One of the things poetry is able to do is help reflect the minor shifts in life after something major happens. After the election this past November, for example, I joined many others in shifting the things we paid attention to. Whether it was checking the news more regularly or vetting clear, accurate news sources, or simply noting how I am no longer able to laugh at satirists while the political climate shambles on, I find myself not exactly jaded but rather more aware and, thus, more watchful.
This spirit of watchfulness pervades this week’s poem “Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage” by Joe Wilkins, from his collection When We Were Birds. Within an address to an unborn son, Wilkins’ speaker is able to navigate the territory of job loss and its effect on lives in an intimate and direct manner. As the speaker centers a meditation on courage around the image of a family walking at evening, the poem makes a case for presence: presence as resistance, presence against the odds.
“Watch the world, child, / it will teach you,” says the speaker, and in saying so within the conceit of this “note,” the speaker becomes part of the world to be watched. The final image of breath mirrors other things that pass (factories, time), and ends the poem on a note of human vulnerability in which the speaker’s own watching teaches him.
Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage
— Joe Wilkins
Oh, now they have closed the factory.
We do not work at the factory,
so we are lucky,
which means we do not have to be brave.
It is no good having to be brave
all the time. You’ll see. I see
those ones who do. In the evenings
they walk their snuffling mutt,
smoke slowly their cigarettes.
Watch the world, child,
it will teach you. See, this is courage —
how he sets his steak-thick hand
to the small of her back,
how she bends and itches the ears
of that lucky, goddumb dog,
the way they breathe and their very breaths —
smoky, full of evening’s coming freeze —
seem to big for them to breathe.