In autumn 2016, I was in the slow midst of writing a new book of poems. Looking back, I can see a lot of personal and public dread in the poems I had recently written, as well as in the writings of so many others. When our public life exploded that November, it felt like a calamity, but in retrospect it should have been predictable. It seems clear it was less an event than a revelation of what has been there all along, obvious to anyone who was simply looking.
In “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley wrote, “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” A century later, Spanish poet and Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre deepened this idea, writing that the poet “is always one who reveals. The poet is essentially the seer, the prophet. But his ‘prediction’ is not a prediction of the future; it might well be of the past: it is timeless prophecy.”
I love and fear the idea of poems as mirrors held to the past, the present, and even to the possible future. In those mirrors is revealed what Virginia Woolf calls “moments of being,” when the “cotton wool” of ordinary existence is suddenly pierced or blown away. It is painful and hopeful. We are left with the immanence of our own existence, realizations heretofore hidden to us by others or ourselves.
A few weeks after the election, in December 2016, our son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. It still feels a bit unreal to type those words, as if it is happening to someone else. For a while, in the spring of that next year, I didn’t really write. We were too busy trying to figure out what to do to help him as he moved into his early school years. We were going to our jobs and doing all the daily things and also trying to process and learn.
It turned out that I knew virtually nothing about autism, and what I did know was wrong. I thought of it as a disaster. All I had available to me were a few scattered, exaggerated characters in film and television and incorrect facts. I didn’t understand anything about why neurodiverse kids and adults react differently to the world around them and how pervasive our negative stereotypes and assumptions are about this large, heterogeneous group. I had a lot to learn, about autism in general, and about my son in particular, and still do.
I was also made painfully aware that despite my own superficial iconoclasm and rejection of typical paths for my social class, I was deeply invested in traditional markers of success and conformity. To my shame, as well as my ongoing gratitude, my son’s differences from expected norms initially threatened, then thankfully shattered, those anachronistic notions in favor of the start of a much more loving and accepting attitude.
Starting later in 2017 and through the summer of 2018, I slowly started to write again. These new poems were of course filled with my emotions and thoughts about my life both as a father and as a stunned and horrified citizen. Without being specific I mention my son’s “diagnosis” (if that word is even appropriate, which, to the extent it carries within it the presumption of illness, I am sure it is not) in several poems. They were written relatively early in the process of understanding how he is different, after the initial shock but still in a time of great distress and ignorance. And yet, because of that distress, there is something profoundly true about the feelings in them....
This essay is from Father's Day (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) and was reprinted in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets, with permission of the poet and Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Zapruder. To receive American Poets, become a member.