Poems to Live By: To My Daughter in a Red Coat

To My Daughter in a Red Coat

Late October. It is afternoon.
My daughter and I walk through the leaf-strewn
Corridors of the park
In the light and the dark
Of the elms’ thin arches.

Around us brown leaves fall and spread.
Small winds stir the minor dead.
Dust powders the air.
Those shrivelled women stare.
At us from their cold benches.

Child, your mittens tug your sleeves.
They lick your drumming feet, the leaves.
You come so fast, so fast.
You violate the past,
My daughter, as your coat dances.

Anne Stevenson

Poetry is partly about what is said and partly about how it is said. The form is also a way of saying something. Stevenson is a master of form.

The title suggests that this might be one of those personal poems of praise, a mother writing a poem for her daughter. Yet the language from the start is bleak, ‘October’, ‘afternoon’, ‘brown leaves’, ‘dead’, ‘dust’, ‘shrivelled’, ‘cold’. Everything here is dying – the year, the day, nature, people. Stevenson plays with our expectations. But hey, mother/daughter relationships are never simple, right?

This relationship isn’t simple. There’s none of the warmth you expect. The tone is observational, coldly detached. Look at those clipped lines in the second stanza. This mother is keeping her daughter at arm’s length. Even the way she refers to her is distant. She’s not named and ‘My daughter and I’ moves on to ‘Child’.

The poem seems to be more about death, about time and the passing of time, than about the daughter. Stevenson realises that even in her daughter’s youth, she is a victim of time. She’s not ‘kicking the leaves’, the leaves, brown and dead, ‘lick her drumming feet’, the adjective a reminder of the constant ‘drumming’ of time perhaps. No wonder Stevenson repeats, ‘so fast’. Time is already in control and as she sees this in her daughter, there’s a change as another phrase is repeated. That cold, detached, ‘My daughter’, with the stress on the first syllable of the second word, changes. The stress is now on ‘My’. And that makes all the difference.

And here you might notice the rhyme that runs strictly through the whole poem. And you might notice the rhyme in the final line of each stanza. And you might notice how this last line is slightly different. It’s not -ches but -ces, it’s not a noun but a verb, ‘arches’/’benches’/’dances’. Even more, it’s the coat that dances and so we might remember the title. The colour isn’t brown and drab, it’s a bright, invigorating, confident ‘red’. She is ‘My daughter’, no longer hemmed in by ‘Corridors’ and ‘thin arches’ but dancing. It is no wonder that she ‘violate(s) the past’.

It’s in the language but also in the form of the poem itself, in the subtle changes, the way that every word counts. There’s celebration and beauty and innocence despite the power of time. And, do you know what? That red coat, however many times you read it, still ‘dances.’


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