SPITTING IN THE LEAVES
In Spanishburg there are boys in tight jeans,
mud on their cowboy boots and they wear huge hats
with feathers, skunk feathers they tell me.
They do not want to be in school, but are.
Some teacher cared enough to hold them. Unlike
their thin disheveled cousins, the boys on Mantoaka's
Main Street in October who loll against parking meters
and spit into the leaves. Because of them, someone
will think we need a war, will think the best solution
would be for them to take their hats and feathers,
their good country manners and drag them off somewhere,
to Vietnam, to El Salvador. And they'll go.
They'll go from West Virginia, from hills and back roads
that twist like politics through trees, and they'll fight,
not because they know what for but because what they know
is how to fight. What they know is feathers,
their strong skinny arms, their spitting
in the leaves.
Guys hanging out. Guys older people think we need a war to send them to. This poem is from the point of view of someone who is watching them. Put yourself in their position, probably not wearing feathers in their hats but something else to distinguish them, and write a poem about what they think about when they are spitting in the leaves and what they think about going off to a war.
A DREAM BEFORE SLEEP
T. Alan Broughton
Do you know how some houses
where you've spent years as child
have shapes you keep on seeing?
So many of my dreams still happen there.
In the big attic we would lie on cots.
Miss Staples read Kidnapped again and again,
but I didn't mind because I never heard it all.
When rain fell on the slates,
dripping onto window sills, I'd doze.
She had a steady, quiet voice
I think of sometimes when I'm trying to sleep.
There was a boy named Nicky, hulking in his walk
and always poking a cheek with his tongue
or chewing on it when he worked at math.
We never knew how old he was.
He'd hurt himself when young,
fell off a bike, and he wasn't dumb,
but his head worked poorly in some ways.
He loved recess and being it and showing
how fast and far he could run.
He'd take the small ones and make them all join hands
around the maple stump, and then he'd dance.
Oh, it was beautiful, though I didn't know it then,
like the house before it burned.
He was much bigger than us all,
bent double with one of our hands in each of his,
singing as we circled
then fell down.
Does a house you lived in when you were small bring back memories, does it "have shapes you keep on seeing?" Stop to think of other memories associated with the house, then find a way to make a poem of the memories.
For some reason the kids whose heads "worked poorly in some ways" seem more likely to be boys than girls, or maybe it is just that we are more likely to remember the boys. Write a poem telling about a boy like that, the things he did.
NIGHT TO REMEMBER
Margaret Brewster Chard
Perverse, disconsolate, and out of joint
With dull realities like bedtime, school,
And manners, he takes his cap and shuffles out
Toward the barn. Spring's last snow in the dark
Tickles his face and turns to flecks of water.
Pausing in the henhouse, he can hear
The nightlong muffled small-talk, as of girls
In dormitories after lights, foolish and throaty
"Who's there?" twits a light sleeping swallow.
Warm feathered darkness of the distant eaves
Caresses his cold ear before all's well.
His feet, now Indian, approach the stable.
Before he switches the light on, he knows
He has missed the hour, and the calf has come.
The cow is glowing with tranquillity,
Licking the wet coat smooth, rolling an eye
To greet his reverent wonder and his praise.
This is her moment out of many days,
Her annual show of pride. He kneels and blesses
The sodden bull-calf. Wordlessly he thinks
Of miracles and long needs all fulfilled:
Something his own, that he will never break,
That moves and tries to stand on rangy legs,
And falls, sniffing his hand with moist black nose.
He wanted a heifer, he remembers--yet
How close to Heaven can a small boy get?
He stands again to rub the mother's neck
And stroke her ears. "Good Bossy, good old girl!"
New-shared love enwraps the three like warmth
And summer's promise, and the end of school.
Before he clatters in to tell the news,
He fastens the barn door, looks at the sky,
Stretches and feels his bones and muscles growing
With Spring like sudden tears; and no more snowing.
Write a poem about a time you could feel your bones and muscles growing.
IT HAD BEEN LONG DARK, THOUGH STILL AND HOUR BEFORE SUPPER-TIME
It had been long dark, though still an hour before supper-time.
The boy stood at the window behind the curtain.
The street under the black sky was bluish white with snow.
Across the street, where the lot sloped to the pavement,
boys and girls were going down on sleds.
The boys were after him because he was a Jew.
At last his father and mother slept. He got up and dressed.
In the hall he took out his sled and went out on tiptoe.
No one was in the street. The slide was worn smooth and
He laid himself down on his sled and shot away. He went down
He stood knee-deep in snow:
no one was in the street, the windows were darkened;
those near the street-lamps were ashine, but the rooms inside
on the street were long shadows of clods of snow.
He took his sled and went back into the house.
Kids you were afraid of. How did you deal with it? Some success? What were the consequences?
With jeans rolled to skinny knees we flailed
the creek to reddish milk, driving
small fish to hiding and pursued, reaching
after them into holes and crevices along the
overhanging bank and rocky bottom—“grabbing,”
those Georgia boys called it—throwing out
struggling prey upon the grass to gasp out
short lives; and in midstream
I squatted upon an island rock and reaching
down with tingling fingers felt beneath
a sudden writhing hoard—a treasure trove of
finny movement—and to better grasp my quarry, sank to tender
knees for a longer reach, when he lashed
the surface with a jawsprung cottonmouth agape to
fan my cheek, and snaked away in
Angry esses down to quieter waters, leaving
in his wake iced skin frozen to
the rock—a repentant statue with hammering
heart and pin-pricked soles.
While we are doing the things kids do—sometimes things that are dangerous—though that is not what we are thinking about—something happens that scares us. We slip and almost fall off a roof. We almost step in front of a car. Make a poem that tells about what you were doing. Catch the innocence of it; let us see how kids do such things because other kids do them. Then comes the slip—what ever it was that scared us. And then find an ending for the poem.
A YOUTH IN APPAREL THAT GLITTERED
A youth in apparel that glittered
Went to walk in a grim forest.
There he met an assassin
Attired all in garb of old days;
He, scowling through the thickets,
And dagger poised quivering,
Rushed upon the youth.
"Sir," said the latter,
"I am enchanted, believe me,
To die, thus,
In this medieval fashion,
According to the best legends;
Ah, what joy!"
Then took he the wound, smiling,
And died, content.
A SICK CHILD
The postman comes when I am still in bed.
"Postman, what do you have for me today?"
I say to him. (But really I'm in bed.)
Then he says--what shall I have him say?
"This letter says that you are president
Of--this word here; it's a republic."
Tell them I can't answer right away.
"It's your duty." No, I'd rather just be sick.
Then he tells me there are letters saying everything
That I can think of that I want for them to say.
I say, "Well, thank you very much. Good-bye."
He is ashamed, and turns and walks away.
If I can think of it, it isn't what I want.
I want...I want a ship from some near star
To land in the yard, and beings to come out
And think to me: "So this is where you are!
Come." Except that they won't do,
I thought of them....And yet somewhere there must be
Something that's different from everything.
All that I've never thought of--think of me!
When you were small and kept in the house, because you were sick or for some other reason, what did you do in your imagination? Write a poem about it. Try to make it sound like it is a young child talking.
THE CANARIES IN UNCLE ARTHUR'S BASEMENT
In the white house in Rutherford
the ancient upright piano never worked
and the icy kitchen smell of Spic 'n Span.
Aunt Lizzie's pumpkin pie turned out green
and no one ate it but me and I did
because it was the green of the back porch.
That was the Thanksgiving it rained and I first thought
of rain as tears, because Aunt Lizzie was in tears
because Arthur came home from the soccer game drunk
and because he missed dinner, brought a potted plant
for each female relative and walked around the table
kissing each one as Lizzie said "Arthur, you
fool, you fool," the tears running down her cheeks as
Arthur's knobby knees wobbled in his referee's
shorts, and his black-striped filthy shirt wet from the rain
looked like a convict's. What did I know?
I thought it meant something. I thought
no one would ever be happy again. I thought
if I were Uncle Arthur I'd never again
come out from the dark basement where he raised canaries,
the cages wrapped in covers Aunt Lizzie sewed,
and where, once, when I was very small and because Uncle Arthur
loved me or loved his skill or both he slowly removed the cover
from a cage and a brilliant gold bird burst into song.
Many things that adults do are puzzling or frightening to small children. Children can be particularly upset when adults are not getting along with each other, when they flash out at each other or when they show distress or weakness or make fools of themselves.
But children are also more likely than adults to have sympathy and understanding for the weaknesses and foolishness of adults, possibly because they often feel vulnerable themselves.
It might have been an uncle who was, at least sometimes, an embarrassment to the family. But who you liked or thought you understood. Describe something he did that embarrassed people and tell how you felt about it.
STEALING ICE, 1948
That day on Florida Street
we hid behind trees
and bushes, watching
as tongs locked like fangs
on a twenty-pound block
that the ice man swung
dripping onto his shoulder.
As he walked to the back door
we ran to the truck,
groped under wet canvas
for a prize as slippery
as fish, rushing to be
where we could sit and gloat
in our secret shade
like times before,
the evidence melting
in our mouths,
as it streamed down hands
and wrists, collecting
in dark drops at our elbows.
I was the first one out
from behind the truck,
the oncoming car a blur
of fiendish grille
that sent me flying
up-ended over the hood,
my share of ice
like shattered glass
in the morning sun,
the silence, after brake
squeal and thud, broken
by my mother's screams
as she came running,
awkward, with my brother
seven months in her womb.
In the emergency room,
having left my bloody
on the young soldier's
back seat, they strapped me,
shot me, told me I would live
to tell about it
though bruised and shaved
with ten stitches in my scalp,
between my eyes a bump
"as big as a goose egg,"
my mother said,
holding the ice-pack
as the soldier drove us home.
"Told me I would live to tell about it." Write a poem about the time you were told you would live to tell about it. Often those times are not quite as life-threatening as this one was.
BOY WITH HIS HAIR CUT SHORT
Sunday shuts down on this twentieth century evening.
The El passes. Twilight and bulb define
the brown room, the overstuffed plum sofa,
the boy, and the girl's thin hands above his head.
A neighbor radio sings stocks, news, serenade.
He sits at the table, head down, the young clear neck exposed,
watching the drugstore sign from the tail of his eye;
tattoo, neon, until the eye blears, while his
solicitous tall sister, simple in blue, bending
behind him, cuts his hair with her cheap shears.
The arrow's electric red always reaches its mark,
successful neon! He coughs, impressed by that precision.
His child's forehead, forever protected by his cap,
is bleached against the lamplight as he turns head
and steadies to let the snippets drop.
Erasing the failure of weeks with level fingers,
she sleeks the fine hair, combing: "You'll look fine tomorrow!
You'll surely find something, they can't keep turning you down;
the finest gentleman's not so trim as you!" Smiling, he raises
the adolescent forehead wrinkling ironic now.
He sees his decent suit laid out, new-pressed,
his carfare on the shelf. He lets his head fall, meeting
her earnest hopeless look, seeing the sharp blades splitting,
the darkened room, the impersonal sign, her motion,
the blue vein, bright on her temple, pitifully beating.
Write a poem about looking for a job. Not what actually happens when you apply for the job, but what it is like the night before: what people say, what you do.
CHUMLEY/TACONIC STATE PARK/1950
I can hear her call him. "Ray, don't
take the boy. It's not morning yet,
and rainy. He'll catch his death
or you'll have a wreck."
But my father, mild as a rule,
drives us across the Manhattan Bridge,
the lights blurring in the rain,
through the still dark city,
upriver, to Route 22.
Just the two of us. So excited,
I can't speak, and he doesn't either.
Each time the lightening cracks
I can see his face,
his large hands on the wheel.
At Bish Bash Falls, Father baits my hook.
He shows me how to cast.
We keep quiet so the fish will bite.
Later, we strip and swim.
Then he takes me back to the narrow
beach and tells me to wait there.
As in a silent movie, my father
swims, breast stroke,
his head above water, sleek as an otter,
toward the center of the lake.
I am three years old and wait for him,
awed how soundlessly he glides
of my voice,
my longing for him a straight line
between the fixed point of my heart
and the back of his head.
He dives, and for a moment
I'm an orphan
breathless and dumb
until he comes up, a black rock out there.
He pulls toward me.
The silvery distance narrows.
So I wait,
learning to love what moves away
and may return.
Write a poem about something you did alone with your father.
I watch for my uncles to come in from the fields,
The three of them, big-shouldered men in overalls.
Their bare necks are streaked with dirt and sweat
Which I want to lick when they pick me up.
They are so warm and strong; they smell of summer:
The dark odor of horses, the dry green smell
Of tomato plants, the tan smell of loam.
They taste male and I can't get enough of that.
They also talk male. Everyone else calls me Teddy
Or Little Benny, after my father, who doesn't pick me up;
They call me "You bondit," which is Yiddish for rascal,
Or Butch McDevitt, which makes me feel like a cowboy.
When my uncle Moish puts Brownie in the stable,
He says, "Get in there, you son of a bitch."
Son of a bitch. I say it over and over after that,
When I rake the chicken yard, shuck the corn.
It's not a bad word anymore. Son of a bitch:
It's what men say when they re strong and happy
Because they have something hard to do.
Write a poem about yourself as a child discovering that men and women sometimes did hard things and that doing them made them happy.
Or, write a poem about uncles or aunts and how the way they treated you was different from the way you were treated by your mother and father.
BLACK BOYS PLAY THE CLASSICS
The most popular "act" in
is the three black kids in ratty
sneakers & T-shirts playing
two violins and a cello--Brahms.
White men in business suits
have already dug into their pockets
as they pass and they toll in
a dollar or two without stopping.
Brown men in work-soiled khakis
stand with their mouths open,
arms crossed on their bellies
as if they themselves have always
wanted to attempt those bars.
One white boy, three, sits
cross-legged in front of his
their slick dark faces,
their thin wiry arms,
who must begin to look
Why does this trembling
A: Beneath the surface we are one.
B: Amazing! I did not think they could speak this tongue.
Our expectations of people depend on past experiences or merely on what we have been told. Of course, our experiences are limited as are the things we have heard, and people are more varied than our expectations of them. We are surprised to find capabilities, achievements we did not expect. Think of a time you had such a surprise. Make a poem of the experience.
THE DAY ZIMMER LOST RELIGION
The first Sunday I missed Mass on purpose
I waited all day for Christ to climb down
Like a wiry flyweight from the cross and
Club me on my irreverent teeth, to wade into
My blasphemous gut and drop me like a
Red hot thurible, the devil roaring in
Reserved seats until he got the hiccups.
It was a long cold way from the old days
When cassocked and surpliced I mumbled Latin
At the old priest and rang his obscure bell.
A long way from the dirty wind that blew
The soot like venial sins across the schoolyard
Where God reigned as a threatening,
One-eyed triangle high in the fleecy sky.
The first Sunday I missed Mass on purpose
I waited all day for Christ to climb down
Like the playground bully, the cuts and mice
Upon his face agleam, and pound me
Till my irreligious tongue hung out.
But of course He never came, knowing that
I was grown up and ready for Him now.
If you have lost or gotten religion, and you can trace it to a particular day, write a poem about what happened on that day and what your feelings were.
pick-up at chef rizal restaurant
a young pinoy
like a dark alley
w/ his brushed back hair
ben davis pants
w/ his nikes on
stepping too quiet
he plays pinball
hands dancing to lights n bells
but his hips rest silently against the machine.
he orders chicken adobo over rice
his mouth lingers with pleasure
swallows food like a starving man
but his eyes do not say anything
only silently dart to each corner of the room
like a nervous billiard ball
before falling in the hole
running again to hide
in the corner pockets in back of his head
he wipes his sleeve against his mouth
sitting back with a puppet's jerk
watching the white man
with the slightly balding head
pay the pretty pinay behind the counter
"two plates chicken adobo and rice"
the young pinoy follows him out
shoulders hunched against questions
from the silent brown eyes watching him
silence only broken
by rizal weeping verses
Charlie Wolf used to whittle skinning knives
and swords from empty apple crates in winter.
He carved out blades I knew would never break,
true blades I knew instead would slice right through
any weed I chose to make a running deer
or any Rhode Island Red I chose to see
as enemy of God and man. Each old hen
knew my whoop meant feathers lost or worse
and squawked accordingly. Old Charlie used
to say that's why we got so many eggs
double-yolked--"scared the stuff right out of them
with that sword and that wild-eyed Choctaw yell."
Every sword I ever had before Charlie
drowned drunk on a coon hunt on the Arkansas
smelled of apples. Streaking round the barnyard
junk like a bullsnake after chicks, I breathed
pure Christmas before each ambush of red hens,
the white pine sword gleaming between my teeth.
When we are kids we don’t need much to put us into a world of imagination. Simple things like an apple-box sword or even a stick can do it. Write a poem about your imaginary adventures.