Once, when my older daughter was about 12, she played a newspaper reporter in a school play. I arrived at the school for the performance to see her emerge from the dressing room wearing a skirt and heels, clutching her clipboard prop. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and her face was made up with lipstick and eyeshadow. It felt as if time had unfolded itself and this was my one possible glimpse into a 20 years’ distant future, a life in which she was all grown up. It made me want to cry, the same way this poem does.
– Philip Dacey
“Life is a shipwreck but we must not
forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
I’m visiting my son’s 8 a.m. philosophy class,
one he’s teaching, not taking, a graduate student,
tall and serious though not unsmiling
before a sea of backwards baseball caps
and Siren-like hairdos on heads inclined
to dream of last night’s deeds or misdeeds.
His topic’s Utilitarianism, and I
have tucked myself into a desk at the back
of the room, unsuccessful at inconspicuousness,
target of stares as one by one
the acolytes of wisdom scuffed past me to their seats
already occupied by morning light
Now Austin’s talking ethical choices,
as prisoner either kill one fellow prisoner
and save the rest or refuse to kill any,
though all will then, by design of the captors, die.
Bentham says kill the one, the end is good;
Kant none, our acts are us, and nothing else.
Soon I am weeping, not, I think, for any prisoners
who might die, or for one faced
with an impossible, a killing choice
guaranteed to leave the chooser’s
peace of mind dead either way
and choice suddenly no choice at all,
but for something I can only guess at, the loss
of the child my son once was,
or the beauty of the man he has become,
heroic in this time and place, facing
the most benign of enemies, youth
not fully awakened to the world.
The drops pool on my notes, blurring the words
“maximize utility.” The students don’t notice
I am losing it, engaged as they are
in friendly argument now with my son
about members of a lifeboat,
who’s to stay, who’s to feed the fish.
The whole room begins to rock under me,
who have traveled hundreds of miles
to visit him in his world, to glimpse,
first-hand, his life, the boat he is in.
By this weeping surely I have thrown myself
overboard, and I begin to swim.
Later, he’ll write to me that the students,
and he, will miss the old visitor
in the back of the room, and I will want to
tell him then that, not to worry, once there,
the old man’s always there,
his tears the lecture’s constant subtext,
his presence something useful perhaps,
a chance for those left behind to choose, or not,
to see him, that prison doors open wide
into other prisons and all lifeboats leak,
though waking up, eyes pried apart by the light
of language, is one act that sends everyone
to the head of the class.
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Thanks for your attention to my poem.