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Be Not Inhospitable to Fat Babies

January 3, 2012

The last day I spent in the library before the break, I looked through the shelf of new books and found a volume amusingly entitled Talking About Movies with Jesus, by David Kirby. What I usually do is flip through the volume and see if any of the poems grab me. One did. It was this one, which has pretty much summed up the holidays for me this year, the way I like to make faces at babies to make them smile when they’re stuck in a shopping cart or a stroller, the way so many people make fun of fat, the way my babies have become tall and grown up, the way us grown-ups are not “exactly infallible,” and the possibility that death can be more than the unpleasant work of sloughing off the body.

Be Not Inhospitable to Fat Babies

A fat baby is sitting listlessly in his stroller
when Barbara walks by him on Via Pietrapiana and makes
her famous baby-pleasing “fish
face” at him, and the kid stirs a little
and gives her a tentative smile, and he isn’t fat, really,

though let me say this: I don’t know what
the Italian word for “chowderhead” is,
but whatever it is, it’s going to be
in the dictionary as long as
this baby’s alive, or at least as long as this baby’s a baby.

Anyway, we go our way, and the baby and his father
go theirs, though we pass each other again
a couple of blocks later, and this time
the kid goes nuts: when he sees his old
friend Barbara, he not only beams at her but grabs

his little restraint bar with both hands
and begins to rock back and forth in ecstasy
because he’s just seen the funny lady again,
the fish-face lady—Jesus bird dog,
he’s thinking, if only I had language to tell

the other babies about this, how fun it is to see
the funny lady and how much fun I’m having
sitting here in my stroller on Via Pietrapiana,
which is actually not Via Pietrapiana any more
because it has turned into Borgo La Croce!

Although babies probably don’t blaspheme.
Not that he’s thinking that at all, of course,
because if he had enough language to think
about having no language, then he’d be a grown-up
like us and a baby no more. Not that grown-ups

are exactly infallible in their running of the world,
or maybe you haven’t noticed. In the Congo,
Chief Nsala rushes into the clearing where Reverend
John Harris and his wife Alice are documenting abuses
by Belgian rubber gatherers and places before them

the hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter Boali,
cut off because the chief’s village did not meet its quota.
And when Barbara went to the police station in Milan
because one of our students had lost her passport,
“a German couple was there who’d lost

their four-year-old daughter,” she tells me
later, saying “there were sounds coming out of that woman
like nothing I’d ever heard before.”
Caliban hears sounds. Pretty ones, though:
“sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
that, if I then had waked after long sleep,
will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
the clouds would open and show riches
ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.” Is that what babies hear?
If they can’t use words, surely they can’t understand
them, either. What is heaven? Is there language there?
Do angels talk, or do they just hover and smile a lot?
What is an angel? In the Bronx, five-year-old Abudubacary

Magassa dies in a house fire, and his classmates
at P.S. 73 tell the teacher not to let anyone sit
in the tiny wooden chair at the corner of a low table
because that’s where he sat, and now an angel sits there.
William Blake said his wife was an angel:

on the day of his death, Blake worked without ceasing
on his Dante watercolors and finally turned to his wife,
who was weeping by his bedside, and said, “Stay, Kate!
Keep just as you are—I will draw your portrait—for
you have ever been an angel to me,” and when he finished it,

he laid down his pen, began to sing hymns, and,
at six in the evening, after promising his wife
he would be with her always, died “in a most
glorious manner,” as his friend George Richmond
wrote, saying “he was going to that Country

he had all his life wished to see….Just before
he died his Countenance became fair, His eyes
Brighten’d and he burst out Singing of the things
he saw in Heaven,” including Jesus—his Jesus,
that is, the giver of visions, not laws, the union

of all things human and divine. Blake’s Jesus
is a baby, too, but with language. Or maybe
the language of babies
is laughter. Maybe the fat baby who is laughing at Barbara
is Jesus—laughing with her, I mean.

The hint that Blake gets the last laugh–that the author of The Garden of Love had the right idea–seems to me an entirely satisfactory destination after all that meandering.  Do you agree?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012 8:20 am

    I do agree. I love this poem. I love its title. I love the notion of babies being as mysterious as God. There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I may be thinking about this one for a little while.

    • January 4, 2012 7:41 am

      Babies are mysterious. Parents have no idea how many strangers made faces at their baby during a day out, much less have any idea what their middle schoolers are really talking to their friends about. I was recently informed that my youngest researched religion during a period I thought it was completely off his radar.

  2. freshhell permalink
    January 3, 2012 9:13 am

    I like this poem a lot but I can’t answer your question.

    • January 4, 2012 7:41 am

      Wow. You like it!

      • freshhell permalink
        January 4, 2012 12:58 pm

        Yes, because it read like prose and meandered and I understood it. I think.

        • January 5, 2012 8:35 am

          I’ll have to think about posting more narrative poems. Just for you.

  3. Tabatha permalink
    January 3, 2012 9:24 am

    Wow! That is a meandering poem. I can see why you liked it. Going to have to save that one.

    • January 4, 2012 7:42 am

      I love the idea of poems as a collection. It’s like we each make our own anthologies of the ones that speak to us most.

  4. January 3, 2012 9:32 am

    What a great poem! It’s exactly how my brain works, this poem. I love the idea of the language of babies as laughter (and also crying and tears). But the poet and I part ways on the blaspheming — I think babies are blaspheming all the time, hence the copious laughter (and crying).

    Thank you for finding this gem, and sharing it.

    • January 4, 2012 7:43 am

      I suspect that what you mean by blaspheming is the same as what the poet might mean by praying.

      • January 4, 2012 11:41 am

        Well all righty. I’m cool with praying = blaspheming. In fact, I might even be head over heels in love with that idea as of this moment! You rock my world, sista.

  5. January 3, 2012 9:37 am

    I like people who make faces at babies in strollers. And I liked this. Thanks!

    • January 4, 2012 7:44 am

      Sometimes it is tempting to do it to help the parent, when the baby is tired and the parent is trying to finish checking out or something. But sometimes you have to do it for the sheer pleasure of communicating with a little human when no one else is noticing.

  6. January 3, 2012 10:37 am

    THAT was my kind of poem. I like the meandering.

    I’m now singing “Fat Babies Have No Pride” and will go see if I can find my Lyle Lovett CD.

  7. January 3, 2012 8:07 pm

    Oh I could see why this spoke to you! It went all over the place but in the most wonderful way!

    • January 4, 2012 7:36 am

      One reason I linked to the the Poetry Foundation bio page for Kirby is because they talk about his narrative meandering as a technique. “One thing that I want to do in the poems is to portray the mind as it actually works,” he stated in a 2007 interview.

  8. January 4, 2012 10:59 pm

    Enjoyed the poem. Wonderful images of babies and angels.

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