Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reading Billy Collins’ “The Names” with My Daughter


Partway through middle school,
partway through the poetry section,
they wonder why read them, why write
as they read, aloud, as a class
Billy Collins' "The Names." I started
to cry,
she says, and I couldn't
stop myself.
Even now, as she looks
out to our yard from the window seat
next to my desk, she's tearing up.
The poem, all those names, it's
so so so sad. The crying in front
of your classmates
, I ask? Or something
about the poem?
which I don't know & which
she reads to me.
It's unseasonably warm for January.
The window's open; the robins
& starlings have not yet arrived.
The poem, marking a moment, makes
that moment stretch on past the frame of its making -- All sad
she says, going silent. All those names
meaning people. Their lives! But Mom --
I remember so little --
I was six, school stopped, suddenly
& for no reason, the principal over
the loudspeaker & then the teachers
whispering out in the halls. Mrs. Denning
had two girls of her own in another school,
did she worry while she asked us to get
up out of our seats & go to the reading
corner, leaving math books open
on our desks? Then story after story
which I don't even remember,
just reading like that until parents
arrived, one after another.
We guessed an accident, something
grown-ups wanted
to hide & I still liked my plaid
uniform then, my scuffy little shoes. An attack
you told me, not a war.
The radio a room
away, out of your hearing -- all day I
kept it running. The breeze of the present kicks up;
children trail from the school, small squadrons
in our alley. A poem, she sees, is a monument.
A field of meaning. We witness & we wake.

Jane Satterfield is the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter, 2009) and two collections of poetry: Shepherdess with an Automatic (WWPH, 2000) and Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir, 2003). Please visit her website for more information.

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Thank you for evoking the memory of all who died on 9/11. At some point during the clean up, someone made and hung a poster saying, "We will never forget." Amid all the rhetoric surrounding the "ground zero" mosque, I have been wondering if some people have forgotten. Your poem reminds me to continue to hold the families who lost so much in my thoughts and prayers. God bless you!
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