Sleep Loss, Sunscreen, And Very Little Sex In These 'Love Poems' For Parents

Oct 26, 2019

Most love poems are about the first blush of attraction — before marriage or children. But John Kenney, a contributor to The New Yorker, writes for couples a little further down the road. In 2018 he published Love Poems (for Married People) which included:

"Is this the right time for that?"

"Emily's name isn't Rachel"

"What time should we leave for the airport?"

"Would it be possible to stop volunteering me for things?"

And now, he's followed it up with Love Poems (for People with Children) which offers meditations on baby wipes, preschool artwork and sleep deprivation.

"Marriage with children is endlessly sort of elegiac and beautiful, isn't it? ..." Kenney asks, without a hint of sarcasm. "Just endless amounts of sleep, and love, and almost too much sex. It's a joy, is what it is."

In this collection, readers will find the poems:

"What you call sex I call a wonderful time to make a mental list"

"A mile from the house, you ask if we've packed the sunscreen"

"3:32a.m. and I am sure the infant is taunting me"

Kenney has two children of his own but insists these poems were not inspired by his own totally perfect life.

"I have a lot of parent friends and I will send out an email saying: Give me your tired and poor and worst situations and we try to turn those into poems," he explains.

In the poem "I am fully aware that the wheels on the bus go round and round," a Daddy on the bus contemplates whether he has made a terrible, terrible mistake:

The daddy on this bus is thinking
This is not what I signed up for.
And maybe the driver on the bus
is thinking the exact same thing.
Maybe he looks over at the daddy
and he doesn't go Move on back.
Maybe instead he nods and smiles.
And the daddy nods and smiles.
And the driver hits the gas
and goes zoom, zoom, zoom
so fast that the mommies on the bus say
Jesus Christ almighty, slow down!

Love Poems (For Married People) ended with a heartfelt poem Kenney wrote for his wife. "Right before the book went to the printer I thought, you know, I should attempt to write one real one — and I wrote it to my wife," he explains.

So he did the same for his own children — Lulu and Hewitt — in this book:

Every night
before you go to sleep
I lean down and
whisper the same sentence.

In a lifetime of questions
and confusion
they are the truest words I know.

I am so lucky to be your dad.

It's so sweet, it might make you forget, for a split second, the dedication at the beginning:

To Lulu & Hewitt.
Now is probably the wrong time to let you know that I am not your real father.

Peter Breslow and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are countless love songs and love poems. She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes. That's Byron. Google it. But you notice how love poems don't mention diapers, tantrums or eating leftover Pop-Tarts from the floor? Most paeans to love are about the first blush of attraction - before marriage or children. But John Kenney, The New Yorker contributor and winner of the Thurber Prize, has written a book of tender and passionate poems of devotion for lovers who are partners in the love of a child or several children - "Love Poems for People with Children." John Kenney joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN KENNEY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You know, I don't want to delay the rapturousness (ph) of these poetic insights you have. So could we get you, please, to read the poem "My six-year-old got hold of my phone."

KENNEY: I would be happy to.

(Reading) My apologies, Reverend. My 6-year-old got hold of my phone and sent you 142 poop emojis. Please know that this in no way reflects my opinion of you or the church. Although it does make me wonder if there is a God. To my father-in-law, Lou, no grandparent should ever receive a GIF of Fabio not wearing pants, dancing suggestively with the words let's get it on. I was sure I had deleted that. And to my boss, Gary, did you happen to receive a photo of a baboon's ass with a note reading, found this picture of you? I sent that one.

SIMON: That is so affecting and beautiful.

KENNEY: Thank you very much. I take my poetry seriously.

SIMON: Yeah. Who do you count as your poetic inspirations - Keats, Millay, Shelley?

KENNEY: Really all of those people. I think my poetry is - I use that word loosely - is poetry in much the same way, say, Arby's is farm-to-table dining.

SIMON: (Laughter) I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm laughing. One of the many joys of parenthood is rediscovering childhood. Could we please get you to read the poem "I am fully aware that the wheels on the bus go round and round"?

KENNEY: Course. (Reading) I am fully aware that the wheels on the bus go round and round. I get it. I know about the wheels and the horn and the babies. Everyone knows that. Here's something you might not know. The daddy on this bus is thinking, this is not what I signed up for. And maybe the driver on the bus is thinking the exact same thing. Maybe he looks over at the daddy. And he doesn't go, move on back. Maybe instead he nods and smiles. And the daddy nods and smiles. And the driver hits the gas and goes zoom, zoom, zoom so fast the mommies on the bus say, slow down.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KENNEY: (Reading) And the driver screeches to a halt at the corner because he sees a sign for a bar called Open at 9 a.m. And he and the daddy get off the bus and go into a bar. Call an Uber because this bus is out of service.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KENNEY: (Reading) Sing that verse, why don't you?

SIMON: (Laughter) That is so tender. There is another poem that I wanted you to read that I think would be important for people to hear. I do want to caution our listeners - the poem might contain disturbing content, which is what we have to do nowadays. The poem is called "Baby Wipes."

KENNEY: "Baby Wipes." (Reading) If you had told me in my 20s that I would do this, I wouldn't believe you. But this morning, the baby's poop shot out like a cannonball. And some of it landed in my hair. Well, I was pretty tired. And I guess too lazy to shower. And I was late for work. So what I did was take a baby wipe and clean it out of my hair - most of it anyway. Then I went on with my day.

SIMON: That is such a tender and beautiful image - shot out like a cannonball, really.

KENNEY: Well, you know, marriage with children is endlessly sort of elegiac and beautiful, isn't it?

SIMON: Yes. Yeah. As these poems underscore.

KENNEY: It's perfect.

SIMON: Yeah.

KENNEY: There is just endless amounts of sleep and love and almost too much sex and...

SIMON: (Laughter).

KENNEY: ...It's a joy is what it is.

SIMON: Well, it is a joy. But we'll get to that. I do want to ask about your - you know, your method of construction. I mean, what comes first to you, the imagery or the wordplay?

KENNEY: I think it's the title. I've been very fortunate that I have a lot of parent friends. And I will send out an email saying, give me your tired and poor and worst situations. And we try to turn those into poems. I don't draw on my own life at all, Scott. It's perfect. It's all made up. It's all fiction.

SIMON: I am taking a look at your hair.

KENNEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: But that's - hadn't occurred to me before. A last poem to share.

KENNEY: The predecessor to this book was "Love Poems for Married People." And right before the book went to the printer, I thought, you know, I should attempt to write one real one. And I wrote it to my wife. And I thought with this one, I should do the same thing but to my children. So I have a daughter and a son - Lulu and Hewitt. So this poem is called "For Lulu and Hewitt."

(Reading) No offense to either of you, but I preferred the idea of kids to actual kids. Who needs kids of their own when you have nine nieces and nephews? You get to be an uncle for a while. Then you get to go home alone and sleep. I blame your mother and her beautiful face and deeply kind spirit and her perfect answer to why she wanted children, because I'm tired of worrying about myself. I want to worry about someone else. Can I tell you two a secret? I was afraid. I was afraid I wouldn't be good enough - too moody, too needy, too impatient, too selfish, too lacking. But then you were born. And you told me a secret. Dad, you whispered, all you have to do is watch me and listen to me and take my hand. And I'll teach you how to be a father. And then you spit up on my shirt. Every night before you go to sleep, I lean down and whisper the same sentence. In a lifetime of questions and confusion, they are the truest words I know. I am so lucky to be your dad.

SIMON: That's beautiful. Children are the great blessing and adventure of our lives all at once, aren't they?

KENNEY: You're not going to get an argument from me.

SIMON: John Kenney - his book "Love Poems for People with Children." Thanks so much for being with us.

KENNEY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN STORY'S "WHEELS ON THE BUS, GO ROUND AND ROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.