Posted by: John Looker | 6 April, 2012


This is number four in a series of poems looking at life through the nature of work.


In the darkness – yet again – a baby cries.
This can’t be hunger still; and surely not more changing?
They both have a long and difficult day ahead in the morning,
but – drifting on the sea at night – their baby cries. 

© John Looker 2012

For the first in this series, see  ”Work (a noun)” at:  


  1. Hi John,

    now this poem could be about a family making money living on a ship with their family, (drifting on a sea at night) but not sure it is 🙂
    Having babies is real labour 🙂 that is true,( so in line with the theme!) – as is taking care of them, when you are not sure why they cry (mothers somehow soon find out a certain logic, and the more you have, the better you become in the logic)
    Happy Easter!



  2. Somehow this poem conjured me a classic poem written in the 7th~8th century (The Ten Thousand Leaves, Japan’s Premier Anthology of Classical Poetry, translated by Hideo Levy):
    To what shall I compare
    this life?
    the way a boat
    rowed out from the morning harbor
    leaves no traces on the sea.

    (The original poem in Japanese has syllable pattern of 5,7,5.7,7)

    Maybe the baby cries in awe of the world in which his life was brought into.


  3. This reminds me of when our children were babies, John. They cried at night, usually during the early morning hours, of course, and both Ethel and I woke, although Ethel got up more often than I did. And we always, wearily, wondered what in the world had woken them up. They surely did not need changing! And they couldn’t be hungry! And the truth is that we did have to get up in the morning, and I had to go to work no matter if I had been the one who got up or not, and it was both a joy and difficult.
    As I read this in the series this poem is exactly this: Bringing in the element of the days of our lives and how work is affected by those elements outside of work while still being a kind of work itself: The baby crying in the night, the cleaning of the toilet after a night throwing up, the labor of washing the dishes after a Thanksgiving feast…all of that.
    And I’ll admit that thinking about all of this, I glory in the series and what you are doing. Hurrah! Good work! Keep on doing.


  4. Something of a tour de force – or tour de work. The envelope of iambic pentameter restraining two lines that rhthmically and syntactically express the equivocates of night. It is night when no work can be done and we are quite without the consolations of those efficient and purposeful metered rhythms (of work). Since day’s clarities and certainties are quite undone, there can be no “real reason” why their child cries. What is this child but the offspring of unmeasured hope now turned perplexing and autocratic. The working life is self-defeating since it is undermined by the very reason it is taken up. We work so that the pursuit of leisure may bear fruit, the release of love show itself in offspring, yet the unmasterable autonomy of that expression, its overdeterming nature, makes work long and difficult and in danger of closing itself off from its own fulfillment.


  5. Yes, I agree with Tom. Rhythmically this has it both ways. It maintains that regular iambic cadence while floating off on to its own (nighttime? Sea-like?)patterns. This goes some way towards the solving the problem we had raised in a previous discussion about the use of the iambic structure. The title ‘Night Watch’ has to bring to mind the Rembrandt painting. I don’t see much similarity in the subject matter, but the center of light surrounded by a looming darkness does fit in nicely. The vigilance of it all.
    Still, I wonder…one danger of so short a poem is that it depends on the starkness of the image. Like a painting it must tell its story all at once. The Rembrandt is a stunning example of this. It’s hard, I know, to combine the everydayness of the situation of being a parent—not to mention maintain the feeling of universality—but I still would like to see the poem’s spotlight a little more sharply focused. Easy for me to say.
    Still, the absences loom around those lonely parents, all-that-which-is-not-said is once again present. Maybe if one of the neighbors was sitting in the dark, smoking a last cigarette…


  6. The epigrammatic concision may create expectations of realism; there’s a tension then between that and the universality of the “story.” The observer is outside the frame: perhaps a compassionate but non-intervening God, which may in turn be taken as a persona for the poet. So I don’t WANT more details about the family, etc. I don’t SEE the family: I see a plight, a fate. Tiger, Tiger, burning bright!. The poem is no less powerful for that, perhaps more powerful because most general & true (true as in “aimed” at the heart of the matter). Isn’t this just the way it is? The “yet again” suggests as much. This is the “bite” of contingency: we just do live this way.


  7. You do me a great service, as well as a great honour, by reviewing my poem in this critical manner. I learn a lot from comments that give a frank critique of something I’ve written. From time to time I’ve revised a poem slightly; at other times I’ve kept remarks in mind as a warning or guideline when drafting another later.
    This discussion about the danger in so short a poem lacking a sufficient starkness of image, and the tension between that and the universality of the “story”, is truly very helpful. I don’t know if I’ve got the balance right – it needs a William Carlos Williams or an Emily Dickinson to be sure. But there’s a cracking good lesson here for me to keep in mind when I try another v short poem later.
    I’m equally delighted that Ina and Tom (Davis) feel these lines capture something of their own experience of the night watch and manage to hint at some of the elements of that experience. And I’m pleased as punch that ‘Helloponta’ has quoted those lines from that classic Japanese poem. Thank you all.


  8. Kids are the hardest job you’ll ever love…


  9. woowww!! amazing poem.. 🙂


  10. Universal truth, beautifully and individually expressed. Great work as always, John.


  11. This poem echoes. A baby’s cry is like a knife. There is a purity, a cleanness to a baby’s cry and to have it juxtaposed with the ocean — drifting on the sea — seems very fitting, though I have to stop now and inquire as to why I find this so.


  12. This is marvellous.
    You have used so few words and yet expressed beautifully exactly what you wanted to say.
    I am full of admiration



  13. “This can’t be hunger still; and surely not more changing?”

    I have been listening closely to birdsong for the last little while; attempting to decipher it. Upon that note this poem strikes a chord with me although I recognise I’ve taken something out of context.


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