When my daughter was 9 or 10 years old, she began to show a cautious interest in poetry. Oh, like many a toddler she had giggled along with the exploits of The Cat in the Hat. But her mom was a poet, her dad a novelist, and the walls of our home were lined with rows upon rows of Literature. On her own bookshelves, which were crammed with well-thumbed paperbacks -- Black Beauty, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia -- an elegant edition of poetry geared for young readers, a birthday gift from a critic friend, stood untouched. By the time she entered middle school, the only poems she'd happily listen to were the rhymes of Ogden Nash and his German counterpart, Christian Morgenstern (raised bilingually, she got a dosage of German verse as well as English), whose nonsense was delightfully subversive. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" also got an approving nod, but that was about it. After all, she planned to become a veterinarian.

One day, while supervising the cleaning of her room (which meant making suggestions as she put items away, pouting), I happened to remark on her habit of storing her treasures in scores of tiny decorative boxes. "At least none of them is like Vasko Popa's little box," I muttered, picking up a heart-shaped enameled case. "What's a Popa?" she asked. "He's a poet from Yugoslavia," I replied, plucking his Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems 1956-75 from the bookshelves in the hallway. Now you've done it, I thought to myself. Proof positive that poets are certifiably weird. I opened to the sequence about the little box and began reading:

The Little Box

The little box gets her first teeth

And her little length

Little width little emptiness

And all the rest she has

The little box continues growing

The cupboard that she was inside

Is now inside her

And she grows bigger bigger bigger

Now the room is inside her

And the house and the city and the earth

And the world she was in before

The little box remembers her childhood

And by a great great longing

She becomes a little box again

Now in the little box

You have the whole world in miniature

You can easily put it in a pocket

Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box

"Ooooo!" my daughter cooed, using her exclamation for anything adorable. "The little box and its little teeth! What happens to it?" She plopped down in the middle of the cluttered floor, ready for more. Had I misrepresented Popa to her? Did she think this box was cute, for heaven's sake? If anything, the little box was every anxiety that came true, every vague and helpless longing that slipped away. How could she find it . . . cute? Steeling myself for the inevitable disappointment, I sat down beside her and read another one:

The Tenants of the Little Box

Throw into the little box

A stone

You'll take out a bird

Throw in your shadow

you'll take out the shirt of happiness

Throw in your father's root

You'll take out the axle of the universe

The little box works for you

Throw into the little box

A mouse

You'll take out a quaking hill

Throw in your mother pearl

You'll take out the chalice of eternal life

Throw in your head

You'll take out two

The little box works for you

After I'd finished, there was a small, terrifying pause; then she grabbed the book from me and reread the poem silently. Watching her rapt face, I gradually began to understand that the little box was in many ways her familiar -- an attendant spirit. Like Schroedinger's cat, the box contained as much as the imagination allowed; only the need to know could destroy its power and its possibility. Here's one more "Popa":

Last News About the Little Box

The little box which contains the world

Fell in love with herself

And conceived

Still another little box

The little box of the little box

Also fell in love with herself

And conceived

Still another little box

And so it went on forever

The world from the little box

Ought to be inside

The last offspring of the little box

But not one of the little boxes

Inside the little box in love with herself

Is the last one

Let's see you find the world now

My daughter is in her last semester of college now, graduating this May with a bachelor's degree in theater and biochemistry. She plans to do graduate work in art history -- a development that would have fooled the wiliest of oracles. And so on this April Fool's Day, when we must all tread carefully lest the world's rug be yanked unceremoniously from under our feet, I'll leave you with this wish: May the little box always work for you. *