“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”–Rudyard Kipling, “If

Pap’s hell-bent on helping
us put away the white wicker furniture.
At 95 he can barely stand on his own,­
but insists on holding open the screen door.
My dad puts a rocking chair near him
so when Pap’s legs give way he can sit down.
Most of Pap’s muscle is already gone,
his short-term memory is next.
Each new memory like a dying leaf
falling from the maple tree out front.
The branches aren’t empty yet,
but as the November wind blows
I wonder if this will be his last winter with us.

Pap became at teacher after the war
so he asks me questions like:
How many poems have you written?
What do you mean by your influences?

I try to make things relative for him
in a way he’ll understand so I say
Remember Rudyard Kipling?
If you can keep your head when all about you …
I pause to see if he’ll pick up the verse,
but see him squint as he struggles to access
his lyric archive. I look over at my dad,
unable to accept the truth of this new silence.

Pap once spent summer mornings
hunting treasure with his metal detector.
He waved his wand over the ground
until the signal chimed high.
Pap knelt down and dug with his trowel
into the soil until his eyes lit up.

Today he had that same look, like he found a quarter!
He smiles and recites: Are losing theirs and blaming it on you!
Everything’s not lost, the leaves are still hanging on the maple tree.

* * *


(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


Leave a Reply