Back to Issue Thirty-Two

Little Songs


My child, ringing in the distance, even at a distance, through the
        sheer gates of mind,

I hear you. You are in the school, in the public speech of
        learning, lifted from the tongues

of the whole and shared with you. It has its own sinister poetics,
        the yeas and nays, the abstentions

of the body public and politic. My child, I hear you even now. As
        you waste and build, speak

and hear among your peers. For what do we prepare you. How
        little we are able to judge

from the ordinary habits of life. Which occur only at long

Not at all and then at will. So the dreaded school year starts, not a
        good sign, in your opinion.

Last September, the nursery teacher came to the house to talk
        with us—more with us

than with you—not a good sign. But now you long for her, her
        high heels and her skirts, her songs

of the ABCs. How do you fit your rhymes into those songs you
        sing these days—the lower

parts veiled in fleecy clouds, conical hills, fluffy mountains, and
        land-like tables—

and can we go there? On the weekend perhaps if there is time.
        For now it starts in earnest,

the soft collective punishment of taking a break and of silence,
        for we have learned

to judge anything but our own happinesses, and we do not mind
        a little skirmish.

Three weeks ago, the Pacific wore its thin veil of smoke. You
        were in its simulacrum,

a saltwater pool by the townhouses, summer afternoon repeated.
        In English

“the most beautiful words.” I see you through your eyes,
        their piercing catch of mind

as you master the intake of breath above its reflection—water in
        the body

of your little boat, nearly five years on the earth, the pool too
        deep for you to touch. For days

later, I record it, like Wharton’s repetition of James’s, transcribed

and altered, against the impossibility. Impenetrable time, I record
        this here.

Meanwhile, the Ferguson Fire, and the Carr, and the Mendocino
        Complex fire,

the largest on record in California, 459 thousand acres, raged in
        the north.

Meanwhile, the Holy Fire, named after Holy Jim Canyon, where
        it began when a man named

Forrest gave it to his neighbors, flamed over the saddled crest of
        Saddle Back, on its way

through its first 18 thousand acres, visible from our pool, twelve
        miles away.

And the air above Lake Elsinore rose each summer afternoon
        and drew wind

from the Pacific, so the fire respired down canyon in sun, then up
        at night.

The fire’s down-up-canyon movement each day named for the
        lake, the Elsinore effect,

the lake itself named for Hamlet’s house on fire, for everything
        may serve a lower

as well as a higher use. The surface limns and breaks across your
        goggles in summer

afternoon—you break your stroke and raise your resolutely sealed
        lips above it,

your lungs a sound that brings the bodies of disaster into view in
        all their clear

abstraction. You come to me, you steal your breaths. In memory,
        like a word. It pushes

through the air. It comes to the ear. It cries out, cut from its
        mother, I am born.

At the embarcadero, we’d ridden the ferris wheel. We’d had ice
        cream. We did not shop.

We didn’t have time. We played in the sand yard on the shore. A 
        Gulliver-sized statue

of a foot, a head, a knee, a hand, coming out of the sand. We did
        not ride

the merry-go-round. We did not have time. We were leaving,
        walking back to the lot.

And your sister turned to run for a fountain. She followed you
        who’d just bolted for the fountain.

And I grabbed her by the arm to keep her near. To keep her
        from being at the fountain,

I held her by the arm, by the hand. I turned quickly to catch her.
        A kind of arrest.

I kept her. While you ran until I caught you. To catch. What is it I
        want to say?

I am not gentle. It was quick—as her bolt was quick. It was
        fierce, as if to say, no

never. As if to say, I catch you—have you in hand. To defeat her

Is this what a father does, as if to say, do not try to escape
        again—not when

you are within my reach. As if from the sky. As if from my half
        sleep. Do not wake

me in my confusion. You, keen on the souvenir in the market,
        with your song

and your cloud architects rising from their tables, pouring their
        structures in concrete.

I spoke to your mother tonight after we put you and your sister
        to sleep.

She said she hoped I could be happy soon. She wished me to be
        gentle with you.

When you cry, hurt or enraged, the philtrum, the medial cleft of
        your upper lip, stretches

transformed. I feel my esophagus, like a scabbard, tighten. How
        to remove

the story without depending on force. How to reach you,
        standing at the door, wanting

nothing more from me in the room than the half-thought
        substance of my own attention.

To be noticed. See me, Daddy. Daddy, look closely. I have a
        magic trick to show you.

Anger comes so easily out of me, my author, since you died. By
        the time you were old,

you seemed empty of it. You were a punisher: punitive strikes
        with the belt.

I don’t want to tell my son this. I don’t know how often the welts
        on my legs were there.

Were they normal to me? But I know they were not a surprise.
        Seen as a sign,

that you had whipped me too hard—an apology. My mind fills
        and runs, nervous,

as I try to enter this room with you. As you strayed from details
        of the punishments

you suffered under your father. Daddy, watch this coin. Where
        did it exit the world?

A school of koi in the shallow beneath a pier turn over one
        another, churning.

One, many, have a kind of pink wound on the back, circular, as if
        a sticker

from a banana, as if a coin of their flesh had been removed. You
        were a punisher.

You would abide little dissent. Now I am the punisher, time as
        the divisor.

Without us, in its own undulating place and time, the blaze rises
        in the sky.

Its heat creates its own wind, feeding it more oxygen, violence 
        proceeding from it as if on command,

as if automated. Round the world, a chain of supervision, the hurt
        and pain of that.

From the ridge I watch its tint, refracted through smoke in the
        distance, a robin’s blood orange,

a koi’s, a dark safety cone—a train cuts through the valley, the
        hills terraced with those

who can and cannot—in the veil, as if to meet the day’s first
        aerial tanker

drop a sheet of retardant, it raises its volcanic head, the Holy Fire.

as the divisor, your sister folds like a knife in her inflatable donut
        and “teleports,”

bottom first, into the pool’s deep end. You pull through the
        water your slender

hero’s body, raise your head, gasp, and thrash your nonce breast
        stroke further toward me.




Peter Streckfus is the author of two poetry books: Errings, winner of Fordham University Press’s 2013 POL Editor’s Prize, and The Cuckoo, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2003. His poems appear in journals such as the Bennington Review, the Chicago Review, the New Republic, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day. He lives in the Washington DC area, is on the faculties of the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University and the Low-Residency Pan-European MFA in Creative Writing at Cedar Crest College, and is the associate director of Poetry Daily. His website is

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