Line by Line

I’m glad for a day that has this poem in it. Yes, I could have found this poem on my own but I wouldn’t have, being in my own world as I am. So the benefit of going back to school, at the ripe age of 69, is to have this poem brought to me, next to others that I wouldn’t have otherwise read. My assignment: to explain what the poet wanted to achieve with his diction, syntax, and rhythm.

I did all that, the way I was supposed to, but in addition, I kept a little prize. I read a line I will keep forever: “No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.” 


Facing It

Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

_________________

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Facing It,” Dien Cai Dau. Wesleyan Univesity Press, 1988.

New Jewels

I wouldn’t say that school is kicking my ass, although, it is, kind of. I still have academic chops from having gone to Ph.D. camp for so long but it’s been ages since I’ve had to really read instructions or be mindful that someone would be judging my responses, my writing, me. I am used to throwing off ideas like any one of them, picked up from a pile, would be a perfect jewel. Spoiled, I guess one would say. I have been spoiled by my own belief that I am plenty smart.

So it has been humbling to have to turn things in on time and comply with rubrics which I love for their specificity even though I miss how a turn of phrase would inspire my old professors to splash a big red A on the top of an otherwise mediocre paper. Today, I realized after submitting something in final form that I’d missed the intent of the assignment, reading into it something that wasn’t there and missing the point. I tried to retrieve the mistake but it will mostly stand. Next week is another chance, I guess.

As part of this terms’s assignment, I am reading Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. It is a book of short stories linked together, so far, by several drab characters’ pervasive loneliness and alienation. Published in 1919, the book is thick with failed dreams and disappointment. So I’ve been reading it with some sense of drudgery until I got to this remarkable passage.

” It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others.”

And I thought – how beautifully true that is. How many times I have felt exactly like that, times when I was alone with the consequences of bad decisions, driving by other people’s homes, seeing them standing in the warm glow of their kitchens. And how many times I was, myself, in the warm inner circle of life, mostly because of the grace of time and endurance. Here is this now ancient bit of writing – nearly 100 years old – and it is sharp and definite as if written this morning.  I wish I had written it, such a fine thought it was.

There is something priceless about such a perfect thought.  If you write such a perfect thought, you could go to your grave with no regrets. That one thought could stand for your existence, represent you in the afterlife. She was the person who saw this reality, people would say and they would all be proud to have known you.

I wouldn’t have known that thought was there had I not gone back to school, had I not chosen this dreary book to read, not laid on my bed in the late afternoon, jotting notes in pencil on an old spiral notebook. I would have assumed there was nothing in this book to tell me. I’d be wrong. I love that. Being wrong.

5 Things I Remember about Middle School that I Bet are Still True

Middle school was a critical juncture in my life. Of course, this is only occurring to me now, fifty plus years after the fact. Here are five things I remember about middle school that I bet are still true today.

Changing classes meant I could change, too. In Science, I sat with my partner and prayed for invisibility. In English, I was reprimanded for interrupting and being sarcastic. In Art, I believed the teacher when she said it didn’t matter what my piece looked like. It was all about the technique. Each class in the day was a chance to shake off what had happened in the previous class, good or bad, start over, put on a new hat. I loved this because I’d spent the last months of elementary school waiting (in vain) to be called on to give a report on the Roman God Janus, each day was an agonizing build-up to the social studies hour, then the breath-holding to near black-out and then the relief, only to start anew the next day.  So middle school was like going from the Pit and the Pendulum to Disneyland. Each class was a new ride. I think that is still true.

There were choices but only if there was courage.  Middle school was my first encounter with the idea of ‘trying out’ for something.  My elementary extracurricular experience involved playing Red Rover at vacation bible school and braiding lanyards out of pink and black plastic while sitting on the school’s terrazzo floor during summer recreation days. It was a turning point for me, reading the posters in the hallway announcing try-outs for various things and wondering in my head whether I was ‘that person.’ Was I the kind of person who could do that? I lost my nerve at JV cheerleader tryouts and watched my best friend launch what would become a six-year career of being very special, especially on game days. But I did score one of six spots dancing with an umbrella and singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in the spring musical. We wore puffy skirts with crinolines and danced in high heels. It felt like Broadway. Those choices – to lose one’s nerve or to try out – still exist.

Having a locker felt like the first step to a car and an apartment.  The whole concept was amazing – first, that I would own anything that needed to be locked up, second, that we would have so much stuff to carry for each class that it couldn’t be done, we would have to make separate trips, and third, that I would have to remember the combination. The locker was also a real place as in ‘meet me at my locker’ or ‘I’ll walk you to your locker.’ It was a place where notes were left, slipped through the air vents at the top of the locker. ‘ I left you a note in your locker.’ It’s where friendships and romances started and ended. It was a place of significance. Social media notwithstanding, I bet that’s still true. Your crush can’t walk you to your Facebook page.

The halls were electric with attraction. Oh sure, kids ‘liked’ other kids in elementary school. There was the recess chasing and obnoxious, notice me, boy behavior. But in middle school, the currents of attraction ran everywhere, so thick a person almost had to spread them apart like a bead curtain leading to the fortune teller’s lair. Attraction was visceral, unsubtle, impossible to explain to anyone. ‘Why do you like him?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Keeping track, everyday, of the looks, the distance, interpreting intentions, laying meaning on every step taken in a hallway that could combust into flame with just one more 13-year old glance from the right person. Thinking this much about my place in various constellations was new to me, all consuming, preoccupying because nothing was ever as it should be. The choice, and I remember it so well, was to struggle with the maelstrom of the hallway and all it meant or back myself up against the lockers, make myself thin and flat and nondescript. I think that choice is still there now – to be in ‘it’ with all of ‘its’ risks or to stand aside.

What happened there would last a good while. Middle school was where I found out I was good at something (English) and where I made my first Jewish friend (Lori). I had my first boyfriend (Kent) who wrote me letters in the summer from his uncle’s farm in Nebraska, maybe four letters over three months, but I checked our metal mailbox at the road twenty times a day every day. He broke up with me the next year when a bout of mononucleosis kept me home for six weeks but I carried a torch for years, had other boyfriends but always looked out for his number (83) on the football field. At our 40th high school reunion, old friends buzzed around to tell me that ‘Kent is coming’ as if I should rush off to the ladies room and fix my make-up. This hasn’t changed. There is bizarre durability in first loves.

So that’s my wisdom about middle school. That little nondescript passage from elementary to high school had a lot more to it than I thought.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash