The Light in My Attic: Shel Silverstein and the Dark Imagination

I don’t recall the first time I came across Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I must have been around the age my oldest daughter is now, because I remember the same awkwardness in my body she seems to be experiencing, a crossing of the border between little girlhood and the early stages of adolescence. I do recall that once I found the book, I read it and read it and read it until the pages were dirty and rough around the edges. Silverstein’s were the first poems I remember devouring, aside from the nursery rhymes that I found a deep pleasure in when I was very young.

In them, as in the nursery rhymes I held dear (“Rock-a-Bye Baby,” “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “Ring around the Rosie”), there is a dark sensibility that draws me in like a moth to a flame. There’s Mrs. McTwitter the babysitter who sits on and smothers her charges. The Selfish Child who prays that, if he dies before he wakes, all of his toys will break “So none of the other kids can use ’em.” The rather suicidal youngster who keeps meeting the right monsters at the wrong moments: “I met a ghost, but he didn’t want my head, He only wanted to know the way to Denver. I met a devil, but he didn’t want my soul, He only wanted to borrow my bike awhile. […] I keep meeting all the right people – At all the wrong times.” And let’s not forget the Razor-Tooth Sline who’s been invited to dinner. Perhaps the thing I loved most about these poems was their darkly comedic nature, at once terrifying and funny.

Reading Shel Silverstein’s poems was an important step in my awakening to the darkness within me. It let the weird light inside my head shine on something that was kin. The poem that opens the collection perhaps describes it best:

There’s a light on in the attic.
Though the house is dark and shuttered, […]
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside,
And I know you’re on the inside … lookin’ out.

So, Shel Silverstein, thanks, from the bottom of this madwoman’s heart, for letting me out of the attic … out of my own head. J

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