Lifesaving Poems: Dave Smith’s ‘Reading the Books Our Children Have Written’


I once heard Stephen Knight say ‘If I am reading well then I am writing well.’ It was a Q and A after a reading. Someone had just asked me who I was reading and my mind had gone blank. Stephen kindly filled the airwaves for me and the conversation moved on.

(There is a parable here about the impossibility of answering a question in real time about something private, inward and almost pre-verbal, but it will have to wait.)

What I had wanted to say (and probably did not get round to articulating) was that I had just come across this marvellous set of poems by someone called Dave Smith, in The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler (Faber, 1985).

My favourite of all of these poems was about a man kissing his young children goodnight. After they are asleep he goes ‘down in darkness’ to where they have been playing and discovers all manner of drawings ‘of animals no one has ever seen’, every page numbered: ‘they have named each colorful wing’.

‘They have done all this to surprise me,’ he says, ‘surprising themselves’.

I think this is a parable, too. The children, we are told, ‘offer themselves to be kissed’ while their father sits working at his ‘big brown desk’. It works as a lovely example of what social constructivists call language mediation. Young learners grown into what Vygotsky and Bruner call ‘the intellectual lives’ of those around them. There are all sorts of cues to aid this, of course, but the chief of them, what Vygotsky calls a ‘tool’, is language.

It sounds grand, but it isn’t. Every time you see a toddler pointing with her mother at a bird and the mother says ‘Look at the bird!’, or the mother says ‘Let’s watch the cars as we cross the road’, that’s a learning experience mediated by language.

I am not sure whether Dave Smith had these theories at the back of his mind when he wrote this poem. Implicitly he shows that he did. On a personal level the poem helped me mediate my experience of looking after my children in poems of my own. Until I read it, I had not seen a man writing with this authority, nor this simplicity, about the subject. Now I knew I could do it too, surprising myself in the process. This is a poem. See tomorrow.

Reading the Books Our Children Have Written

They come into this room while the quail are crying to huddle up,
the canyon winds just beginning. They pass my big brown desk,
their faces damp and glistening like the first peaches washed,
and offer themselves to be kissed. I am their father still.
I kiss them, I say See you tomorrow! Their light steps fade
down the stairs, what they are saying like the far stars
shrill, hard to understand. They are saying their father
writes a book and they are in it, for they are his children.
Then they lie in their beds waiting for sleep, sometimes singing.

Later I get up and go down in darkness and find the hour they played
before they were scrubbed, before they brought me those faces.
There on the floor I find the stapled pages, , the strange mild
countenances of animals no one has ever seen, the tall dark man
who writes an endless story of birds homeless in the night. They have
numbered every page, they have named each colorful wing.
They have done all this to surprise me, surprising themselves.
On the last lined yellow page, one has written This is a poem.
Under this the other has answered. See tomorrow.

Dave Smith, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry 

Lifesaving Poems


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