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American Life in Poetry

Sometimes, when we are children, someone or something suddenly throws open a window and the world of adults pours in. And we never quite get over it. Here’s a poem about an experience like that by Judith Slater, who lives in New York.


I didn’t think handsome then, I thought

my father the way he saunters down Main Street,

housewives, shopkeepers, mechanics calling out,

children running up to get Lifesavers. The way

he pauses to chat, flipping his lighter open,

tamping the Lucky Strike on his thumbnail.

I sneak into his den when he’s out, tuck

into the kneehole of his desk and sniff

his Zippo until dizzy, emboldened;

then play little tricks, mixing red and black

inks in his fountain pen, twisting together

paperclips. If I lift the telephone receiver

quietly, I can listen in on our party line.

That’s how I hear two women

talking about him. That’s why my mother

finds me that night sleepwalking, sobbing.

“It’s all right,” she tells me,

“you had a nightmare, come to bed.”

Poem copyright 2011 by Judith Slater from “The Wind Turning Pages,” (Outriders Poetry Project, 2011), and is reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation and the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


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