Heart’s Needle

By W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009

For Cynthia

When he would not return to fine garments and good food, to his houses and his people, Loingseachan told him, “Your father is dead.” “I’m sorry to hear it,” he said. “Your mother is dead,” said the lad. “All pity for me has gone out of the world.” “Your sister, too, is dead.” “The mild sun rests on every ditch,” he said; “a sister loves even though not loved.” “Suibhne, your daughter is dead.” “And an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” “And Suibhne, your little boy, who used to call you “Daddy”—he is dead.” “Aye,” said Suibhne, “that’s the drop that brings a man to the ground.”
He fell out of the yew tree; Loingseachan closed his arms around him and placed him in manacles.

—AFTER THE MIDDLE-IRISH ROMANCE, THE MADNESS OF SUIBHNE

1
Child of my winter, born
When the new fallen soldiers froze
In Asia’s steep ravines and fouled the snows,   
When I was torn


By love I could not still,
By fear that silenced my cramped mind
To that cold war where, lost, I could not find   
My peace in my will,

All those days we could keep
Your mind a landscape of new snow
Where the chilled tenant-farmer finds, below,   
His fields asleep

In their smooth covering, white
As quilts to warm the resting bed
Of birth or pain, spotless as paper spread   
For me to write,

And thinks: Here lies my land
Unmarked by agony, the lean foot
Of the weasel tracking, the thick trapper’s boot;   
And I have planned

My chances to restrain
The torments of demented summer or   
Increase the deepening harvest here before   
It snows again.

2
    Late April and you are three; today
         We dug your garden in the yard.
    To curb the damage of your play,
Strange dogs at night and the moles tunneling,   
    Four slender sticks of lath stand guard   
         Uplifting their thin string.

    So you were the first to tramp it down.
         And after the earth was sifted close   
    You brought your watering can to drown
All earth and us. But these mixed seeds are pressed   
    With light loam in their steadfast rows.
         Child, we’ve done our best.

    Someone will have to weed and spread
         The young sprouts. Sprinkle them in the hour   
    When shadow falls across their bed.
You should try to look at them every day   
    Because when they come to full flower
         I will be away.

3
The child between them on the street   
Comes to a puddle, lifts his feet
    And hangs on their hands. They start   
At the live weight and lurch together,   
Recoil to swing him through the weather,
    Stiffen and pull apart.

We read of cold war soldiers that
Never gained ground, gave none, but sat   
    Tight in their chill trenches.
Pain seeps up from some cavity
Through the ranked teeth in sympathy;   
    The whole jaw grinds and clenches

Till something somewhere has to give.   
It’s better the poor soldiers live
    In someone else’s hands
Than drop where helpless powers fall   
On crops and barns, on towns where all   
    Will burn. And no man stands.

For good, they sever and divide
Their won and lost land. On each side   
    Prisoners are returned
Excepting a few unknown names.   
The peasant plods back and reclaims   
    His fields that strangers burned

And nobody seems very pleased.
It’s best. Still, what must not be seized   
    Clenches the empty fist.
I tugged your hand, once, when I hated   
Things less: a mere game dislocated   
    The radius of your wrist.

Love’s wishbone, child, although I’ve gone   
As men must and let you be drawn   
    Off to appease another,
It may help that a Chinese play
Or Solomon himself might say
    I am your real mother.

4
         No one can tell you why   
    the season will not wait;
         the night I told you I
must leave, you wept a fearful rate   
             to stay up late.

         Now that it’s turning Fall,   
    we go to take our walk
         among municipal
flowers, to steal one off its stalk,   
             to try and talk.

         We huff like windy giants
    scattering with our breath   
         gray-headed dandelions;
Spring is the cold wind's aftermath.
             The poet saith.

         But the asters, too, are gray,
    ghost-gray. Last night’s cold   
         is sending on their way
petunias and dwarf marigold,
             hunched sick and old.

         Like nerves caught in a graph,   
    the morning-glory vines
         frost has erased by half
still scrawl across their rigid twines.   
             Like broken lines

         of verses I can’t make.
    In its unraveling loom
         we find a flower to take,
with some late buds that might still bloom,   
             back to your room.

         Night comes and the stiff dew.   
    I’m told a friend’s child cried   
         because a cricket, who
had minstreled every night outside   
             her window, died.

5
Winter again and it is snowing;   
Although you are still three,   
You are already growing
Strange to me.

You chatter about new playmates, sing   
Strange songs; you do not know   
Hey ding-a-ding-a-ding
Or where I go

Or when I sang for bedtime, Fox
Went out on a chilly night,
Before I went for walks
And did not write;

You never mind the squalls and storms   
That are renewed long since;
Outside the thick snow swarms
Into my prints

And swirls out by warehouses, sealed,   
Dark cowbarns, huddled, still,
Beyond to the blank field,
The fox’s hill

Where he backtracks and sees the paw,   
Gnawed off, he cannot feel;
Conceded to the jaw
Of toothed, blue steel.

6
         Easter has come around
    again; the river is rising
         over the thawed ground
    and the banksides. When you come you bring   
         an egg dyed lavender.
    We shout along our bank to hear
our voices returning from the hills to meet us.   
    We need the landscape to repeat us.

         You lived on this bank first.
    While nine months filled your term, we knew
         how your lungs, immersed
    in the womb, miraculously grew
         their useless folds till
    the fierce, cold air rushed in to fill
them out like bushes thick with leaves. You took your hour,   
    caught breath, and cried with your full lung power.

         Over the stagnant bight
    we see the hungry bank swallow
         flaunting his free flight
    still; we sink in mud to follow
         the killdeer from the grass
    that hides her nest. That March there was
rain; the rivers rose; you could hear killdeers flying   
    all night over the mudflats crying.

         You bring back how the red-
    winged blackbird shrieked, slapping frail wings,   
         diving at my head—
    I saw where her tough nest, cradled, swings   
         in tall reeds that must sway
    with the winds blowing every way.
If you recall much, you recall this place. You still   
    live nearby—on the opposite hill.

         After the sharp windstorm
    of July Fourth, all that summer
         through the gentle, warm
    afternoons, we heard great chain saws chirr
         like iron locusts. Crews
    of roughneck boys swarmed to cut loose
branches wrenched in the shattering wind, to hack free   
    all the torn limbs that could sap the tree.

         In the debris lay
    starlings, dead. Near the park’s birdrun
         we surprised one day
    a proud, tan-spatted, buff-brown pigeon.
         In my hands she flapped so
    fearfully that I let her go.
Her keeper came. And we helped snarl her in a net.   
    You bring things I’d as soon forget.

         You raise into my head
    a Fall night that I came once more
         to sit on your bed;
    sweat beads stood out on your arms and fore-
         head and you wheezed for breath,
    for help, like some child caught beneath
its comfortable woolly blankets, drowning there.   
    Your lungs caught and would not take the air.

         Of all things, only we
    have power to choose that we should die;   
             nothing else is free
    in this world to refuse it. Yet I,
         who say this, could not raise   
    myself from bed how many days
to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,   
    another child. We try to choose our life.

7
Here in the scuffled dust
    is our ground of play.
I lift you on your swing and must   
    shove you away,
see you return again,
    drive you off again, then

stand quiet till you come.
    You, though you climb   
higher, farther from me, longer,
    will fall back to me stronger.   
Bad penny, pendulum,
    you keep my constant time

to bob in blue July
    where fat goldfinches fly
over the glittering, fecund   
    reach of our growing lands.
Once more now, this second,
    I hold you in my hands.

8
I thumped on you the best I could   
         which was no use;
you would not tolerate your food   
until the sweet, fresh milk was soured   
         with lemon juice.

That puffed you up like a fine yeast.
    The first June in your yard
like some squat Nero at a feast
you sat and chewed on white, sweet clover.   
         That is over.

When you were old enough to walk   
         we went to feed
the rabbits in the park milkweed;   
saw the paired monkeys, under lock,   
    consume each other's salt.

Going home we watched the slow   
stars follow us down Heaven’s vault.
You said, let’s catch one that comes low,
         pull off its skin
    and cook it for our dinner.

    As absentee bread-winner,
I seldom got you such cuisine;
we ate in local restaurants
or bought what lunches we could pack   
         in a brown sack

with stale, dry bread to toss for ducks   
    on the green-scummed lagoons,   
crackers for porcupine and fox,
life-savers for the footpad coons   
         to scour and rinse,

snatch after in their muddy pail   

    and stare into their paws.
When I moved next door to the jail   
         I learned to fry
omelettes and griddlecakes so I

could set you supper at my table.   
As I built back from helplessness,   
         when I grew able,
the only possible answer was   
    you had to come here less.

This Hallowe’en you come one week.   
         You masquerade
    as a vermilion, sleek,
fat, crosseyed fox in the parade   
or, where grim jackolanterns leer,

go with your bag from door to door   
foraging for treats. How queer:
    when you take off your mask
my neighbors must forget and ask
         whose child you are.

Of course you lose your appetite,   
    whine and won’t touch your plate;   
         as local law
I set your place on an orange crate   
in your own room for days. At night

you lie asleep there on the bed   
         and grate your jaw.
Assuredly your father’s crimes   
         are visited
on you. You visit me sometimes.

The time’s up. Now our pumpkin sees   
    me bringing your suitcase.
         He holds his grin;
the forehead shrivels, sinking in.
You break this year’s first crust of snow

off the runningboard to eat.
    We manage, though for days
I crave sweets when you leave and know   
they rot my teeth. Indeed our sweet
         foods leave us cavities.

9
    I get numb and go in
though the dry ground will not hold
    the few dry swirls of snow   
and it must not be very cold.   
A friend asks how you’ve been
         and I don’t know

    or see much right to ask.
Or what use it could be to know.
    In three months since you came   
the leaves have fallen and the snow;   
your pictures pinned above my desk
         seem much the same.

    Somehow I come to find
myself upstairs in the third floor   
    museum’s halls,
walking to kill my time once more   
among the enduring and resigned   
         stuffed animals,

    where, through a century’s
caprice, displacement and
    known treachery between
its wars, they hear some old command   
and in their peaceable kingdoms freeze   
         to this still scene,

    Nature Morte. Here
by the door, its guardian,
    the patchwork dodo stands
where you and your stepsister ran   
laughing and pointing. Here, last year,   
         you pulled my hands

    and had your first, worst quarrel,   
so toys were put up on your shelves.   
    Here in the first glass cage
the little bobcats arch themselves,   
still practicing their snarl
         of constant rage.

    The bison, here, immense,   
shoves at his calf, brow to brow,   
    and looks it in the eye
to see what is it thinking now.   
I forced you to obedience;
         I don’t know why.

    Still the lean lioness
beyond them, on her jutting ledge   
    of shale and desert shrub,
stands watching always at the edge,   
stands hard and tanned and envious   
         above her cub;

    with horns locked in tall heather,   
two great Olympian Elk stand bound,   
    fixed in their lasting hate
till hunger brings them both to ground.   
Whom equal weakness binds together   
    none shall separate.

    Yet separate in the ocean
of broken ice, the white bear reels
    beyond the leathery groups   
of scattered, drab Arctic seals   
arrested here in violent motion
    like Napoleon’s troops.

    Our states have stood so long
at war, shaken with hate and dread,   
    they are paralyzed at bay;
once we were out of reach, we said,   
we would grow reasonable and strong.   
         Some other day.

    Like the cold men of Rome,
we have won costly fields to sow
    in salt, our only seed.   
Nothing but injury will grow.
I write you only the bitter poems
         that you can’t read.

    Onan who would not breed
a child to take his brother’s bread   
    and be his brother’s birth,
rose up and left his lawful bed,   
went out and spilled his seed   
         in the cold earth.

    I stand by the unborn,
by putty-colored children curled
    in jars of alcohol,
that waken to no other world,   
unchanging, where no eye shall mourn.   
         I see the caul

    that wrapped a kitten, dead.
I see the branching, doubled throat   
    of a two-headed foal;
I see the hydrocephalic goat;
here is the curled and swollen head,   
         there, the burst skull;

    skin of a limbless calf;
a horse’s foetus, mummified;
    mounted and joined forever,   
the Siamese twin dogs that ride   
belly to belly, half and half,
         that none shall sever.

    I walk among the growths,
by gangrenous tissue, goiter, cysts,   
    by fistulas and cancers,
where the malignancy man loathes   
is held suspended and persists.
         And I don’t know the answers.

    The window’s turning white.
The world moves like a diseased heart   
    packed with ice and snow.
Three months now we have been apart   
less than a mile. I cannot fight
         or let you go.

10
The vicious winter finally yields   
    the green winter wheat;
the farmer, tired in the tired fields   
    he dare not leave, will eat.

Once more the runs come fresh; prevailing   
    piglets, stout as jugs,
harry their old sow to the railing
    to ease her swollen dugs

and game colts trail the herded mares
    that circle the pasture courses;   
our seasons bring us back once more
    like merry-go-round horses.

With crocus mouths, perennial hungers,   
    into the park Spring comes;
we roast hot dogs on old coat hangers
    and feed the swan bread crumbs,

pay our respects to the peacocks, rabbits,   
    and leathery Canada goose
who took, last Fall, our tame white habits   
    and now will not turn loose.

In full regalia, the pheasant cocks
    march past their dubious hens;
the porcupine and the lean, red fox
    trot around bachelor pens

and the miniature painted train   
    wails on its oval track:
you said, I’m going to Pennsylvania!   
    and waved. And you’ve come back.

If I loved you, they said I’d leave   
    and find my own affairs.
Well, once again this April, we’ve   
    come around to the bears;

punished and cared for, behind bars,
    the coons on bread and water
stretch thin black fingers after ours.
    And you are still my daughter.

W.D. Snodgrass, “Heart’s Needle” from Selected Poems, 1957-1987 (New York: Soho Press, 1987). Copyright © 1987 by W.D. Snodgrass. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Selected Poems 1957-1987 (1987)

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Poet W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects Pets, History & Politics, Youth, War & Conflict, Time & Brevity, Birth & Birthdays, Death, Parenthood, Living, Relationships, Social Commentaries

Occasions Birth, Birthdays

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Mixed, Confessional

 W. D. Snodgrass

Biography

W. D. Snodgrass is often credited with being one of the founding members of the "confessional" school of poetry, even though he dislikes the term confessional and does not regard his work as such. Nevertheless, his Pulitzer Prize-winning first collection, Heart's Needle, has had a tremendous impact on that particular facet of contemporary poetry. "Like other confessional poets, Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Pets, History & Politics, Youth, War & Conflict, Time & Brevity, Birth & Birthdays, Death, Parenthood, Living, Relationships, Social Commentaries

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Mixed, Confessional

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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