For My Son, A Kind of Prayer

Richard Jeffrey Newman offers a poem and a prayer for his son, on violence and fear and the awful mystery of our own bodies.

…for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days…

—William Butler Yeats, “A Prayer for My Son”


Just before his mother
pushed him through herself
hard enough to split who she was
wide enough for him to enter the world,
I touched the top of my son’s head;
and after he was born,
the midwife—her name,
I think, was Vivian—
held my wife’s umbilical cord
in a loop for me to cut, which I did,
freeing our new boy’s body
to enter the name
we had waiting for him;
and then Vivian laid him
against the curve of his mother’s body,
giving him to the breast
he would for years
define his world by;
and once that first taste of love
was firmly lodged within him,
she bundled him tight,
placed him in my arms
and, while I sang his welcome
in a far corner of the room,
turned to assist the doctor
sewing up my wife’s
birth-torn flesh.

I don’t remember what song I chose,
and it’s been a decade at least
since I’ve told anyone
about my son’s first moments
as my son, but they’ve come to me here,
in this urologist’s waiting room,
because I picked up from the coffee table
the copy of The Nation
another patient must have left behind,
and the first article my eyes fell on,
“Silence=Rape,” by Jan Goodwin,
introduced me to Shashir,
six years old and gang raped
in the Congo. When they found her,
she was starving;
and when they found her,
she could neither walk nor talk;
and so they stitched together
the parts of her the men had ruptured,
fed her, gave her clothing;
and that night she slept
for the first time since no one knew when
in a bed that was not
the bush the militia left her to die in;
and maybe the tent walls
shaping the room she lived in
when Goodwin learned she existed
had come to mean for her
a kind of safety; and maybe
that safety was fertile ground,
where words for what the men had done to her,
dropped like seeds from the mouths
of those who rescued her,
could begin to take root.
From what Goodwin wrote,
I cannot tell.

I have not been gang raped,
but a man much older than I was
when I was twelve
forced his penis into my mouth,
seared the back of my throat
with what he poured out of himself
and sealed into silence
everything that took me
fifteen years of pushing
till who I was split wide enough
that who I am
could speak his first true words.
Mr. Newman? The nurse,
white, blond, about my age,
calls my name,
one of the few she has not butchered,
sitting as I am among the men
of my neighborhood,
where names that would twist
the tongue of any English speaker
are common. I put Shashir’s story down,
though Goodwin’s piece
is about more than her:
Maria was seventy
when the Interahamwe
tied her legs apart
like a goat before slaughter;
and the women Goodwin leaves nameless,
most of them killed by infection,
their labia pierced and padlocked
when their rapists were finished—
this narrative is theirs too.

I put the magazine down,
still bearing those women with me,
and rise towards the door I need to walk through
so I can place in this doctor’s hand
the left testicle I found a bump on
three days ago. A few
of my fellow patients
glance up as I pass,
one of them smiling,
nodding his head,
as if to say, Don’t worry.
It’ll all work out.

I smile back, grateful
for his small empathy,
noticing as I do so
that the flag pin on his lapel
and the name of the newspaper
folded over in his lap
place his origin in,
or at least his allegiance to,
a country now making headlines
for stories like Shashir’s;
and of course such things
don’t happen only
“over there;” and of course
not one man in this room
has ever done enough,
could ever do enough,
to make them stop happening;
and as the truth of that,
the guilt of that, punches me
in the stomach, this place—
where our penises are just penises,
and our balls are glands,
nothing more—
becomes in my imagination
where we are supposed to be,
a kind of purgatory
pregnant with poetic justice.

The door shuts behind me.
The nurse turns a perfect about face,
tossing over her shoulder
one last grin and Please, follow me,
before leading the way in silence
to a room dominated
by a four-color poster
and a plastic cross-section
of the flaccid human male genitalia.
The poster, I notice,
includes the foreskin; the model
does not—something
to ask the doctor about—
but when he arrives,
my only thought
resembles a prayer.

I have not prayed in decades,
and gave up the god I prayed to
soon after I stopped,
but while he snaps
his latex gloves on,
and I let my pants
fall to my ankles,
my underwear
to just below my knees,
and as I watch him handle
what in my wife’s language
are called my tokhm
or “eggs,” the scenario
I’ve been trying not to conjure
gnaws at the edge of my calm.
Without gonads, who would I be?

It’s probably nothing,
the doctor nods sagely,
stepping back,
removing his gloves.
I pull my clothing up,
tuck in my shirt. Still,
he continues while I’m
fumbling with my zipper,
let’s check it again
six months from now.
He smiles,
offers his hand for me to shake,
which I do, and moves on
to the next man in the next room.
I head back out the way I came,
where my friend smiles and nods again,
lifting his hand in a farewell
I answer with my own nod and smile,
the reprieve I’ve just gotten
predisposing me not to assume
the worst of anyone, though that assumption
was once my only refuge,
the way I imagine
Shashir burrowing into silence
as the life she’d survived her ordeal
to enter.

Outside, the wind
rips the hood
away from my head;
snow-gusts slap me
back and forth
across my face;
and I am reminded how quickly
beauty turns cold, how easily
death wears friendship’s face.
I want to know
how a man who loves his children
does not see their faces
in the eyes of the girl
whose vagina he is opening
with a bottle or a bayonet;
I want to know how their voices
woven into that girl’s screams
do not paralyze his hands
or keep his penis soft.

My son will never know Shashir,
but he will know men
who could’ve been,
who’d gladly be,
among the ones
who violated her;
and he’ll know women,
and other men like me,
whose bodies carry
violation within them.

One day, he will  be forced to choose
where his allegiance lies.
These words are for him
on the day of that decision.

Dad and son photo by Shutterstock

About Richard Jeffrey Newman

Richard Jeffrey Newman is a professor in the English Department of Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. He is the author of The Silence of Men, a book of poems, and three books of translations from classical Iranian poetry, most recently, The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. "For My Son, A Kind of Prayer" is from his second, as yet unpublished poetry manuscript, Because Men Only Understand Cliches. He blogs at Because It's All Connected.


  1. Thanks, Jill! 🙂

  2. Beautiful. Newman, you are fantastic.

    (And I don’t see any moments of threat towards or scarring of a child. That is certainly not the poorly worded and totally misinterpreted analysis of people with any literary sense.)

  3. I am stunned reading this, Richard, with the truth and terrible beauty of your words. Your son is fortunate in his choice of fathers. And the women of the world are stronger because of your ability to name the crime of rape and empathize with other victims. May all wounds be healed. And may our sons and daughters be inspired by this poem to lead strong, courageous, good lives.

  4. Caria Kirtland says:

    I found the last stanza to be quite appropriate and well chosen. If the little boy has been exposed to this piece, later, when he faces ethical challenges of social sexuality, he might harken back to find guidance from his dad. No scars; no threats; just mindfulness. I hope we all find the strength to teach the lessons that need to be taught, in order to not repeat the mistakes.

  5. We all face choices. Some may seem small and insignificant. Some, large. We all face them and we all must make choice of being on the side of peace and compassion, or not.
    A beautiful piece of poetry.

  6. “One day, he will be forced to choose
    where his allegiance lies.
    These words are for him
    on the day of that decision.”

    Certainly scar your child with shame for something he will never do unless its done to him.

    • Eagle34 says:

      “One day, he will be forced to choose
      where his allegiance lies.
      These words are for him
      on the day of that decision.”

      Sorry, but I find the wording of this too much as a threat to be taken as good intentions for your son.

      But that’s just by view.


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