In previous Writings From a Past Life we’ve printed childhood works and then David has gone off on silly and pointless riffs which have proven funny only to himself. (His words.) This week is different.
While doing research for an upcoming article, I got the chance to root around in the David Foster Wallace papers at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. I unearthed lots of neat (neat? Come on) things (things? Come on), but one piece in particular caught my eye–a childhood poem written by Wallace, presumably for a grade-school class.
The folks at the Ransom Center were kind enough to let us print the piece here on our blog:
“My mother works so hard so hard and for bread. She needs some lard. She bakes the bread. And makes the bed. And when she’s threw she feels she’s dayd.”
Pretty powerful stuff. On the whole, I prefer to let you, our devoted readers, draw your own conclusions–and share them below, of course–but I will take this opportunity to point out a few tidbits which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do.
First of all, the spelling errors are downright adorable. Just had to get that out of the way.
Note Wallace’s uncommon phrasing in “so hard and for bread.” I can’t think of a single child who would opt for this phrasing over, say, a more simple “so hard to make bread.” One possible interpretation is that Wallace is using bread to mean money, but this seems unlikely. Another possibility is that Wallace, even at such a young age, was already exhibiting the masterful grasp of language for which he would later become famous.
Also note Wallace’s atypical word choice. Not “when she’s done”; not “when she’s finished”; but “when she’s threw [through],” a nuanced construction more fitting for an adult than a child. This could very well be an indication that the young Wallace was attuned to the speech patterns of the people around him, namely his parents and teachers. His ear for spoken language and talent for mimicry would stay with him into adulthood, exemplified in the authenticity of his characters and the organic dialogue they exchange.
The psychoanalyst I consulted on the poem agrees. (I really did talk to a shrink. I’m not kidding. I wanted to see what I could glean about Wallace the person vs. Wallace the literary figure.) “I definitely think he’s listening to his mother’s language,” Mrs. G says. “That’s a strong feeling I have.”
Her first clue was in the poem’s final line: “she feels she’s dayd” which, in the context of a piece about the consequences of labor, calls to mind the expression “dead tired.” She surmises that Wallace may have heard his mother utter these words and appropriated the experience for his creative work. On the most superficial level, this poem is a commentary on his mother’s complaint.
“On the surface it’s about his mother’s housework, but there’s more to it than that,” Mrs. G tells me.
She goes on to explain that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this poem smacks of loneliness. In third person narration, Wallace observes his mother attending to her work, and wonders if she has energy enough to attend to him; he observes his mother in a state of physical exhaustion, and wonders if her capacity for affection has been exhausted as well. After all the housework–making the bed and baking the bread–will she have anything left for him?
If this is the case, consider the symbolic implications of dead: separate, detached, absent, unavailable. In the simplest terms, feeling dead means not feeling alive.
“For children it’s ultimately about what their parents can give to them,” Mrs. G says. “So as a child when you comment on your parents, you’re commenting on yourself.”
Wallace’s mother feels she’s dead. Does Wallace agree?