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Poems for Adults and Other Children

What The Child Knows

the child

The child has a sense of order,
for when he eats some peas
from the left side of the plate,
he then eats from the right side
potatoes to balance the universe.
If his right foot brushes his left ankle,
he will feel uneasy until his left foot
brushes his right ankle. 
The child knows that ideal form
signifies immortality: He doesn't bite
his ice cream cone, but licks it
carefully, keeping intact its dome
to the last. He sucks on a Lifesaver,
maintaining its perfect innertube form
until the final sliver snaps on the tongue or,
better, melts away unbroken,
unlike the cheap hard candy that becomes
pocked with sharp-edged air holes.
The child knows the world is his onion:
He will peel almost anything,
not to hurt it, but to get at
what's inside: bark off a stick
to touch the slick, greeny-white
underskin, wings off a seed-pod to see
a seed. He'll separate the delicate
oyster of a sandwich cookie softly
so as to leave the thin mound
of sweet white cream all on one side,
unblemished. He takes pains to remove
only the outer part of a carrot,
leaving a smooth yellow core, fringed
with slender cilia.
 The child knows the pain of incompleteness:
He tries to think of the sound, "t", and not
say it. Soon his tongue insists on it,
plagued by the itch of the unsaid.
The child investigates realms of fairness
shunned by adults: If, lying in bed,
he admires his right knee, he quickly
admires his left knee. Finding he is
right-handed, he gives his left hand
extra chores to make up for it.
He doesn't avoid sidewalk cracks,
but if his left foot hits one, he will take
a baby or a giant step to make his right foot
land on the next one. If, in his
tent of blankets in the living room,
he takes in one toy, he has to include another
and another...until none are excluded. 
The child knows the mystery of numbers
The child counts The way two is two of something and
four is two twos, and sixteen, a very
just number, is four fours. But sixty-
four is going too far, marvelous though it is
to be four of four fours and have a four
in your name as well, for the child knows
you have to draw the line somewhere. 
The child knows there are limits:
When he tries to dig a hole to China,
he soon encounters the cave-in threshhold,
where dirt falls down from the sides of the hole
(hairy with broken roots, which are strange,
because how did sticks get under the ground?)
as fast as he can scoop it out. 
The child knows the fit sequence of actions:
Put on pants before shoes, or you get stuck;
put on pants before shirt, because
a man looks a fool in his shirt with no pants. 
The child Understands potential:
He knows Dad's car could go faster
than any other car if Dad wanted it to.
The child accepts the miraculous: He knows
that somehow Mom and Dad manage to dress and
undress and sleep together in the same room
(so their loving each other can make babies)
without ever seeing each other naked,
he being a boy and she a girl
(though the child later suspects they take turns
undressing in their closet). 
The child has never told anyone his knowledge.
Especially he never tells (for someone might
deny it - "someone", meaning another child,
of course; you don't tell real things
to grown-ups) - never tells what he knows
best of all: The wolf only seemed
to eat the duck, which was safely hidden
in the hollow tree all along.
The child knows that somehow,
even for the wicked witch, someday
everything comes out all right.

Short Poems

A long argument
with a four-year-old: I'm cured
of wanting to be right.

This morning, thinking about the future,
I put on my left shoe, then had to
take itoff so I could put on
my pants. When did that
last happen? Never to me! Long
ago to a child. Has it been so long
since I had a future?

Boy so intent on
pissing--tries to cover
the water with bubbles.

Hollow wooden "plonk!"
Sound of a house with children:
Toilet seat dropped hard.

Toddler rolls on the floor,
hangs on Mama's calf, jigs
across the carpet,
waving both hands, inventing
new ways to be a body.
So much concern for the world our
children will live in, yet so pitiless
toward our ancestors! If only we cared,
we could remake the past and give our
grandparents a wonderful world to have
lived in. We could decide that Hitler,
in his fondness for Jewish children,
invited them to his palace for ice cream
and cookies and puppet shows; that the
Russian nobles said to Lenin, "I know
what! Let's play everyone-owns-
everything! All this wealth is such a
bore!" We can decide anything we want--
and make it so. Let's decide something
nice. We owe it to our parents. Perhaps
someday our children will give us
an even better world to have lived in.



Last updated: April 8, 2010