Learning the Future

When are they coming home? the small girls ask.
And ask and ask, while the wrack of wintercold
grips the house. Thirteen this hard winter, he knows
only to feed the stoves, stoke the feeble fires
with wood he’s cut—wet, still green—from the burned-over
acres of spruce and fir surrounding their old place.

He tries to persuade the oldest of his younger sisters
to wash the dirty dishes piled high in the sink, the water
from the well cold in buckets, and find something
simple for a meal: soup from a can, a bowl of leftover
beans and some bread. But she doesn’t want to,
or doesn’t believe she’s able. And she doesn’t try.

Outside again, he saws the wood and splits it,
fine blown crystals of snow stinging his face,
and armloads the stove-lengths in to feed the fires, pausing
only then to warm leftovers for the three shivering girls
who ask again, When are they coming home? He tries
to reassure them, put their fear to sleep, though after three days

of this he’s no longer confident himself. Draped in heavy
sweaters too large for them, the girls try to get lost
in one game or another until he herds them up to bed, covers
them with ancient army greatcoats. Then he comes down the stairs
to cut more wood, feed the fires, keep them burning, each act,
though he can’t know it yet, etching itself into expectation.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Learning the Future”?

“Learning the Future,” owes something to the autobiographical impulse encountered in some of Wordsworth’s major poems. Probably my particular deployment of it is influenced by my reading of a number of poets dubbed “confessional poets” (I think the tag is something of a misnomer) such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. My poem is admittedly autobiographical and it reveals personal things about my childhood. But the aim is not confession, an unburdening from the weight of the past, but transcendence, the rising above the past by first of all understanding it. What I was trying to do in the poem is interrogate the issue of the relationship between childhood experience and adult responses to the world. What childhood experiences might lead to an exaggerated sense of responsibility and the accompanying feelings of guilt growing from inevitable failure? Or to low expectations? A sentiment of failure? Depression?

This is not the first poem I’ve written about this subject and these memories, and it may not be as successful as some earlier attempts, both in poetry and in fiction. Although it’s the most recent poem I’ve written about these particular memories, it may not be the last. Perhaps I’ve grown obsessive concerning the subject.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Learning the Future”?

When I first began to write “Learning the Future” I re-wrote the entry from my journal, expanding it with details, trying to figure out where it was going. After I had revised the resulting text several times, I addressed myself to the issue of form. I considered blank verse, but the resulting attempts seemed somehow forced. So then I decided on free verse and found, serendipitously, that the free verse lines—most of them between ten and twelve syllables, though some of them are longer—could be arranged into four six-line stanzas. So, using enjambment, I did this. I employed plenty of assonance, consonance and alliteration, although I wanted the language to sound close to the way we ordinarily speak. There are a couple of phrases that may be seen to undermine this affect, but the two most notable examples, wintercold wrack—pure Old English—and armloads used as a verb, don’t really violate the character of common usage.

I don’t explicitly locate the poem in time or place, but I hoped the details would make the setting clear. The woodstoves fed with wood the people cut themselves, and water drawn in buckets from a well should make clear that the characters in the poem live in a world different from the one we inhabit. I hoped the “ancient army greatcoats” would suggest that the events happen perhaps a decade after a war. This may be too arbitrary, but I do remember that from 10-15 years after WWII, boys and young men in Canada—at least in Nova Scotia—were wearing army tunics and, in the winter, greatcoats.

This poem “Learning the Future” originally appeared in Travel. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 174 (Autumn 2002): 49.

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