I first read this poem in the New Yorker, then months later heard Galway Kinnell read it himself. I waited and waited for his book Strong Is Your Hold to come out so I could hold the poem, myself, and read it again.
It struck me as perfectly told -- the cake, the quick movement of disaster, the child's outrage, the humor, the entreaty years later. I was so thrilled with how he sculpted the story that I didn't even focus on the emotions woven throughout it. I was pregnant with my first child at the time.
When finally I bought the book, I read the poem to my mother on the floor of the guest room as I packed my suitcase and was taken aback by her reaction -- she quieted and withdrew and said something like, "oh, how many times we parents do that." Moment moved on to moment, and I never asked her about her reaction, though I have often thought of it.
Now Silas is nearly 3. When he becomes stern or earnest I often can't suppress a smile or even a little laugh. His sincerity is so sweet, his offences so unexpected. But each time he immediately looks into my face and says, "Nooo, don't LAUGH!"
Now I understand the poem, the heart of it in stanza 5. I understand how our jobs, above all, are to protect, to defend, to honor and to see.
It All Comes Back
We placed the cake, with its four unlit candles
poked into thick frosting, on the seat
of his chair at the head of the table
for just a moment while Ines and I unfolded
and spread Spanish cloth over Vermont maple.
Suddenly he left the group of family,
family friends, kindergarten mates, and darted
to the table, and just as someone cried No, no!
Don't sit! he sat down right on top of his cake
and the room broke into groans and guffaws.
Actually, it was pretty funny, all of us
were yelping our heads off, and actually
it wasn't in the least funny. He ran to me
and I picked him up but I was still laughing,
and in indignant fury he hooked his thumbs
into the corners of my mouth, grasped
my cheeks, and yanked -- he was so muscled
and so outraged I felt he might rip
my whole face off. Then I realized
that was exactly what he was trying to do.
And it came to me: I was one of his keepers.
His birth and the birth of his sister
had put me on earth a second time,
with the duty this time to protect them
and to help them to love themselves.
And yet here I was, locked in solidarity
with a bunch of adults against my own child,
heehawing away, all of us, without asking
if, underneath, we weren't striking back, too late,
at our own parents, for their humiliation of us.
I gulped down my laughter and held him and
apologized and commiserated and explained and then
things were set right again, but to this day it remains
loose, this face, seat of superior smiles,
on the bones, from that hard yanking.
Shall I publish this story from long ago
and risk embarrassing him? I like it
that he fought back, but what's the good,
now he's thirty-six, in telling the tale
of that mortification when he was four?
Let him decide. Here are the three choices.
He can scratch his slapdash check mark,
which makes me think of the rakish hook
of his old high school hockey stick,
in whichever box applies:
[ ] Tear it up.
[ ] Don't publish it but give me a copy.
[ ] OK, publish it, on the chance that somewhere someone
survives of all those said to die miserably every day for lack
of the small clarifications sometimes found in poems.