Throughout this piece, Alice Fulton uses skillful examples of images and figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, to depict what it’s like to learn the lessons of the real world. Life feels one way when you’re young, but as you age and start to make mistakes that can’t be rectified, one’s understanding of the nature of life changes.
‘Babies’ by Alice Fulton is a powerful poem filled with images that describe what it’s like to age from childhood into adulthood.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes what a child is like when they’re born. They are lulled by their mother’s soothing voice into thinking that everything is going to be all right. Life feels simple when one is young. But, as a child ages, they learn that not all lies or mistakes can be erased. The poet uses an example of a scorned lover, called by the wrong name while in bed, whose affections cannot be regained. One simple mistake can ruin someone’s chances at happiness.
The poem concludes with a very effective image comparing life, or at least some parts of it, to a parachuter jumping out of a plane. One has a single chance to get things right.
You can read the full poem here.
born gorgeous with nerves, with brains
the pink of silver polish or
tongue shushes and lulls them into thinking
all is well. As they grow they learn
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by bringing the reader into the middle of a discussion about babies. If one includes the title as part of the first line, it reads, “Babies born gorgeous with nerves, with brains.” The poet continues on, describing how the child comes into the world without knowledge of the troubles he or she is going to face.
To create distance between the child and their mother, the speaker refers to “the mother tongue” rather than the language the mother is speaking and that the child can’t understand. This emphasizes everything the child has to learn about the world, as does the fact that the mother tells them, or lulls them into thinking, that everything is alright. As they grow, they’ll learn that this isn’t the case, the speaker implies.
In the first part of the stanza, the poet uses two metaphors, the “brains / the pink of silver polish” and “jellyfish wafting ornately,” to describe the child’s body.
guides to happiness say apologies can outshine
in their formal brilliance
and sharp new smells, they lie
In the second stanza, the speaker describes how as the baby grows up they are going to learn how difficult life can be. In the stanza, the poet refers to a “tear-out / Guide to happiness” this is an interesting reference, one that should bring to mind children’s books and greeting cards. These loose sources of images and information boil the world down to simple premises and conclusions. For example, “apologies can outshine lies.”
The poet brings in more images of the child growing up, having their first “school pencils” which, before being used, are new and shining, like the “sharp (“sharp” relates to the pencils as well) new smells (read: experiences)” that the child comes into contact with. The final line of the stanza is enjambed, requiring the reader to move down to the third stanza to find out what “they lie” about. There is already darkness in this poem that suggests that life is going to be marked more by troubles than by happiness.
as lovers. Maybe one cries
the wrong name and the night skinning
them pleasantly alive
or jewelry, clasping and unclasping
aisles of fluorescence from great department stores,
a distracting plenitude, and tempting.
The adults who were babies “lie / as lovers.” They make the mistakes common to everyday people, such as crying out the wrong name at night while in bed with a lover. One small mistake like this changes one’s entire world. This is depicted through the “night skinning / them pleasantly alive / leaps away in shards.” Again, the reader should note the inclusion of sharp, dangerous images in these lines. The poet uses words like “skinning,” “shards,” and the previous stanza “sharp.”
The reaction to this mistake comes in the form of an apology (connecting this stanza to the previous one in which the speaker used the line “apologies can outshine lies.”
In an effort to fix their life, the adult lover turns to “restitution.” In this series of images, but without clearly describing what they’ve made, the lover brings some baked goods in a gingham wrapped container to the person they wronged. Or, they buy jewelry (which they examine “clasping unclasping” in the aisles of a “great department store”). All of these things are “distracting plentitude, and tempting.” But, the speaker poses, are they the answer?
No matter what one buys or makes for their lover, there is no guarantee that they’re going to be forgiven. Life is not as simple as making a mistake, fixing it, and everything is back to normal. This is one of the many lessons the child learns throughout the poem.
Still, the beloved may stay bitter as an ear
the tongue pressed
indents them and is
understood. They learn
The fourth stanza is six lines long (a sestet). It begins by describing how no matter what the mistake lover makes or the apology they come forward with, there is no guarantee that they are going to be forgiven. The person who they wronged may “stay bitter as an ear / the tongue pressed / into, unwanted.” This is a very interesting and unexpected use of a simile. The speaker is comparing the feelings of dejection and irritation that the scorned lover has to an ear’s reaction to having a tongue pressed into it. The lover may feel just as repulsed by the attempts to regain their affection as one would feel if another person stuck their tongue into their ear without their permission.
the hard way as hurts
accrue, and the brain is cratered as a rock
like the insult.
They grow up when they know that
In the fifth stanza, the speaker notes another thing that the baby “learns.” They figure out the “hard way as hurts / accrue.” The hurts pile up or accrue, and they learn how difficult life can be. The brain is “cratered as a rock / by rain that fell ages past / on unprotected mud,” the next line reads. This is another very visual way of depicting how affected the baby, now an adult is by the darker circumstances in their life.
An “insult keeps / despite apology,” the speaker adds. This again references the idea from the previous stanzas that an apology outshines a lie. This isn’t always the case. Even if it eventually soothes the hurt that a lie caused, the “space fills with hateful grains that harden” and leaves behind a “fossil shaped exactly” like the original insult. This is an interesting way of describing how someone might forgive another person but not forget what was done to them. Such is likely the case for the lover who hears another name called out in bed.
only a gesture responsive as a heart-
to be perfect
the first time will ever do.
The fifth and sixth stanzas are connected via the final line of the fifth stanza. The child only grows up when they know that sometimes one only has one chance to do something correctly. Like the risks of jumping out of a plane with a parachute, love can be won and lost due over one action. It’s this knowledge that truly takes a child into adulthood. You have to be “perfect / the first time.”
Structure and Form
‘Babies’ by Alice Fulton is a six-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains eight, the second: six, the third: eleven, the fourth: sixth, the fifth: nine, and the sixth: six. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern to unify the lines. Despite this, close readers will be able to find examples of half-rhyme and even full rhyme throughout the lines. Plus, the poet’s use of literary devices like caesura and enjambment provides the poem with a very interesting flow that’s at times quite smooth and other times more halting.
Throughout this piece, Fulton makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when a poet inserts a pause in a line of verse. This could be through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “on unprotected mud. An insult keeps” in stanza four and “And the word end: spiney, finally-formed,” in stanza three.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “its space fills with grains that harden / to a fossil shaped exactly” in stanza four and “ jewelry, clasping and unclasping aisles of fluorescence from great department stores” in stanza two.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza two and line six of stanza two and line one of stanza three. The majority of the lines in this poem are enjambed.
The purpose of this poem is to describe the complexities that one faces as one moves from childhood to adulthood. Throughout this piece, Fulton includes numerous images that describe mistakes that one might make as they’re growing up and lessons that they learn that help them understand what it means to be an adult living in the contemporary world.
The message of this poem is that, in reality, apologies may not outshine a lie. One may only have one chance to do something correctly, and if they fail, like a parachuter, the results may be disastrous. It is understanding ideas like this that mean one has truly grown up and shed the idea that everything is okay (shared through a mother’s calming words in the first stanza).
The tone of this poem is sincere and descriptive. The speaker spends the lines describing, in the best way they know, what it’s like to grow up. While not every reader may agree with what they’ve said in the six stanzas, it’s clear that they believe every word. They’re very sincere in their assertion that sometimes you only have one chance to get life right.
Alice Fulton likely wrote this poem to tap into a universal experience that all readers can relate to –- growing up. Every person who has made it to an age in which they are old enough to read this poem has experienced some of the many complexities associated with aging. Life is not as simple as it might have seemed when they were a child.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Love’ by Kate Clanchy – examines a speaker’s feelings towards her newborn son and describes the experience of getting to know her newborn baby.
- ‘Our Grandmothers’ by Maya Angelou – explores understanding and acceptance. It includes themes of family and relationships.
- ‘On Children’ by Kahlil Gibran – explores how parents should think about their children.