Fourteen years old, learning the alphabet,
He finds letters harder to catch than hares
Without a greyhound. Can’t I give him a dog
To track them down, or put them in a cage?
He’s caught in a trap, until I let him go,
Pinioned by “Don’t you want to learn to read?”
“I’ll be the same man whatever I do.”

He looks at a page as a mule balks at a gap
From which a goat may hobble out and bleat.
His eyes jink from a sentence like flushed snipe
Escaping shot. A sharp word, and he’ll mooch
Back to his piebald mare and bantam cock.
Our purpose is as tricky to retrieve
As mercury from a smashed thermometer.

“I’ll not read any more.” Should I give up?
His hands, long-fingered as a Celtic scribe’s,
Will grow callous, gathering sticks or scrap;
Exploring pockets of the horny drunk
Loiterers at the fairs, giving them lice.
A neighbor chuckles. “You can never tame
The wild-duck: when his wings grow, he’ll fly off.”

If books resembled roads, he’d quickly read:
But they’re small farms to him, fenced by the page,
Ploughed into lines, with letters drilled like oats:
A field of tasks he’ll always be outside.
If words were bank-notes, he would filch a wad;
If they were pheasants, they’d be in his pot
For breakfast, or if wrens he’d make them king.

This Issue

October 21, 1971