By Jeff Tigchelaar
But I, I love it when you read to me
And you, you can read me anything.
—Stephin Merritt, “The Book of Love”
“I tried to get lots of poetry ones,” said the mom. She’d been to some thrift stores and library sales. She handed her son a big bag of kids’ books. They were for his children, the mom’s grandkids.
By “poetry ones” the mother meant rhyming ones. By telling her son this, she meant, “I know you’re a poetry person.” By that she meant, “I know you’re somewhat of a snob.”
Ten years later . . .
“Dad. What are you doing? I’m in bed. I’m sleeping in here.”
“Sam. Sorry. I need to write something about kids’ books. I kind of waited a little too long, and they’re kind of starting to lay out the magazine. I just needed some material from your shelves.”
“I’ll be quick. High-speed browsing.”
“You’re ridiculous. Manage your life better.”
“I’m a librarian. And a poet. Work with me.”
Sam exhaled loudly, pulled the covers over his head, turned away from me and toward the wall. He’s nearly 13, and rapidly growing. The boy does need his rest.
“What the hell’s going on in here?”
Jana (my wife) and Charlotte (my daughter) were suddenly now in the room.
“I just need maybe one or two really good kids’ books, and one or two really bad. For a project due like tonight.”
“That’s entirely subjective,” Jana said.
“Oh no, it’s due.”
“I meant the good and the bad.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re a scholar,” I said. “Of literature. And because you’re salty about a little sleep disruption on a school night.”
“We all have our tastes. Mine just happen to be right,” Jana said. She was, I noticed, reaching high and far back into Sam’s closet. It seems she had removed all the “bad” kids’ books we’d been given, but she knew exactly where she’d put them. I’d wondered where they all went!
Actually, no I hadn’t. They were out of sight, out of mind. I had, though, been missing the days (nights) of reading the kids the stories we’d loved. I’d see them on their shelves but never take them down and dust them off. Had I read to my kids enough? Had I read the right stuff? Was it maybe not too late to revisit those times, those titles?
By now, Jana had finished rifling through the closet-of-shame. She walked up and handed me one book. “This is all you’ll need,” she said. “Put it right back when you’re done. Now go write something and let our son sleep.”
I left Sam’s room with several books—works that had made the cut and jumped off the shelf right into my arms.
Plus the one Jana presented to me. That book was one of the aforementioned “poetry ones” that my mom found ten years ago. It went like this:
This year has gone so quickly,
you’ve learned so very much.
One thing no one can ever teach
is the beauty of your touch.
When your little fingers rest upon my hand,
there’s a feeling in my heart
only a grandpa can understand.
I might not tell you who that’s by, since my reaction to it might be a bit unkind. One of the non-poetry ones, though, written not in verse but in prose, goes like this:
Thomas learns to make mud bricks and dry them in the sun. He learns
to build mud walls and mud desks. He gathers grass and saplings with
the other children, and they make a roof. Inside it is cool. It smells of the
earth. It smells of the fields ready for planting. Thomas helps bring in
little wooden stools. Everyone sits down. This is the moment they have
been waiting for.
That’s from Rain School, written and illustrated by James Rumford (2010). The sound. The rhythm. The expert repetition. The sights and scents and feels—all there. That’s what I’d been looking for.
In my raid on Sam’s room I’d also picked up The Huckabuck Family and How They Raised Popcorn in Nebraska and Quit and Came Back, by Carl Sandburg. It’s part of his Rootabaga Stories, originally published in 1922. Our particular volume was illustrated by David Small and published in 1999.
Like Rain School, The Huckabucks is poetry pretending not to be. It’s the story of Jonas Jonas Huckabuck, Mama Mama Huckabuck, and Pony Pony Huckabuck. “I call my pony-face girl Pony Pony because if she doesn’t hear me the first time, she always does the second,” we’re told by Jonas Jonas, whose father did the same with him.
We learn how Pony Pony finds a buckle in a squash. A Chinese silver slipper buckle, in fact, in “a fat yellow squash, a rich squash all spotted with spots of gold.”
Later we watch as Jonas Jonas gets a job as a watchman in a watch factory. One night Pony Pony goes to spy on him at work, where a policeman was watching her watching her father watching the watches on his watch at the watch factory. I never used to think of Carl Sandburg as funny.
Neither author nor illustrator take themselves too seriously here. Maybe that’s why the kids and I returned to this book. But they’re not slacking, either. They’re only making their craft appear effortless. Which makes for an effortless read as well. Not just effortless. Fun. Rewarding.
Okay, I’m totally telling who wrote the thing with the end-rhymes up there. Remember, much/touch, hand/understand . . . ? Because if there’s any author who can probably take a bit of ribbing, it’s the author Billy Crystal. The book, Grandpa’s Little One, hideously illustrated by Guy Porfirio, also includes the lines “To watch you eat your first ice cream, / with it dripping on your chin, / was one of those special moments— / all I could do was grin.” And: “I watch your mommy hold you / and sing a lullaby. / I love it when you smile at her— / something’s shiny in her eye.”
Back to the closet indeed. One and done. Unlike Sandburg, Crystal is clearly trying hard here to write, but somehow not nearly hard enough.
A key, I found, to keeping sane, at least when it comes to reading to children, is reading tolerable stuff. And what I mean by that is—writing that isn’t shitty. Find and read what’s tolerable to you . . . and hopefully others will find it tolerable, too.
This notion of taking care of yourself first? Very unchristian. But it works well in airplanes, right? Really the idea is to equip yourself, to better take care of others.
If you dread reading to the kids, maybe you just won’t do it. But if the one doing the reading is excited about the book, it’ll show. And that will bode well for the listeners, the young and future readers.
So: read shit that’s not shitty. If it’s good, or even great—even better. Funny helps too.
This is where the Seuss comes in. I, for one, never got sick of Hop on Pop (“Good-by, Thing. You sing too long.” “NO PAT NO Don’t sit on that”. . .) and neither did my kids.
Dr. Seuss, of course, was a solid go-to for a balance of great writing (end- rhymes, sure, but inventive and perfectly wrought; and never a missed beat, never a falter in the flow); great artwork, too (oh but it’s weird and it’s whimsical!); and quirky humor.
Probably our family’s favorite fusion of these elements was the HIM JIM spread. At left we see: “HE ME. He is after me.” A beast with what could be a toupee is nibbling the toe of the page’s hapless narrator, a surprised old man in a onesie pajama. But off to the far right of the very next page, lo and behold: “HIM JIM. Jim is after him” (emphasis mine). A wee boy—albeit a vicious, buzzcutty one, complete with sinister toothy grin—has, with those same chompers, ferociously clamped onto the tail of HE/HIM, who’s five times the size of young Jim. I can’t get over it.
“Wait, what are you taking?” Sam asked as I backed out of his room armed with books. “Mainly just the Huckabucks and Hop on Pop,” I answered. “Oh. And Everyone Poops. I mean what more could you need?” “Poops Everyone, you mean,” Sam alertly replied, even in his half-asleep state.
Suspend, for a second, what I said earlier about not reading shit. Our all-time favorite read, see, was—is—Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops—backwards. Not that it wasn’t spectacular enough forwards. By far our very top frontward part was this:
A one-hump camel makes a one-hump poop
And a two-hump camel makes a two-hump poop
Saying it out loud, over and over, never got old. Try it.
Out loud, I said. I mean it!
Imagine: a work that manages to be unshitty, even while being about shit.
But at some point—and I don’t recall whose idea it was—we tried it in reverse. And to us, it became Poops Everyone. And it became, if you can fathom this, even more fun:
down it flushes then
paper with himself wipes He
And who can forget, “water by the poop These.” And “diapers their in poop Others.” And “there and here poop Some.”
We inverted it, we invented it, we made it our own. We played with the feces, I suppose. Somehow, subject-verb reversal made bathroom-talk even more absurd, even more hilarious, even more memorable and maybe unforgettable. In our book, at least.
And, again, there’s this: We repeated it. We not only read the book frontward and back, but we read it again and again—even though we knew how it would end (or begin). We didn’t read it to find shit out, we read it just for the fun. Everyone Poops, Poops Everyone. Hop on Pop. Pop on Hop? I have a feeling it would work.
Read, read, and repeat. If it’s good, it won’t annoy. If it’s great, if it’s perfect, it’ll stick. It’ll become part of your day, your days, your life. I can’t tell you the number of times that “Good-by, Thing. You sing too long” and “NO PAT NO Don’t sit on that” have been said by me or to me when the situation called for it, or even when it didn’t. “Fish in a tree? How could that be?” “ALL BALL. We all play ball.” “Brown came back with Mr. Black.” “A one-hump camel makes a one-hump poop . . .”
These are sounds, lines, and images I can recall without even going to the book. (I know I’m not alone in this.) They’re embedded deep in the folds.
Is it selfish of me to make this about me? To admit I find myself wishing that even just one of my poems could provide something of permanence like this? Something that’s part of someone else?
It’s been said poetry is playfulness on a page. But I’m afraid I don’t bring that notion, that spirit, to my work quite enough. That childlike lack of inhibition . . . that Oh what the heck let’s try it backwards.
Now that I’m thinking about this, though, the poem of mine that seems to have experienced the most (relative) “success” is one titled “One Way of Looking at Thirteen Blackbirds.” I know they say you’re not supposed to mess with Stevens’ perfectly titled perfect poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; one prominent journal has a specific caveat in its guidelines asking writers to please, please refrain from submitting Thirteen Ways of Looking at Absolutely Anything.
But I just flipped the one and thirteen. Reversed it. Poops Everyone?! My particular Blackbirds piece got published quick in a journal, then republished in some other spaces, including The Wallace Stevens Journal (of all places).
All thanks to a little playfulness and inversion. Is Uncle Wallace turning in his grave? Nah. Grooving on his train, maybe. Or his tune. He was never opposed to making poems and poetry new.
When I attempted, there in the hall after leaving Sam’s room, to read from Poops Everyone to my daughter (who’s now 15 and hasn’t seen the book in half a decade), she interjected and rapidly recited from memory the passage I was starting to quote: “down it flushes then / paper with himself wipes He.”
I froze in surprise then tried to high-five her, but she just rolled her eyes. “The fact that I remember that shouldn’t warrant any kind of congrats,” said Charlotte. “Of course I’d remember it. That shit’s in the fabric.”
Jeff Tigchelaar’s poems appear in Pleiades, Phoebe, Fugue, The Laurel Review, SAND, and LIT Magazine. Tigchelaar was runner-up for Beloit Poetry Journal’s 2019 Adrienne Rich Award and Chad Walsh Chapbook Series, and his collection, Certain Streets at an Uncertain Hour, won the Kansas Authors Club Nelson Poetry Book Award.
Social media handle: @jefftigchelaar1