“Words for My Daughter” is a six-stanza poem written in free verse directed to the poet’s daughter. Although the poem tells several brief stories of the poet’s past, it is not truly a narrative poem. Rather, it is the poet’s first-person voice recalling events to his daughter in order to account for the violence that adults direct at children. The poem opens with scenes from John Balaban’s childhood in the rough neighborhood of a Philadelphia housing project. In the opening stanza, the reader learns the story of a boy named Reds, “fourteen, huge/ as a hippo.” The scene of idyllic childhood fort building is interrupted by screams from Reds’s mother, and Reds rushes to rescue her from his father’s brutality. The litany of violence continues in the second stanza, in which another of Balaban’s friends attacks the milkman who is raping his mother. The poem then turns to a girl “with a dart in her back, her open mouth/ pumping like a guppy’s, her eyes wild.” It can be surmised that the girl’s brother has caused her pain because later the neighborhood kids, with their rough justice, try to hang him.
The third stanza, only three lines long, shifts abruptly back to Reds: “Reds had another nickname you couldn’t say/ or he’d beat you up: Honeybun.’/ His dad called him that when Reds was little.” This stanza further addresses the source of Reds’s hatred for his father. The sexual connotation of the nickname suggests that Reds...
(The entire section is 579 words.)