My two sons aren’t in my poems so much as they are behind them. Sure, I’ve written about them, but I was always nervous about seeming to say, look what a good dad I am. Mostly, my boys worked their way into the poems the way anybody else does, through some little thing they said or did. After I took 12-year-old Ian to his first grown-up movie, which involved the trial and execution of a mentally disabled person, he said, “That was sad but good.” If you can’t make a poem out of a moment like that, you’re not much of a poet. The main way my children contributed to my poetic career was by being themselves. When I was a young father, we didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of space. I learned that if I couldn’t write when my boys were playing around my feet, I couldn’t write at all. In that way, my sons were my professors: they taught me to write every day and not sweat the circumstances.

A Man Like You But Older

            Here’s how you find a really good restaurant:

you go to the part of town where you want to eat,

            then you stand around till you see someone

who looks like you, or a slightly better-fed version of yourself,

                        maybe, someone just a little paunchier

than you are and a year or two older and certainly

            someone more affluent than you but not much,

because after all you’re thinking ahead here,

           you’re looking for the person you’ll be in a couple

of years, the one who really knows where to go

            and what to get, not the person you are now, for as much

as you love yourself, it goes without saying

                        that in the future you expect to be someone

you love even more, someone you absolutely worship,

            a person you’d spend every waking moment

with if you weren’t that person already.

        You certainly don’t want to accost the person

you’ll be in 20 years! This one is liable

            to be stove up from excesses or, by the same token,

puritanical and disapproving, a regular Savonarola,

                        or maybe just someone with whom you

no longer share—I mean, don’t yet share—

            enough common cultural references and therefore

with whom you can no more converse

            than I might with the self I was 27 years ago

behind the shuttered windows of the casa di cura

            on the Via Pietro Thouar where I stood just this afternoon,

brushing back my graying hair and squinting to see

                        inside the delivery room where my younger self

wheels and holds his head in his hands and tries

            not to weep with rage and frustration: my son Will

has just been born and he isn’t breathing,

            and the Italian doctor and the nurses have taken him

into another room, and I’m afraid they’re going to

            bring him back dead, and my then-wife is sleeping

like a baby herself, though her blood is everywhere,

                        and there’s no one for me to talk to, and I’m afraid

they’re going to come in and hand me this dead child

            and say Mi dispiace tanto, and I’ll say I’m sorry, too,

and then what will I say, and to whom?

            The man I finally ask about the restaurant

is a dreamy sort who is licking an ice-cream cone

            with an air of more than just a little self-satisfaction

and who answers my query with a restrained enthusiasm

                        that I find charming now that I’m sitting with Barbara

in the place he recommended and waiting

            for what promises to be some excellent roast fish,

grilled vegetables, and cold wine to arrive

            and remembering how unhappy my younger self was,

the self with darker hair and perfect eyesight

            but no real worldly experience of any kind,

yet I thought I was the oldest man in the world,

                        though I was just 27 myself.

And just then a nurse comes back with Will in her arms,

            and he looks like any other baby, like

a bewildered mushroom, and she hands him to me,

            and I feel his breath on my cheek, and for a moment

I am frozen, still petrified by the horror of everything

            that had almost happened, and then suddenly

something goes off inside my chest like a nova exploding

                        and I feel all this love for the infant Will Kirby,

this bawling bunch of wrinkled protoplasm,

            but that was 27 years ago, and now Will is himself

a doctor, an American one: he started breathing

            there in Florence and kept at it and came home

in a little sling and not a coffin and drank his milk

            and ate his mashed bananas and went to school

and to med school and is himself now bringing babies back to life,

                        their fathers as crazy with fear as I that day—

how I wish I had walked over and thrown back

            the shutters and looked out the window and seen

my older self there on the sidewalk, smiling and waving.    

BIO: David Kirby is the author of more than two dozen volumes of criticism, essays, children’s literature, pedagogy, and poetry. His numerous collections of poetry include The Ha-Ha (2003), short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and The House on Boulevard Street: New and Selected Poems (2007), a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Florida Book Award and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Award. Kirby has also won several Pushcart Prizes, the Guy Owen Prize, the Kay Deeter Award, the James Dickey Prize, the Brittingham Prize, and the Millennium Cultural Recognition Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Florida Arts Council. His poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies, including several issues of Best American Poetry. Since 1969 he has taught at Florida State University, where he has received several teaching awards. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, poet Barbara Hamby.