I’m trying to find the interview where Robert Hass, in speaking of his children, says something along the lines of having enjoyed having them around while he wrote. At first, I found the comment somewhere between comforting and inspiring, having a young child myself in the house as I try to write. Then, I could not help but read it as gendered, privileged experience: if he could in fact sit to write in frank enjoyment of his children being around him, it likely meant that somebody else was attending to them. I’m usually alone in our apartment when I write. What I mean by alone is that it’s just me and our three-year-old son, who I enjoy more than anybody or anything else in my life, but around whom I struggle to write, always feeling like I hardly get any writing done, but in whose company, I manage to write everything I have written in the last three years or so.
Because so much of the work of writing is sitting with, thinking about, and putting oneself in the position to write, having children around is not simply an obstacle to getting things done, but — when it comes to writers — children quite literally take time away from their parents. Moreover, because — obviously — the fact of having children has no place, cannot go into, say, a quarter earnings report or a legal brief or into a finished floor plan, but can — in fact— very much make its way into the poems, having children — for poets — does not only make the work harder, but can also change the character of one’s work.
Before our son was born, I used to write about issues, or events, or about and around social constructs and theoretical concepts, which, quite frankly, find no purchase in my present situation. And yet, back then, they seemed to be the only things worth writing about.
Nowadays I find comfort in the work of writers who write from and about circumstances like mine. I want to spend some time here with two of my favorites, poets Rachel Zucker and Craig Morgan Teicher. I will comment on a handful of poems by each writer, pulled from three of their books. Why three? Because my son is three. Because I structure my days in threes: the three class sessions I teach each day, the three types of things I do for our boy every day (clean-care-play), and the three things I look to do for my writing career on a daily basis (read a little bit, think about writing, try to get something down on the page). The books I’m pulling poems from are: Zucker’s Soundmachine (2019), The Pedestrians (2014), and Museum of Accidents (2009); and Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry (2012), The Trembling Answers (2017), and Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey (2021).
The idea for this essay arose from Zucker’s “real poem (infanticide),” which reads in full: “In poems, some poets do bad things/ to babies. This is called imagination. / I have babies and no imagination.”
Here’s my question: Is this last line a lament, or a statement of fact? I can’t help but read a level of resentment into it: some poets (get to) have imagination, whereas I as a poet have (nothing but) responsibility in the form of babies. Poems, then become what? A description, an obligatory accounting of the day. Poems become real. Another one from this series reads in full: “Woke up. First big snow making/a new light — said that/ before. Can’t write — children—/ said that. Get up:/ food, oxygen. Seen snow before.”
If I read the poems in tandem, the fact of having children seems to ruin one’s chances at both achieving a truly imaginative body of creative work and living an interesting life. Zucker here would seem to suggest that some poets, by having children, allow other poets to live more freely and fully. The latter, in turn, (mis)use this freedom to kill babies in poems. Which, contrary to falling snow, is not something most of us have seen before. The resentment, if this is indeed the principal sentiment in “real poem (infanticide),” is not directed so much toward the children who keep her from writing about anything new, but rather at her peers whose idea of the new is an affront to Zucker the poet and Zucker the parent.
In this reading, it’s hard not to view these poems as indictments. Of her non-parent peers, yes. But also, of poetry and imagination. As if creative thought and work, when untethered to one of real life’s major constraints, only produces images of grave harm and destruction. I mean, why would anyone want to do terrible things to babies. Even if it’s in a poem. Even if the poem is a product of an unbridled imagination. Even if such an imagination can only reside in the minds of people who are free — or freer — to imagine what, to anybody with a child, would be impossible. Because a poet with children, of course, can know — without having herself experienced it, thank god — the real life horror and cost of having a baby and having horrible things be done to her. The poem, if anything, is a place where such (real life) horrors can and must be kept at bay.
And so, maybe, “real poem (infanticide)” is not a lament. And I was wrong, perhaps, to (want to) read resentment into it. It is a poem about the unimaginable true-to-life costs of certain horrible possibilities. It is a poem about knowing. There are poets who know and therefore cannot (bear to) imagine certain (real life) things and there are poets who have no idea what the implications of their imagination might be. The poem is about who can write about what. Not in the sense of moral or ethical rules that should guide creative writing. But of how creativity is always tied to the particularities of human experience and therefore inevitably partial. It is a poem about the inherent unfreedom of creative acts, which for Zucker are always tied to the fact of having children but could very much be the fact of anything that a given poet has or lacks in their life. In Zucker’s poetics, the real-life constraint does not simply condition imagination, it threatens to extinguish it.
Consider this verse from her poem “The Day I Lost my Déjà vu”: “Today my beautiful child eviscerates me.” I read eviscerate not as disembowel, which, a child, likely, could not carry out. But as “depriving [the mother] of her essential content.” As such, mothering — to tend to the children — is not a routine decision, a question of, say, establishing a routine: this is the time the parent-poet has for herself, this is the time the parent-poet dedicates to her children. The poet-parent is eviscerated not because the distribution of time and responsibilities failed, but because she must tend to the children, there is no choice but to tend to the children — who are beautiful — but having to tend to them is so violent and so overwhelming that it constitutes a forceful taking of the most essential parts of parent-poet’s self. Which — one could argue — is from where the poet poets.
Eviscerate is not a term tied to an imaginative act of portraying what parenting is like. Rather, it is a term that describes what parenting implies; the toll it takes. It is, again, a commentary on the costs of having children. You are not free to imagine otherwise. You have no ‘you’ from which to imagine otherwise. What you have is the beautiful child. Everyday. Over and over again.
“And so, it is I haul my sons step after day each day so swept away by love/and terror I would sometimes rather kill us all than go on like this/ marching, marching, new, new, new, day, and when they/ are just too heavy to carry I become stronger/ than is possible and carry on.”
Here’s my question: Is it infanticide if the mother kills not the children but the family whole? Is this an act of poetic imagination or is this another piece of evidence of everyday exhaustion?
Mothering is the will to carry on. Only the phrase, as stated, is too clichéd to catch the sentiment Zucker is hinting at here. Will is too little, too late for mothering. Will, perhaps, presupposes a decision made. A mental/emotional process — however split second — the person undergoes to persist and/or pull through and/or triumph. There is no process in the long day-after-day of mothering, there is always and only the now. And now is always too late for a decision to be made. Mothering then is whatever is not possible that suddenly is: “I become stronger/than is possible and carry on.”
Other poets have imagination and so, do terrible things to children in their poems. Other poets have children and so it should not be possible for them to carry on with their lives, until they do. Not because they’re poets. But because they’re mothers. The poet part gets eviscerated from them during the day. As such, even their poems are a sort of parenting: they are borne out of what is not possible to do given all that the parent-poet has to do day in and day out.
It’s from an interview in The Paris Review. I was able to access the link during one of those special promotional events where online publications open their archives to the public. I’m going to have to pay the subscription fee if I want to quote Hass. I trust my memory, though. Full disclosure: I’ve taken to calling the dog by the boy’s name. Or by our dead dog’s name.
That’s the type of slip Craig Morgan Teicher would write a poem around. If domestic life for Zucker is an evisceration, for Teicher it’s a sort of stage show: while the poet Zucker is disappears into the parent she must be, the parent Teicher is comes to make up and take over the only poetry that is possible for him. As such, and contrary to Zucker, there is a tendency in Teicher’s poetry to try to make light of the goings on in his house, even when what is going on constitutes the very frail essence of his family life. He is a husband and a father of two. The elder child has cerebral palsy and requires around the clock care. Both parents are writers; are trying to continue to be writers. Contrary to Zucker, where the major concerns for the parent-poet center around the imaginative or creative potential to craft poems that broach the immensity of topics outside of the home, Teicher for the most part is concerned with singing a song of himself. But, of course, he can only do it in bits and pieces. This is the poet musing about his pipe smoking habit: “I read Sherlock Holmes —/ a pipe’s the right accessory for thinking writing poems.” He is riddled with guilt about it: “My son, who’ll need care, can’t afford my dying young/ of throat-rot or cancer of the tongue.”
In reading this poem against the backdrop of Zucker’s “Apartment,” where the mother compares the pain and the pleasure of having hurt her fingers practicing the guitar (“The pain made her feel young and ambitious”) with the single, solitary pain of having burned them making tortillas for her family (“It hurt for four days but gave her no pleasure”), the self — what remains of the self after having children — is again small, embodied in a ridiculous or stupid activity. From which the parent-poet derives both pleasure and pain in unequal measure. In Zucker, the pleasure from her blistered guitar playing fingers exists only in relation to the dread of the pain from the kitchen. Teicher is wrong to like smoking. Zucker is wrong to prefer the useless sting of the guitar to the necessary sting of everyday cooking. In this precise sense, both speakers are wrong in themselves. The wrongness is in reclaiming their old selves, in insisting on having a self and clinging to it on occasion.
It’s hard, though, to read Teicher’s work as a lament. There is a sense of wonderment in his poems that one does not readily find in Zucker’s poetry. The all-of-a-suddenness of parenthood for him is also — or even, first — something to marvel at. And so, there is joy — evident in the more playful — accounting of the can’t-ever-stop nature of parenting, when, he, like Zucker reflects on the overwhelming, and inevitable need to go on:
“I sleep when I can, and I can’t die./ I have never been as mortal as now. I bend low,/ my back aching and breaking under grateful weight. No matter- I’ll grow another. I have my children/ to thank for my bending body, which is born/ a hundred times each day, dying every breath.”
While I am tempted to read this difference in tone as difference in gender — there is no parenting as such, only mothering and fathering, with fathers having the privilege of wonder — the specificity of Teicher’s poetics of parenting takes precedence for me. Having lost his mother at a young age, a sense of a gift-given underlies the simple fact of being there to bear the weight of his children. The orphaned parent is happy enough that his children are not orphans yet, and so the tedium of parenthood — Zucker’s day in and day out—is infinitely better than having a parent’s remains put in a box.
Consider “A dream I never had” where the speaker imagines his dead mother pulling up in front of his house in the middle of the night to whisk him away from his wife and his children and restart the life they had growing up. Teicher writes:
“Where are we going?”// “Back, obviously, to/ redo everything better. I want to be happy this time,”// she says. “What will I do?”/ I ask. “I’m too old/ to be your son.” “We’ll see,”// she says.”
The speaker’s response is both ludicrous and true: One is never too old to be somebody’s son, but a line is crossed at some point where the last thing one is is a son. That line, in the dream-poem, is the speaker’s daughter’s voice calling for him from inside the house: “I have to check, Mom./ Wait — please,” I say, but already// the van is backing out,/ the lights recoiling.” This tension runs all through Teicher’s work: what he would do absent all other considerations regarding his life and the fact that he could not bear to be absent from his life.
In this regard, Teicher’s poems, for all their documenting of what parenthood has taken from him, there is a sense of something that is being returned—he gets is mother back in that now he has children of his own. There is utter joy in Zucker, of course, but it is the joy of the children per se, of having had them, of getting to know them, of getting to witness them becoming whoever they will be. But only to the extent that something was taken from her. In Teicher, parenthood also implies a sense of recovery; something returned.
If somebody were to ask me if I enjoy having my child around as I write, I would say that having him around is what I most enjoy about having to write.
I would be lying, of course. But also, not.
The realest poem for me, at this stage in my life, would be the one that sees my child grow up to become ________. This is Zucker witnessing her eldest son’s becoming:
“Tonight I’m cleaning baby portobellos just for you my young/ activist.// I’m wiping the dirty tops with a damp cloth as carefully as I used/ to rinse raspberries for you to adorn your fingertips before eat-/ in each blood red prize.// These days you rarely look me in the eye & your long, shagged hair hides your smile.// I don’t expect you to remember or understand the many ways/ I’ve kept you alive or the life my love for you has made me live.”
While what parenting entails far transcends the handling of baby portobellos and raspberries to feed your children, parenting always comes down to the smallest gesture that can and will go unnoticed, that can and will be misunderstood, that can and will be rejected, but that if neglected or carried out with anything else but the utmost care and attention to detail — far greater than a baby portobello or raspberry deserves — can and will harm or scar. Of course, not everybody parents this way, but the are the stakes just the same.
The poem, though, one could argue is content to glean over these feelings, but it’s only because its evocative force lies in its understated presentation of the love one has for one’s children — which is, perhaps, the only sort of loving relationship which not only does not require reciprocity, but, to a certain degree, feeds on its lack: “These days you rarely look me in the eye & your long, shagged hair hides you smile.” The speaker here is deprived not only of her son’s attention and willing engagement, but worse, is deprived of seeing — and marveling — at this being that she brought into the world. That the kid’s attitude has been normalized by the larger culture as typical adolescent behavior does not diminish the toll it can take on a parent. And still, the baby portobellos get cut. The scene is not so much quaint as worthy of hero-worship.
Here, I think, is where poetry and parenting come closest: It is true that in reading a poem one may very well notice — be struck by — the smallest of textual gestures, thus provoking in one a sense of careful appreciation for the work the poet has put into the poem, but at that point the baby portobellos have already been cleaned, the raspberries rinsed. And one as a reader ultimately has no idea the effort that went into such a gesture, much less of the real-life constraints to which the poetic recourse was tethered.
Plus, readers seldom show writers their face.
This is Teicher witnessing his children’s — and his own — becoming:
“We’ve been lucky — March is over/ and my son is still alive. My daughter/ is about to crawl. And the golden/ sunset light recalls/ distant childhood light. I feed my son while he sleeps/ through a hole in his tummy/ when the night nurse/ has the night off,/ and when I go to the mirror/ it’s to see if the ocean-eyed man/ the teenager I was had hoped to become/ is anywhere in there.”
How are cleaning baby portobellos for your shaggy-haired adolescent the same as feeding your bed-ridden seven-year-old through a plastic tube? They are the same insomuch that is what you do to keep your children healthy, alive. But, at the time, because these are two radically different acts of daily care, and because the cleaning of mushrooms — however loving a gesture — is immediately recognized and understood as uncomplicated part of regular life, the mention is enough for the poem to represent the extra-care and loving attention to detail that parenting entails. The tube to the stomach receives a more detailed mention because the poet wants to reader to focus on the particularities of the scene. Hence, the choice of ‘tummy.’ Which, sounding off from ‘tube’ in the text, generates a sense of pain and amplifies the violence of the intervention and the discomfort of both child and parent; and of the wrongness of any body young enough to have a ‘tummy’ also having a tube attached to it. Thus, in Zucker’s poem the meditation on the life of the parent ca immediately take off from the berries and mushrooms, whereas in Teicher the journey is at a slower pace: It’s harder to leave that seven year old body in the bed, with the problem of the tube — especially, since the tube is not the problem, the problem is that the boy almost died, could still die, must therefore be monitored in a way that the mother cleaning mushrooms could not even fathom. But would and could do — in a heartbeat — if the wellbeing of her children were at stake.
These are not poetics of the imagination. They are the poetics of people with babies, with babies that have gone on to become children first, then adolescents. They are the poetics of people tied to the routines and conditions of their lives — which often seem small in relation to the big issues and events of the day. They are the poetics of people whose days are terribly alike in their tedious routine; whose days of being productive writers — of living the writer’s life — are past them and they are now about the business of writing themselves further into their life — free of imagination.
What does one write about if one no longer has use of/need for the imagination? One writes about what one has. Zucker and Teicher just happen to have children.•