"Nancy, Danville Virginia, 1965" © Emmet Gowin, courtesy Pace/Macgill, New York.
“Nancy, Danville Virginia, 1965” © Emmet Gowin, courtesy Pace/Macgill, New York.

A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:

The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where the mouse-gray waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.

—”The Pity of Love”
    W. B. Yeats

One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.

What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?

Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.

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