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.
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.
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
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 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.
9 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.
10 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.