Dorothy Livesay’s Ballad of Me

I’ll have to admit I’m always hesitant to read personal history into a poem, even though it’s clear some “confessional poets? intend their poems to be a record of their personal struggles. While personal history can undoubtedly give us insight into a poet’s meaning, a poem, like a short story, is obviously not an autobiography or even a personal essay.

However, it’s difficult not to read the author’s personal life into a poem when she includes her own name in a poem entitled “Ballad of Me:?

born clumsy
bursting feet first
then topsy turvy
falling downstairs;
the fear of
joy of

father called it
throwing the ball
which catch as catch can
I couldn’t.

Was it the eyes’ fault
seeing the tennis net
in two places?
the ball flying, falling
space-time team-up?

What happened was:
the world, chuckling sideways
tossed me off
left me wildly
treading air
to catch up.

Everyone expected guilt
even I —
the pain was this:
to feel nothing.

Guilt? for the abortionist
who added one more line
to his flat perspective
one more cloud of dust
to his bleary eye?

For the child’s
‘onlie begetter?
He’ll make another.

For the child herself
the abortive dancer?

No, not for her
no tears.
I held the moon in my belly
nine month’s duration
then she burst forth
an outcry of poems.


And what fantasies do you have?
asked the psychiatrist
when I was running away from my husband.
Fantasies? fantasies?
Why surely (I might have told him)
all this living
is just that
every day dazzled
gold coins falling
through fingers.
So I emptied my purse for the doctor
See! nothing in it
but wishes.
He sent me back home
to wash dishes.

Returning further now
to childhood’s Woodlot
I go incognito
in sandals, slacks
old sweater
and my dyed

I go disarrayed
my fantasies
twist in my arms
ruffle my hair

I go wary
fearing to scare
the crown

No one remembers Dorothy
was ever here.

Section i is certainly generic enough that most of us can relate to it, or at least I can. Most of us end up “treading air? trying to live up to our own expectations, much less our parents’.

Section ii is a little more difficult. Is the abortion suggested in this section one the author actually had? Was it a metaphorical abortion, one that led to an “outcry of poems?? Or, did a real abortion, with all the accompanying heartbreak, lead to an outburst of poems?

Section iii could easily be autobiographical since it was widely known that she and her husband had marital difficulties, that it was faddish to consult psychiatrists during that period, and, like most men of the period probably considered it “normal? for a woman to be at home taking care of the home, washing the dishes.

How many of us are famous enough to be remembered when we return to our childhood home? How many of us can ever rediscover those childhood fantasies, much less have them come true. Or do we discover that the Wizard of Oz isn’t a wizard at all, but a charlatan that impresses us with our own fantasies?