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October 27, 2005


Making Amends: Remembrance of A Model Scene

Shame and Humiliation

There are moments when the sudden recollection of a "model scene" from our past activates, as in the following moving poem, the wish to make reparations for unkind actions that we might have inflicted upon important relationships in our lives.

This poem has, for me, an especially dramatic impact, because it is a reminder of the many humiliations that we, perhaps unintentionally, too often inflict upon young persons.


We placed the cake, with its four candles
poking out of thick soft frosting, on the seat
of his chair at the head of the table
for just a moment, while we unfolded and spread
Spanish cloth over Vermont maple.

Suddenly he stepped from the group
of schoolmates and parents and family friends
and ran to the table, and just as someone cried
No, no! Don't sit! he sat on his chair and his cake,
and the room broke into groans and guffaws.

Actually it was pretty funny, we all
started yelping our heads off, and actually
it wasn't in the least funny. He ran to me,
and I picked him up but I was still laughing,
and in indignant fury he jabbed his thumbs

into the corners of my mouth, grasped
my cheeks, and yanked - he was so muscled
and so outraged I felt as if he might rip
my whole face off, and then realized
that was exactly what he was trying to do.

It came to me: I was one of his keepers,
his birth and the birth of his sister
had put me on earth a second time,
with the duty this time to protect them
and to help them to love themselves,

and yet here I was, locked in solidarity
with these adults against my own child,
hee-hawing away, without once wondering
if we weren't, underneath, all of us, striking back,
too late, at our parents for humiliating us.

I gulped down my laughter and held him and
apologized and commiserated and explained and then
things were right again, but to this day it remains
loose, this face, seat of superior smiles,
on the bones, from that yanking.

Shall I publish this anecdote from the past
and risk embarrassing him? I like it
that he fought back, but what's the good,
now he's thirty-six, in telling the tale
of his mortification when he was four?

Let him decide - I'll give him three choices.
He can scratch his slapdash checkmark,
whose rakish hook reminds me
of his old high-school hockey stick,
in whichever box applies:

__Tear it up ___ Don't publish it but give me a copy

___O.K. publish it on the chance that
somewhere someone survives
of those said to die miserably every day
for lack of the small clarifications sometimes found in poems.

By Galway Kinnell
The New Yorker Magazine
May 2005

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