Published on Academy of American Poets (

Failure to Thrive

O the body’s much ballyhoo’d right to be born!
Aligning with her right to shine & die, a star!
They all know her name but not her age
A doctor our daughters shared, opined.

Her name, he said, was failure to
(Thrived onscreen, you’ve seen her.)
My daughter towered above her in real
Life. Born on the same day, they

might notice you at the edge of the field
with your banners and bottled cells? A
managed tot, from the womb unstoppered,

Brained-up for the stupids. Don’t grow!
Don’t rise into big citizenship! Soul underling,
soul malingering at the gate! Till the end of  the

body’s time: Unicorn, my little porn. Wanted
To unhunger her too, I. But she filled the screen
in that field of dying flowers. Famous-eyed,
turned away from the gift of sustenance, brave: no
semblance of a future beyond everyone’s fake-maternal mind.

Liars’ banners. Then the unicorn’s  passage: lightfoot.

And so loved, lightfoot, so apparently loved:
Some of us must starve in order to be seen.



Copyright @ 2014 by Carol Muske-Dukes. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on August 7, 2014.

About this Poem

 "This is a hard poem to talk about for a number of reasons. I think the poem has to tell its own story. Though, to a certain extent, ‘this really happened’—I've taken certain fictionalizing liberties in the matter of the child actress who is "featured" here.  The poem is, in fact, about something beyond her. It's a poem about a woman's right to choose, about her right to control her own body in the matter of reproductive rights. The mother who was ‘starving’ her daughter so that she might continue to embody the ‘ideal’ of being a child forever (on-screen) is a horrific aside. The real subject of the poem is what we believe about ourselves as mothers, as parents—and our assumption of the right to bring children into this world." 

Carol Muske Dukes 


Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on December 17, 1945. Her poetry collections include Blue Rose (Penguin, 2018), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Sparrow (Random House, 2003), a National Book Award finalist.

Date Published: 2014-08-07

Source URL: