You are a force of nature,
a force to be reckoned with
in the best possible way;
students say they are afraid of you
and yet they love you, clearly.
What they fear, actually, is your
disappointment, not your
wrath; although, to be fair,
you can be wrathful–
I’ve seen it with my own eyes;
wrath, though, dealt fairly, evenly,
and always deserved.
miracles happen in that
theater, in that black box,
got young people to do miraculous,
funny, profound, silly,
scandalous, and controversial
things, and this grew them
beyond their own meager
capacities to comprehend,
but they will never forget
and will always be shaped by
the opportunities you gave them,
the coaching, the care,
the professionalism; you were
always raising the bar and
they always rose to the occasion.
And you have given our little
town its own theater company,
an embarrassment of riches.
You have been a friend to teachers,
a support, a confidant,
an ally, and you have thrown
glorious martini parties.
You and I have a history
unlike any I have shared
with another colleague: we were
classmates some 40 years ago
in the same building where we
have taught together now for
more than a decade.
And over these many years
I was George to your Rebecca,
Mercutio to your Juliet,
Bottom to your Titania,
and Capulet to your Nurse,
and every one of those moments
was a kind of watershed,
a peak experience, a time when
I felt in some real tangible way
how lucky I was to know you,
how lucky your students have been,
how lucky this community.
This is the second time I have
written you an ode. Please don’t
let it go to your head. But know this:
I don’t want you to leave. And somewhere
in my darkest thoughts I think that I
might not ever see you again.
You’re the psychologist, so tell
me what this means:
I had a dream that The Democratic
Republic of Congo deported
you back to the United States,
specifically back to Milwaukie.
I must confess I was not disappointed.
I don’t wish that for you, really.
What I wish is that, wherever you go,
you are valued, you are empowered,
you are an agent of change, you are at peace,
you are happy, and you are,
as you have always
been here in your hometown,
Tag Archives: National Poetry Writing Month
You are a force of nature,
#373: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet, II
Last year on April 29 I wrote a poem with this same title, hence, the Roman numeral two punctuating its conclusion. Let this be the second part of a prose poem meditation on the penultimate day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in his potentially penultimate professional year, ending in a rhyming couplet.
I have had three penultimate teaching years in a row. The bottom line is this: I am not ready to retire. I’m a mess. This year, especially early on, I waffled all over the place. Then, almost immediately, I stopped waffling. I knew I was not ready and made my peach with that. Did I just type the word peach? I have not been making peaches.
And yet, I knew, somehow (a meeting with a financial advisor?) that I was not ready. I knew, somehow (the repeated occurrences of joyfulness in the work?) that I was not ready. And I knew, finally, somehow (the passing of a deadline for declaring an intention to retire?) that I was not ready.
The deadline for declaring an intention to retire, by the wayside, was April 1, yes, April Fool’s day, but much more importantly, the first day of national poetry month, and the beginning of the third week of shelter-in-place orders as the result of COVID-19. I transitioned on that day from journaling the plague year to poetry-ing it.
Nearly all of my poems this month have been about, or at least mentioned, the coronavirus pandemic, sheltering-in-place, distance learning, social distancing, abandoned schoolhouses, grieving for the class of 2020, walking the dogs, and sitting in the back yard with birds.
Here’s the shortest commencement speech ever: Class of 2020. You’ve been robbed a little bit, but just a little. Sure, there are things you didn’t get to do that every class for the last 102 years has been able to do, but none of those classes, none of them, have chalked up their school’s courtyard while keeping a safe distance quite like you have–and these things that you’ve missed, ultimately, will be less important in time than the things you didn’t miss. So there. Godspeed. Congratulations. Your accomplishments are legend.
Two beloved colleagues, both long-time friends, one longer and more friendly, but both, it bears repeating, beloved, are leaving the school house. One is retiring and the other will be teaching internationally, and both, I know, are grieving that this last year in public education has been so fucked up. Another reason, as if I needed one, for staying.
It is time to retire the word penultimate. A thing cannot be second-to-last forever. I understand this now, and will endeavor to stop thinking ahead, just as my mindfulness practice tells me, that the most important moment is the NOW moment, the expansion of consciousness in the present–an awareness that poetry serves up better than any cushion. Ultimately, I will retire from the public school system . . .
before I’m toast but not until I’m ready,
and until that day I swear I’m holding steady.
My sophomores, under the gentle tutelage of a wonderfully gifted student teacher, are distance learning about imagery, beyond the sort of rudimentary understanding that imagery is language that appeals to the senses, into a deeper knowledge that imagery plays on both the intellect and the emotions, that it is associative, that it often works best in juxtaposition to other images. So she’s having them write haiku. In my earlier experiences as a poet, a had a tendency to poo-poo the haiku, but in recent years I’ve come to a new appreciation, in part, because of a late, very late understanding of what we’re introducing to these 15 and 16 years olds now. So, ignoring the Napowrimo prompt for today, and ignoring, as Robert Hass gives us permission to do, the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, I give you: haiku.
Hummingbird makes a nest
in the tree above my hammock.
Ignores the feeder.
Hummingbird makes a
loud clicking sound;
wakes me from napping.
Birds chirp, warble, coo
in the back yard.
The Hummer has no song
but buzz and click.
At my brother’s house,
a red-headed hummingbird
accompanies our reunion.
nothing nor cares about
our troubles with Covid-19.
I saw this mother bird
fight off a finch;
the nest, safekeeping.
I’d give it two stars.
I’d say that so far, its performance
has been uneven, like it can’t decide
really what it wants to be.
Heavy rain early, then cloudy,
then a clearing, dry enough
for a dog walk, but too damn warm.
Muggy, almost. Monday has forgotten
that we live in the Pacific Northwest
where muggy, most often, is not a thing.
Monday has had most of April to blame
for its indecisiveness, its recalcitrance.
Additionally, Monday has been stingy,
has given me insufficient work to do.
It asks me to watch remotely my colleagues
remotely teaching here at the beginning
of this third week of remote learning.
Remote is a word I would use for Monday,
distant, aloof even, and kind of naughty.
Like a mistress, she’s asking me to do
things I probably shouldn’t be doing.
They don’t pay me to write poetry
or make music or watch funny animal
videos, but I may, by the time Monday
has ended, by the time Monday has
had her way, have done all of these things.
Even the haiku, the form my intern
is teaching right now to my distant
tenth graders, a few of which I should
be writing, is elusive on this Monday.
It’s early in the afternoon, so there’s
still time for this day to redeem itself,
but it will be a difficult feat to pull off,
having lost me pretty much already
in its meandering, its stupid weather,
and its temptations to put off until
tomorrow what might be done today.
Weather: It’s sunny and warm again, yes, again, yes, finally after three gray days. We’ve been spoiled a little by weather. Nature trying to soften us up.
Flora: The oak trees are leafing–I almost saw it happen. You have to be quick. There must be a moment, three o’clock in the morning, likely, when these giants burst open.
Architecture: 1931, an English Tudor; we are closing in on a decade.
Customs: This could very well be my 10th year of writing a poem every day in April.
Mammals/reptiles/fish: My next door neighbor has a Koi pond.
Childhood dream: A swing set. She made me take off her shoes.
Found on the Street: There are two flattened squirrel corpses in front of the house.
Export: I moved my entire music library to an external hard drive.
Graffiti: “Sorry about your wall!”
Lover: Mostly imaginary.
Conspiracy: Aliens have landed on this planet at some point in the earth’s 4.5 billion year time line, and there are living human beings who know about them.
Dress: Every day from here on out, it’s shorts and a t-shirt.
Hometown memory: My favorite record store has turned into a porno shop.
Notable person: Who is not notable? What is that Stafford line: some people are so dull you can never forget their names?
Outside my window, I find: the flower pots she’s planted, the back yard dog corral, truck in the driveway next to the garage, the mossy roof of the woodshed.
Today’s news headline: America Is Not Set Up For This.
Scrap from a letter: “Greetings friend! I’m writing this at 9 pm on a Saturday. I just finished a steak dinner and am curled up, a snifter of Dry Fly whiskey to one side and my cat Winston to the other.”
Animal from a myth: Today I learned that a Pooka is a shapeshifter and can take any form it chooses. Usually, it is seen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin or even an old man. I prefer the image of a rabbit with ears like a German Shepherd. I might be Irish.
Story read to children at night: I read to my son from The Hobbit when he was a wee lad.
I walk three minutes down an alley and I find: finally, the dogs, having escaped from the yard and rampaged their way through the trailer park for seniors up the road. Some little old lady on one side of the alley, my son on the other. He scooped her up, the dog, that is.
I walk to the border and hear: that someone has drawn an imaginary line that goes for thousands of miles.
What I fear: I read yesterday that young people who showed no other symptoms were dying of strokes caused by COVID-19.
Picture on my city’s postcard: Red, red, red roses. A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude.
(after James Schuyler and for Cresslyn Clay)
Moss grows on the roofs of the garage and the woodshed
and the weather is shitty, again. This April, it’s unseasonably
warm and dry with spells that go on for days of rain
and clouds, gray spells. We’re in the middle of one of those.
We sit at home this Saturday and try to think
of things to do. She shops on-line for a bedroom rug
and I look at Schuyler’s poem in awe and frustration
and the dogs whine and complain and we keep telling
them to shut up. The boy sleeps in late, a habit he’s developed,
or a practice at which he’s become a consummate pro.
I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and I’m not hung over.
I have an idea of doing some field recordings in the back
yard mostly to capture the sounds of birds; I could get
audio samples of birds almost anywhere these days but
for some reason I’d like to record my own birds. I think
about spinning Apple Venus (Volume One) again today
as a kind of tonic or some kind of hymn against the shitty
weather and even shittier times. Andy sings “Just like a mad
dog you’re chasing your tail in a circle” and that about sums
it up for many of us, for all of us, to some degree or another.
The boy stirs and his mother grills up the rest of the pancakes.
She keeps calling up the stairs, “Come on, let’s go” to roust him
down to the breakfast table. It’s noon. These pancakes have
blueberries in them, and they’re paleo, for what that’s worth.
He finally comes down and I sit with him while he eats his
pancakes and he tells me about a video game he thinks I’d like
called “Stanley’s Parable.” In a rare father-son teaching moment,
I ask him if he knows what a parable is. He does not. So I tell
him about Jesus and Socrates and all of a sudden he’s expressing
a keen interest in the ancient greeks and I had no idea.
I brush my teeth before I finish that last cup of coffee, and,
while, as I say, toothpaste and coffee are complimentary,
by now the brown stuff inside my Shakespeare Insult mug
is cold. I’m not drinking that. “Thou art a boil, a plague sore.”
That’s fitting. It’s nearly impossible to think of any of the bard’s
greatest insults and not be able to apply them immediately to that
imbecile in the White House, “an infinite and endless liar, an hourly
promise breaker.” I quote not from memory, but from my mug.
It’s my favorite mug, just behind my Composition Notebook mug,
a gift given to me, I think for no occasion, by my teacher friend
Cresslyn, whose birthday is today. I’ve said these are shitty times,
and yet, I am happy, happy for friends like Cresslyn, for time to write
poems after Schuyler, wide long poems instead of the long skinny
poems I usually write, for the kindness of people in my life, like
Cresslyn. Others come to mind, but she’s in the forefront, in part,
because it’s her birthday, and in part, because she is so kind.
I miss her. I mean, I miss being in the same building, the same
room with her, in our school, collaborating in person, sharing
stories about our students, walking all the way across the building
for a quick visit to say hello or ask a question. For now, we have to
be satisfied with looking at each other on computer screens.
There’s a caravan of cars driving by her house this morning,
honking, singing happy birthday, perhaps, heads out the window.
I’m happy for that. The sunshine is peaking through the clouds
and we may be able to walk the dogs. Schuyler’s poem takes a half
an hour to read out loud but I don’t want to write a poem
that takes a half an hour to read, just like yesterday, I’m not writing
about fruit. To say that the sun fruited the trees with leaves–
that’s the best I can do this afternoon. And there’s a hummingbird’s
nest inside the tree right above the hammock. Did this ever happen to you?
What do you want that you can’t have? How do we make whole
what has been scattered or broken? What’s the reason for this
laughter, these tears? Have I made the right choices, Saturday,
this one? The boy’s upstairs now, practicing his rudimental snare
and my wife’s phone is chirping in the other room, like some bird
robot. The dogs stir. This can’t go on forever.
Bring your perspective and verbs back to the present tense, even when addressing memory
Seek the “unforced flow of words”
Introduce all of the things that you might ordinarily deem incidental or too small for consideration
Include quoted speech (overheard, announced, in dialogue, as song lyrics)
Build your lines with associative accumulation (parataxis), move with your attentions
Introduce a swerve or observation that serves as interjection, non-sequitur
Include at least four colours
Animate the landscape or nearby object, imbue it with expressiveness of action or address
Include perceptions of the weather without, perceptions of weather within
Use a noun as verb that is typically not used that way (anthimeria): “white freaked with red”
Introduce the occasional 3- and 4-word sentence.
“Let’s make a list”: include a list of things you love
Did you remember to ask questions?
Include a hemistich line: a line made-up of two halves, of equivalent beats, hinged on a silent beat (caesura): “The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down”
Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.￼￼
I saw two human beings
in this building that, on a
typical school day, houses
thirteen-hundred. I saw
our head secretary, Dee, spending
her Wednesdays from eight
to noon on site, and the head
custodian, Dan, spending a couple
hours a day doing odd jobs
until the crew can come back
in May, he hears, to do a deep
clean. If there were only two
people to see, they’d be the two,
two sides of the same coin,
the life-blood of the building.
Only the second time
I’ve visited the school since the
shutdown, less forlorn now,
but only because of Dee and Dan.
On the first visit, weeks ago now,
I found this deflated happy birthday
balloon all by itself in the
abandoned cafeteria, what we
call The Commons. That balloon,
two or three weeks later, has
somehow left the building.
I don’t know why, but I was
hoping to find it again.
Why did I come back today?
I collected a few things that
belonged to my intern;
I picked up books of ancient
Chinese poetry; I gathered
the last of my LP records, the
ones that were important
to my collection (The Mountain
Goats, Death Cab for Cutie,
Destroyer, Grizzly Bear);
I grabbed my Shakespeare
action figure, my action figure
librarian, and my magnetic
James Joyce finger puppet;
I picked up a stuffed frog
I’ve used as a talking stick,
but decided against bringing
it home. None of this stuff
was essential, but I drew the line
today with the stuffed frog.
It must have taken me all
of about 10 minutes to gather
up these things, but I was there
much longer, just standing
around, looking at the student art
on the walls and the furniture,
the tables in their pods,
taking pictures of this or that,
listening for the voices of
the hundreds upon hundreds
of kids that have inhabited
this space, trying not to cry.
I recorded myself singing
in an empty hallway (one
of the best things to do in a
ghost school), and I filmed
myself coming and going,
as if I wanted to remember
what that was like. Ridiculous.
I’ll be back here. I will do this
again. I will make this journey
hundreds of times. Things will
return to normal one day.
No matter. The loss here is
palpable and real and echoes
through these hallowed halls.
(for Trisha Wick)
Twenty-four years ago I wrote a poem,
a sonnet, about the flood of ’96.
It described the six feet of river water
in my wife’s parent’s basement, that whole
devastation, and the kids and families
in the neighborhood who came to help
restore and repair the house, the home,
and hope. A student of mine, her family’s
home was flooded, too, but I didn’t know
that when I shared the poem with the class.
Later, this student brought to me a gift:
She had embroidered all fourteen lines and
framed it. In the case of emergency,
like now, art is the healing property.
Here’s the original sonnet–one that more closely follows the rules! Composed in the spring of ’96, the embroidered version was gifted to me the following spring from Tricia Wick, who I think was graduating from high school that year. She would become a teacher, too, and later, serve on my school district’s board of education!
A Sonnet After the Flood (1996)
Winter was harsh this year, and if that’s not
enough, then came the flood that washed away
our parents’ basement. It was just their lot
to find five feet of sewage in their way.
The first victim sometimes is hope itself;
they’re aging, tired, too much so to rebuild
what took three decades, an enormous wealth
of spirit, and two lively kids to fill.
But what looks like a winter of despair
turns into something else when, looking up
the driveway, they see answers to their prayers.
Children with shovels, strangers in pick-ups.
Next time we hear the talk, “Our kids are doomed,”
we’ll think of these and note how faith resumes.