Astoria, N.Y.: International Psychoanalytic Books, 2014, 76 pp.
Readers of this unusual book of poems, with commentary by psychoanalysts and scholars, will discover what Sigmund Freud understood when he famously said, “Not I, but the poets, discovered
the unconscious” and “The poets and philosophers before me
discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific
method by which the unconscious can be studied” (Lehrman,
Pretend Ballads is a profoundly moving, unusual, indeed, unique
book of poetry, a book of poetry beyond poetry, poems that commemorate, elucidate, and give voice to the aftermath of shock and
trauma of children whose mothers had been pregnant at the time
of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New
York City, and whose fathers died in that attack. These poems
evoke the terror and pain of the widowed mothers-to-be, the loss
they and the children they were about to bear suffered, and the
experience of the children themselves.
Why beyond poetry? In addition to the nature of the poems
themselves, the book contains valuable essays, “Remarks” by psychoanalysts and scholars, including Beatrice Beebe, Billie Pivnick, Phyllis Cohen, and K. Mark Sossin, and photographs by
Zack Neumann.
In the author’s “Acknowledgments,” McCrorie states that “Most
of these poems were inspired by Mothers, Infants and Young Child‑
ren of September 11, 2001, A Primary Prevention Project” and credits
the editors and other contributors. In her “Remarks,” Beatrice
Beebe describes the project concisely and delicately, the impact
of bereavement on the children in the mother-child dyad, and
the use of free play and video assessment of mother-child interaction. She points out that McCrorie’s poems evoke the power of
the symbolic representations of the child’s play, as when a poem,
“Repeat,” embodies the repetitive “going up and falling down”
Psychoanalytic Review, 102(2), April 2015
© 2015 N.P.A.P.
play behaviors that stand for the destruction of the towers, the
bodies falling.
I find Beebe’s description, and the poem itself, parallel with
other time-honored childhood games, “London Bridge Is Falling
Down” and “Ring-Around-the-Rosy.” What is so poignant here is
that the anxieties addressed by children’s play, the sort of anxieties that Freud captured so well in his description of the “fort-da”
game, are not solely fantasy anxieties, anxieties about the possible, but anxieties about actual experienced trauma. “Repeat,”
like the falling down and leveling games Beebe, her core group of
therapists, and the children themselves called the “9/11 game,”
evokes the children’s anxieties representing the trauma the dying fathers experienced, the ongoing bereavement and anxieties
of the widowed mothers, and the children’s anxieties about their
mother’s emotional state. Beebe presents a vivid evocation of the
work done with one mother and child, a child she calls “Rose.”
Rose, “Ring-Around-the-Rosy,” “all fall down”—the reader well
may ponder, can a ring around Rose be built that will create a
sense of safety…?
The other “Remarks” offered address the essayists’ own experiences of 9/11 and their responses to the poems themselves, to the
emotions and experiences of the children conveyed in the poems.
Pretend Ballads is a perfect title for a volume of poetry that describes the inner world of these children, children so profoundly
affected by 9/11, by events that happened while they were gestating, before they were born. Their “pretend” play allows them to
process what otherwise is unfathomable, and the poet, in writing
his ballads, sings for them, gives their pretend play poetic voice.
All these poems indeed are ballads, formal ballads. Ballads as a
poetic genre often told the news before most people were literate, centuries before there was mass media telling the news. It is
entirely fitting that McCrorie, who translated Homer, Homer who
began his epic, the Iliad, “Sing, O muse,” should use a series of
ballads to sing the epic tale of these children.
The poems themselves have a purity and simplicity that is their
strength and depth. They capture the imaginative play-space of
the child, the transitional phenomena that enable a child to connect to emotional events that have a powerful impact on him or
her. Children cannot enter into the world of adults, but have to
create their own play-images that help them process overwhelming emotions, that rescue them from potential PTSD. Some titles
are drawn from the specifics of children’s imaginative play with
the toys available to them in their therapy rooms. Poems like
“Lion Story,” “Mama Lizard,” “The Dragonfly and I,” “Giraffe
Dad” capture the details of the child’s imaginative play and the
emotional resonances of that play.
“Mama Lizard” begins, “Going on three, Stella puts / her lizard
Mama to sleep / though baby lizards remain outdoors / and Stella’s mother weeps” (p. 16). The poem then captures a dialogue
between therapist and Stella’s weeping mother, the therapist saying, “Games can mend.” The poem ends, “I died before I woke
last night / faced with a mosasaur / mother, extinct dewlap language / unknown to me less or more” (p. 6). The language itself
is startling, demanding attention, just as both Stella and her mother are so overwhelmed that their pain demands the therapist’s attention, and, clearly, the pain of Stella, “mama,” and the therapist
demanded the poet’s attention. Just the reversal of the ordinary
phrase “more or less” to “less or more” demands the reader’s attention. What does that reversal mean? I never know what a poet
“means” when a poet says something in a strikingly fresh way, but
I do know what it means to me. I think “less or more” demands of
me to begin with “less” in order to understand the “less” that the
mother lives with, that her child begins with. Can the therapist
restore a sense of “more” to this mother/child dyad?
“Giraffe Dad” begins, “Her father’s lost before she’s born. /
How can she make him real / four years later? Can this toy /
giraffe make a meal / of lion chest?” (p. 68). K. Mark Sossin’s “Remarks” tell us about “the child with a conundrum,” who “needs
to know her never-known father” (p. 68). He interprets the playimagery of the giraffe as an integrating symbol for the child, a
symbol of her uniting with her eternally absent father.
The several “Remarks” essays offer us various ways to interpret
the strivings, feelings, psychic changes, dynamics of the children,
the mothers, even the therapists of these poems. The essays add
to our understanding. The poems themselves will intrigue, involve, and move the reader, because they are beautifully crafted,
and create a sense of actual lived experience, vivid, profound,
real. McCrorie has published eight books, including volumes of
his own poetry, and translations of Virgil and Homer. His ear is
impeccable, his language fresh, his vision original, and his heart
compassionate and responsive.
Lehrman, P. R. (1940). Freud’s contributions to science, Freud in conversation. The Hebrew Physician/Harofe Haivre, 30, 161–176.