I stared at my inbox, unsettled by some unusually literary spam. The junk filter and my own eyes were sabotaged because the sender’s address included my first and last name, followed, I would later realize, by a spurious domain. There was my name, and below it, in the Outlook preview, a little poem sent from the ether:
There came to port last Sunday night
The queerest little craft,
Without an inch of rigging on;
I looked and looked and laughed.
It seemed so curious that she
Should cross the Unknown water,
And moor herself right in my room,
My daughter, O my daughter!
Yet by these presents witness all
She’s welcome fifty times,
And comes consigned to Hope and Love
And common-meter rhymes.
She has no manifest but this,
No flag gloats o’er the water,
She’s too new for the British Lloyds—
My daughter, O my daughter!
Ring out, wild bells, and tame ones too!
Ring out the lover’s moon!
Ring in the little worsted socks!
Ring in the bib and spoon!
Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!
Ring in the milk and water!
Away with paper, pen, and ink—
My daughter, O my daughter!
–George W. Cable
What you see above was the complete content of the email. No attachments. No links. No Nigerian Princes asking for my bank’s routing number. The attribution intrigued me. Why credit the poet in a spam email? For that matter, why send poems at all? I know a spam-bot or a hacker will use mass-downloaded public domain content to populate spam messages, but this was free of errors or ulterior motives. Perhaps it was a puckish English major, bored in his dorm somewhere, spreading Victorian poetry to the unlettered masses, a Pirate of the Digital Humanities! But that was not my first thought. My first visceral and irrational thought was that this poem was sent to me by my dead father.
In my defense, this wasn’t entirely irrational, my father’s being deceased notwithstanding. My dad used to email me poems on a daily basis. On his best days, they were poems he had written with an accompanying anecdote or commentary. On tougher days, they were transcribed poems from a poet he was currently reading or particularly admired. Merwin, Tranströmer, Stafford, Szymborska, and Blake were some favorites in the last couple years. Sometimes he wrote his day into the poems. Sometimes he wrote his day around them. But he always sent a poem with his emails. After he died in February 2014, I grieved those missing poems the most. The connection that had spanned states and time and oceans was severed. The line was dead.
And now in January 2016, almost two years after his death, here was a missive from the Afterlife in which neither he nor I believed. Of course it couldn’t be from him, I reasoned. The paranormal aside, Dad never sent messages to my work email! Secondly, as all the writers for whom he was an editor and anyone who corresponded with him knew, he always used Courier font. All poems and emails he wrote were in Courier. Courier looked the most like his beloved typewriters; serifs gently caress the lowercase, the lines are thin as if a ribbon is running low, and the letters are padded with so much air you can inhale the breaths between them. This spam-poem did not have the Courier fingerprint of my father.
But on the other hand, said the part of my brain that always wants to believe in magic, maybe ghosts can’t afford to be so particular? And Dad always used a different font–usually the bolder, more self-assured American Typewriter– when transcribing poems by published authors. He would include the poet’s name at the bottom, just as “George W. Cable” appeared here. Although, Dad would typically cite the book it came from in studied italics and include the title of the poem, bolded, above the verse. This poem had none of the meticulous citations I would expect.
The loudest signal of all against this spam being sent by my ghost-poet-father was that 19th century Victorian “common-meter rhymes” (particularly self-referential ones) were not at all my father’s style. He preferred 20th century poetry. A free verse poet who treated rhymes like tarragon or cumin– an exotic spice to sprinkle on occasion but not to base a meal around. Really, wasn’t a refrain like “My daughter, O my daughter?” a bit too obvious for him?
What the petulant English-major spammer could not know—what perhaps only my father’s ghost could know—was how appropriate the content of the poem was to my life that week. I had just learned that I was pregnant. The news was so fresh that I hadn’t told anyone except my husband. Not even my mother knew yet. I wanted a baby. We had been trying deliberately to get pregnant. But as the blue plus-sign appeared in the blank eye of the pregnancy test like a ghostly polaroid, my immediate reaction was one of panic. Not only panic but guilt about feeling a jolt of panic. Oh shit. This is really happening. How did this happen so quickly? I should be feeling joy, not worry. What does this mean for my life now? How can I have a baby so far from my family and friends, with such a small support network where I live? How can I do this without my dad?
The last stanza in particular stirred me to attention. Both exuberant and a call for all hands on deck, it embraces the trappings of babydom (“Ring in the bib and spoon!”) in a surprisingly domestic way for a male poet of the 1800s. But it’s not without regret. “Ring out the lover’s moon!” sounds so ominous. Must we cease being lovers now that we are becoming parents? Likewise, “Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!” and “Away with paper, pen, and ink” felt foreboding. When will I be able to write—how will I continue to be a writer—as a parent?
Yet, the narrator is clearly in the thralls of fatherhood. (How else could one justify such exorbitant use of exclamation points?) And for a moment, I imagined telling my father I was pregnant. I imagined my father with his white beard–the little balls of his high cheekbones bursting off his face like they did on my wedding day–reacting just like the narrator of this poem. Away with paper, pen and ink! Making a child is more transcendent than writing! And my dad’s enthusiasm, both inferred and imagined, transferred to the pit of my stomach and erased my panic. Just as it did when I chose which college to attend, when I boarded a plane for France, when I got engaged. At moments of uncertainty in my life when I was overwhelmed by impending change, my father always pushed me to “do what scares you” and to boldly go, even to places he himself was not brave enough to tread. His confidence in me, or in the trajectory of life despite its inevitable sorrows, made me believe that everything would be all right. If my father were here, he would be ringing out the wild bells, and the tame ones too.
As a librarian, I couldn’t just receive a spam-poem from the Beyond without researching where it came from. On Google Books, I found a slightly edited version listed in American Familiar Verse (1904) attributed to George Washington Cable, 1844. I also found the missing title: “An Editor’s First-Born.”
My father was an editor, of course, and I am his firstborn daughter.