A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight--small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.[1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.]   title-m_brown_bk_sm-1   The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children's poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title's question--Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.   little cat_sm-1 little mole-sm-1  

Little Old Cat Little Old Cat Where have you been? To see this and that Said the Little Old Cat That's where I've been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish Little Old Fish Where do you swim? Wherever I wish Said the Little Old Fish That's where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse Little Old Mouse Why run down the clock? To see if the tick Comes after the tock I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical--from where to why--that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown's poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man Why do you run? I’m just about done You can put down the phone Said the Little Old Man That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat Little Old Rat Where have you been? I’ve been under my hat Said the Little Old Rat That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man Little Old Man Where were you When the shit hit the fan? I was right here with you When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea Little Old Flea What do you see? I have been out to sea Said the Little Old Flea To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man Little Old Man Where have you been? Why do you flee? I have been out with the flea Sailing over the sea.

I don't make any great claims for this little piece. I've always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children's language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.[2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop's "Visits to St. Elizabeths."] Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy--though that only dawned on me gradually--making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn't magical, is it?

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined”

  1. A kind of magic…


    And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
    in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
    it came from, from winter or a river.
    I don’t know how or when,
    no they were not voices, they were not
    words, nor silence,
    but from a street it called me,
    from the branches of night,
    abruptly from the others,
    among raging fires
    or returning alone,
    there it was without a face,
    and it touched me.

    I did not know what to say, my mouth
    had no way
    with names,
    my eyes were blind.
    Something knocked in my soul,
    fever or forgotten wings,
    and I made my own way,
    that fire,
    and I wrote the first, faint line,
    faint, without substance, pure
    pure wisdom
    of someone who knows nothing,
    and suddenly I saw
    the heavens
    and open,
    palpitating plantations,
    the darkness perforated,
    with arrows, fire and flowers,
    the overpowering night, the universe.

    And I, a tiny being,
    drunk with the great starry
    likeness, image of
    felt myself a pure part
    of the abyss,
    I wheeled with the stars,
    my heart broke loose on the wind. – Pablo Neruda

    One of my favorite poems. Inspiration…

    Take care, Francisco

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