Goodnight – by David F. Shultz

In this post, I want to take a look at a poem that I wrote, called ‘Goodnight’. This poem was published in Polar Borealis magazine, issue #4. (Polar Borealis is a Canadian speculative fiction magazine that is available for free; if you’re not familiar with it, you should check it out).

Here’s the poem:

She looks at me
with big brown eyes
Remember, Daddy,
the time we died?

I tuck her in.
She shuts her eyes.
I say goodnight.
She says goodbye.

No, sweetie,
we say goodnight.
But, daddy, it’s
goodbye this time.

I pull up the covers.
She says from her bed,
remember the men
that cut off our heads?

when you were with mommy,
in the village shop,
and they came with swords?
Then she mimes the chop.

I shush her quiet,
ask her to sleep,
hoping she stops
her disquieting peeps.

She’s almost sleeping,
and with a sigh her
tired voice whispers,
we died in a fire

last time, daddy.
What do you mean?
Don’t you remember
the burning dream?

If we should die
before we wake,
I think she will
remember why

This is a poem about a child saying creepy things while being tucked in, as children sometimes do. There is an ambiguity about whether there might be some truth to this child’s foreboding words. I was hoping to generate some feelings of unease.

There are a lot of short lines, small words, and simple, end-stopped rhymes. Normally I would want to avoid this kind of poem because, for my taste, it tends to impart a childish, nursery rhyme flavor. But that was the right tone for this poem, which is really about a child going to bed. I think using simple, end-stopped rhymes works well with this subject matter. It also provides a nice ironic contrast to the creepy feeling I am trying to develop.

The rhyme scheme is pretty straightforward: ABCB. Except for the last stanza, which switches to ABCA. I did this because ABCB feels like it is rolling forward, whereas the closed form of ABCA stops the momentum. I wanted that feeling of stopped momentum to close the poem off, and to complement the lingering thought of death. I was also hoping that the sudden switch in rhyme scheme would signal some change in the father’s mindset, like the child’s words had really gotten to him. (Whether any of those things worked is really the reader’s call, of course).

The poem is ambiguous about whether there is any truth to the child’s strange murmurings. I think that was the right choice, leaving the reader some space to interpret, and hopefully contributing to the sense of unease.

One thing that I like about this poem is the implied metaphysics, if we assume the child is remembering properly. A lot of world-building is carried out by this simple exchange: this is a world with reincarnation, which implies a soul, or something like it; souls evidently have the potential retain memories across the threshold of death; the line “when you were mommy” implies both that souls are non-gendered and that souls travel together, in family groups, reincarnating together and, as it seems for this family, repeatedly dying together; and, some souls -the child in this poem- have foresight of future deaths. None of this is said directly, but we need to understand these premises to make sense of the child’s words.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my comments on it interesting.

Thanks for reading.