My Life as a Poet – Childhood

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I begin at the beginning – back in the 1940s, with some photographs from this album that was put together over the course of my childhood and youth by my mother. She made three of these albums, by the way, this one for me, and the other two – same design on the cover, in different colors – for my two brothers. The album’s cover, as you see, features Uncle Sam at the helm of the ship of state during World War II, with cannons there in the lower right, a war plane at the upper left, and at the upper right, an outraged eagle. Well, imagine for a minute that this ship of state represents not only a troubled nation, but a troubled family, and that Uncle Sam is a woman, my mother, who as it happened, had her own troubles at the helm of my family in the 1940s.

Here she is, in a snapshot that was taken with a pre-digital camera, so forgive the imperfect resolution. The three kids are my two brothers and me, and we’re having a picnic in the backyard of our apartment building in a project called “Southview,” located in Springfield, Vermont, where we lived then. Significantly, my father isn’t pictured. He was a union organizer and was absent from the family for long periods in the 1940s, eventually leaving my mother for another woman. There was no child support, and no way for her to make money except through seamstress work. So my father’s long absences and his eventual disappearance were a disaster for our family, and when he was gone, my mother was often angry at us and used her switch.
But looking at snapshots like this one of my two brothers and me, you’d never know there was any disharmony, because again and again, the photographs she took present us dressed alike, in clothes she sewed for us, as characters in the unfolding narrative of a happy family. I’m the kid in the middle, by the way, the second born, with more of Southview in the background, as you see, together with its period cars.
In this somewhat fuzzy snapshot we’re wearing the Sunday suits my mother sewed, and she’s arranged us in her typical one-two-three order up the stone steps of our backyard. It’s not the greatest photograph, as I say, but I thought you might enjoy my little brother’s forced smile, which is turning into a grimace because of the cold.
This picture shows the three of us a year later, on Christmas Eve, dressed in bathrobes and holding presents with our usual happy smiles. The actual event that inspired the photograph you see now was not happy at all, but heartbreaking, because this was the Christmas Eve that my father promised, after a very long absence, to join the family with gifts — and never showed up. The bathrobes we’re wearing were Christmas gifts my mother gave us early, just for the occasion, and when she saw my father wasn’t coming after all, she snapped this photo, as if to transform the heartbreak into continuity and contentment.
Here we are again on that Christmas Eve, posing for my mother, with our very few presents. Family photo albums are common, of course, but my mother’s three albums have a special meaning, I think because, creating them in her limited spare time as a single and working mother, she was able to deny the emotional wreckage my father left behind with an alternative story of family togetherness.
But as I look closely at this still later photograph — taken by a neighbor and lacking my mother’s framing mythology – I find clues to the underside of that story. In this snapshot, all the neighborhood children wear jackets to protect them from the cold, except for my brother John and me in the back row, who wear only t-shirts, my own t-shirt torn at the collar. In fact, I not only lived in a broken family, but an underclass one — our poverty growing desperate after my father left in the 1940s — and that experience gave me my first awareness as a poet of life outside of the social mainstream.
My mother was deeply sympathetic toward blacks, and when I was in second grade or thereabouts, she read to me the episodic stories of a black boy named Little Brown Koko. One reason I identified with Koko, no doubt, was that he lived with his mother, who was called “Mama,” the name I used for my mother, and the father of the family in the stories was absent and never mentioned. But I also liked the Koko stories because of the food.
The meals were always sumptuous and fully described, including food we seldom saw in our nearly bare cupboards. I’ll read this excerpt for illustration: “Then such eating you never saw before in all your born days. The long tables were loaded with more peach cobblers and chocolate pies and angel-food cakes and platters of fried chicken and pans of hot rolls and dishes of fresh-churned butter and jars of strawberry preserves than you could shake a stick at.”
Speaking of food, here’s Little Brown Koko from another episode, finishing off his mother’s batter for pralines. And there’s his mother’s name, Mama, you see, scattered through the text at the right.
Of course, African Americans were stereotyped in the Little Brown Koko episodes, yet I see looking back that despite the stereotyping, the stories increased my sympathy for people who lived outside of social privilege. Each month, as they were published in a magazine my mother bought at the local A&P market, I cut them out, and together they became my first book, a special statement about their importance to me.
This is that book, part of my collection….
When my family was flush, in the days before my father left, my mother even bought black dolls for us, as this photo from my album shows. I’m in the middle again, the kid with the black doll. In my own mind there’s a straight line that leads from the socially rejected New Englanders who sometimes appear in my poems back to early materials like these.
My mother not only took photographs of me as I was growing up; she kept in this scrapbook a number of things from my childhood,
including report cards. Here’s one from first grade. What I remember most from first grade is that I had an old teacher we called Miss Dorcas (as you see from the card, her name was Dorcas Judkins), who for punishment once dragged me down the hall by the hair. So imagine my surprise in reviewing these materials
to find this description of myself from the final quarter, in perfectly controlled and sedate handwriting: “Wesley completes this year’s work with an excellent record. Has read 19 books.”
Here’s another report card, from fourth grade…
and another quarterly report, once again in gigantic mode: “Wesley day-dreams!” – exclamation point. My grade-school teachers were upset with me as a daydreamer, and my mother, in exasperation, often called me “stubborn.” Yet I want to say, in my defense, it’s by these very two characteristics – my daydreaming and my stubbornness – that I became, in the end, a poet.
As a matter of fact, I was known as the class poet of my fourth grade. Here’s the official fourth-grade portrait. I’m kneeling in the front row at the left
– the third one in, wearing a checked shirt and that day-dreamy expression
At Way School Elementary, in grade six, I took on my first editing job, for the record – and so this rather dim slide of the cover of the so-called Way School Journal, a magazine of sorts I started up to publicize life at the school. A year before, my mother had married my stepfather, and the family moved to Claremont, New Hampshire, the home of Way School Elementary. As for the image of this freckle-faced boy I drew on the cover of the Way School Journal, if you can make him out, he was derived from my favorite book at the time, Toby Tyler Joins the Circus.
Of course the journal had to include a poem, this one, as you see, a comic version of Way School, with harried teachers and wayward students. There’s nothing here that’s going to make John Keats roll over, so if you don’t mind, I won’t read it aloud, but just – move on.
And anyway – these four books from the period, the very first onesI ever wrote, seem a little more interesting, at least to me looking back… I rediscovered them in my attic recently, more than fifty years old, and called “Tot Books,” because they told stories intended for young children.
Three of them comprised “The Sky Series,” as you see, and each one features a character who longs for a better life and journeys through an alternative world to find it. I completed these books at the age of twelve, after living for several years in that broken home I described, with too much of the switch, and then getting a stepfather who had his own dangerous temper. So it’s no accident – I realize this after rereading them – that the better life my characters long for always involves a new and more sympathetic home.
In the Tot Book called The Adventures of a Balloon, for instance, a helium balloon that is accidentally set adrift finds its way back to the child who lost it,
and through the child, to the home of a loving mother and father.
The character who longs for a perfect home in The Adventures of a Wrist Watch is a watch, and it actually has my own name of Wesley, in case there is any doubt of who this book is really about. Wesley is owned by an angry boy named Jimmy
who is upset that Wesley is only a toy watch and can’t tell time, so he taunts him, using words my stepfather sometimes used for me.
In the book, though, if not quite in my life, things work out all right for Wesley, as the text of this last page explains. It begins with the arch-nemesis Jimmy throwing Wesley into a trash can: “‘I’m throwing you out of the window!’ and out Wesley went. He landed in a trash pail.” But then a boy happens by to search the trash can: “‘Why it’s a watch!’ exclaimed the boy. ‘A watch!’ and he took it home. His father liked it, his mother liked it, and he loved it, so Wesley had a good home and he lived happily ever after.”
…Looking again into The Adventures of a Wrist Watch and the other books of the Sky Series all these years later, I have to say I’m surprised to see that even back then, I was using imaginative writing to deal with my life experience – that unbeknownst to me, my curse had already begun.