A boy called “the Bernhard” in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower responds to an older sibling’s nostalgic recollection of childhood — “I should prefer us all to be children […] then we should have a kingdom of our own” — with a wry comment: “That is not at all my experience.”
Childhood is a flood subject for many writers, perhaps because children, experiencing so many “firsts” with incomplete knowledge, inspire primal, mythic thinking in older persons, enabling them to see the world in new ways. Rainer Maria Rilke considered childhood and dreams to be the two inexhaustible wellsprings of poetry. Childhood can be a realm of daring and fear, innocence and violence, cruelty and kindness, freedom and a profound vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the adult world. As Wordsworth writes of boyhood in his autobiographical The Prelude, we grow up “fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”
In Making the New Lamb Take (chosen by Michael Ryan for Sarabande’s Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published in 2007), and even more strikingly in The Children Are Reading, Gabriel Fried situates himself in the lineage of the poets of childhood, including Wordsworth, William Blake, Christina Rossetti, Rilke, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Howard Nemerov, Robert Hayden, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Laid out in conversational iambic lines well suited to the perambulations of Fried’s wandering subjects — children who trespass, transgress boundaries, and sometimes simply disappear — the poems in The Children Are Reading flicker with pluck, audacity, wonder, and danger. “I’m a child,” a speaker scolds, “You think / that I’m a metaphor, that you can / learn something from me.” Indeed, the children in these poems resist and confound any adult attempts to oversimplify them. These “little god[s],” as Fried calls them, play at being orphaned, perform magic tricks, concoct potions (“They hold it to / the wind to hex it. / They hold it to / their lips to test it”), and occasionally teem with ferality. “They’ve become,” Fried writes in “Pan,” “the rivals we forgot we had, / — their nails clotted with muck and rust — // untended, cloven, aroused.”
Attracted again and again to the things adults have “warned them about,” these rogue figures are often “in the stable of their own kidnapping” (“The Children are Reading”) or
stag[ing] a play of their own making,
their roles a weird assortment of future and past
lives: landlord, hypnotist, postmaster, pioneer,
forest ranger, reporter, and mother superior (“Summer Stock”)
The latter poem ends with the adults watching from the audience, wondering about the play’s ending as the children duck behind their rigged-up shower curtain:
Will the reporter, undercover, expose all?
Will the postmaster release the confiscated package?
The curtain closes at the end of the act, and we sit dutifully
beneath the moon, eager for resolution,
but the children don’t come back.
Part of the genius of this collection is the way Fried implicates adults as active participants in the “story” of childhood. In “Landscape with Model Trains,” a war veteran who has earned a Purple Heart also plays with a childhood toy, making “a little / world within / the little world / beneath the sky- / light in the attic.” In “Alice Meets Peter,” Fried brings together two iconic emblems of childhood in their adulthood, 80-year-old Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s Alice) and 35-year-old Peter Llewelyn Davies (the inspiration for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan): “They’ve never been the stories of themselves; / no one is, but these two least of all. Who escapes / the fetishes of childhood that others make?” A series of imagined “Unpublished Tales of Beatrix Potter” is wickedly funny (imagine a drunken, sartorially sullied Ermine or a cross-dressing rooster, Gallus Cockadoodle, or the poisoned Doctor Julian Jackal!). A lonely butcher who lives with his unmarried sisters wanders the woods in his bloody apron, tenderly searching and collecting morels for a woman he hardly knows (“She’s almost entirely his / creation”). And the “Lizard Queen” —
Her hair’s let loose where the castle wall plummets
to slide through the fists of those who dare try climbing.
She is coax and she is antidote. She is lingual and slither.
She is edged yet curved as wind engorging a sail.
She is a model that was never drawn to scale —
is downright sexy.
Whether speaking as a child, or as a parent or other adult, the sadness, longing, wanderlust, and wonder in these poems is conveyed with great power, thanks to Fried’s exquisite control of line and diction. Of childhood, he writes that as adults “our backs may be to it.” What becomes of the children we once were? It is an ancient question, and one to which Fried intuits an answer in “The Story”:
The story had slid inside me;
I could feel its end
(who can tell head from tail?)
latched against me, hooked
to my anus and nostrils, so that
when I moved or even thought
of moving it pulled me
to myself, opening me
to every intensity.
Like a powerful story, childhood takes up residence within us; when we allow ourselves to feel its force — as old as the amnion and the primordial soup — we open “to every intensity.”
If Gabriel Fried suffuses the prelapsarian kingdom of childhood with a strong whiff of the postlapsarian, Morín animates his turf — the emotional topography of very adult heartbreak and lovesickness — with scenarios whimsical and fabular.
The blue impossibilities of romantic love — sustained hope, perpetual fulfillment — and in particular the protracted periods “spent sobbing and roaring, promising the end // of the end of love” (“Weekend Home”), are approached with a mix of ironic humor, untouchable rue, and chagrin. A delicious, sorrowful, “saudade”-yeasted mistral blows through most of the poems. In “Circus Pony,” the speaker recounts the endgame of a love affair, the days in which
that took an hour to apply turned grave
or the look you wore, sadder than any clown’s
in the rain, that was my cue to knit my brow
and continue fumbling with the three-sizes-too-small
hammer you handed me so I could once more fix
the swaybacked rocking horse we purchased
to ward off an unspoken future in which we
are continents apart, surrounded by our hungry
new families as we slice and dismantle
the same braised roast and lament how
we could have let hope stray, how the story
of our lives might have been different
if it had contained, however lame, something
we could have ridden into the sunset on.
In this poem and others, Morín is very aware of the clichés of idealized love, and he plays with them with intelligent irony. He also takes care never to demonize his speakers’ lovers and always to implicate his speakers themselves in the foibles of any passion’s play. In the book’s title poem, he wonders “about the source of our disease / and whose teeth first tore the heart after Adam / and Eve left the garden.” In “Love Train,” which is a Saturnalian paean to Love itself, a dyslexic, well-intentioned speaker, whose literal lover has sent him out of their sleeper car in search of “Earl Grey cookies / sandwiched around buttercream or marshmallows / made of chocolate,” returns with “pretzels, / the snack you wanted least”: “[A]ll the tea bags had been dunked / and the chocolate melted over biscotti.” Bearing his “salted and twisted news,” the narrator becomes hopelessly lost, unable to find his own room (“numbers have betrayed me again / while I was hunting and gathering”), and as a result he makes his way through “every door / marked with threes and eights, those conjoined twins / disastrously separated at birth.” In doing so, he intrudes on just about every kind of love scenario imaginable. The poem, by sleights of dream logic, ends with the lovers reuniting “in a café / in a city we didn’t know,” and then setting forth on a “road, we were told, / [that] would take us to the end of the line / where all lovers in search of joy / packed on bullet trains — they’re the fastest / on two continents — arrive every hour.”
There is no experience beyond the pale of Morín’s sense of tender pathos — a father’s dying days, a nudist colony where the model in an art class is the only person wearing clothes, the NASA Voyager spinning through space with its golden record of Blind Willie Johnson singing against gravity and “[across] the peacock-black / of galaxies […] // [knowing] the blues are always about love / gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend / years saying we can’t live without and then do.” The book contains an elegy for his soul-sister poet Ai, and a poem called “The Food Critic,” which explores the kinship between the titular profession and the lots of the poet, poetry critic, and lover:
For the masses, I dine
on both the good and the bad. In Reno
I ate a street bird — pigeon,
I think it was — that tasted like tobacco, with dry brown rice
and just-picked beans fresh
enough to pop between your teeth.
Once, I sliced a rib eye
in Omaha, bone-out, so tender
it blinked like a cat.
This is the kingdom
we have inherited. Happiness
is a solemn slice of black-tie cake
waiting in every hotel room,
while grief is missing the pyramids
of donut burgers and Twinkies
after your funeral. And love,
well, love is still the first law
of the land
because what else is a double scoop
of bacon ice cream
if not a monument to self-love?
Now, every poet is a love poet,
which should be cause for celebration
because every editorial, column, and review
is now a love letter, a valentine […]
Both Gabriel Fried and Tomás Q. Morín work with easily oversimplified poetic materials — love, grief, happiness, childhood, innocence — in new, complexly engaged and engaging ways. At the end of Morín’s “Little Road,” the speaker could as well be one of Fried’s wise children — or any one of us:
[…] I only have to wander into any market,
spread my arms, and wait for the crowd
to blow me so many kisses
with every r and l and w they speak
that I look like a tree made of butterflies
at the far end of a small and bustling road
I have come to call my life.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.