Nancy Willard

For You, Who Didn’t Know

At four A.M. I dreamed myself on that beach
where we’ll take you after you’re born.
I woke in a wave of blood.

Lying in the back seat of a nervous Chevy
I counted the traffic lights, lonely as planets.
Starlings stirred in the robes of Justice

over the Town Hall. Miscarriage of justice,
they sang, while you, my small client,
went curling away like smoke under my ribs.

Kick me! I pleaded. Give me a sign
that you’re still there!
Train tracks shook our flesh from our bones.

Behind the hospital rose a tree of heaven.
   You can learn something from everything,
   a rabbi told his Hasidim who did not believe it.

   I didn’t believe it, either. O rabbi,
   What did you learn on the train to Belsen?
   That because of one second one can miss everything.

There are rooms on this earth for emergencies.
A sleepy attendant steals my clothes and my name,
and leaves me among the sinks on an altar of fear.

“Your name. Your name. Sign these papers,
authorizing us in our wisdom to save the child.
Sign here for circumcision. Your faith, your faith.”

   O rabbi, what can we learn from the telegraph?
   asked the Hasidim, who did not understand.
   And he answered, That every word is counted and charged.

“This is called a dobtone,” smiles the doctor.
He greases my belly, stretched like a drum,
and plants a microphone there, like a flag.

A thousand thumping rabbits! Savages clapping for joy!
A heart dancing its name, I’m-here, I’m-here!
The cries of fishes, of stars, the tunings of hair!

   O rabbi, what can we learn from the telephone?
   My shiksa daughter, your faith, your faith
   that what we say here is heard there.

Every time I come back to this poem, there is more there. Let me just point out that the three interjections about the rabbi are quite artfully placed. First, as she speeds to the hospital she considers what can be lost if they lose any time, stopping at the lights, as it is only just for a citizen to do. Then, as she signs papers that she can’t possibly be in a state to understand the meaning of and that could mean her own or the child’s life or death she considers the real significance of words, when put in certain context — as in a contract. Finally, in her relief at the end of the ordeal she considers the power of prayer, believing (for the moment anyway) that what is said here is heard there.

Lee and I have discussed how hard it is to memorize the lines or pieces of ‘free verse’ poems, even the best ones. But I have had those three interjections of the rabbi in my head for days now — in the phrasing that the poet delivers them.

4 responses to “Nancy Willard”

  1. I was struck by the movement of the protagonist’s search for aide in saving her child. She first turned to the courthouse but then turned to the Rabbi.
    To me, the most poinient moment is the signing of the papers (Alan is right to call it a “contract” – though “covenent” might be a good word too). The contractual nature of faith – the deal-making nature of faith – is facinating to me. Save my unborn child and I will sign – purhaps sign anything.
    This is to say nothing about the language, of which she has some excellents turns of phrase, but there is more to say than I have time for at the moment.

    As an aside, I was checking my spelling for the word “poignant” on and there are some facinating bits about it – like “Keenly distressing” and “Agreeably intense” and “Sharp or sour to the taste.”

  2. The one thing that really stood out to me on first reading was that she referred to her baby as her client—religion as contract, indeed. Of course, I’m a Cynic when it comes to spiritual beliefs and protestations, so I suppose I’ll leave it at that. I’m also a bit curious about what cries of fishes and stars sound like, and tunings of hair.

  3. This poem has dogged me all night. There are many fine images and wordings. Tired, I will only ask what it means that her faith guide was a rabbi, when she is not Jewish.

    On an aside, I found her observations of stop lights to be one of those minutia-as-survival moments.

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