Thursday, March 24, 2011

For me, raising children has been a surprising experience. And part of that surprise has been my deep concern and affection for the children who have grown up alongside my own. Whether or not they've turned out to be my boys' close friends, these kids have carved out a place for themselves in my own heart and history. Yet of course I have no say in their lives. The situation reminds me of the famous Theodore Roethke poem "Elegy for Jane (my student, thrown by a horse)." How often must we sit back--rueful, helpless--and watch a familiar yet unfamiliar life slip away?

The other day I asked my son about a boy whom we've known since they were in kindergarten together. Harmony has a K-8 school, but students have a choice about which local high school they'll attend. And because James and this boy chose to go to different high schools, I'd found myself losing track of him. What James told me was this: "I heard his grandmother made him drop out. She said, 'He knows the names of the cows. What more does he need to know?'"

For most of this boy's elementary-school career, I was his music teacher; and I also worked closely with him as a writing teacher. He constantly moved and startled and aggravated and cheered me. He was hard to get out of my head and so ended up featuring as a character in my poems. Today, because I am sad about him, I will reprint those two pieces here. And I will try to accept that there's absolutely nothing I can do for him, other than to smile and speak when I see him. So far, he has always eagerly smiled and spoken in return. My best hope must be that neither of us stops.


Dawn Potter

at school is against the rules,

so when a spike-haired

first grader in need

butts up against your hip,

don’t you wrap your arms

round his skinny bones, don’t you

cup his skull in your palms,

smooth a knuckle up his baby cheek:

he’s got lice, he’s got AIDS;

you kiss him, you die,

or worse: late nights, he’ll hunch up small,

stare into some laugh show

and whisper what no half-pissed dad

cares to hear from his wife’s

kid at the end of a long day

of nothing, when sleep

is the only country,

anywhere else, terror:

a father you’ve marked

before, slouching into parent night,

two hands trembling

along his thighs like birds

shot down,

black eyes wary as a bull’s:

he blinks at the butcher,

you smile, you fold

your unheld hands;

what roils in his wake is the one

you won’t teach

to beg an answer from love.

The Master

Dawn Potter

Leo’s eleven, but he still can’t write “Leo.”

He throws a pencil at me.

You write the poem,” he says.

He frowns and leans back in his chair

and shuts his eyes.

In the flat autumn light, his glasses

shed a watery glow. His freckles tremble.

Leo always likes to keep me waiting.

After a minute he growls,

“Big heifers in the corn again,

And them horses

Is hungry.”

After a minute he snarls,

“Coyote snitched the rawhide.

Grab a gun and blast him,

Then skin him up.”

Twenty other kids breathe hard,

scribble, and erase. Danyell chews

on the end of a pen and sighs gustily.

“Can I make this up?” she complains.

Leo slouches and crosses his arms

over his bony ribs. He opens his eyes

and smiles in a superior manner.

In his view, imagination sucks.

What matters in a poem

is you tell it like it happened

but you leave out the crap.

He jerks his chin up,

looks me over, slitty-eyed. He says,

I do something I do it right!”

When that bell screams,

he’s number one out the door.

[both poems appear in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]


Louise Gallagher said...

Powerful post, and poetry.

One of my daughter's friends ended up dropping out, pregnant, getting married and now, a mother, back in school, finishing what she'd begun.

Sometimes, all we can do is smile when we see them and let them know -- I see you.

IN that seeing there is hope.

Maureen said...

There are so many wonderful poems in your collection; these two, in particular, because they describe scenes that unfold all over America. I find them both very moving.

Ang said...

Everything matters forever and always. We get to know this. What we don't get to know is what it would've been like without us. So, it has to be pure faith that propels us.
A few precious times I have been told that what I did so long ago meant so much. Startling, at the time it was just what had to be done.