Poets Online Archive


Sons and Daughters

October 2009

W.S. Merwin is the son of a Presbyterian minister and he began writing hymns as a child, which I suppose is the start of his poetry.

It seems to have been a tough childhood, at least emotionally. Merwin's mother had grown up an orphan. She lost her brother and she lost her first child. His father was raised in a hard and violent home. These tragedies, violence, and poverty, show up in W.S. Merwin's booksimg from the past five decades.

That is certainly evident in his poem "Yesterday" which we use this month in our prompt.

The first time I heard this poem read aloud, I saw people around me in tears. It hurt me as a son to hear it. It made me pull that sadness around me in a circle to my own sons.

When I saw "Yesterday" on the page after that reading, I was surprised at how it appeared on paper. Even with the stanza breaks, all those punctuation-less, lowercase words still ran together and I was confused with which son was saying what. All that is intended, of course.

I will call this month's prompt "Sons and Daughters" but it could just as accurately be called "Fathers and Mothers" since it is hard not to mix the two in a poem. It's the kind of prompt that might send people to their own poetry collection - "I already have a poem on that."  But, I hope you will read Merwin's interesting approach to the topic and consider writing one again.

Look at our blog for much more about Merwin's poetry and a link to him reading "Yesterday." It's from the Dodge Poetry Festival where I first heard him read the poem. You might even spot me and some of my fellow listeners caught up in the poem's words.


“When I turn my violin book upside down,” my daughter says,
“it turns it into a whole new song.” She begins to play
the secret melody, potent magic from the very first note.

Time’s signature loosens like a noose, and I am younger
with every backwards measure.  Sobering up, thinner,
changing from a cad into a father, coming home instead of leaving,

falling in love with my wife, a friend of the man inside my skin.
“When I get to the end there’s no repeat, “she says,
“I don’t know what to do— it’s really  the beginning.”

But what can I tell this young stranger, except to repeat
I don’t know what to do.

R.G. Evans


Such beauty and mystery,
Old, ageless in this moment.
My baby, cradles her baby,
Gently to her breast.

Sunlight filters through slatted blinds,
Dark, light, shadow, bright,
Patterning her face, her hair.

The room sits still…

Our eyes meet,
Heart to heart, soul to soul,
In this timeless silence,
Daughter to daughter to daughter,
Back and back and back,
To the mother of all.

Lindy Weber

for Morgan

I’ll bet you’re sick of my telling you how lucky you are—you and your brothers,
how rich compared to most of the rest of the world, how you have four parents
who love you and some people only have one or none.
It’s not fair--you have as much right to mourn your losses as anyone.

I have tried to forget the day when you were four and Conor was two
(no Dylan yet).Your father and I were fighting again, this time at the table,
and you stared at your plate and asked if we were going to get a divorce.
“Oh Honey, no, of course not,” I said, my eyes towards your dad to see
if the tight lines of his forehead would sag a bit with my words and they did.
“We’ll be yelling at each other at our fiftieth anniversary party,” I said.
My own knotted shoulders loosened when your father smiled a little
and his clenched fists opened slowly towards the floor.
I’ve been telling myself I didn’t know I was lying at the time. I’m so sorry.
You lost that house with both parents together—you lost that family
and you had no say.

You lost a brother too when I lost a son and he was your twin.
What other side of you would he have been?
I remember the surprise in the doctor’s voices at the amniotic waves
that soaked them when they cut you and your brother out of me.
You were the second one—the small one—the well one. You were
put aside when the bigger one turned out to be the damaged one
and they rushed him away.

You didn’t get the happy mom. I cried when I held you at night
because I couldn’t hold him too. I cried when I tried to sing to you..

You lost something easy. Did it break something in you, all that time
I was away in the ICU? He took more than half of me for the six weeks
he lived; then I split you in two again ten years later—two houses, two
rooms, two sets of everything—twice as much to remember and carry.
Twice as much to lose.

Svea Barrett


What part of the poem upsets us most
Are the interrupted lines
Like scattered limbs at a wreck
Part of the accidents in life.

Was it father and son?
Each an ageless child
At the ends of a seesaw inviting
The other to sit down, assuming nothing better,
Or excusing the departure knowing
There is or will be no other chance

We have different tolerances
Of our old records, our music’s scratches
Which start with being out of tune
And move towards the repetition of a phrase
Until it is an incomprehensible sameness.
That signals us to disconnect.

In truth there were may times
When we had a chance to ask
And get the answers to those personal questions
But unless we started on that path
Unless there were cobble stones or flat gray slate
We frequently past over stubbly grass
As in a party we were invited to
Where we knew none of the people
Who seemed to know why we were there

What is most sad
Is the old fashioned dance,
Supposedly cheek to cheek
A rhythm less music
When even our palms are cold to each other
Our eyes staring into the space beyond
Ones shoulders, only facing the back
In a room without mirrors
And nothing to silently echo our presence.

There are questions
As long and as thin as toll gate slats;
What token lifts them
To move us on.

Edward N Halperin


Who ever knew the words,
the melody, was encouraged to
join in.
Raise their voices,
their mouths,
their hearts up into the air,
the light.
Chanting, they would call it later.
It was during this afternoon that
I lost myself, a few times.
Once when I was found, I too sat
with my mouth opening,
eyes closed.
Feeling the vibration
the letters made on the roof of my mouth.
The place where years ago held a holy wafer.
How long could i keep it here?
A strange mix of cardboard and
rice flour.
My tongue touching it to make sure.

Bless me father for I have sinned.
My mother’s voice singing beside me,
how I wish then I had raised
my voice into the light,
my heart into the thin air.

Patty Joslyn


I keep thinking about the last day I saw her alive,
Wanting to go back and do it over again,
Be more patient,
Less inclined to bolt and run from that nursing home,
Its cold linoleum floors and distracted nurses
Too busy to pay much attention to a dying old lady.
They were all dying there.

O yes, I knew she was dying,
But she'd been dying for years,
Dying slow.
I did not realize death was so close,
A day away,
When she said:
"I've lived about as long as anyone has a right to live."

One sentence of truth among an hour of erratic thoughts.

Her room too hot and stuffy that summer afternoon,
Magnifying antiseptics,
Damp bedding,
Decaying flesh,
The sickening smell of every room permeating,
Every room infused.

A ceiling-high television with painfully exaggerated colors
Was worrying her about the news,
Alarms going off right inside her room,
The world in flames.

I ached for escape.

I listened for the end of another incoherent sentence,
Locked eyes with my wife sitting across the tiny room,
Then rolled my eyes to heaven,
Signaling exasperation.

"I've got to get going," I said,
Seeing no finality,
Needing refuge.

I did not return the next day,
A small vacation from the dreadful daily routine,
Months in the making.

They called me late that night,
Said she was dead,
Asked if I would see her,
Warned what resuscitation had done.

I would never go back.

In the dark and noiseless morning
I wondered,
Had she seen me roll my eyes?
Taken it as a cue somehow?
Had she seen I'd given up?
Did she know I was just waiting?

The final few days are not the life,
Nor the final few years.
The totality is what must be measured in memory,
I keep telling myself.
But oh dear God,
If I could just go back and change that one single day.

Russ Allison Loar


The tides can change in a single day
In her lonely guise
The sea can rise and laugh at me
Against the violent skies
The lightning comes from nowhere
And rises in her eyes
Like the waters blackened edges
And the thunder of her cries
Where is the whispering ocean
The quiet seagull cries?
Where is the baby I brought home
The fairy tale book lies?
I want to know that ocean peace
Before my spirit dies.
Instead I see the dreams we missed
The hopes I cast aside
The family trips, the softball games,
The college where you’d arrive
The lace upon your wedding dress
That last walk up the aisle
Is not a trip I’ll make, I fear
So I recast my line
Into the ocean of my life
And watch the lightening shine
It’s brilliant, really, in the way
It makes a glow so fine
So fine, this is the life I have
The life that’s only mine
I see the glow upon your face
And know you’re by design.
This is the child I’m given
The child of fiery skies
A child quite different from myself
Who needs me all the time
A child who cries quite often
And sometimes is unkind
A child who’s made me learn to love
When love is hard to find
This is the child I’m given
The child of fiery skies
This is the child that I must love
And my love never dies.

Julie O'Connell


A father, a lover and his son the successor,
Hopeless Romantics, lost in a sea of their blood-soaked passions,
I ache for your loving and the pleasure it brings.

Contradictions united as one,
To forge a marriage made in hell,
One lover to another in a fairytale promise
That gave us everything, then laughed
As we watched it slide away.

If the story was already written it was lost on us,

Times change but truth remains
And this sense of unrequited longing is suffocating.

Star crossed lovers of the night hear my cry;
It's never over,
Mortality is a myth that lies in the hearts of the frozen,

Our courage is stronger and will last for longer.

God help you my friends, true brothers of love.

Emma Kellingray


is walking downtown, window shopping.
Already her house is full of baby shoes,
blue beads from Florence, a silk scarf
with autumn-faded leaves; quilts left
by grandmothers out of mind. My mother
has become invisible, like all women
her age. I’m almost invisible myself.
She doesn’t see me. I know her ankles
ache, she can’t remember where she put
the key nor understand the tax code.
Passers-by in such a hurry, of course
they don’t see her. She looks both ways,
and then again; crosses to the other side,
dodging cars careening faster than old
ladies imagine. Which shop was it,
that sells the thing she needs? How can
she find it amidst the digital tick at her
wrist, the blinding glare of fast metal?
She gazes beyond the storefront
mannequins. How could I help her?
I fade into a stone facade. No gown
can fit when your life outgrows you.

Taylor Graham