Poems of My Father — #2

Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Richard Wilbur (1921–2017)

This is a poem about a father’s relationship with his daughter and the daughter’s relationship with the world. My father’s relationship with my sister and my relationship with my daughter is different from the relationships with our sons. Not better or worse, just different, especially when the daughter — like the daughter in this poem — is an artist as my daughter is and as my sister is, at times in her life. (I thank Sarah Skwire for sharing this poem with me.)

This is not an easy poem at first glance. There’s a lot going on but it richly repays a careful reading. In the first five verses, the father sees his daughter as being at the prow of a ship, splitting the waves. The gunwale, pronounced “gun’l” is the top part of a ship’s hull and when the anchor goes out, the chain scrapes in a staccato way over the gunwale, which reminds the poet of the staccato attack on the keyboard that he can hear through the “shut door” of his daughter’s room.

I love “shut door.” Here’s what Wilbur could have said:

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her room a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

“From her shut door” is stronger than “From her room” and stronger even than “From her closed door.” The latter is just a state of the door, closed rather than open. But “shut” conveys a deliberate decision by the daughter to close the door, to isolate herself from her father and the family, a yearning that all adolescents have — an urge for privacy and independence that is challenging to the parents.

The first three verses have a lovely echo of the Dickinson poem “There is No Frigate Like a Book.” Wilbur sees his daughter’s writing as a way to escape from the mundane house, to travel into new lands of the mind, making passage out into the world. In the Dickenson poem, reading liberates us. Here, the daughter is writing. But it’s the same idea — through words we go inward, which lets us journey outward.

Wilbur notes that this journey isn’t all wine and roses. We take much baggage with us (he uses word “cargo” to sustain the nautical metaphor) and that baggage can be heavy in ways that go beyond weight. Aware of that burden, the poet wishes his daughter “lucky passage.” And he chooses the word “lucky” rather than the more conventional “safe.” We might wish safe passage for our children but we know that all journeys in this world are uncertain and that some danger and damage is inevitable.

The poem could have ended here. It would be a lovely poem. But Wilbur takes it into a darker, richer place that opens the heart.

When the father notices the silence — when the commotion of the typewriter keys is stilled — he rejects this “easy figure,” this metaphor of writer as voyager on stormy seas. Then he gives us a second metaphor, which makes this poem not so much about writing after all, despite the title, but about the powerful feelings we have for our children and that they have for us.

In verses 6–10, he compares his daughter to a bird trapped in a room unable to find the way out. The caged bird is another metaphor that captures the yearning for freedom. Wilbur’s description of the bird — a dazed iridescent starling — captures his feelings for his daughter in the midst of her growing up. Think about each of those three words — dazed — iridescent (where the underlying dazzle of the bird can only be seen in particular light at the right angle) and starling, a word that denotes escaping this world altogether. This is about more than the escape of fantasy or imagination that reading (or writing) can bring.

Let’s look closely at the last two verses that bring the poem home:

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Wilbur could have written:

It flew from off a chair-back,
Flying a smooth course for the open window
And escaping the room where it was trapped.

It’s still a nice metaphor. But the word choices Wilbur made instead take the poem to greatness, for me.

“Lifted off” sounds like a rocket headed for the stars, a most appropriate language for a starling or an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood. “Beating a smooth course for the right window” is the opposite of dazed. Suddenly, the bird knows where it needs to go. The powerful wings move steadily as it gathers speed and heads toward freedom.

“Clearing the sill of the world” is such a poetic leap. What does that mean? What’s the sill of the world? I think Wilbur, like Dickinson in her poem on reading, is saying that leaving your parent’s home is about so much more than physical travel. Through reading and writing we can leave this world behind. But the journey is really an inner journey, Dickinson’s image of the “chariot of the human soul.” It’s about so much more than the physical reality that is daily life.

If the starling doesn’t escape the room it dies. If the child cannot be free of the parents emotionally or physically or both, the child cannot thrive. It’s a matter of life or death and not just writing a nice story or being able to be alone in your room with the door shut or leaving your house overburdened by the cargo you must carry. The last two lines of the poem is when the poet realizes what’s at stake. Everything.

What does he wish for his daughter? What he wished before, but “harder,” with more intensity and urgency: lucky passage.

The rest of the essays in this series, Poems of my Father, are here.