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“Am I your favorite?” Poet Sally Thomas answers her child’s question



Anna O'Neil - published on 08/22/17

Every kid knows that if everyone’s the favorite, then nobody’s really the favorite, right? Thomas answers with a wry wisdom.
For You Am I your favorite? you want to know. And I say yes: As every breath I take’s My favorite breath. If, say, you’re eight, that makes You my favorite eight-year-old. Ditto Ten, nine, seven, six, five, yada, zero. You were my favorite series of summer earthquakes, My favorite live-weight centered on the cervix, My favorite sight unseen that year. And so You are my favorite child right now, because You stand before me, asking that my heart Declare, You first, you always. And it’s true. It works this way. Love’s strange, elastic laws Grant each child its undiluted part, And that, my love, is what I offer you. By Sally Thomas (Originally published in Dappled Things as “To the Child Who Asks”)

Kids can be pretty competitive, and the question at the beginning here is a perennial one. “I know you love me, but do you love me best?” And the answer “I love you all the same,” or “You’re all my favorite,” is less than satisfying. Every kid knows that if everyone’s the favorite, then nobody’s really the favorite, right?

Now, “For You” isn’t just a fancy way of landing on a nice neat moral, that even when everybody’s special, it still counts. Thomas could have saved herself some time and just made the sentiment into a meme, probably one with lots of kittens or a sunset, and called it a day. Instead, in the way she speaks about love, and especially the in progression of the piece, she invites the reader to understand just how “strange [and] elastic” love really is.

The poem is an answer to a child’s question, so the reader is invited to hear her answer through a child’s ears. This, I think, is essential. It involves a kind of suspension of disbelief. A grown-up would be inclined to argue right off the bat that “favorite” can’t share its title with others; it necessarily has to stand alone. But set aside that response for a minute, and see how Thomas chooses to define the subject.

To get you into the child’s mindset, the tone is conversational. “Ditto,” and “yada” aren’t the most elevated terms, after all. Let’s all talk like children, the author says, because the child is asking a very appropriate question. Who doesn’t want, even need, to be loved best of all by the one who he loves?

“And I say yes: As every breath I take’s /My favorite breath.” I read this line and thought “Ah, I see where she’s going. Whatever is in front of you in the present time is favorite, because it’s the most immediate.” It’s a neat and tidy justification for a mother to say that she loves each child best. But then if that were the point, why jump into all those past-tense experiences?

“You were my favorite series of summer earthquakes, My favorite live-weight centered on the cervix.”

These are hilarious images! A mother can only laugh if she’s using a superlative term for her labor contractions, and trust me–a “live-weight centered on the cervix” is just as uncomfortable as it sounds. But joking or not, the poet is making the point that anything, even fairly excruciating pain, that is connected with the beloved’s entry into the world becomes worthy of that glittering title, favorite. She’s given us a picture of the outrageous generosity of love, which eclipses all other matters, and will not be limited even by time.

Lest we object that it can’t possibly work this way, that she can’t possibly mean what she says, the poet is quick to remind us that love is strange. It doesn’t follow the ordinary rules; it makes its own.

What is love’s law, then? There’s a sense that this love, and the title of “favorite,” is not a gift bestowed on the child, but his inheritance. Identifying the child as “my love” ties him directly to the only other instance of that word, in the phrase “Love’s strange elastic laws.” If the child is called by the name of Love, then the laws of love are the child’s laws. So the child is offered, not something extra, but the love that, by love’s own mandate, he ought to receive: “You first, you always,” undiluted.

That word, “undiluted,” is at the heart of the work. Love is so gigantic, so powerful and unlimited, that it cannot be watered down. Thomas doesn’t just tell us this; she shows us, by not once saying, “And my other kids? They’re my favorite too.” She focuses singlemindedly, on the child who’s asking her for love. We know there are other children, otherwise, the initial question is meaningless. That doesn’t exclude them from their inheritance by any means–it shows us exactly how powerful her offering is. It sees each loved one as though he was the only person in the world.

If I were the child, I’d be satisfied by the answer.

Twice a month, Anna O’Neil brings us a short, memorable poem and breaks it down for us. Find more in this series at Poetry Talk

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