The following was written a little while ago but it feels right to post it today. There are other people who have left their poetry with me – including Rick, who taught me the Browning beginning “Grr! There you go, my heart’s abhorrence!” and Carlynn, whose copy of Don Juan I still have (I didn’t steal it! She had sold it to Powell’s in Hyde Park). Then, of course, there are those who are themselves poems.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the day my mother died, and I’ve been thinking about her. In particular, I find myself conjuring up her voice when she recited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s My candle burns at both ends/ It shall not last the night/ But, oh my foes and ah my friends/ It gives such a lovely light. I believe this is a slight misquotation, actually, but my mother had a talent for embellishment, and it is her voice I am hearing more than Millay’s. I took hearing this sort of thing as a matter of course and it was years before it occurred to me that most people aren’t prone to breaking into scraps of poetry. You could hear her admiration for the poem and the poet especially in the last line. She put on no airs when poetry broke from her; didn’t stand up straighter or put her shoulders back; she did it almost without thought, as some people whistle or talk to themselves when doing a job of work.
My father knew a great deal of poetry too, but it came when he summoned it in conversation or when it would add to or illustrate something he wrote; it didn’t often come of its own will to him as it did to my mother. (He did recite some set pieces to his three children when we were all very young, but usually once we’d been put to bed for the night. Perhaps he hoped the two year old whom he was keeping company would be so stunned by hearing the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth suddenly performed that we’d forget our vigilance and be surprised by sleep. After he had died, though, I found some he had written.) When I find myself muttering “Just for a handful of silver he sold us!” while washing dishes or warning fellow commuters that “Clay lies still but blood’s a rover/ Breath’s a ware that will not keep/ Up now! When the journey’s over/ Time enough there’ll be to sleep.” I am simply being my mother’s son; when I pause to reflect that why I do this, I am my father’s.