Words for My Daughter

by John Balaban

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

“Words for My Daughter” is a poem about the damage adult violence does to children. It is also, however, a poem of adult redemption made possible by a child. Balaban’s background provides some clues to his themes and meanings in “Words for My Daughter.” In his book Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (1992), Balaban recounts his days as a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam. As a Quaker, Balaban committed his life to nonviolence and opposition to war. While in Vietnam, Balaban worked for the Quaker and Mennonite Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children as a field representative. His knowledge, then, of the damage done to children is born out of firsthand experience. It is also clear from reading Balaban’s memoir that he roots his poetry in his own experience. “Words for My Daughter,” for example, grew out of an actual incident he details in Remembering Heaven’s Face.

When Balaban writes of his early memories of life in Philadelphia, he thematically connects incidents that concern abusive relationships among family members. Children are not only abused themselves, but they are also called upon to rescue other members of their family who are being abused, or they turn to abuse themselves. What should be loving, protective relationships are instead violent and painful. Certainly, one of Balaban’s primary themes in this poem is what happens when “desperate loves” are “twisted in shapes of hammer and shard.” However, even if the pain is dreadful in Philadelphia, it is worse in Vietnam. There Balaban’s recollections turn to orphaned children who have no family members to protect them and who find themselves abused by members of the human family at large. In these instances, Balaban tries to protect the children just as he finds himself in a protective position with his own daughter as he faces the father and son dressed as Green Berets. The confrontation is ironic: Balaban the pacifist finds that his own love for his daughter twists his response to the other father, whom he curses. Thus Balaban arrives at another important theme: Violence can shape and twist the experience of love.

In the last stanza, the reader is introduced to yet another theme, and perhaps it is here that the meaning of the poem seems most clear. What Balaban says he wants for his daughter is, ultimately, what he wants for himself: “I want you to know the worst and be free from it./ I want you to know the worst and still find good.” The ease with which traumatic memories intrude into Balaban’s life suggests that he may never “be free” from them. It does seem, however, that he knows the worst and still finds some good. The last stanza, with its description of the poet and his daughter, corrects the early vision of family violence. In the last full sentence, the poem turns around. Suddenly, it is no longer Balaban who is the protector of children; rather, it is his child who redeems him. For Balaban, who often finds himself wandering in the memories of violence and despair, his daughter represents hope. She pulls him from the past and into the future, her birth a regeneration of the world.

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