Poetry performs the star-gazer’s trick whereby by use of one’s peripheral vision we can see a star too faint to be seen with the direct gaze. It is at its most effective when making something known that is ordinarily unknowable. It does this not by stating truths explicitly but rather by making us feel the resonances of that truth.
That’s maybe why most of the poems I’ve chosen here are neither about paedophilia, nor have been written (as far as I know) by paedophiles.
In Vernon Scannell’s ‘Growing Pain’ the five-year-old boy’s painful love for a class-mate (‘painful’ maybe because it is unrequited or because the boy does not know what to do with this love) seems little different to our own experiences of a love, the expression of which society forbids, a love rendered ‘unrequitable’, if not always ‘unrequited’.
In Martial’s Epigram we recognise in the poet’s grief at the death of (another) five-year-old child (is five a poetic age?), a slave girl, how love transcends age, status and death itself.
I’ve also risked testing your patience by including a few of my own poems. These were written decades ago and a sufficient amount of time has passed for me to no longer feel that they were written by me so much as someone who used to think he was me.
‘Growing Pain’ by Vernon Scannell
The boy was barely five years old.
We sent him to the little school
And left him there to learn the names
Of flowers in jam jars on the sill
And learn to do as he was told.
He seemed quite happy there until
Three weeks afterwards, at night,
The darkness whimpered in his room.
I went upstairs, switched on his light,
And found him wide awake, distraught,
Sheets mangled and his eiderdown
Untidy carpet on the floor.
I said, ‘Why can’t you sleep? A pain?’
He snuffled, gave a little moan,
And then he spoke a single word:
‘Jessica.’ The sound was blurred.
‘Jessica? What do you mean?’
‘A girl at school called Jessica.
She hurts –‘ He touched himself between
The heart and stomach ‘– she has been
Aching here and I can see her.’
Nothing I had read or heard
Instructed me in what to do.
I covered him and stroked his head.
‘The pain will go, in time,’ I said.
The insincerity of the father’s consolation in the last line evokes how useless ‘truth’ is to soothe the pains of love: ‘The pain will go, in time’ – we know that it is not the pain that vanishes, but ourselves.
‘The Prodigy (for Elizabeth Bishop)’ by C.K. Williams
Though no shyer than the others – while her pitch is being checked she beams out at the audience,
one ear sticking through her fine, straight, dark hair, Nabokov would surely say “deliciously” –
she’s younger, slimmer, flatter, still almost a child: her bow looks half a foot too big for her.
Not when she begins to play, though: when she begins to play, when she goes swooping, leaping,
lifting from the lumbering tutti like a fighter plane, that bow is fire, that bow is song,
that bow lifts all of us, father and old uncle, yawning younger brother and bored best friend,
and brings us all to song, to more than song, to breaths breathed for us, sharp, indrawn,
and then, as she bows it higher and higher, to old sorrows redeemed, a sweet sensation of joy.
‘On the Beach at Fontana’ by James Joyce
Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.
Around us fear, descending
Darkness of fear above
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!
‘A Sunday Afternoon’ by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Seeking adventures one church-free Sunday,
I crossed the Dives-Lazarus divide
from Ealing into Acton on the bike
I had for winning a free place at ten,
and chained it up to Springfield Garden’s gate.
It was your average London park, complete
with flasher, park-keeper, geraniums,
a bum-splintering see-saw and baby swings.
I soon go talking, and a girl of seven
was pointed out, who always dressed in pink
and used to suck men’s willies in the Gents.
I thought it seemed a funny thing to do.
The boys didn’t use the swings or see-saw,
but stood a little way off, watching us,
hands in pockets. An Indian twelve-year old
crossed the gulf , sniggering, and asked if he
could ‘plant his carrot in my turnip field’.
Soon, we were rescued from moral danger;
the ‘Firebrands’ evangelists descended
asking the question ‘Are you saved?’ We weren’t
too sure, and so they kidnapped and bussed us
to Acton’s Co-op Hall for Sunday School.
A gaggle of children, matted or plaited,
our hands reeking of the metal swing-chains,
we were ready to try anything once
and sang ‘I will make you fishers of men’,
even the little cocksucker in pink.
‘Ad Domnulam Suam’ by Ernest Dowson
Little lady of my heart !
Just a little longer,
Love me: we will pass and part,
Ere this love grow stronger.
I have loved thee, Child! too well,
To do aught but leave thee :
Nay! my lips should never tell
Any tale, to grieve thee.
Little lady of my heart !
Just a little longer,
I may love thee: we will part,
Ere my love grow stronger.
Soon thou leavest fairy-land;
Darker grow thy tresses;
Soon no more of hand in hand;
Soon no more caresses !
Little lady of my heart !
Just a little longer,
Be a child: then, we will part,
Ere this love grow stronger.
(The poem’s title means “to my little mistress” in Latin.)
quotes from Ernest Dowson:
“I think it is possible for the feminine nature to be reasonably candid and simplex, up to the age of 8 or 9. Afterwards – phugh!”
“Why the deuce does anyone write anything but books about children! Quelle dommage that the world isn’t composed entirely of little girls from 6-12!”
“I’ve been kissing my hand aimlessly from the window to une petite demoiselle of my acquaintance (…) this has temporarily revived me (…) there is nothing in the universe supportable save the novels of Hy. James, & the society of little girls”
‘Endurance Vile’ by T.H. White
When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
And the eagerness that cannot survive
And the trust made to be betrayed
And the hope certain to be cheated cold
And the young joy to age and fade
And the making to be unmade
And the endurance to grow old,
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.
At the age of 51, White (author of the sequence of Arthurian novels ‘The Once and Future King’) fell in love with a preteen boy pseudonymously referred to as Zed. They remained friends for four years until the boy drifted away. A letter relates his painful attachment:
“… I have fallen in love with Zed. On Braye Beach with Killie I waved and waved to the aircraft till it was out of sight – my wild geese all gone and me a lonely old Charlie on the sands who had waddled down to the water’s edge but couldn’t fly. It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of this impractical, unsuitable love. It would be against his human dignity. Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved. He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings – not that they are bad in themselves. It is the public opinion which makes them so. In any case, on every score of his happiness, not my safety, the whole situation is an impossible one. All I can do is behave like a gentleman. It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them.
I do not believe that some sort of sexual relations with Zed would do him harm – he would probably think and call them t’rific. I do not believe I could hurt him spiritually or mentally. I do not believe that perverts are made so by seduction. I do not think that sex is evil, except when it is cruel or degrading, as in rape, sodomy, etc., or that I am evil or that he could be. But the practical facts of life are an impenetrable barrier – the laws of God, the laws of Man. His age, his parents, his self-esteem, his self-reliance, the process of his development in a social system hostile to the heart, the brightness of his being which has made this what a home should be for three whole weeks of utter holiday, the fact that the old exist for the benefit of the young, not vice versa, the factual impossibilities set up by law and custom, the unthinkableness of turning him into a lonely or sad or eclipsed or furtive person – every possible detail of what is expedient, not what is moral, offers the fox to my bosom, and I must let it gnaw.”
from ‘Minor-attracted figures in history‘ (Paraphilia Research Blog)
Wikipedia states – “Broadcaster Robert Robinson published an account of a bizarre conversation with White, in which he claimed to be attracted to small girls.”
‘Epigram 5.34’ by Martial
To you Fronto, my father, Flacilla, my mother,
I entrust with a kiss this little girl:
she was my love and my happiness.
Let not my little Erotion be startled
by the phantom-haunted shadows, nor let
the monstrous jaws of Cerberus make her tremble with fear.
Venerable guardians, but for six days, had she lived them,
would she have seen out her sixth cold winter.
May she play now at your feet,
asking for me in her child’s babble. May the turf
be soft that covers her delicate bones. Earth,
lay upon her gently: she put so little weight on you.
“Martial’s Erotion poems are some of his most highly regarded. Martial does seem to have loved this child very much, so much that he buried her with the full rites befitting the child of a Roman citizen and maintained her grave for years. Such behaviour is peculiar if Erotion was merely a slave child, no matter how charming or precious. It is more comprehensible if we admit the possibility that Erotion might have been Martial’s own daughter… “
Is Bell’s incredulity when faced with an adult who loves a child who is not his/her own progeny an instance of what could be described as ‘kinfatuation’? that a child only merits love insofar as they are carriers of genes? that a child’s personality can’t amount to enough to earn him or her the love of a non-related adult?
‘near Etna’ by Leonard Sisyphus Mann
This shrimp-pink thrill of skin burnt
Turns up your pleasant hands
From the cool turf of pleasant memories.
It was but a brief distance beyond
Black Etna’s morning-shadow
Where the sun had let fall
Her cloak over my shoulders. I succumbed
To the administration of your small hands,
Clad in cool lotion, you who were once a child
And beneath the ripe orchard and sun
with me; the comfort of your girl-child’s hands
Now the distance of place and time away.
(I’ve just realised that the poem doesn’t really make it clear enough that the lotion was being applied to my sun-burnt shoulders – I imagine that some readers might be inclined to imagine more exciting alternatives…)
‘Today the beach is…’ by Leonard Sisyphus Mann
Today the beach is made of demerara sugar.
When the warm sun collects
Upon my back and dries the sea to dust
I am Salomé to a beachful of Herods,
And I know it. Already a man would hang out
His foot of slack flesh for me to gather up.
I am the little Sphinx gazing out
Across the sandy desert; my riddle lies
In the print my body leaves upon the sand
When I rise for the sea. Herod, I anticipate
Your responses and already I
Am more god than you. I await
The carnage to come as I watch the great ships
Launch themselves upon the small rose of my lips.
‘Night on this Earth is a well’ by Leonard Sisyphus Mann
Night on this Earth is a well:
Things matter; and then a dawn like steel
Plates the sill
But is forever high, remote, eternal.
In the dark doubts matter.
The moon’s face is blemished by craters.
Her way has lost her
Amidst a forest of scattered stars.
Sometimes she leans to draw
From a pool of shadow.
The only of her kind I
withhold judgement on a disfigurement
That might be her beauty.
What little love I’ve learnt
From this solitude
I’ve learnt from you:
Beyond all night’s dark confusion
This matters more than the cadence
Of morning, its steel blade cutting us
Our allocation of day, suffusing
In the canthus of the sky.
from ‘Among child prostitutes’ by Leonard Sisyphus Mann
This poem was ‘inspired’ by a news story that must have appeared in the press in the late 80s or early 90s about a notorious bar in a tourist resort in Thailand. The story was accompanied by photographs. I particularly remember one photo of a man, who was of about my age at the time, sat at a sea-front bar with a girl of eleven whose arm is draped affectionately round his shoulder. At the time I found this photograph intriguing and disturbing.
The full poem is in eight sections but only two sections of the poem now seem worth retrieving.
The title is a nod to W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘Among School Children‘
I walk beneath the pavillion of the Siren Bar;
Beneath the counter, feet and crates of beer –
Below the beer-stained and worn wooden floor
The ocean laps, placidly obeying the moon’s
Law, her soft light rebuked by the bulb’s glare.
At a counter a child of six or seven beckons to me;
So I sit there, buy a beer, reward her with trade,
Chat with her mother, tease the child.
Here not of your choosing you resent
The clamour of children’s voices, you feel appalled
By the advances of small boys who interpret
Your indifference for restraint. You ask
Yourself ‘what am I doing here? How did
I get here?’ Are disgusted.
You are my guest, stay, talk
To me. Don’t go.