Jeredith Merrin is the author of two collections of poems, Bat Ode (2001) and Shift (1996), both from The University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Poets Series, as well as a book of criticism, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and the Uses of Tradition (Rutgers, 1990). Her essays on and reviews of poets have appeared in The Southern Review and elsewhere, while her poems can be found in The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Ms. , The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and many other journals. Two books are in progress: a new poetry collection, Mon Age, and a collection of essays on poets and poetry, Of Two Minds.
The divorced mother and her divorcing
daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law
and the ex-husband's adopted son.
The divorcing daughter's child, who is
the step-nephew of the ex-husband's
adopted son. Everyone cordial:
the ex-husband's second wife
friendly to the first wife, warm
to the divorcing daughter's child's
great-grandmother, who was herself
long ago divorced. Everyone
grown used to the idea of divorce.
Almost everyone has separated
from the landscape of a childhood.
Collections of people in cities
are divorced from clean air and stars.
Toddlers in day care are parted
from working parents, schoolchildren
from the assumption of unbloodied
daylong safety. Old people die apart
from all they've gathered over time,
and in strange beds. Adults
grow estranged from a God
evidently divorced from History;
most are cut off from their own
histories, each of which waits
like a child left at day care.
What if you turned back for a moment
and put your arms around yours?
Yes, you might be late for work;
no, your history doesn't smell sweet
like a toddler's head. But look
at those small round wrists,
that short-legged, comical walk.
Caress your history--who else will?
Promise to come back later.
Pay attention when it asks you
simple questions: Where are we going?
Is it scary? What happened? Can
I have more now? Who is that?
I am writing this in my stripped-bare office, having worked all afternoon in grubby jeans, preparing for retirement next month after twenty-four years of teaching English (writing and literature) at this institution. I have loved my students and will miss them dearly. Leontyne Price in the background, about to be buried alive (Aida). Thought I would set the scene for you!
Well, this poem was in fact written after a family reunion. It struck me that others might identify with the situation in which I found myself--the modern family. Just as I have a lousy sense of physical direction, I've always been at a loss to keep straight anything but the most immediate of family connections. It was therefore a kick to write something like "the step-nephew of the ex-husband's / adopted son."
Then what happened was that the idea of divorce, and all that repetition of the word "divorce," just carried me away to analogous situations. I did not know where I was going. If you know exactly where you are going you are bored, and probably also boring.
When I wrote the poem, my grandson (now heading for college and 6'5") was very small--not far from being a toddler. I'm sure that delicious relationship prompted the depiction of personal history as a small child whose head smells sweet. I have to say that one of the best things (I think) about the poem is the accurate physicality of the comparison when the poem gets to a toddler's "small round wrists"--and that phrase I owe to my partner, Diane Furtney (also a published poet, and my best critic).
My step-father was trained as a rabbi, and I have one or two other poems that end up (for better or worse) with a touch of what you might call the "self-sermon." You asked how this poem differs from others I've written, and that's one way: the majority don't possess this jauntily sermonic bent. I think it's more didactic, then, and in a way more socially effusive than my more meditative work. But the self-admonition to "pay attention" underlies everything I've done (prose and poems alike), as does, I think I'd have to say, interpersonal affection.
You asked about form. The lines in the four-line stanzas are roughly four-beat. The shorter line lent me some apt enjambments: "separated," "parted," "apart."
Oh. And the questions at the end were expressions stolen from my (now 6'5", then quite short) grandson. So I owe a lot of this item to Sam.