Seeking the Beginning

By Bob Litton

Too often I have been tempted to try the impossible, always chiding myself for the bother as I did try.

One of my failed attempts was to describe a baby’s sensations as it exited the womb. The perspectives I thought available were, one, that of the omniscient narrator describing the babe’s perceptions in a concrete but imagistic language; and, two, that of the child expressing itself in the most abstract terms verbally about what are actually only visual and physical sensations. I ended up combining the two modes in a not very successful poem, as follows:

Of Poems About Birth

©1995 by Bob Litton

How intimidating is beginning!
The painter’s empty canvas!  The poet’s blank page!
The babbling babe’s unschematized tomorrow!
Only the infant artist cannot correct
or even say for certain he’ll recognize
what’s awry, so glib is his unknowing
poem, the itch to mark his tabula rasa.

It really is conceit then, to attempt
to see, much less describe, that primordial void
whereat the babe’s most simple yet most abstract.
But we’ll go one step further and liken him
to Tao: Primal, exempt from needing notions
what It is, Tao pulsates—and things come to be.

As the educated reader can see, the poem is one line shy of being a “sonnet”, loosely defined. There is some abstract terminology, but the poet is way too far removed from the new-born to evoke any sense of the child’s feelings. He is speaking about poems, not the babe’s sensations. Perhaps Wallace Stevens could have pulled it off, as he seems to me to have done with “The Snowman”, an excellent poem. But my temperament is too hampered by concretist perception to achieve that end with birth.

Still, in my sunset years, I have these frequent brief flashbacks to what I felt when I was a toddler…or even younger. The flashbacks are much too brief for me to grasp any communicable memory from them; they are like a cross between a déjà vu and an esophageal reflux episode. They are usually not recurrences of happy moments, but rather of fearful moments. And when I try to imagine what specifically makes them fearful, I fail.

But that is understandable, isn’t it? I mean, as I perceive it, our subconscious life is dedicated to repressing unpleasant moments from the past. We would go mad without such repression; and yet an intolerable level of repressed memories demands some evacuating. That, I believe, is the ordinary task of counselors.

I don’t think these first impressions are readily discovered by counseling, though, because they are too ephemeral and lacking in the articulate definition that comes with language development. We are left, basically, with inchoate memories and guesswork about them. Observation of infants of the present time can help some. Never having been a parent myself, I’m lacking the advantage of the constant flow of parental attention. However, I do look at infants closely when they are in my presence. In their more endearing moments, they look calm, curious and maybe even indifferent — like cats. Are they trying to figure out not just who but what I am?  Are they wondering if they will ever be brought to a static situation, one where they will not have to be constantly gauging the dimensions and contents of their environment? Are they wondering what they must do, besides the strenuous exertion of an indecipherable scream, to get what they want?

In my own case, the brief memories often seem to be about the threatening heights of everything; even now I have a phobia about heights, which precludes my ever working as a roofer, a lumberjack or even a house painter. Then there were the nauseating smells, such as of some plants that were gathered in too great a quantity in the summer; or the clinics where, during that era, a particular chemical was used to sanitize everything. But there were very pleasing smells, too, such as the inside of my father’s black 1941 Ford sedan. That has to be one of the most pleasant memories of my lifetime: It was due, I have recently concluded, to the cotton seat covering and the vanilla-colored, plastic dashboard containing a soft yellow glow where the radio gleamed, the total effect of which is impossible for me to describe: It was just olfactorily and visually delicious!

But look! I’ve done it again; I’m talking not about birthing but about toddlers and even slightly older children. Ah, how frustrating it is not to have that imaginative writing ability superior enough to intrude into the still emerging body, mind and soul of a new-born!


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