Poets Online Archive

childhood memory

"On the Death of Friends in Childhood" is one of Donald Justice's memory poems from his book New & Selected Poems which was nominated for the Pulitzer and National Book Awards.

In the poem, he imagines meeting the childhood friends who died young and how they will always be young - not bearded or bald. What memories do we seek "there in the shadows"? Are they of dark things, things caught between dark and light, or are all memories there?

Write a poem which addresses the idea of something from childhood that will remain, in memory, the same for you. It need not be a person who you lost or a person at all. In whatever you choose as your starting point, take note of how Justice in this short poem considers the time & place of their meeting, what they might be doing and even how his memory of those "very names we have forgotten" shows the change in himself.

Other poems on Childhood, Youth, and Innocence that you may want to read for this prompt.

Donald Justice (1925 – 2004) was an American teacher of writing and poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1980. In summing up Justice's career, David Orr wrote, "In most ways, Justice was no different from any number of solid, quiet older writers devoted to traditional short poems. But he was different in one important sense: sometimes his poems weren't just good; they were great. They were great in the way that Elizabeth Bishop's poems were great, or Thom Gunn's or Philip Larkin's. They were great in the way that tells us what poetry used to be, and is, and will be."
Justice published thirteen collections of his poetry. The first collection, The Summer Anniversaries, was the winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize given by the Academy of American Poets in 1961; Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1980.

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The strange man is moving against her,
and I’m sick and want him to stop
doing that to my friend.
She’s hurting and fighting to get away from him.
I’ve never seen grown-up people naked,
doing what they’re doing,
like in the pictures Sammy showed me.
How did a man ever get in her house
to do this to her in a dark room in the daytime?
I rang the doorbell three times,
to show her the prize I’d won
for my story about pirates and ships,
knowing she’d be proud of me for winning.
But I’m ashamed now, after seeing her
doing all of that with a man I don’t even know,
wondering if I could ever talk to her again
and let her see the big silver dollar I’d won.
Now, my friend has a grownup man
to tell good stories, to show new things,
and do that stuff in bed that hurts people.

F. William Broome


The little girl made of air, her playing disappeared
like a fingerprint on a tree - couldn't see it - couldn't feel it -
couldn't remove it, yet its signature was imprinted, quietly clear.
The little girl made of air,

her playing disappeared in the forest, in the trees
by the road by the sea. Some say she had a secret place -
curled her pretty hair 'round her finger there.
Some say she wrote poetry,

the little girl made of air -
her playing disappeared like laughter in a jar,
yet she's imprinted in the forest, in the trees by the road
by the sea, like a signature,

like a finger curling hair.
Some say she disappeared where the sea meets the road
and the trees tease the stars, and everything, everything
is quietly clear

like a poem on a cloud made of tears.
Some say she disappeared.
Some say she was never, ever there.
Some say she was just a little girl
made of air.
I say
she's quietly clear.



At my mother’s knee I learned the TRUTH
of love thy neighbor as thyself
among all other truths

that could save my soul.
Trusting her as living Source of truth
I placed her words into my Self
and tried to live by them
in hopes to make me Whole.

I was but a child of six when truth
was challenged in my very heart
one Sunday after Mass
and walking home with Mom.

Skipping happily along, I said.
"The Priest made me feel bad today
about the orphans’ life;
so I am going to help.

"In my purse I have a dollar saved.
Perhaps that little bit will help
at least a single one
to have a bit to eat."

Then came down the thunder of her voice
(to shatter my intent; but more,
to scatter all my Faith
in what she said was Right):

"Don’t be a little fool, my silly child.
The priest was not addressing you
He spoke to those of wealth
who have much more to give!"

I have learned about The Widow’s Mite
since then. But I’ve never said
to her how wrong she’d been
to make me lose my faith
in her.

Catherine M. LeGault


April. Nothing dies in spring, I tell him,
selfishly dismissing the dimness drawing
near the corners of his silver eyes. As
always, I hunt for shelter in the crook
of his lumbering form.

In his time, my father said, he was
a rounder, a rake even, a character
out of riverboat legend. I know him
only as the leathered giant who
wakes at first light to fetch berries
for my breakfast, tightens my stirrups
as we set out for pastures dappled
with sunshine and hay, spoils me ripe
and luscious.

September. Light shortens toward the
bow. I release him to take his comfort
of the dark. I do not forgive him. Nor
will any man who follows.

Kathy Marcel

That one looked
like Ali McGraw
and that one — a round
Irish baker with flour
freckling her arms.
Mine walked old wearing
stained-glass caftans
to hide the skeleton joke
of 1970s chemo,
an ash blonde wig
hiding a hairless child’s skull—
impostor on a grown
woman’s body.

Big death brings big life
to poems and to pain.
If it happens fast
it is a lucky magician
the tablecloth gone
a million crystal glasses saved.
Slow and it won't work
everything is irreparable
beyond broken.
To children? The shards
will cut and cut and cut.

It was a dead animal
mushroomed alive
on her bureau. My mother’s wig
on a Styrofoam head.
As far away from her natural color
as it could be. But what is natural?
Cancer spawning like guppies
in the flesh of her breasts?
In her day, the bottle was deemed
superior to the breast
the sciences of another day
rejected the rounded globe. The atom.

Patty Tomsky


Miss Rothblatt, our fifth grade teacher is tall
and beautiful and the youngest teacher at PS 98...
This morning, she sits on my desk, which is the first seat
in the first row, and reads to us... I can't breath... the room
spins... I'm aware of only two things: how pretty but so far
away her voice and... how close her knees- their whiteness,
in nylons, catch the window light and blind me to the fact of
my youth... I just don't have vocabulary yet to describe
the death-wish to lift her skirt- have her smile that smile
that makes even the girls adore her; how can I, at eleven,
begin to imagine she might close her eyes to the act..? I
can't... I can't breath... and so lose consciousness for maybe,
forty years... coming to in my classroom waiting for my kids
to finish this morning's exam...

Ms.Pinkava, who is nineteen, and plans a career in the military,
dresses daily for success... Her thighs, in ultra-sheer pantyhose,
refract the fluorescent light that illuminates her attention to
physical fitness... She smiles, caps her Bic pen, holds down
the hem of her business suit miniskirt as she stands... smiles
again as she places her test on my desk; her ruby tipped
prehensile fingers tap its Formica surface once, then she about
faces and walks with studied grace from class... I take a long,
deep breath...hold for a count of five... exhale... and slip right off
into a singular awareness of only two things: the tranquil, self-
staccato of
Ms Pinkava's
heels as
their sound fades down
the stairs... and of, my adult
ability to describe...

Andrew R Cohen

Summer of ’49 or ’50

I now realize I don’t remember the wounding exactly
but more rather the streaming of my childhood recollection of it,
sensations, shadows, shapes exchanging, sliding in and out,
for I’ve learned the nature of memory depends
upon the use of a fluid bubble as one’s looking glass,
a delicate lens whose shape shifts with time, use,the piling of events,
so that distortions abound, small into big, big to small, even to pop, nothing
or fabrications, and then details slipping off the fragile surface.

I was five or six, anyway surely not imprinted yet with post-baptism sacraments
but tall for my age, always,
and holding on to the tiled coping of the huge crowded pool, well
within the limit my mother set, the warm waters of FOUR FEET.
The reaching hand I did not see, but underwater
the reaching hand pushed up underneath a leg of my trunks
up under and that hand gently squeezed my penis and scrotum
at once, for the briefest instant, under the warm water.
The dark slurry around me still submerged spun away
powerfully sucked like a black dye in a strong tide toward the deep end of the pool
where he solidified finally breached and porpoised
himself, black hair, black tank suit, tanned muscular arms
swinging him onto the pool’s hot cement edge
where he sat, one foot dangled in water, dark hands clasped on a knee.

He stared vacantly at me, seemed to want nothing at all, knowing
somehow that I would keep his secret, my secret,
that I would not rush to my mother and accuse,
so I turned my head in confused complicity, then my back,
and, pretending nonchalance, I watched myself wading
into the baby end of the pool where the shallow steps allowed me
mute temporary escape to a dizzying hot summer late afternoon.
My mother pulled from her carryall
the towel on which I sat knees pulled tight to my chest,
a towel that felt a more lenient prison than the pool,
for I could not see him, nor did I ever again,though my eyes searched, stealthily,
for three, or four, more summers until we moved to Long Island.
But notice how memory, even now, attempts to erase those last hellish hours
when I waited endlessly for parole from steaming shame,
waited for my mother’s decision to start the ritual,
the repacking snacks, magazines, towels, the donning dry overclothes,
the combing hair so that our appearance was presentable
on the bus ride home from Prospect Park Pool.

Hank Cierski


I dive bravely into the water
from the lower of the diving boards,
now that I've earned an emblem
for completing my lifesaving test.

Exultant at being among the few champion
campers at lakeside in the shaded sun,
my confidence is boundless,
knowing how proud mother and dad will be.

My plunge is far from flawless,
yet takes me deeper than I've ever been,
rotating and disorienting me so,
I find myself breasting toward darkness.

No, this cannot be, I tell myself,
resisting panic, which would not serve
to save me from a darkening end.
Quickly reversing my direction,
I see the lighter side, barely gleaming,
and with wing-like sweeps and scissoring legs
hasten, hasten with remaining breath
to breach the surface into gray sky and obscured sun.

I fill my air-depleted lungs to bursting,
as my heart races with adolescent force.
I then weakly and cautiously swim to shore,
fortified against prideful exultation.

Ben Copito


It's so much easier to die a child
because he knows what heaven's all about.
It's full of angels with white wings
who feed him hot dogs and junk food
that never makes him sick
And there are other angels who wear jeans
with big holes in the knees and no one cares,
and they can skate board, very cool,
in heaven that's what they call school.
Sounds really neat to him.
I push my tears behind my eyes because
who could compete with skate boarding angels?
I just wish I could keep him here
but I can't let him see my fear
of being left alone.
He looks at me and asks me if I'm sad
I say I think I'll miss him quite a lot.
He says dying doesn't scare him,
it's lying here without his hair
that's totally the pits.
It's so much easier to die so young,
all his dues are paid and heaven's fun.

Patricia Hentz Regensburg


My memory is last year’s date book.
His memory walks me through the Vatican Museum
Naming every painting on every wall in every room,
Advising which to note.
My visual memory is slowly being exercised for poetry and painting, but it
is without sentimentality.
My Proustian memory moves from object to feeling.
Baking apple pie, the smell of Chinese green tea before it is swirling in
the glass
Bring feelings of love, adventure and pictures of the past.
The unbidden feelings stored in my date book are poignant and laugh filled.
Recalled they take but a fraction of real time.
And it is in real time that I choose to live.

Ellen Kaplan