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It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk. 5
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you a crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien, 10
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner, 15
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal 20
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap. 25
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart, 30
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while 35
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways, 40
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door 45
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
Sexton's theme in this poem is that courage is expressed in small, everyday events that look relatively insignificant. Sexton skilfully frames this poem to encompass youth, adolescence, middle age and old age, with appropriate examples of everyday bravery for each age.
In other words, during the experience of combat, the soldier feels his fear but learns to act in spite of it.
Every person who has been in combat knows that he fights for those he's with, and they fight for him, because of their love for one another, not out of bravery or idealism.
This is Sexton's version of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
At the end, one faces death with one's shoes on, ready to confront the consequences of old age--the opposite of lying in a bed, waiting for death.
In other words, the experience is horrendous, but one is stronger for having gone through it ("a transfusion from the fire"). One clears away the damage and moves on.
Sexton is using a metaphor based on a parent's care of a baby--before a new diaper, powder; then a back rub to relax the infant; last, putting the infant down to sleep. In other words, dealing with sorrow can involve some mechanical steps to make it tolerable.