Poetry That Will Get You Through a Hard Time
Five writers recall their darkest hours and the poems that sustained them.
Photo: Lili Taylor
Nick Flynn finds the father within.Three years ago, I was walking with a friend when we ran into Robert Hass, the former U.S. poet laureate. I'd met Hass a few times, and his work meant a lot to me. When he asked me how I was, I said, as I did in those days, that I was to have a child soon. I didn't tell Hass that the very word father felt ineffable in my mouth. My own father had been absent my whole life, wandering in a type of fog I couldn't enter, though I had tried, in my own way, over the years. The idea that I was to become one soon was difficult for me to imagine—or what I imagined was that within it I would find only wreckage.
While I said none of this to Hass, I must have said something, for he got very excited, and reached into his satchel, and pulled out a copy of George Oppen's "Sara in Her Father's Arms," and read it to me, right there. Cell by cell the baby made herself...it was as if he, or Oppen, was telling me that it was already out of my hands, that all I had to do was show up, to hold this as-yet-unborn girl in my arms, and she would teach me everything I needed to know. I held on to it, this poem, and I still do, even now, three years later, as my daughter brings me all the words she has found that day—words! There will be no other words in the world / But those our children speak.
Sara in Her Father's Arms
Cell by cell the baby made herself, the cells
Made cells. That is to say
The baby is made largely of milk. Lying in her father's arms, the little seed eyes
Moving, trying to see, smiling for us
To see, she will make a household
To her need of these rooms—Sara, little seed,
Little violent, diligent seed. Come let us look at the world
Glittering: this seed will speak,
Max, words! There will be no other words in the world
But those our children speak. What will she make of a world
Do you suppose, Max, of which she is made.
Nick Flynn's most recent book of poetry, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands (Graywolf), came out in February.
Next: The poem that helped Timothy Shriver mourn his mother
"Sara in Her Father's Arms" by George Oppen. From New Collected Poems, ©1962 by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Direction Publishing Corp.