Growing up is discovering the world, one piece of it at the time. Those discoveries mark stages in our lives. They remain important to us and become material for poems.
THE SIGN IN MY FATHER'S HANDS
—for Frank Espada
The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.
In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.
Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.
That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.
A parent is gone. No explanation. Disappeared. Dead? Maybe not for long. Maybe only hours. Then, for a child, the miracle. The return. Take us through it. What was discovered; what learned?
I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banisters I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty's friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
And I was helplessly young.
When children bother to notice adults, they seem mysterious, strange. Write a poem about a time you discovered something about adults.
Or, Did you ever see an old person do something that suddenly gave you some sense of what it is to be old? Did an old person ever do something that made you, for the first time, think about being old? Tell what happened. Make us catch the feeling you had.
I can remember once being shown the black bull
when a child at the farm for eggs and milk.
They called him Bob--as though perhaps
you could reduce a monster
with the charm of a friendly name.
At the threshold of his outhouse, someone
held my hand and let me peer inside.
At first, only black
and the hot reek of him. Then he was immense,
his edges merging with the darkness, just
a big bulk and a roar to be really scared of,
a trampling, and a clanking tense with the chain's jerk.
His eyes swivelled in the great wedge of his tossed head.
He roared his rage. His nostrils gaped.
And in the yard outside,
oblivious hens picked their way about.
The faint and rather festive tinkling
behind the mellow stone and hasp was all they knew
of that Black Mass, straining at his chains.
I had always half-known he existed--
this antidote and Anti-Christ his anarchy
threatening the eggs, well rounded, self-contained--
and the placidity of milk.
I ran, my pigtails thumping on my back in fear,
past the big boys in the farm lane
who pulled the wings from butterflies and
blew up frogs with straws.
Past thronged hedge and harried nest,
scared of the eggs shattering--
only my small and shaking hand on the jug's rim
in case the milk should spill.
The girl is very frightened of the bull, but she doesn't let her fright overcome her concern for the eggs or for spilling the milk. Write of a time when you were frightened but something in the back of your mind did not let your fear take complete control of you.
A MONGOLOID CHILD HANDLING SHELLS ON THE BEACH*
She turns them over in her slow hands,
as did the sea sending them to her:
broken bits from the mazarine maze,
they are the calmest things on this sand.
The unbroken children splash and shout,
rough as surf, gay as their nesting towels.
But she plays soberly with the sea's
small change and hums back to it its slow vowels.
*When the poem was written, the designation
Down syndrome was not common terminology.
Watch small children and write a poem about how they observe things.
A VISIT TO THE ASYLUM
Edna St Vincent Millay
Once from a big, big building,
When I was small, small,
The queer folk in the windows
Would smile at me and call.
And in the hard wee gardens
Such pleasant men would hoe:
“Sir, may we touch the little girl’s hair!”—
It was so red, you know.
They cut me coloured asters
With shears so sharp and neat,
They brought me grapes and plums and pears
And pretty cakes to eat.
And out of all the windows,
No matter where we went,
All latticed up and down.
And up to all the windows,
When we went back to town,
The queer folk put their faces,
As gentle as could be;
“Come again, little girl!” they called, and I
Called back, “You come see me!”
We all went in a yellow school bus,
on a Tuesday. We sang the whole way up.
We tried to picture the bodies stacked three deep
on either side of that zigzag fence.
We tried to picture 23,000 of anything.
It wasn't that pretty. The dirt smelled like cats.
Nobody knew who the statues were. Where was
Stonewall Jackson? We wanted Stonewall on his horse.
The old cannons were puny. We asked about fireworks.
Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go
of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet,
a tooth migrating to the surface. We searched around.
On the way back to the bus, a boy tripped me and I fell—
skidding hard along the ground, gravel lodging
in the skin of my palms. I cried the whole way home.
After a week, the rocks were gone.
My mother said our bodies could digest anything,
but that's a lie. Sometimes, at night, I feel
the battlefield moving inside of me.
from I Was the Jukebox Copyright 2010 by Sandra Beasley. sandra firstname.lastname@example.org Permission of Sandra Beasley and W. W. Norton & Company. books.wwnorton.com
Lovliest of Trees, the Cherry Now
A. E. Housman
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
THERE WAS A CHILD WENT FORTH
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or
pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of
the day . . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morningglories, and white and red
clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird,
And the March-born lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the
mare's foal, and the cow's calf, and the noisy brood of the
barnyard or by the mire of the pondside . . and the fish
suspending themselves so curiously below there . . and the
beautiful curious liquid . . and the water-plants with their
graceful flat heads . . all became part of him.
And the field-sprouts of April and May became part of him . . .
wintergrain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and
of the esculent roots of the garden,
And the appletrees covered with blossoms, and the fruit afterward
. . . . and woodberries . . and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the
tavern whence he had lately risen,
And the schoolmistress that passed on her way to the school . .
and the friendly boys that passed . . and the quarrelsome boys
. . and the tidy and freshcheeked girls . . and the
barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.
His own parents . . he that had propelled the fatherstuff at night,
and fathered him . . and she that conceived him in her womb
and birthed him . . . . they gave this child more of themselves
They gave him afterward every day . . . . they and of them became
part of him.
The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the suppertable,
The mother with mild words . . . . clean her cap and gown . . . .
a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she
The father, strong, selfsufficeint, manly, mean, angered, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture . . . .
the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsayed . . . . The sense of what is
real . . . . the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of daytime and the doubts of nighttime . . . . the
curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so . . . . Or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets . . if they are not
flashes and specks what are they?
The streets themselves, and the facades of houses . . . . the goods
in the windows,
Vehicles . . teams . . the tiered wharves, and the huge crossing at
The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset . . . . the
Shadows . . aureola and mist . . light falling on roofs and gables of
white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide . . the little
boat slacktowed astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves and quickbroken crests and slapping;
The strata of colored clouds . . . . the long bar of maroontint away
solitary by itself . . . . the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon's edge, the flying seacrow, the fragrance of saltmarsh
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and
who now goes and will always go forth every day,
And these become of him or her that peruses them now.
Write a poem on the pattern of this one about the things you saw as a child that became part of you. Begin with a long list of the things that surrounded you in the world of your childhood, then pick and choose from the list, remembering that what you choose will later become part of the persons who read it.