This poem of nine four-line stanzas reveals a father's observations as he sits in a support group for parents at the psychiatric hospital where his daughter is a patient. The poem moves from the nervous small talk shared by the parents to the half-heard sounds of a tennis match outside to the "hot potato" of pain that the parents, through their stories, pass around, bringing the reader into the immediacy of the blame, grief, and disbelief that these parents share. In this environment, words fail: "I don't know anything / That can help us all. Words alone / (How many words there were!) have come unstrung // And scatter everywhere."


Dick Allen, a prolific poet, rarely writes about personal experiences--but in this poem he reveals the confusion and pain he experienced when his daughter was hospitalized for depression. Interestingly, this poem suggests that words--usually a poet's allies--are inadequate to understand or relieve the suffering parents experience when their children experience emotional illness.

This poem might stimulate discussion in a parent or adolescent group, or sensitize group leaders to the fragmented and frightening emotions parents struggle to articulate. The parents in this poem wonder how they can come to terms with the question of who is to blame for the terrible suicidal acts of their children--the slashed wrists, the alcoholism, the distorted body images.

Metaphors for the failure of language unify this poem--the vacuity of the parents' jokes, the children's future simply empty spaces on the calendar, the parents who bare their souls and yet remain strangers, the father who keeps "putting up and putting down his hand," and the children who wait in the hallways playing Scrabble, talking among themselves.

Primary Source

Ode to the Cold War: Poems New and Selected



Place Published