Portrait of the Poet as a Young Genius

I remember being happy as a child; I believe it was on a Tuesday. Most of my early years were spent trying not to be my father (who was not my Dad, whom I met at aged 10). My sister (the one left) and I called my father “Him” never once referring to Him by any other title.

I avoided mirrors like dime-novel vampires, afraid I would see his reflection. My Dad would tell me I need my father, but, well, I used to be a genius, so I knew better. Never needed any parts of him.

Remember the day he left, when I was four, although the memories have wilted like Autumn flowers, and blended with nightmares I once dreamed. And in my memory, it was in my grandma’s attic, though that’s clearly wrong, but, since her attic was cluttered with old junk no one needs perhaps that’s a more appropriate venue.

And Mama asked my (Him) not to leave, and see, being four, I thought he was joining the Army, though I couldn’t imagine why – perhaps that’s why I was so staunchly opposed to the War by age six. But (Him) was still preparing to leave and Mama asked me, plaintively, “Tell your father not to leave,” so, being obedient, I did, though not much caring what he decided either way.

He was much like our cats – came and left, didn’t poop on the furniture, and left me the hell alone most the time. Some days, I still miss those damn cats.

So when he was gone, and I was still the man of the house – at four years old – wearing my best suit, as the Man does, and my cowboy outfit, ‘cause, you know, a brotha’s got to style sometimes, Mama, me, and my remaining sister moved. One fine spring day, we were at 5th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. The next, we were in crabtactular Hampton, Virginia, which was way south of hell, but not far north of Mayberry.

And by this time, I was almost five, and had a friend, one day, well, two hours – at a party, but not much more than that. But I had a Granddaddy, and he liked books: encyclopedias, art books, and science, and weather, and history, and stuff. And he had National Geographic, and the African women showed their breasts, but I was four, and didn’t care yet. Breasts were for age six. The books were my only company, since I hated my sister, a lovely, mutual hatred (though we’d have killed anyone who tried to hurt the other), but they frustrated me. See, I was four and nobody noticed I couldn’t read (and never had a playmate or a smile). So, I asked my Mama how the letters sound when you read. Mama, who never underestimated me, told me how they sounded. Being too stupid to know reading was hard, I taught myself to read – in a couple of days – because what the hell else was there to do? We were in Hampton, Virginia, and it was Nineteen-sixty-freaking-four.

There were three TV channels.

The strange thing, see, is I taught myself to write, and draw, and shoot pictures the same way. All in search of me. Mama, she told me, when I was grown, that my (Him) was just like that too. And he wrote poetry and stopped, like me, when he started getting published, ‘cause he never had much worth saying.

Well, okay. So, he’s gone now.

Well, he’s still around; it’s just he’s dead. Can’t say it’s much different than when he wasn’t.

Maybe I got to keep his good bits, such that they are. Maybe growing up the way I did, which was alone, for the most part, was good practice. Now, before you feel sorry, if you are so inclined, understand there was a house full of people back in Hampton – five bedrooms, double occupancy. It’s just hard to be connected to people who mostly don’t give a shit if you’re there. But I didn’t mind, much. Never cared what people I don’t love think.

I did miss the days when I used to get hugs – back before my baby sister died – and most nights, I wished I could remember how they felt. I didn’t miss them for myself; I missed that my mom hurt so much she never noticed that she stopped. I missed our sister, for her.

But I had my books, and I knew more by age six than most kids learn by age 10. Every few years, Mama will ask me who taught me to read. Sometimes, I’ll answer, “You.” Most times, I just say, “I don’t know.” I do know, and she does too. I’m just to stubborn to say. I never spoke to God at four, but I reckon he spoke to me. Taught me to read, because there wasn’t much love and there weren’t any friends, but there were books. Glorious books. And that was enough, because it had to be. In the end, as I near old age, the pain from my childhood has faded, and I don’t regret never smiling, because God takes what is and makes it what must be.

I must admit, there are those days when I miss being a genius. No one used that word, and I would have thrown a fit if they had, because even then I knew there was no such thing. If you take an empty heart, and mind, God will fill it with whatever is there. Mine was filled with books. But to pick up a tome, read it, and know it for life – that was a marvelous adventure. I miss when learning wasn’t a thing you did, it just happened by magic.

I miss magic. For we lonely kids, that was enough to get by. You can even get ahead, if you do it when no one’s looking.


  1. You had a hard time, didn’t you. I’m so sorry your sister died, that must have been awful for both of you (your mum and you). I was a child genius too, in a different way – unfortunately when you grow up you leave behind those delusions, to a certain extent. There are so many lonely kids!

    1. Yes, sadly, there are.

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