An astronaut floats in space "At the other end/I orbit, pinpricked/light. I watch./I float and grieve." by Rita Dove

Two Poems about Childhood from Poet Rita Dove

Nightwatch. The Son.
(Aggressively adult, 
they keep their 
lives, to which 
I am a witness.
At the other end 
I orbit, pinpricked
light. I watch.
I float and grieve.)
When I was young, the moon spoke in riddles
and the stars rhymed. I was a new toy
waiting for my owner to pick me up.
When I was young, I ran the day to its knees.
There were trees to swing on, crickets for capture.
I was narrowly sweet, infinitely cruel,
tongued in honey and coddled in milk,
sunburned and slivery and scabbed like a colt.
And the world was already old.
And I was older than I am today.

Don’t forget to think about your response to these poems before you read mine, and write your below!! Poetry is personal!

Finding These Poems in On the Bus with Rosa Parks

As I explained in the earlier post about Rita Dove, when I read On the Bus with Rosa Parks, I found that the poems that I marked as my favorites all occurred in pairs.

I always try to read poetry in the original collection put together by the author, so this is the perfect opportunity to explore how the interplay of poems affect their meanings.


“Nightwatch. The Son.” is the last poem in the first section of the book, called “Cameos.”

The “Table of Contents” in On the Bus lists “Cameos” differently from the poems in the rest of the sections. Most of the poems are listed vertically, with their page numbers after each, but the poems in “Cameos” are listed horizontally, with no page numbers. Before I even start reading the book, this layout gives the impression that these poems are meant to be read as a unit. At first, I wasn’t sure the poems fit together at all, but then I realized that perspective jumps back and forth between a married couple who don’t seem to work very well, either together or apart.

This last poem is different from the rest because it gives us the perspective of the son, the offspring of the dysfunctional couple.

Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View

After “Nightwatch. The Son.”, the reader sees “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” on the facing page. Turning the page reveals the second poem shown above, “Singsong”. Unlike the poems in “Cameos”, each poem in the rest of the collection, starting with “Singsong” receives its own page.

Section Breaks and Poem Presentation

The two poems’ appearing before and after this shift draw my attention to them. “Nightwatch. The Son.” is spaced exactly as it is shown above, which jumps out because the spacing is unusual and because it is the only poem done this way.

“Singsong”, on the other hand, jumps out because it is the first poem presented traditionally.

Finding out about Childhood from “Nightwatch. The Son.”

In many families, the child forms the center of the universe, perhaps to an unfortunate degree. In this poem, the child is an outsider, in fact, the parents are “aggressively adult.” The child is so far from the center of the universe that he/she barely gets into it at all.

The offspring seems ok: “I float.” But the offspring grieves that he/she is “witness to their lives”, which implies that is for them he/she grieves. It isn’t self pity.

Finding out about Childhood from “Singsong”

People always seem to assume that children are sweet. And of course there are sweet things about childhood. Youngsters seem shiny and fresh compared to we who are older. Their fascination with everything in the world is fun to watch. Their energy is unbounded.

But there can be a hardness and a cruelty to them too. Things are “black and white” if you know what I mean.

Maybe it’s that children are less sentimental. Now is today. Yesterday is over. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

The speaker in “Singsong” thinks about childhood fondly, but without sentimentality. These traits, which one could consider wisdom, are what make the speaker say that he/she was “older than I am today.”

Finding out about Childhood from “Nightwatch. The Son.” and “Singsong” Together

I see truth in “Singsong” and truth about a certain kind of childhood in “Nigthwatch. The Son.”

Part of me thinks that children have a right to their childhood, like the speaker in “Singsong”, but the cynic in me…which is a strong trait…thinks that children might as well learn that the world isn’t going to stop for them.

I feel awful for writing that.

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  1. Pingback: August Spotlight on Poet Rita Dove - The Lois Level Readers' Community

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