Not for nothing does Barbara Adams’s “Babyskin: Notes for a Grandchild” appear as the first poem in the anthology Child of my Child: Poems and Stories for Grandparents. This poem has a commanding voice, the wisdom of someone who has taken an honest measure of life. Yet no details of Barbara’s life are given—or needed. The universal tone lets the poem speak on behalf of grandparents everywhere. As Kenneth Salzmann, who edited this book with his wife Sandi Gelles-Cole, once told me, this poem makes clear that the collection won’t settle for Hallmark Card sentimentalities. It serves as an invocation of sorts, emboldening others to write about grandparenthood with honesty.
Babyskin: Notes for a Grandchild
At first, you will get all that you want—
milk, sleep, softness, warmth,
and love for nothing.
Then, gradually, you will get to know
pain, fear, disgust, loneliness
through your soft babyskin.
For a long time, if you are a lucky one,
you will enjoy timeless fun—
running, throwing, singing, skipping,
and giggling in the dark game of hide and seek.
For a long time, if you are a lucky one,
the worst you will suffer is broken
skin or bone, the fever of a cold
and happy goosebumps.
Then, precious heir, suddenly one day
and you will want what you can’t always get—
lobster, French wine, down bed, cradling arms,
love for nothing.
You will try to keep what can’t be saved—
joy, peace, content, and soft
You will come down with the chronic fever,
incurable, the weariness and chill
of a broken promise, a frozen dream,
and the thrill of a breakable heart.
Finally, my innocent descendant, you will learn to sing
(if you’re an heir of mine)
of pain, disgust, hate, and loneliness.
But you will not be afraid if you know all this
and love someone—or two—for nothing.
You will live, then, as well as can be expected
till your babyskin is tough as mine.
What lies behind this voice is told in Barbara’s new memoir, The Stone Man and the Poet. While reading it, I kept thinking, Wow, did she live through some shit! In person she’s so lively and upbeat. Little did I know! A father who was a Communist and went out to Hollywood for a while as a feckless dreamer then left the family for another woman. A drunkard for a mother who required skin grafts on her ankles because of chronic phlebitis. A “riches to rags” girlhood bouncing between Manhattan and New Paltz. And then, yearning for an emotional anchor after all that, she married a man from a poor and bitter New Hampshire family who himself may have been bi-polar. He gave her sweetness and security—and fights and cigarette smoke. In a searing passage at the start she describes his daily cigarette regime as a slow moving death wish that left burn marks on the edge of their bathroom vanity, brown dots on his ties, and mustard yellow film that every week she had to wash off the glass covering their living room reproductions of Manet, Degas, and Van Gogh. “We loved each other; we could have killed each other,” Barbara writes. (His death in his sixties comes as no surprise in the book, though her “Cancer Journal” of his final year is brutal.) The stone chimney that he built in their house still bears the white chip mark, the scar, of the ironstone ashtray she threw at his head two decades ago. Like I said, little did I know! All these years I’ve thought of her as a retired English professor from Pace, who still gets excited about Laura Riding, the subject of her doctoral thesis later published as a book, a colorful figure who blazed through poetry in the 1920s and 1930s before chosing obscurity for forty years. I can’t picture Barbara, a friendly presence at poetry readings, throwing an ashtray as a bean ball. The Stone Man and the Poet just goes to show how little you know about the people you think you know.
Yet now that I’ve finished I wonder if, in fact, Barbara’s life has been so extraordinary. Many people of a certain age have lived through a lot of shit. She had the brass to write about it. What is extraordinary is the fortitude that she has shown in working towards a better life. What is uplifting is her passion for poetry. Though she’d had a high school infatuation with the English Romantics, she’d put that long in her past by the time she’d married, gotten her degree in a second go-round at college, and taught elementary school for a decade in Milton along the Hudson River. By then the only poetry she read was Mother Goose and Lewis Caroll to her young children. One day, suffering from deep sadness despite the successes in her life, she looked out her classroom window and saw:
“The river stands still,
Reflecting the hill
“I wrote it down, then copied it in my secret journal that evening. I had never written anything like it before, wasn’t even sure if it was a poem.”
She took the plunge. Supported by her husband’s salaries as a teacher and a bricklayer, she earned a master’s degree, studying with “a brilliant, sadistic professor” who taught them that Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” was, in fact, a veiled Triple-X confession.
“Prof. G itemized ‘two-pointed ladder,’ ‘a barrel I didn’t fill,’ ‘the scent of of apples,’ ‘ten thousand thousand fruit to touch.’
“’He’s a man with a penis people. It has two functions: urination and sexual intercourse. Women are apples, scented, they are ripe for the picking, in the thousands. But now he’s tired, and can’t get it up anymore.’
“We were flabbergasted. I saw exactly what he meant, and had missed it completely. Poetry was sex. Poetry was saying one thing and meaning another at the same time.”
Well, there was no turning back. She discovered Sylvia Plath in The New Yorker in the early 1960s, an era when women poets were nearly invisible. In 1972 she entered NYU for her PhD and went on to her own college teaching career. In addition to her scholarly book on Laura Riding, she has published two poetry collections, Hapax Legomena and The Ordinary Living.
Which brings us back to Barbara’s poem. With all due respect to Prof. G, I think it actually is about babies—and about a grandmother’s wisdom.