Addled Children, Rattled Adults
Youth and Age in the September 2013 Poetry
"Things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone," notes Lemony Snicket in the September 2013 Poetry. "If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean." In this issue, Snicket—a pen name for the children's book writer Daniel Handler—has curated a portfolio of poems entitled "Poetry Not Written for Children that Children Might Nevertheless Enjoy." These poems don't patronize their readers with high-pitched squeals; instead, many blend the sweet and the sinister, with subtly disquieting results.
Think of your cat
asleep in a tree;
think of that spot
where you once skinned your knee.
Think of a big pink horse
think of a fly, and
close your mouth.
These images at once appeal and perturb: a cat slumbering in a tree sounds cute enough, yet a child might worry how his pet will get down. "That spot / where you once skinned your knee" may have healed over, but why remind a child of an injury? And wouldn't it bug the child to imagine a fly zipping into his mouth? Perhaps the eeriest element of this poem is its title: this is an auto-lullaby, a lullaby readers must sing themselves because their parents are, for whatever reason, absent.
Zachary Schomburg's "The One About the Robbers" is similarly haunting. The title promises a joke; fittingly, the poem—like many jokes—is both funny and dark. The speaker reminisces about how, when he was a child, his father used to toss him over a shoulder:
I’ve got a sack of potatoes he would yell, spinning around in a circle, the arm not holding me reaching out for a sale. Does anyone want to buy my sack of potatoes? No one ever wanted to buy me. We were always the only two people in the room.
The scene seems pleasant, just as Wright's lullaby does: father and son, alone in a room, playing a familiar game. Their privacy reminds the child that the father's cry is not real; he is not actually for sale. Yet the routine has a disconcerting undercurrent: a father who spins his child in a circle, holding him by only one arm, yelling, seems menacing; and his joke reduces the speaker into a sack of potatoes—that tasteless, basic food—that no one even wants to buy. It's as though parents, having created their children once, have the capacity to recreate them however they like.
A more overtly terrifying parental figure appears in Ava Leavell Haymon's "The Witch Has Told You a Story": "Fatten up," the witch tells Gretel, "and I will like you better." This revision of Hansel and Gretel has the witch giving instructions to Gretel, who will feed Hansel until
his vigilance, an ice pick of hunger
pricking his insides, will melt
in the unctuous cream fillings.
He will forget. He will thank you
for it. His little finger stuck every day
through cracks in the bars
will grow sleek and round,
his hollow face swell
like the moon. He will stop dreaming
about fear in the woods without food.
Like Schomburg and Wright, Haymon seasons sweetness with fear; these stanzas horrify partly because they present such a precise perversion of parental instincts. Providing sustenance, ensuring weight gain, easing anxieties, encouraging one sibling to feed the other—all of these goals would seem quite reputable, if they weren't geared toward fattening up a child for dinner. Note that Haymon narrates her poem from the perspective of the witch, turning her readers into Gretels. What's the effect of this choice? Does this poem serve as a metaphor for a dessert, intended, with its delectable images and wording ("hollow face swell // like the moon"), to entrance us into sympathy with the poet?
If Schomburg, Wright, and Haymon portray the terrifying nuances of parenting, Meghan O'Rourke's "Sun In Days"—which appears outside of Snicket's selection—examines a parent's ability to defuse terror:
At night the bomb mushrooming over the Statue of Liberty, white
blinding everywhere. Oh, she said, don’t worry
just a dream just a dream.
Everyone is scared of Russia.
Imagine she laughed We used to
have to hide under our desks!
As a child, the speaker experienced a nightmarish horror—a nuclear attack on New York—as a real possibility, and her mother comforted her, depicting even her own childhood bomb scares as something to laugh about. Yet O'Rourke's poem is overshadowed by the loss of her mother, and so this moment offers an awful irony: the mother, capable of comforting a child who fears tragedy, will herself be taken by tragedy. When her daughter needs solace as an adult, the mother will no longer be available to provide it.
Such sorrows may motivate the briefest poem in Snicket's portfolio, by Graham Foust:
And the Ghosts
They own everything.
What are the ghosts? Are they our parents as we once knew them? Ourselves as we once were? The places and experiences of our childhood, or even of yesterday? Are they, indeed, everything?