toddler

This is not the poem where the child comes back drowned.
He isn’t pulled out of the pond, full of silted water
as a washday sink, lips like fish, eyes unblinking.
Nor is it the poem where the child comes back maimed.
He isn’t ruined by claws or teeth, by gears or fall

ADVERTISEMENT

the way some children are we’ve read about.
He wandered off while we were in a dream
or an argument. And, like something from a dream
or a retold family story, the dogs went with him,
one on either side, as if they suddenly knew to
do something other than steal roasts from the counter.
So this is a happy poem, full of relief and only a little shame.

Maybe he only went to see the cows or followed
a dragonfly, or was enthralled by the mystery

ADVERTISEMENT

of the barn that sits like bones in the meadow.
He’s been walking now for longer than he hasn’t.
He walked young—nine months, ten. It has always
seemed there’s somewhere he is meant to be.
We’ve caught up to him at the greenhouse
and across the stream, past the silo and beyond
the landing strip. He always comes back
willing, happy, even grateful; how can we scold him?
No wolf has seized him; he seems unchanged,
like nothing he has overheard has yet to matter.

ADVERTISEMENT

© by Gabriel Fried. Printed by permission of the author.

Gabriel Fried is the author of Making the New Lamb Take (Sarabande, 2007), as well as poems in recent issues of The Kenyon Review and Lumberyard. He is poetry editor at Persea Books, and currently teaches at the University of Missouri.

Arts & Academe’s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:

“We haven’t all had the good fortune to be ladies,” wrote Mark Twain, “we haven’t all been generals, or poets, or statesmen, but when the toast comes down to the babies, we all stand on common ground.”

Although sometimes difficult to believe of others and of ourselves, all adults were once children. And though the child may be father of the man, as Wordsworth exults in his Prelude, what becomes of that lost child each adult once was? Where is he or she? How to believe in that alien entity, all rootless milk teeth and ignorance and curiosity and dimples where knuckles eventually will be? Has he or she been exiled or vanished, even banished, into willed oblivion? Or reconstructed with an often terrible nostalgia through that supreme fiction, memory, perhaps aided by family mythology, photographs, or videotape?

ADVERTISEMENT

What is the relationship between that very young person, that small body, that incipient “self”—primal, new to language, imperfectly and figuratively constructing the world—that other—and the discreet, coherent adult “self” to which we must, to keep anarchy at bay, adhere? Perhaps in contemplating our own child selves, we are, as Samuel Becket muses in his essay on Proust, “present at [our] own absence.” We are, and yet at the same time are not, both ourselves and other. Thus all of our stories about childhood must, finally, be narratives, fictions, of our becoming. And our sense of what is at stake in this recounting becomes all the more acute in the engagements between parents and their offspring.

The poet Gabriel Fried has a gift for articulating the experience of childhood with neither defensiveness nor condescension. His poems explore the ways in which children’s relationships to the world—to objects, language, experience—are like those of the poet: metaphorical, fabular, primal, with a strong whiff of pre- and post-Lapsarian darkness and wonder.

“Ends Well,” narrated by an adult, presumably a parent of the child in the poem, is built of two 12-line stanzas whose five-stress lines lend a rhetorical momentum and the sturdiness of a Rorschach inkblot to this poem of almost Freudian adult yearning, childhood reverie, and culpability. We learn from line one that “[t]his is not the poem where the child comes back drowned. / He isn’t pulled out of the pond, full of silted water / as a washday sink, lips like fish, eyes unblinking.” He has not been maimed or ruined. He hasn’t fallen or in any other way been harmed “the way some children are we’ve read about.” Instead, the child in this poem has “wandered off” while the adults in his world were “in a dream / or an argument.” The boy sets out, accompanied by the family dogs, “one on either side.” Yet he has slipped away in a lapse of adult vigilance. While this is “a happy poem,” then, it is also concerned with the response of the speaker, rendered as “full of relief and only a little shame.”

That “shame,” deemed diminutive, ends the first stanza but lingers, hovering over stanza two, in which the particularity fresh imagining of his child’s experience,

Maybe he only went to see the cows or followed
a dragonfly, or was enthralled by the mystery

ADVERTISEMENT

of the barn that sits like bones in the meadow,

brings the identities of our adult speaker and his boy subject very close to one another. Though the boy is clearly the offspring of the “we” who, earlier, were caught up in their self-absorbing adult dramas, and who must continuously “[catch] up to him at the green house / and across the stream, past the silo and beyond / the landing strip,” it is also obvious that the speaker empathizes deeply with this little gypsy: “He’s been walking now for longer than he hasn’t. / He walked young – nine months, ten. It has always / seemed there’s somewhere he is meant to be.”

Home, the body of the parent, is the place from which we commence. And commence we must. It is one thing to make those initial forays, unprepared, innocent, and, if we are lucky, protected by the felicities of fate. It’s quite another to watch our younger selves, or worse, our children, start out and zag away from the zone of the familiar, having already traversed ourselves through the harrowing thresholds and gauntlet of childhood and adolescence. Yet our speaker seems seized by magical thinking with regard to his peripatetic child, a perspective perhaps brought on by the dissociation of his own adult preoccupations (fantasizing, marital argument) and symbiotic connection to the boy. “He always comes back,” he says, “willing, happy, even grateful; how can we scold him?”

At this point, we realize that the parents in this poem, obviously well intentioned and clearly smitten with their progeny, might nonetheless be attempting to reassure themselves about their own parental vagrancy, distinguished from the son’s innocent wanderings by the tinge of adult responsibility. “No wolf has seized him,” they offer, evoking fairy tales, as though in self defense. Yet the last lines, “[H]e seems unchanged, / like nothing he has overheard has yet to matter,” reveal the speaker’s awareness that there may well be things that this child has heard which he does not yet comprehend but that one day may matter to him very much. What parent or guardian has not felt this wish to shield his or her charges from adult complexity, chagrin, and difficulty, especially from that vulnerability engendered by the very adults who are meant to be the protectors?

“Ends Well” insists upon the happy ending of a fairy tale. But the poem offers the darkness of tale and myth, as well. Beckett says of Proust’s obliteration of Time in the service of wishing that “the experience is at once imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and a direct perception, real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the ideal real, the essential, the extratemporal.” The boy in “Ends Well” is ecstatically out of time while at the same time already caught in its currents; the poem reveals the adults in his world to be in a parallel but not identical predicament. Fried creates for his young subject a kind of brief eternity, of which the adults may take only a conditional and culpable share, a complicity of other and self made possible inimitably through art, through poems.

ADVERTISEMENT

(Photo by Flickr user shane o mac)