When I was fifty-one with that kind of insomnia
where you wake up earlier and earlier
and drink lots of coffee and write
lots of poetry, my son was just nineteen
with that home-from-college-for-the-summer
kind of mania, where you go to bed later
and later, and sleep until two in the afternoon.
The drinking age in America was one-and-twenty.
A.E. Housman was a classical scholar
who wrote lots of poetry about doomed youth
in the English countryside. No use talking
to a lad of nineteen about waiting two years
before starting to drink, especially when
he’s already learned how up in college. Housman
taught at a college in London, and later at a college
in Cambridge. One night we passed each other–me
and the lad–like two sleepless ship captains in a dark
kitchen at four in the morning. I was heading
for the coffee. He was heading for the toilet.
I could smell the booze on his breath from across
the ages. “Dad,” he said, “I can’t believe you
get up this early–what time is it, anyway?”
“Son,” I said, like a refrain, “I can’t believe you
are getting home this late. It’s four o’clock in the morning!”
Then we both sailed silently on in our opposite
directions, with our opposite wakes. But a few
minutes later, sipping my coffee and scratching
out a line, then putting it back again, I sensed him
hovering tipsily in the doorway, steeply rocking.
“I love you, man,” he said, a little drunkenly.
And I knew enough of love, and I knew enough
of poetry, and I knew enough of sobriety to know
he meant it more than he could say sober. “I love you, too,
man,” I said, gave the boy a kiss, and put him to bed.
Author’s Comment: I could say, “It happened, and I put it in a poem.” But I’m not sure how Housman got in there. I kicked him out, but he snuck back in. Personally, I don’t drink. I used to. A lot. A drunk is an unlovely creature. Now I’m sober over twenty years, and my son is just getting started. Maybe, in making this poem, I was looking for the lesson in all of that; some closing line like Housman’s: “And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.” But there is no easy lesson. I hate that he drinks. But I love him so much that it hurts.