Discovering the Relevance of Words
A Pond, a Stick
I just finished grading final portfolios for two of my poetry courses, here at the tail end of the academic year when teachers feel foul, ragged, bone-tired, and heartbroken. I have found myself wondering if poetry is in a losing battle with Kim Kardashian’s ass and everything it represents. By now, even her ass is a distant memory. The image hangs there, like the light of stars, but the planetary body it represents is already transmogrified into some other famous person’s famous body part. How can Keats’ living hand, “now warm and capable/of earnest grasping” compete with the Free the Nipple movement, a billion freed nipples against one cold, entombed set of phalanges pressing up through the page, demanding the kind of attention that makes “red life stream again”?
As attention spans wane my nostalgia grows for the time when revising a poem meant typing and retyping and retyping again, when banging on a manual machine kept the neighbors awake, when spilling blood on a manuscript meant integrating the blood into the poetry, when students wrote about poking around in a pond with a stick instead of video games. This nostalgia is complicated by the fact that the past I yearn for offered even less access to the page for the non-white, the queer, the female, the poor, the incarcerated, than there is now. A time before the wildfire of pass-it-ons via social media that led to the unmasking of Zimmerman, Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, and McKinney, that ushered in #BlackLivesMatter and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
Who has access to the pond? Who owns the stick?
I was raised by a single mother who started teaching when she turned forty. My dad died young. He got sick not long after he went to school on the G.I. Bill. We lived on social security and Veteran’s benefits while my mom went to college. For a while we survived on donated pork and beans and the money tree from the Baptist church on the corner, where we were not members. There was a pond. There were sticks. There were dogwood blossoms with crucifixion stains on the petals, my father’s body and then the space on the couch where it used to reside. There was the water tower, and the drive-in movie screen on fire, Vietnam, Cool Whip, a juke box and a dirt floor for dancing. If I wanted to connect with a friend it meant riding my bike through the burial ground. There were ghosts, and wind, unInstagrammable. Books entered my world via my mother’s late education. Joyce, Woolf, Conrad (no DuBois, Brooks, Hughes) were deep red volumes I couldn’t yet read but whose pages were fragrant with adhesive and rot. They smelled of laundry hamper. Of mother.
This is how poetry found me. We were poor, sad, female, but in ways I didn’t yet understand, we owned (unofficially) the world. My students come to poetry differently than I did. They must. I can’t drag them back to a time before distraction. The pond and stick won’t mean to them what it meant to me, nor the frog the stick unsettles (which now could well be a mutation, two heads, two troubled minds). As the years progress it gets more and more difficult to fight for their attention and poetry requires it, even the elliptical, the fragmentary. My body hurts from the struggle to teach Citizen to twenty-five students who have to get up to pee, to cry, to smoke, to go to the health center, to be somewhere else—there is always somewhere else to be—to text, to avoid, to yawn, to protest, to break. And yet, once again, these final collections of student poems slay me with their artfulness, their pertinence. A student writes a sequence in conversation with Kendrick Lamar. Another writes about her complicated relationship with her father via a range of religious texts. There are sequences on saints and foraging, and a throwdown between Apollo and a hip-hop griot. The poems that I read last are by a visiting international student from Sierra Leone. Her project is to write poems on the five stages of mourning in her homeland. She writes of the wake in a sonnet, the laying out and burial in a Bop (Afaa Michael Weaver’s form), the Seventh Day Ceremony in a gigan (invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher), the Fortieth Day Ceremony in a dialogue form (created by Danielle Badra), and the end of mourning via a Golden Shovel, invented by Terrance Hayes from Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” The line the student (who crossed an ocean to get here and will soon cross it to return) writes toward is from Rankine’s Citizen.
Don’t ask me how, but for one more year, poetry wins.