A Letter to Leena

By MARY JO SALTER

 

I came when you were born,
but soon the flying stopped.
By the time I came again,
we drove in private cars

and masked our public faces
like bandits bent on crimes
that had already happened;
once home, we’d wash our hands

of greed and disregard
while in the streets, more fists
were raised against long years
of violent injustice.

Born into an era
possibly too late
to salvage the green earth
a virus has made sure

you’ve barely seen so far;
born amidst decline
of all sorts—when the rule
of idiocy emerged

finally as malice,
and patience, that slim virtue
of the citizen, exposed
the privilege of guilt—

you, oh wide-eyed girl,
have joined that ancient global
club of generations
whose first days seem our last.

Civilizations do
end, and there’s no reason
we shouldn’t be the ones
to close out the whole series;

we’re halfway out the door now,
a techno-human species.
Is it too much to hope, though,
you’ll get a whole life in?

I’m thinking more in days
at the moment. How many days
do I get to spend with you
before we must pack up

and drive with some unclear
motive back to the spot
we are supposed to stay?
Why leave you, anyway?

Nothing sweeter than waking
and waiting for you to wake.
Breast milk in your belly,
you wriggle and coo and kick

and smile and smile at us
as if we were the prime
source of infectious joy—
but that’s you, of course.

Remember, I keep saying
inside my head, because
I have words.  Remember this:
Leena at three months.

I got to give you a bottle.
I got to fondle your feet.
And it’s all a replay from
the lost days I recall

when your mother was this new.
I got to have it twice,
her and her sister. Then
a third time: I got you.

How could such floods of love
not add up to enough?
Yet I hardly tried at all
to make this old world better;

what I made was dinner
and poems, when I could.
Dear child in a bassinet,
who tries and tries and can’t

quite roll over yet,
grow to turn your mind
to the desperate demands
of your time; choose to be glad

to change, not to wait and see.
I’m changed by you already.
I want to be around
more keenly than before,

to live because you’re living.
When you have words, I’ll listen:
tell me what I’m missing
when you come to visit me.

 

Mary Jo Salter is the author of nine volumes of poetry published by Knopf, including Nothing by Design, The Surveyors, and the forthcoming Zoom Rooms. She is a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Baltimore.

[Purchase Issue 23 here.]

A Letter to Leena

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