Tonight while reading her book for school, Dancing Dinosaurs, my first grader asks how people came to be. Last week, we watched the short introductory film at the American Museum of Natural History explaining the common origins for all vertebrates. We watched it five times.
Doing her homework, which was to answer questions about the books she reads, she asks how humans came to live on earth. I attempt an explanation, “Humans have been evolving over millions of years–from the first creatures that crawled from the sea. Remember that in the movie? The first human beings didn’t look like we did. Scientists believe we evolved from other primates, like apes, over many, many, many years.” Is that right?
“Well, evolution is complicated. It means living things and the earth have evolved or changed over millions of years… You know dinosaurs didn’t really dance, right?”
“Yes, I know that. I think God put two people on earth and then a baby in the woman’s stomach.”
What the? “What? Where did you hear that?”
“That’s a very religious way of believing how people came to be. Some people believe that. I think it’s a nice story.”
“I wish you knew more about people.”
“No one knows everything.” I’m trying.
And then I see that she has circled in her homework log “Poetry” as one of the genres she has been reading at home.
“Molly, you haven’t read any poetry. Why is it circled?”
“Yes I have! See?” And she opens the Dinosaur book to first pages. “See? It says ‘Poetry of…'”
“That says ‘Property of.'” Oh my God. “We don’t really have any kids’ poetry, but most of the books on the shelves are poetry books. Mommy really loves poetry.” Strangely, I haven’t bought any for you.
“Can we read one?”
“Yes,” I say. I pick up a favorite, Eavan Boland‘s collection The Lost Land. Thumbing through, I find “Daughter,” and then rethink it, and say that it’s too long.
“No, I want to hear it!”
“Okay. This is a poet who writes about growing up in England and Ireland. She writes a lot about history.”
“This poem is called ‘Daughter,'” I read:
I. The Season
The edge of spring./The dark is wet. Already/stars are tugging at/their fibrous roots:
In February/they will fall and shine/from the roadsides/in their yellow hundreds.
My first child/was conceived in this season./If I wanted a child now/I could not have one.
Except through memory./Which is the ghost of the body./Or myth./Which is the ghost of meaning.
II. The Loss
All morning/the sound of chain saws./My poplar tree has been cut down.
In dark spring dawns/when I could hardly raise/my head from the pillow
its sap rose/thirty feet into the air./Into daylight. Into the last of starlight.
I go out to the garden/to touch the hurt wood spirits./The injured summers.
Out of one of them a child runs./Her skin printed with a leaf-shadow.
And will not look at me.
III. The Bargain
The garden creaks with rain./The gutters run with noisy water./The earth shows its age and makes a promise/only myth can keep. Summer. Daughter.
“Why is the body a ghost?”
“Well memory is like a ghost–it exists outside the body. After the body. It doesn’t change or grow up or grow old.” You know it is there beyond the touch. “She can remember her daughter when she was little, even though she’s grown now. Did you like that?”
“I’ll buy you some poetry for children. These are really for adults.”
“But it’s ‘Daughter,'” She says back to me. “It’s for me.”
“Yes, but it’s about a daughter. Written for adults to understand.” Written for those for whom a night with questions and books and markers at the dining room table will slip in a few years–that insignificant measure of time on earth–into the specter of childhood, to wait in the bones of memory.