Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Talking to the son
At some point over the past couple of years, a reader might have written in to say, “hey Michael! Every once in a while you tell stories about Jamie. Don’t you have any stories about Nick?”
Why, yes I do! Glad you might have asked, dear reader. I mentioned the first part of this story deep in a comment thread about three months ago, but I’ll elaborate on it here, and then I’ll talk about poetry for a bit.
When I was a young father, hovering nervously over our firstborn, I wondered about many things. Like when precisely Nick would acquire “object constancy,” the major philosophical leap in understanding whereby babies realize that the crackers you’ve hidden from them still exist in the cupboard. And like how Nick would apprehend human diversity—to use a word much bandied about these days. When he entered toddlerdom, would he classify humans by skin tone? Eye color? Hair? Height?
None of the above, as it turned out. When Nick began to group his fellow humans into grouplets, he wisely chose the only criterion that makes any real sense: the color of their shirts. “Blue man!” two-year-old Nick would exclaim in the mall, pointing hither and yon. “Orange woman!” One day I had an odd moment with him in the Food Lion in the south end of Charlottesville, as he pointed to a young black man wearing a black t-shirt and exclaimed, with toddler glee, “black man!” The black man in question gave Nick a quizzical look, since he was by no means the only black man within a five-mile radius, so I turned to him and said, “it’s your shirt. I’m not kidding—” with a shrug of the shoulders—“he goes by people’s shirts.”
This was 1988, and back then, one of Janet’s many part-time jobs (in addition to that of graduate teaching assistant) involved running the study hall for Virginia’s football team. Occasionally, she brought Nick to study hall for the evening. Nick was a big hit among the players, particularly a talented freshman lineman named Ray Roberts, who always wore a red hoodie to study hall. For this, Nick named him “red man” (surely you saw that one coming), greeting him with great enthusiasm every time he came in. The other players did not fail to make a note of this, and ever after, Roberts was known to his fellow Cavaliers as Red Man. Legend has it that the nickname (cough) followed him all the way to the NFL, when, in 1992, he was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks.
But over the next couple of years, Nick gradually learned more about race—and the history of race. When he was four, I came upon him watching a bit of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and he peppered me with questions about slavery. (I started by explaining that it involved people working without pay, and we gradually made our way up to the “ownership” bit and all the beliefs that made it possible for humans to justify owning other humans.) He was intensely curious about Abraham Lincoln as well, whose name he knew but of whose fate he had been unaware. And wouldn’t you know it, that was the year that Champaign, Illinois thrashed out the question of whether the city would finally cave in to “political correctness” and agree to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. So not long after learning how Lincoln died, Nick learned how King died, and all without the help of that Richard Holler song. In the space of a few days, then, Nick got the sense that there was something very, very wrong with the world he’d been born into, and he came to understand that some of the people who’d perceived its wrongness in the past got themselves shot and killed.
So one night I was putting him to bed, and decided to pull out of his bookcase a volume that my parents had given to him—the quite wonderful Talking to the Sun, edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. (The title itself has an interesting history, running from the quite wonderful Koch back to the quite wonderful Frank O’Hara.) Nick had a pretty high tolerance for poetry at the time, even (or especially) modern poetry, partly because he’d come across William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” a year earlier—a poem that happily managed to combine the two things that completely obsessed little Nick and filled pages of his scrap paper and shadowed his every conscious moment: fire trucks and the number 5. Yes, any form of human expression that addressed the critical issue of number 5s on fire trucks was more than OK by him.
We flipped through the book as I read Nick this poem and that, and suddenly we came upon the opening section of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” “Check this out!” I said to Nick. But Nick wasn’t interested, because, as he said, there were too many words. It would take too long to read! It would be boring!
“Oh, it won’t be boring at all,” I promised. “On the contrary, my friend. When this poem came out, people were so surprised they didn’t know what to do with it. It’s full of all kinds of weird stuff, and look—the lines just run on forever, right? Like really excited speech.”
Nick was not impressed. Long lines, weird stuff, no rhymes, so what?
“So what?” I exclaimed. “So what? Listen, pal, if Walt Whitman hadn’t written this stuff you wouldn’t have your number 5 in gold on that fire truck! This stuff is where modern American poetry began! Why, when this poem appeared, there were people who didn’t think it was poetry at all! They wanted to ban it and keep people from reading it, it was so amazing! That’s so what!”
Nick thought about this for a few moments, frowning. He tried to imagine a poem causing that kind of uproar. Then he seemed to hit upon something, and turned to me, nodding darkly as if to say, I know what comes next.
“So they shot him?” Nick said.