Poetry

Amy M. Clark: “The Survival Kit”

 

The Survival Kit

In the days after we told you, and Dad moved out
leaving an empty bedroom that echoed your words
“I don’t like the feeling here,” the Emergency Survival Kit
you’d chosen from the Scholastic book order arrived.
It had a whistle, to let your friends know where you are,
a thermometer, a microscope, a compass, an LED light,
and a lanyard to wear the whole thing around your neck
for quick access when you are on the go. You tested the compass
in multiple rooms of our depleted house, and found
that the dial indicated North in the same direction
no matter where you stood. In those days after you began
to sometimes wake up in your same bed in our house
and go to sleep in your new bed in Dad’s apartment,
twin 13-month-old boys conjoined at the head underwent
27 hours of surgery to be separated. You followed
their story on CNN checking for updates and studying
the videos showing their amazing before-and-after selves.
“You can do it, little guys,” you whispered, as you saw each one
with bandaged head, breathing tube, IV, heart monitor,
and baby blanket, looking up from separate hospital cribs.
In the days after we told you, I became obsessed
with news about the impending election. Your dad said
if the wrong candidate won, we’d leave the country.
Oh, how I assured you we’d be fine. But relief was only
a flickering you have to gather all of your tools and wits to find.

 

From Roundabout (Press 53 2020) by Amy M. Clark. Published with permission of the press. All rights reserved. The book is available for order here.

 

Amy M. Clark’s second book of poems, Roundabout, was published by Press 53 in March 2020 and reviewed by Jamie Wendt in Mom Egg Review. Clark is coauthor with Molly Peacock of a chapbook, A Turn Around the Mansion Grounds: Poems in Conversation & a Conversation (Slapering Hol Press 2014). Her first book of poems, Stray Home (University of North Texas Press 2010), won the 2009 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry and was a 2011 ‘Must Read’ selection by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her poems have appeared on the Writer’s Almanac, in the anthology Good Poems, American Places (Viking 2011), and in various journals. She lives near Boston. Find out more at http:// amymclark.com. (Author photo credit: Mira Whiting Photography)

 

 

Poet’s Note

I wrote the first draft of “The Survival Kit” in the fall of 2016 during the lead-up to the divisive U.S. election and when my separation from my son’s father was still new. The unknown and unimaginable loomed large in front of me personally and politically, and each day was faced with trepidation. My heart ached for our son, who was navigating his own grief and uncertainties while the anxieties of the adults around him were palpable. The Scholastic book order was a familiar constant. The Emergency Survival Kit: Packed with Weird Stuff To Save Your Life, by Mark Shulman, was a gimmick but comforting all the same. Of course, the poem I made from it is the actual survival kit, my way of making something whole. The poem explores division and its attendant losses and fears, yet it also holds onto hope, just as the compass insists on the direction North.

Now in 2020, the survival kit metaphor takes on other dimensions as we come to the end of a year that has felt relentless and full of sorrow. The twin boys in the poem are now five years old. The neurosurgeon who led the team that performed the surgery that separated them—filling my son and me with wonder and tenderness—was Dr. James T. Goodrich. Dr. Goodrich died of coronavirus complications in March 2020. As I write this today, this poem is for him.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Parents instinctively want to “fix” their children’s pain, a feat that sadly isn’t possible apart from mild scrapes and kissable boo-boos. Today’s narrator, a wise mother, knows better than to try to paper over or rescue her child from the pain that results when parents decide to part ways. In this free verse poem of direct address, the “you” is a child—young enough to enjoy a mail-order “Emergency Survival Kit” toy but old enough to follow online the story of the surgical separation of conjoined twins. We are not told the gender or age, but I am assuming for this discussion that the “you” in this poem is a boy who is about 10 years old.

The narrator is a practical mother seasoned by the realities, perhaps, of living in a time darkened by a pandemic and a vicious political rhetoric and divide, and she is not willing to sugarcoat hard truths either for herself or for her son. Instead of offering false reassurance about the impending separation, she acknowledges his anxiety and then gives him what he needs to deal with it, the tools that will sustain his ability to sustain himself. That lovingly-rendered “Emergency Survival Kit” is a metaphor for what the child will need to survive his parents’ separation—a way to call for help from friends, a light to see in the dark, and other items including a compass to show which way to go.

Photo by Amy Clark

The compass, in particular, provides a sense of stability and certainty in the boy’s otherwise-changing-dramatically world:

You tested the compass
in multiple rooms of our depleted house, and found
that the dial indicated North in the same direction

Another tool for processing his parents’ separation is the boy’s ability to follow online the story of two conjoined twins who were successfully separated. This experience provides living proof that even the most fundamental conceivable separations are survivable. It also gives the boy the chance to feel empathy and perhaps a subliminal reminder that invisible others might be rooting for him, just as he roots for the twins. Finally, it allows him to be the strong one, rehearsing the strength that will prove useful in other contexts in his own life. I found the boy’s line, “You can do it, little guys,” almost unbearably tender, as if he were uttering the line to himself or imagining hearing it uttered to him. Indeed, I found all his lines almost unbearably tender, and that great quality of tenderness is what drew me to this poem.

Tenderness, especially in relation to children, can be hard to communicate in writing without tipping into sentimentality. This poem avoids it by squarely facing hard truths in the world. Twins are born conjoined and must endure agonizing surgery in order to survive as individuals. Parents divorce and children become afraid and anxious (“I don’t like the feeling here”) as a consequence. Later, the poem mentions our country’s deep political divide and the possibility of another kind of separation: flight and exile. The pain here is elemental and deep, communicated viscerally in the conjoined twins’ image and more subtly elsewhere, as in “our depleted house.” I would argue that it is the very willingness to face and acknowledge the pain that makes the tenderness possible, palpable, and powerful in this poem. Aristotle teaches in his Poetics that empathy springs from pity and terror, emotions that exist only where there is frank acknowledgment that things really are terrible, and there is no way to “fix” them externally.

The poem makes several interesting turns. It opens with the parents telling their son they are separating and stays there for a time, describing the new emptiness of the old house and the feeling of crisis that makes it helpful to have an “emergency kit” arrive in the mail. The items in that kit work on a literal level—the whistle shrieks, the flashlight shines, the compass needle swings—and in the metaphorical sense, they help the boy learn to cope with his new living arrangements. Again, the compass teaches him that north will stay the same whether he is in his mother’s house or his father’s apartment.

The poem makes two turns to widen its context and frame of reference. The first is from the domestic sphere to another family drama (the conjoined joins) online, and then the poem turns again, near the end, to politics. “In the days after we told you, I became obsessed / with news about the impending election,” the mother says before telling of the father’s plans to relocate “if the wrong candidate won.” Understanding what an unendurable upheaval that might represent to the boy—would his father be living in another country; would they all have to leave?—the mother, this time, does offer the usual parental blandishments (“Oh, how I assured you we’d be fine”).

I would argue that this mother has earned the right to a few “there-there’s” by this point, having already given her son the tools to learn to comfort and sustain himself through times of upheaval and trauma. In any event, she immediately qualifies her reassurance, acknowledging that the comfort she offers is fragile and chimeric and that her young son will, ultimately, still have to rely on his own inner resources: “relief was only / a flickering you have to gather all of your tools and wits to find.”

The juxtaposition of material that by itself might tip into cuteness or sentimentality (everything the boy says, the items in that adorable kit) with such an unflinching expression of deeply uncomfortable feelings and truths (we live in a country from which it can now seem reasonable to have an exit strategy) makes this poem a powerful utterance. By its end, we can fully feel both the child’s and the mother’s pain, but we are comforted by the knowledge that they have what they will need to survive it.

This strikes me as a wonderful poem for our precise moment in time. Americans are feeling a deep separation in our country, not just due to COVID but also to a recent, very divisive election. Some are seeing the reality of partisan polarization for the first time. And, aside from political concerns, the pandemic has caused a forcible and protracted separation from the people we love. There are reasons for hope: a presidency prioritizing unity, and the vaccines now making their way into the world.

But let’s face it: This year has been one long, painful rupture. I certainly feel like I need an emergency kit, and I am grateful that today’s poem gives me ideas for a few things to pack inside: a whistle for calling for help (phone, email, Zoom), a compass to show true North (science and the US Constitution), and a flashlight (hope) to illuminate the way.

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