My daughter and I had not had what they call a “good birth.” Her heart rate had dropped dangerously low, and I’d undergone an emergency c-section. The drugs I took in the hospital set off a slew of other problems, and even two weeks after she was born, my milk was still sluggishly coming in. I was sleep-deprived, anxious, and overwhelmed. So when my graduate student Gretchen wanted to come see the baby, I was reluctant. I didn’t want any student seeing me unwashed and puffy-eyed, weeping because I just wanted to put down the baby long enough to have a fucking bowl of oatmeal. I love newborns, she said over the phone. My sister has a baby. Then she added: I could hold her while you take a nap or shower.
It was mid-October, and by the time Gretchen got to my house, it was dark out. I’d forgotten to turn on most of the lamps, but I must have turned on the one where Gretchen sat. I reached into my bathrobe, unsnapped my nursing bra, and fumbled for a long minute with my nipple and the baby’s jaw. Gretchen was, as promised, unfazed. Also, she had been reading Jim Moore’s The Freedom of History, and did I want to hear a poem?
“For You” is the nine-page narrative poem that closes the book. It tells the story of why Moore, at age twenty-five and at his first college teaching job in 1968, rejected his teachers’ deferment from the draft after he’d watched two of his students drop out of their working-class college, then be drafted and killed in Vietnam. Moore himself was then drafted as punishment; he refused induction and was sent to prison for ten months in 1970. The poem begins:
I know it sounds too much like poetry,
But it was dusk that made me a felon,
A winter evening in Moline, Illinois.
The next day I quoted Whitman
To my draft board, “Dismiss
Whatever insults your own soul,”
And sent my draft card back to them.
I closed my eyes, probably dangerously close to falling asleep, and let the plainspoken language carry me along.
As particular as Moore’s story was, the poem somehow still felt written, well, for me. I resonated with the way the entire poem hovers in the in-between. The young speaker is trying to settle his feelings about the War, and what he should do, and his indecision is mirrored, repeatedly, by liminal images in the poem. He has no permanent address, but lives first in his VW bus, then over a greeting card shop. His college classroom is not on a conventional campus, but in the basement of an old Pentecostal church. When he finally decides to return his draft card, he walks the streets of Moline at dusk, a time that is neither day nor night. Gretchen read, the floor lamp shining on the sheet of her long dark hair. Our once-fastidious living room was now so crowded by the Pack ‘N Play we were using as a makeshift bassinet that we had to turn sideways to squeeze by it on our way to the couch or the door. My husband and I had always abhorred clutter, yet our dining room table was piled high with pink onesies and other gifts from well-wishers, none of which had found their final resting places in the house.
I’d read Moore’s poem before. But suddenly I understood more deeply what the end of the poem means, when the speaker knows his decisions will change his life, but still has no idea what else may come as a result. He looks toward the Mississippi River, “black except where a bridge curve[s] / through the night, and [does] not know / what the future would bring.” Was I going to like being a mother? I had always been so sure I would make an excellent parent; maybe I wouldn’t after all. Was the difficulty I’d had in the last two weeks just proof that I had made a terrible mistake?
When I was pregnant, I had fantasized that I would be one of those new moms I sometimes encounter on Facebook, the ones already bopping about town five days after they’ve given birth, posting photos of their new family out for pizza. My husband only left the house to go to work or back, again, to Babies R Us, with an increasingly complicated and bewildering list. I had barely managed to leave our living room, except for a few walks in the neighborhood with the baby, the stroller wheels crunching yellow leaves. Those walks felt both eerie and serene, like the first few days in a foreign country, and the big blue sky and rows of red maples along Saint Paul’s boulevards looked unnaturally bright.
I love the way that Moore refuses to let his speaker be insufferably pious; instead, he pokes fun at himself. He calls himself “the razzle dazzle guy / from the Big U / in Iowa City. . . . [with] opinions that gave off / the glitter of newly minted / funny money,” even though he attended a prestigious writing program and has landed his first job by the age of twenty-five. He allows his speaker to have a body. When the speaker hears of the second student’s death, he describes spending the following weekend alone, meditating — then nicely deflates the moment by adding “I did nothing / but alternately sit and then hobble / on legs permanently sore / from being crossed so much.” He drinks green tea, “believing it more Japanese than Lipton Orange.” I wished I could take myself as lightly, though I think I intuited that, perhaps, Moore was less ready to laugh at himself in Moline, in 1968. Hearing the poem that night might have been my first inkling that, as Moore did, I might come out on the other side of my confusion.
Because what complicated those weeks, of course, was not just that I felt ineptness and fear, but also a head-splitting form of love. On our second morning together, my daughter and I had lain side by side on the hospital bed for her to nurse. The session took a long time, maybe an hour, because both of us kept falling asleep for five minutes here or there. As she nursed I dreamed that I was kissing a handsome man, and that he and I were at that dizzying early point in our relationship where we had mutually realized how much we liked each other — and when I woke up, I realized that what was really happening was that I was falling in love with my daughter; the dream romance was merely the closest approximation I had in my experience to describe it. One of the many differences between loving a man and loving my child, I was continuing to discover, was that no romantic relationship so early on had ever made me as painfully aware of my own inadequacies.
The poem’s climax comes when Moore’s speaker walks through Moline at dusk and looks through a window at some men sitting at a bar,
“. . . heads bent
toward the neon light of a beer sign
behind the bar: a man with a lasso
in one hand and a beer in the other.”
One man nods to the other, and it brings tears to the speaker’s eyes; he nods back in the dark. He notices a sled left out for the night and finds himself saying to it, and everything else around him (a car with a broken windshield, an old newspaper frozen into an iced-over sidewalk), “For you, sled. For you, bent heads. For you. For you.” His feeling of greed for the world is one he wants to go on forever, and he encounters a “strangely calming power / that came from seeing clearly / into the heart of everyday life.” Seeing the sled convinces him that, even if he goes to prison, the ordinary sights of the world will continue to sustain him “if only [he] could abandon his soul-searching and endless arguments over what to do.”
The men at the bar sit next to a neon sign advertising their beer with a man holding a lasso — an idealized version of the man who would drink this beer. But real men sit next to the sign; they’re the ones who nod and connect with each other. All of my confusing feelings, together at once — this was real motherhood, and furthermore, it was my own experience of it. It was not my mother’s, not my friends’, not Dr. Sears’, or that of anyone else I had read. That night, I, too, longed for what Moore called “an inner peace, / both permanent and casual.” Exhausted, scared, and sick as I was, I needed to believe that the world and its ordinary sights (nursing bras and stroller wheels, the newborn’s pale-green sleepsack), one moment at a time, might also sustain me.
At this point I’d like to interrupt myself and make clear that this poem is masterful on the page. It actually re-enacts the process of mindful meditation, in a way so subtle that a reader could entirely miss it, and it wouldn’t take away from the experience of the poem. You almost need to read it for yourself to see how Moore does it. When I heard Gretchen read the poem that night, though, I used it to think about my own experience. From what I know of Moore’s sense of poetics, I think he’d approve. In his biography on the website of the Guggenheim Foundation, which awarded him a fellowship in 2012, Moore writes of his experience in prison: “At first, I hid the fact that I was a poet. Eventually this came out, but instead of finding myself ridiculed, I found myself respected (and far too much) for it [. . . .] I discovered that a big notebook was kept secretly (passed from inmate to inmate so the risk was shared) and at some cost (its discovery would have resulted in the loss of good time, which meant a longer stay in prison) in which inmates kept poems [. . . .] For me, the stakes were raised in prison about what poetry could do, how it could actually help sustain people’s lives in extreme situations.”
I didn’t connect any of this at the time, though, not the way I am for you right now. There was just the tangle of blankets on the couch and Gretchen’s voice and the pool of light around her. There was a dirty used spoon on the coffee table and my relief. For you, bowl of oats. For you, flattened pillow. For you, sleeping babe. For you. For you.