Last time I did a guest stint here I wrote about poems of parenting an infant. This time I'm here to ask: Where are the poems of parenting a growing child -- perhaps a spirited and eager four-year-old? Who is writing those?
This is not an academic question. I can make the case for why and how parenthood enriches spiritual practice and creative practice, even as parenting a small child often leaves one with less time for the creative and spiritual pursuits which had previously been sources of sustenance. But where are the great poems about this moment in parenting life?
It's the very opposite of romantic or adventuresome, this parade of toaster waffles and endless PB&J sandwiches. (Of course there are orthodoxies. In our house the only acceptable option uses whole wheat bread and is cut in triangles, featuring nothing but creamy peanut butter and seedless blackberry jam, and heavens forfend we should call it "grape" by mistake.)
It could be the stuff of prose poems, I suppose: the voice yelling "boo!" in our doorway at six-thirty in the morning, then hollering hello to the moon; negotiations about pyjamas and experiments with rhythm. When he tries to curl in my lap for our nighttime lullaby, he's all angled elbows and pointy knees which don't actually fit, like my best friend's golden retriever attempting to regain the lap dog status he dimly remembers from puppyhood.
Or maybe the endless repetition lends itself to my favorite poetic form, the sestina. Day after day ending with "story," "NO!," "toys," "cartoon," "same," "now." I might have to write that sestina, actually. (Or perhaps you will. In which case, drop a comment on this post.)
In a pinch I can usually count on Naomi Shihab Nye, my first childhood poetry teacher, to deftly open up the broader possibilities in even the most mundane experience. Here:
by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world's most sensitive cargo
but he's not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream
deep inside him.
We're not going to be able
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
I love the little detail of "looking two times north and south," the imperative of "no car must splash him." And then the turn in the last six lines. Did you think this was "just" a poem about parenting? the poem murmurs to me, shaking its head.
I never expected to have a child who would refuse ethnic food -- who would, indeed, refuse most foods which aren't on a standard kids' menu at a diner. Everyone tells me these days (years?) won't last forever, but sometimes I worry that my kid will still be eating bread and cheese and sliced cucumbers when he's twenty. He could do worse, I suppose. But for now, he seems to be able to tell when I want to try to entice him to try something outside his comfort zone, and he inevitably replies with that stubborn No! The same goes for my attempts to introduce him to new books, even to poetry. If it isn't something he already knows, he's fairly certain that he doesn't want to know it.
Of course, if I ever need to feel inadequate about the things with which I'm filling my child's head -- dialogue from episodes of Nihao, Kai-Lan, the lyrics of Free to Be You and Me, the sing-song words of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom -- there's always this video of a three-year-old reciting Billy Collins' poem "Litany" by heart: