I still don’t get it,” he said.  I changed the subject—we talked about his home country of Tanzania and my daughter’s experiences in Cameroon—and soon he put aside his suspicions of my intent and agreed, as long as he wasn’t in the photograph, to take on the poem.  Thank you, ice cream man.

 

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This poem is pure and sweet.  The father thinks of his daughter as he hikes, plans his little present, gazes at her as she sleeps and imagines her delight as she wakes. She’s on his mind, past, present and future, the lucky child.  “For Sarah, Asleep” is by my Scottish friend Angus Martin.  I hope he gets a kick out of the trek this poem has taken and will take, should the Tanzanian ice cream man decide to leave the poem on his truck.

 

Happy Father’s Day!

 

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