An alien crowd of nurses, residents, attending physicians, and machines and carts careened and hummed everywhere around his wife. If she had needed her husband during her labor, if she had hopes of counting on him, well, as usual, he was completely useless. Oh, he’d taken the birthing classes, worried himself crazy, and had tried to be attentive for months. It was no use. In the end, apart from a few ice chips he fed her on cue, she was on her own again, struggling with absolute physical and spiritual courage, getting things done because nobody else was going to do them.
Watching helplessly and unhelpfully as she went through her labor, he kept thinking of those urban legends in which a mother finds, miraculously, the strength to lift an automobile to get her child out of danger. And so, thanks to this kind of courageousness, their only child was born, from strength and sheer resolve. Somehow in all the uncomfortable maze, glare, and welter, a nurse found him cowering in the corner by a cart. Everything was moving fast; he found it hard to keep up with what was going on, with what he was even thinking. Above all, he was crying, crying a lot, something he had really never done before. It surprised him almost as much as the unfathomable process of childbirth. A nurse took him by the crook of the arm. She stuck the odd, unbalanced eyes of a sleek, gleaming surgical pair of scissors into his shaking, damp hand without even looking to see where his fingers were and said, no doubt having said it many, many times before, “Dad? You want to cut the umbilical cord?” And this is what he answered:
If the word “sure” has anything to do with certainty, it’s a funny business that a man can say it when he’s least certain.
One of my favorite poets is Delmore Schwartz, and one of my favorite poems by him is a sonnet, “The Beautiful American Word, Sure.”
The beautiful American word, Sure,
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,
As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.
Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,
And hope for day when the whole world has that grace:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.
There can be no doubt but that at the instant of the cutting, the brand-new dad in my vignette had a feeling exactly like what Delmore describes in the first stanza of his poem: something would have switched on in him, after which light bloomed. After all the months of uncertainty during our couple's pregnancy—the worry and stress—there was now, and maybe just for now, certainty.
The second stanza is too complex to manhandle, and too delicately built for the crudities of armchair lit-crit. Yet that gorgeous line, “The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear,” occurs just past the poem’s midpoint. And it leads to a place where life gets shorter, to a place in the poem in which the quatrains rush into tercets because time is going to run out, something all parents feel keenly. Nevertheless, it’s a place “where the light is, and each thing clear,/separate from all others, standing in its place. . . .” One of the many chaotic things that happen during a birth is an alternation of the sense of time. On the one hand, waiting, and plenty of it; on the other, things go by so fast, you scarcely feel present in any moment. You take in what you can take in: “I drink the time and touch whatever’s near . . . ”—your wife, your new baby, your in-laws arriving just late enough to have missed the crowning—“And hope for the day when the whole world has that face,” the innocent, wanting face of a baby.
It is often, if not usually the case, that a man has never had “sufficient grace” until he sees a woman give birth, and meets his son or daughter for the first time, under the certain and steadying guidance of a stronger presence. Readers of poetry are very blessed this way. Even at the other end of our lives, we can fortify ourselves by recalling Dante's guide, Virgil, and then his beloved Beatrice, ferrying him into a new life, a new world. Each langauge, each poetry has its own beauty and wisdom. But I don’t know what word exists in other languages for the assent and faith, right in the heart of doubt, that is spelled out in the beautiful American word, sure.
Ours is a word rhymed, in Delmore Schwartz’s poem, with these kindred words: care, dear, clear, near, year. No dictionary of any language in the world will tell me (and believe me, I’ve searched) all the things that “sure” can possibly mean. But a poem, with its family of rhymes and little nervous miracles, gives a reader just about everything he needs to be more sure of himself, and of those around him.
-- Don Share
Pictured: Delmore Schwartz and Mr. and Mrs. James Agee, on their way!