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Every poem I write nowadays, as a line from "Final Evening at Oxbrook Camp," is somehow a love song– to my wife, but to all I'm blessed to hold dear.

The Big Idea

Arthur_and_sl_at_soccer_gameby Sydney Lea01 Jul 2014

How could I know if the woman there with his father,
her hair bleached almost sheer, her shoes with heels
as slim as pencils, on which she wobbled and pitched
along the sidewalk– how could I be so sure
she was not the poor child’s mother?
No one would expect such a boy, maybe seven, to plead
sophisticatedly, to offer a scolding
long on rhetoric, as of course he didn’t.
He stood in front of the gin mill, bewildered, screeching,
What’s the big idea?

But I knew she wasn’t his mother by the father’s eyes,
which snapped from her and the child to run the street,
far side, near side, their look both panicked and empty,
that mixed expression a boozer’s face can take.
Shit-fire, for the love of Christ!
It was as though I could hear the drunken curse.
How had his kid gotten here, and why just now?
Where was the mother? No saint herself, I suspected.
These two must have picked a town they figured was safe,
far from either one’s house.

I could tell that the man was never meant to be fat,
that he’d once cut a good-looking figure. He did even now,
if you could ignore the beer-bloat belly that dropped
down over his thin white belt, as his mistress must have.
The Yankee Y on his cap
had darkened to gray with age or gotten moldy.
He tipped it back, let go of his swaying sweetheart,
and reached for his son –whose stiff-legged backward scramble
was enough to keep distance between them. I’d only come
on errands, and now began wildly

to look for the wife as well. I wanted peace.
I wanted her not to appear with me for witness.
And then for no reason I daydreamed about cliché,
how, if I happen to hear one, I pay no attention.
But one can land in a place
that suddenly lends it context and makes it potent.
Yes, I thought, what was the big idea?
That drunk wasn’t ready to say, or if he did,
it seemed certain that nothing he said would help a child.
So I crazily daydreamed a moment,

also, of taking the poor kid under my wing.
The biggest idea, I’d explain, has all to do
with real human love. Remember that, I’d say,
while deep inside, in a place where darkness fights
for space with other things,
I was sick with myself for mouthing an age-old thesis
that had never held water. Or so I felt in my gloom.
A fresh new slaughter I’d read of that day in the news
crashed into mind. Some mideastern land. The usual
scores of children in pieces.

A siren shrieked from a firehouse. Twelve o’clock:
that’s all it meant, thank God, and soon it was gone,
though I knew it would live for an age in one small head.
The boy seemed almost to like
the phrase he’d found, no matter his tears, though like
is scarcely the word, I’m sure. In any case,
it seemed good enough at least that he shouted it twice,
What’s the big idea? It felt like years
before I got myself out of earshot and sight.