Our God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
How young we were then, my darling, how little
we knew, you and I, when you slipped into
that final sleep so quietly—no time
for words, no words we knew to say.
At the service we sang Isaac Watts.
I mouthed the rhymes dry eyed as always.
I wore a suit and stood up straight. You
followed me everywhere, down the yellow
brick road, Dorothy to my Tin Woodsman.
I wanted a heart. I feared tears would turn
me to rust. You slept in the field of poppies
your breath in my ear. You were the lamb
in the basket grown leggy and wild.
You followed me to school, I saw you
in the eyes of the girls. I fell, down, down
the hill. You tumbled after, laughing.
Suddenly you’re forty-five. Oh my dear,
how you would love it here now. Women
at forty-five just coming into the sweet
beauty of their primes. Not like the days
when they were old at thirty. God, you would
dazzle them now, the way you’d walk into
a room all smiles and wisdom like the grey
heron standing in the pond, wings furled,
ready to take off. Beauty is always
almost gone, says Hopkins.. Maybe so.
You left with yours intact and brought it back
transformed. I didn’t know that until you
came to me with everything God taught you
all those years—a thousand ages like
an evening gone—and here you are to teach
me what I need to know.
Muse, angel, companion of these later
years, now I know that, bidden or unbidden,
you were with me all along, even when
I thought you had surely gone, like sun
at four o’clock on winter afternoons.
I know your guises now—the eye
of the stranger in the street, asking why,
the woman with the green shawl looking
back over her shoulder. And yes, I see
you, too, in the blue waters of the lake
and the small purple flowers that grow wild
on the bank in the rocks among the day lilies.
I stop here now and wait for your touch.
How did you come to write “A Poem for My Daughter”?
My daughter died when she was just short of her fourth birthday in 1967. I began writing poems for her in the 1970s. I wrote “The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat” to celebrate her college years. In a previous posting on this blog (see Tuesday, November 6, 2012), “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter on Her 40th Birthday” was part of a series of poems I have written—in 5 year intervals—celebrating her life as it might have been. This one above, “A Poem for My Daughter,” marks her 45th birthday in 2008, and I have already written one to celebrate her 50th this year, and it is out for publication right now.
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
This poem and the others I have written in her memory have kept her alive in my imagination, which is critically important to me. Recovery is in part the result of turning something painful into something that heals. The writing of these poems has been a central part of the healing process.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
I think I have already alluded to the process of consciously celebrating her life in poetry every five years. So I being to think quite consciously of what she might have been like at 40, 45, or 50. That conscious imagining is central to the whole process of creating the poems, but the poems also must come in and of themselves. I can’t know everything in advance or there is no surprise. No surprise no emotions. So the whole last scene in the poem is pure imagination, pure surprise, pure joy of having her appear.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you’d recommend to others?
Poets I have worked with in recent years who have meant a great deal to me include Jane Kenyon (absolutely essential), James Wright, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman.
What are you working on now?
I published two books in 2011—If Words Could Save Us, a book of poems with accompanying CD, and an anthology I edited, What Writers Do, which celebrates the writers who have been part of the Lenoir Rhyne University Visiting Writers Series. I am very busy teaching and doing readings from these two books this year.
Anthony S. Abbott is Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College. He is the author of two novels, including the Novellow Award winning Leaving Maggie Hope. He has written six volumes of poetry, the most recent of which is If Words Could Save Us (Lorimer Press, 2011). He is the 2012 winner of the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award of the North Carolina Writers Network.