I rise at 3:15 in the morning and peek into the bassinette. Our twins, Logan and Declan, lay in swaddled sleep. They were born at twenty-six weeks and five days, almost a trimester premature, at Crouse hospital in Syracuse, New York, and have spent months in the neonatal intensive-care unit. They are “baby burritos.” Normally this cannibalistic metaphor would disgust me, but I can’t help but think of the twins as delicious because they’re mine. I lift Logan up, cradle him in the crook of my left arm, adjust his knit hat. It is my shift and I take him to the nursery to start, what is called his “care time”: disinfect hands, unclothe infant, change him, avoid streams of urine, wipe off smears of meconium, clothe baby, mix formula, heat bottle, feed infant, burp infant, burrito infant and place in bassinette, rinse bottle, repeat with second infant, hopefully sleep an hour once finished. At six o’clock I walk our two dogs. Then feed them, the three cats, and the two guinea pigs. Care for the boys again at 6:30. Get ready for work. Teach until early afternoon. Go home. Chat with wife. Care for boys. Eat when I have a free hand. Sometimes routines feel surreal.
All the while I find I recite portions of “Lines for Winter” by Mark Strand, to myself, sometimes to the boys, sometimes the dogs, sometimes my wife. It was a Wednesday in spring when I first encountered the poem. I was intrigued by the title. Actually, it was a video. A frozen forest appeared, and then dissolved into a slender, black-haired woman who recited the poem. When the video ended, I felt something akin to great wisdom and profound mystery washing over me. I know that is vague, and that irritates me, but I haven’t yet found a precise, pithy comparison. This saddens me, because this poem has been woven into my being. The fact that I cannot clearly share my experience with the poem means I cannot clearly share part of myself. Frankly, this frightens me.
So I tell myself, Relax. You will be fine. You will be just fine. This poem, like all great poems, challenges our sense of self, confronts us, has us inhabit ambiguity, and brings us to a moment of choice. I’ve discovered I seek these points of contention, these gaps, not because I find the conflict fascinating, or I need to resolve them to be comfortable in my own skin, but because they are opportunities to connect with others. These moments require language to be whole. In the early dark I don’t speak the poem to my sons because I think they comprehend the words or enjoy the wisdom of the poem: I speak to not feel alone, to comfort others. I speak for the pleasure of sound, for strength. I speak to keep going, to be liberated. I speak to find myself. I speak to find others.
To be clear, I listen too: particularly to my wife, my boys, my mother sometimes, my students too, but I listen most closely to poems. Maybe this makes me a bad husband, father, or son, but when all is said and done, I’ve learned to stop asking why certain things happen. Instead I ask, “What is this?” because what things are, what they struggle with, and what they become is far more interesting. Not “Why this poem?” but “What is this poem?” Not “Why are we here?” but “What do we become?” In the early dark I tell these things to my sons because I love what they are.