Though tomorrow is my regular Friday Favorites poetry feature, I ran across a poem this morning by Alden Nowlan, whom I highlighted on July 7th with the poem He Attempts To Love His Neighbours. I had marked today’s poem as a favorite because it not only fascinated me, but it made me very uncomfortable when I read it the first time. I found this brief excerpt about Nowlan and this poem from an essay written by Deklyn Morris on The Center for Civic Reflection site. There’s actually a list of discussion questions there for this poem. You can find the entire essay at Deklyn’s site if you’re interested.
At age eleven, the late Canadian poet Alden Nowlan expressed a “desire to be a prophet,” and arguably achieves this dream today in his published works. “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded” depicts a scene in which a guileless woman elicits from a cynical man not just an embrace but also a reflection on his impulse to be part of an embrace. Nowlan’s moving poem questions both our motives for helping others and our responses to the deepest human needs.
I hope you find He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded as fascinating and interesting as I did. I would really love to hear your thoughts on it.
I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”
It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favorite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old MacDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do
about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays the part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere, “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”
I put my arm around her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
of me: I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children,
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss.)
Yet, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshiped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.
She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two thousand years ago.
(The picture above is from a news story: Mom leaves mentally disabled daughter at bar, refuses to retrieve her, b Wed July 11, 2012.)