One afternoon, a month or so ago, I lay on my bed, my not-quite-two-year-old son tucked between my arm and body, reading poetry aloud.
Before I was sixteen / I was fast / enough to fake / my shadow out, I read.
The instructor said, / Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I pressed my lips against the feverish brow of my boy, my fingers running along the length of his arm, reading over the top of my worry. Reading because the sound had soothed him, had taken him away from the limbs of his discomfort. Reading.
Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze. / No one ever thanked him.
Sometimes he would mumble against me, wheeze a little, cough. He was exhausted – he’d been straining toward sleep for a long hour. We had walked and rocked. Been in his bed and mine. Drink a little water, I'd tried. Just close your eyes. But I wonder what it is to a very young child to feel fire and ache, to fight against a foreign, inexpressible thing. He would not give in even to slumber, and clung to me.
Should I read us some poetry? I'd said finally, a packet of poems on the nightstand.
And to my surprise, he stopped whimpering. Nodded. Sighed and let me lay him down, arrange the blankets, nuzzle in, turn the page.
Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root, / Tell me where all past years are, / Or who cleft the devil's foot, / Teach me to hear mermaids singing, / Or to keep off envy's stinging, / And find / What wind / Serves to advance an honest mind.
That's poetry, I explained.
Poe-try, he repeated, matter-of-fact, a small scholar in a tweed vest nodding his head. Poe-tree. He was sick and loose and languid, but he was also next to me, slowed down and next to me, saying a little word that filled me up with a rush of tenderness. Poe-tree. My son. Yes, my son: yes.
The time you won your town the race / We chaired you through the market-place.
I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat.
I remember leaf-huts / we built / as children: / to crawl in and sit / listening to the rain.
Poetry, I said.
And he whispered it back. Whispered, because his eyes were glassy, because he was seeing it all, the sweet and wild tonic of words, in ways that I've forgotten, no longer so young, so open, so rapid, so endless, a basin of sounds and swirling images, a white page.
I watched his eyelashes float up and down, his eyelids descending like heavy clouds. His lips parted. Out puffed a kind of sigh.
There's not much to / these poems, just / a few words piled up / at random. / Still, / I think / it's good / to make them.
It's good to make them, I whispered. And touched his hair. And kissed his palm. And wrote poems in my mind for the rest of the night.