A year ago, I met up with a dear friend for dinner on the East Coast. It had been a few years since we connected; he is very busy person. That year, he’d been working on a PBS documentary around intimacy, traveling the world, interviewing the Dalai Lama.
Of course, I was curious, “what have you learned, what can you tell me, what are the best works you have come across?” Of the many works he shared, Alden Nowlan’s, He Sits Down on the Floor for a School for the Retarded, has stayed with me.
This poem continues to move me each time I read it. I hope you enjoy.
He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded
I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”
It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favorite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old MacDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do
about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays the part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere, “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”
I put my arm around her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
of me: I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children,
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss.)
Yet, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshiped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.
She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two thousand years ago.