Father’s Day 2018 – W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle”

It’s Father’s Day 2018 and I am in Boston… and Julia is in Manhattan.  However, she is always on my mind and just one thought away .  Thus, using the time to share this poem and story.

“On this Father’s Day, I share “Heart’s Needle” with all the divorced fathers of daughters, especially only daughters: it’s the most powerful and beautiful and affecting poem on that complex relationship.  The volume by the same title won The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

I first read it early in college and admired it as a poem, but its power was dormant as I hadn’t yet experienced  (but, sadly, would) – all the love, despair, pain, confusion, anger, and fear on which W.D. would draw from his own experience to create it. When it did speak to me, eighteen years later as a divorcing father of a ten year-old only-child and daughter, it both righted my emotionally wobbly world and showed that it was not a lonely planet.”

I wrote to W.D. some years later to express my support for another of his books, and also to – finally – share how important and impacting this poem had been to me in a time of need.

The link below is to the initial letters exchanged in 1995, which I am sharing to show how and why “Heart’s Needle” had been so powerful.  W.D. shares back how that father-daughter relationship turned out later.

W.D. Snodgrass letters

Many years later, in 2011, after his death 2009 and the December  2010 that destroyed my apartment and my irreplaceable poetry library, W.D.’s widow gifted me with copies of several, including “Heart’s Needle”, from his own copies.  It was a most wonderful, touching, and generous act.

Below is “Heart’s Needle”.  Find a quiet place to read it: I recommend doing it twice, the second time, aloud: it will enhance the experience.

Heart’s Needle

W. D. Snodgrass, 19262009

For Cynthia

When Suibhe would not return to fine garments and good food, to his houses and his people, Loingseachan told him, “Your father is dead.” “I’m sorry to hear it,” he said. “Your mother is dead,” said the lad. “All pity for me has gone out of the world.” “Your sister, too, is dead.” “The mild sun rests on every ditch,” he said; “a sister loves even though not loved.” “Suibhne, your daughter is dead.” “And an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” “And Suibhne, your little boy, who used to call you ‘Daddy’ he is dead.” “Aye,” said Suibhne, “that’s the drop that brings a man to the ground.”
He fell out of the yew tree; Loingseachan closed his arms around him and placed him in manacles.

—after The Middle-Irish Romance
The Madness of Suibhne


Child of my winter, born
When the new fallen soldiers froze
In Asia’s steep ravines and fouled the snows,
When I was torn

By love I could not still,
By fear that silenced my cramped mind
To that cold war where, lost, I could not find
My peace in my will, 

All those days we could keep
Your mind a landscape of new snow
Where the chilled tenant-farmer finds, below,
His fields asleep

In their smooth covering, white
As quilts to warm the resting bed
Of birth or pain, spotless as paper spread
For me to write,

And thinks: Here lies my land
Unmarked by agony, the lean foot
Of the weasel tracking, the thick trapper’s boot;
And I have planned

My chances to restrain
The torments of demented summer or
Increase the deepening harvest here before
It snows again.

   Late April and you are three; today
      We dug your garden in the yard.
   To curb the damage of your play,
Strange dogs at night and the moles tunneling,
   Four slender sticks of lath stand guard
      Uplifting their thin string.

   So you were the first to tramp it down.
      And after the earth was sifted close
   You brought your watering can to drown
All earth and us.  But these mixed seeds are pressed
   With light loam in their steadfast rows.
      Child, we’ve done our best.

   Someone will have to weed and spread
      The young sprouts.  Sprinkle them in the hour
   When shadow falls across their bed.
You should try to look at them every day
   Because when they come to full flower
      I will be away.

The child between them on the street
Comes to a puddle, lifts his feet
   And hangs on their hands. They start
At the Jive weight and lurch together,
Recoil to swing him through the weather,
   Stiffen and pull apart.

We read of cold war soldiers that
Never gained ground, gave none, but sat
   Tight in their chill trenches.
Pain seeps up from some cavity
Through the ranked teeth in sympathy;
   The whole jaw grinds and clenches

Till something somewhere has to give.
It’s better the poor soldiers live
   In someone else’s hands
Than drop where helpless powers fall
On crops and barns, on towns where all
   Will burn. And no man stands.

For good, they sever and divide
Their won and lost land. On each side
   Prisoners are returned
Excepting a few unknown names.
The peasant plods back and reclaims
   His fields that strangers burned

And nobody seems very pleased.
It’s best. Still, what must not be seized
   Clenches the empty fist.
I tugged your hand, once, when I hated
Things less: a mere game dislocated
   The radius of your wrist.

Love’s wishbone, child, although I’ve gone
As men must and let you be drawn
   Off to appease another,
It may help that a Chinese play
Or Solomon himself might say
   I am your real mother.

      No one can tell you why
   the season will not wait;
      the night I told you I
must leave, you wept a fearful rate
         to stay up late.

      Now that it’s turning Fan,
   we go to take our walk
      among municipal
flowers, to steal one off its stalk,
         to try and talk.

      We huff like windy giants
   scattering with our breath
      gray-headed dandelions;
Spring is the cold wind’s aftermath.
         The poet saith.

      But the asters, too, are gray,
   ghost-gray. Last night’s cold
      is sending on their way
petunias and dwarf marigold,
         hunched sick and old.

      Like nerves caught in a graph,
   the morning-glory vines
      frost has erased by half
still scrawl across their rigid twines.
         Like broken lines

      of verses I can’t make.
   In its unraveling loom
      we find a flower to take,
with some late buds that might still bloom,
         back to your room.

      Night comes and the stiff dew.
   I’m told a friend’s child cried
      because a cricket, who
had minstreled every night outside
         her window, died.

Winter again and it is snowing;
Although you are still three,
You are already growing
Strange to me.

You chatter about new playmates, sing
Strange songs; you do not know
Hey ding-a-ding-a-ding
Or where I go

Or when I sang for bedtime, Fox
Went out on a chilly night,
Before I went for walks
And did not write;

You never mind the squalls and storms
That are renewed long since;
Outside, the thick snow swarms
Into my prints

And swirls out by warehouses, sealed,
Dark cowbarns, huddled, still,
Beyond to the blank field,
The fox’s hill

Where he backtracks and sees the paw,
Gnawed off, he cannot feel;
Conceded to the jaw
Of toothed, blue steel.

      Easter has come around
   again; the river is rising
      over the thawed ground
   and the banksides. When you come you bring
      an egg dyed lavender.
   We shout along our bank to hear
our voices returning from the hills to meet us.
   We need the landscape to repeat us.

      You Jived on this bank first.
   While nine months filled your term, we knew
      how your lungs, immersed
   in the womb, miraculously grew
      their useless folds till
   the fierce, cold air rushed in to fill
them out like bushes thick with leaves. You took your hour,
   caught breath, and cried with your full lung power.

      Over the stagnant bight
   we see the hungry bank swallow
      flaunting his free flight
   still; we sink in mud to follow
      the killdeer from the grass
   that hides her nest. That March there was
rain; the rivers rose; you could hear killdeers flying
   all night over the mudflats crying.

      You bring back how the red-
   winged blackbird shrieked, slapping frail wings,
      diving at my head—
   I saw where her tough nest, cradled, swings
      in tall reeds that must sway
   with the winds blowing every way.
If you recall much, you recall this place. You still
   live nearby—on the opposite hill.

      After the sharp windstorm
   of July Fourth, all that summer
      through the gentle, warm
   afternoons, we heard great chain saws chirr
      like iron locusts. Crews
   of roughneck boys swarmed to cut loose
branches wrenched in the shattering wind, to hack free
   all the torn limbs that could sap the tree.

      In the debris lay
   starlings, dead. Near the park’s birdrun
      we surprised one day
   a proud, tan-spatted, buff-brown pigeon.
      In my hands she flapped so
   fearfully that I let her go.
Her keeper came. And we helped snarl her in a net.
   You bring things I’d as soon forget.

      You raise into my head
   a Fall night that I came once more
      to sit on your bed;
   sweat beads stood out on your arms and fore-
      head and you wheezed for breath,
   for help, like some child caught beneath
its comfortable wooly blankets, drowning there.
   Your lungs caught and would not take the air.

      Of all things, only we
   have power to choose that we should die;
      nothing else is free
   in this world to refuse it. Yet I,
      who say this, could not raise
   myself from bed how many days
to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,
   another child. We try to choose our life.

Here in the scuffled dust
   is our ground of play.
I lift you on your swing and must
   shove you away,
see you return again,
   drive you off again, then

stand quiet till you come.
   You, though you climb
higher, farther from me, longer,
   will fall back to me stronger.
Bad penny, pendulum,
   you keep my constant time

to bob in blue July
   where fat goldfinches fly
over the glittering, fecund
   reach of our growing lands.
Once more now, this second,
   I hold you in my hands.

I thumped on you the best I could
      which was no use;
you would not tolerate your food
until the sweet, fresh milk was soured
      with lemon juice.

That puffed you up like a fine yeast.
   The first June in your yard
like some squat Nero at a feast
you sat and chewed on white, sweet clover.
      That is over.

When you were old enough to walk
      we went to feed
the rabbits in the park milkweed;
saw the paired monkeys, under lock,
   consume each other’s salt.

Going home we watched the slow
stars follow us down Heaven’s vault.
You said, let’s catch one that comes low,
      pull off its skin
   and cook it for our dinner.

   As absentee bread-winner,
I seldom got you such cuisine;
we ate in local restaurants
or bought what lunches we could pack
      in a brown sack

with stale, dry bread to toss for ducks
   on the green-scummed lagoons,
crackers for porcupine and fox,
life-savers for the footpad coons
      to scour and rinse,

snatch after in their muddy pail
   and stare into their paws.
When I moved next door to the jail
      I learned to fry
omelettes and griddle cakes so I

could set you supper at my table.
As I built back from helplessness,
      when I grew able,
the only possible answer was
   you had to come here less.

This Hallowe’en you come one week.
      You masquerade
   as a vermilion, sleek,
fat, crosseyed fox in the parade
or, where grim jackolanterns leer,

go with your bag from door to door
foraging for treats. How queer:
   when you take off your mask
my neighbors must forget and ask
      whose child you are.

Of course you lose your appetite,
   whine and won’t touch your plate;
      as local law
I set your place on an orange crate
in your own room for days. At night

you lie asleep there on the bed
      and grate your jaw.
Assuredly your father’s crimes
      are visited
on you. You visit me sometimes.

The time’s up. Now our pumpkin sees
   me bringing your suitcase.
      He holds his grin;
the forehead shrivels, sinking in.
You break this year’s first crust of snow

off the runningboard to eat.
   We manage, though for days
I crave sweets when you leave and know
they rot my teeth. Indeed our sweet
      foods leave us cavities.

   I get numb and go in
though the dry ground will not hold
   the few dry swirls of snow
and it must not be very cold.
A friend asks how you’ve been
      and I don’t know

   or see much right to ask.
Or what use it could be to know.
   In three months since you came
the leaves have fallen and the snow;
your pictures pinned above my desk
      seem much the same.

   Somehow I come to find
myself upstairs in the third floor
   museum’s halls,
walking to kill my time once more
among the enduring and resigned
      stuffed animals,

   where, through a century’s
caprice, displacement and
   known treachery between
its wars, they hear some old command
and in their peaceable kingdoms freeze
      to this still scene,

   Nature Morte. Here
by the door, its guardian,
   the patchwork dodo stands
where you and your stepsister ran
laughing and pointing. Here, last year,
      you pulled my hands

   and had your first, worst quarrel,
so toys were put up on your shelves.
   Here in the first glass cage
the little bobcats arch themselves,
still practicing their snarl
      of constant rage.

   The bison, here, immense,
shoves at his calf, brow to brow,
   and looks it in the eye
to see what is it thinking now.
I forced you to obedience;
      I don’t know why.

   Still the lean lioness
beyond them, on her jutting ledge
   of shale and desert shrub,
stands watching always at the edge,
stands hard and tanned and envious
      above her cub;

   with horns locked in tan heather,
two great Olympian Elk stand bound,
   fixed in their lasting hate
till hunger brings them both to ground.
Whom equal weakness binds together
      none shall separate.

   Yet separate in the ocean
of broken ice, the white bear reels
   beyond the leathery groups
of scattered, drab Arctic seals
arrested here in violent motion
      like Napoleon’s troops.

   Our states have stood so long
At war, shaken with hate and dread,
   they are paralyzed at bay;
once we were out of reach, we said,
we would grow reasonable and strong.
      Some other day.

   Like the cold men of Rome,
we have won costly fields to sow
   in salt, our only seed.
Nothing but injury will grow.
I write you only the bitter poems
      that you can’t read.

   Onan who would not breed
a child to take his brother’s bread
   and be his brother’s birth,
rose up and left his lawful bed,
went out and spilled his seed
      in the cold earth.

   I stand by the unborn,
by putty-colored children curled
   in jars of alcohol,
that waken to no other world,
unchanging, where no eye shall mourn.
      I see the caul

   that wrapped a kitten, dead.
I see the branching, doubled throat
   of a two-headed foal;
I see the hydrocephalic goat;
here is the curled and swollen head,
      there, the burst skull;

   skin of a limbless calf;
a horse’s foetus, mummified;
   mounted and joined forever,
the Siamese twin dogs that ride
belly to belly, half and half,
      that none shall sever.

   I walk among the growths,
by gangrenous tissue, goiter, cysts,
   by fistulas and cancers,
where the malignancy man loathes
is held suspended and persists.
      And I don’t know the answers.

   The window’s turning white.
The world moves like a diseased heart
   packed with ice and snow.
Three months now we have been apart
less than a mile. I cannot fight
      or let you go.

The vicious winter finally yields
   the green winter wheat;
the farmer, tired in the tired fields
   he dare not leave will eat.

Once more the runs come fresh; prevailing
   piglets, stout as jugs,
harry their old sow to the railing
   to ease her swollen dugs

and game colts trail the herded mares
   that circle the pasture courses;
our seasons bring us back once more
   like merry-go-round horses.

With crocus mouths, perennial hungers,
   into the park Spring comes;
we roast hot dogs on old coat hangers
   and feed the swan bread crumbs,

pay our respects to the peacocks, rabbits,
   and leathery Canada goose
who took, last Fall, our tame white habits
   and now will not turn loose.

In full regalia, the pheasant cocks
   march past their dubious hens;
the porcupine and the lean, red fox
   trot around bachelor pens

and the miniature painted train
   wails on its oval track:
you said, I’m going to Pennsylvania!
   and waved. And you’ve come back.

If I loved you, they said, I’d leave
   and find my own affairs.
Well, once again this April, we’ve
   come around to the bears;

punished and cared for, behind bars,
   the coons on bread and water
stretch thin black fingers after ours.
   And you are still my daughter.