I came to poetry by accident. I went to college as a religious studies major, hoping to be a youth minister, and wound up with a degree in English-creative writing which was dominated by poetry classes. I came to poems unwillingly and then all at once. I wanted to write fiction, but poetry kept coming out. In notebooks, in the margins, in the top three-inch white space that readers always put titles, I wrote less-than-expendable words. I wrote everything down. I described the scars on a thigh of an ex-boyfriend, the way a Weeping Willow looks at dusk against the industrial nationality of a brick building, and I studied the way girls opened doors for a month, just trying to put into words the steps of their movements and what they mirrored in a metaphor.
I’ve been through this before, but I hated reading in high school. I was queen of Spark Notes and a good listener. I could figure out from the class discussion both what the teacher wanted to hear, and what the book was about. If there had been Thug Notes, I would have watched that too, just to be positively clear. My students now ask me what “Masque of Red Death” is about and I can’t tell them, even if it was required reading.
There’s something just inherently wrong with the phrase “required reading.” And as a high school teacher I still struggle with the idea that I have to force my students into pages that they may not want to delve, places in themselves, that they are not yet ready to open. I do it because I am passionate about words, a logophile, and if I just find the right piece, the perfect passage, it will be like a skeleton key in a leftover desk. On Friday, I got the closest I’ve ever gotten to that passage when they read “How It Feels to be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston. I would imagine though that very few people would not be moved by that passage. We are all paper bags, after all.
Thankfully, The Atlantic, recently thought that we should all know how writers come to their writing. What poem volted their spirit. What story pressed the page to their ear. Their By Heart series tells the stories behind our favorite’s favorites. The whole story, not some little interview clip on what EL James had to read in order to become a writer of the “sexually deviant.” (I do say that mildly). There’s a story behind the story behind the story. My favorite so far has been Sherman Alexie’s ‘Drop Everything and Be a Poet,’ where he discusses the poem “Elegy For The Forgotten Oldsmobile.”
My creative writing students have read pieces of the series, and now they are beginning to write and find their own words behind their story. What pieces they connect to, how they found them, what piece of broken glass the writing moved within them. I wrote with them, as I always do while they’re independently writing. It took me back to a poem by Carolyn Forche that almost always winks out of my system until something pushes it, rushing like a hurricane, back to me. This poem, “As Children Together” is the first time when I thought a poet was writing just to me. I didn’t brush it off with the high school mantra, “poems are confusing and so I don’t read them.”
The poem “As Children Together” by Carolyn Forche:
AS CHILDREN TOGETHER
Under the sloped snow
pinned all winter with Christmas
lights, we waited for your father
to whittle his soap cakes
away, finish the whisky,
your mother to carry her coffee
from room to room closing lights
cubed in the snow at our feet.
Holding each other’s
coat sleeves we slid down
the roads in our tight
black dresses, past
crystal swamps and the death
face of each dark house,
over the golden ice
of tobacco spit, the blue
quiet of ponds, with town
glowing behind the blind
white hills and a scant
snow ticking in the stars.
You hummed blanche comme
la neige and spoke of Montreal
where a que becoise could sing,
take any man’s face
to her unfastened blouse
and wake to wine
on the bedside table.
I always believed this,
Victoria, that there might
be a way to get out.
You were ashamed of that house,
its round tins of surplus flour,
chipped beef and white beans,
relief checks and winter trips
that always ended in deer
tied stiff to the car rack,
the accordion breath of your uncles
down from the north, and what
you called the stupidity
of the Michigan French.
Your mirror grew ringed
with photos of servicemen
who had taken your breasts
in their hands, the buttons
of your blouses in their teeth,
who had given you the silk
tassles of their graduation,
jackets embroidered with dragons
from the Far East. You kept
the corks that had fired
from bottles over their beds,
their letters with each city
blackened, envelopes of hair
from their shaved heads.
I am going to have it, you said.
Flowers wrapped in paper from carts
in Montreal, a plane lifting out
of Detroit, a satin bed, a table
cluttered with bottles of scent.
So standing in a Platter of ice
outside a Catholic dance hall
you took their collars
in your fine chilled hands
and lied your age to adulthood.
I did not then have breasts of my own,
nor any letters from bootcamp
and when one of the men who had
gathered around you took my mouth
to his own there was nothing
other than the dance hall music
rising to the arms of iced trees.
I don’t know where you are now, Victoria.
They say you have children, a trailer
in the snow near our town,
and the husband you found as a girl
returned from the Far East broken
cursing holy blood at the table
where nightly a pile of white shavings
is paid from the edge of his knife.
If you read this poem, write to me.
I have been to Paris since we parted.
In fact, I went into a well.
The poem made me sit with it. I read it again and again against a dorm desk, under a bed. I thought, surely not, surely not, this isn’t to me.
But Victoria is so my best friend in high school, or maybe she’s a little of me. I don’t know. Here’s what I wrote in that initial twenty minutes of independent writing time that I gave my students:
I love this poem because it’s a love letter to a lost friend. I was once that girl who was trying to find myself only in the hearts of boys, the buttons of a letterman jacket, the desperation in a fist against a face to protect me, whatever could be found by climbing out my bedroom window until my father painted it shut.
I love it because it describes this small town that they’re from in a way that you can actually see them walking to the dance hall. Once we get to the dance hall, it reminds me of the movie Grease which I watched so often when I was little that I would mouth each part along with the actors. I so desperately wanted to be Rizzo until I realized that in the scene at the drive-in she has to take a pregnancy test because of Kinnicky and she may not even graduate high school. I realized early in my teenage years that her life was not going to have the same outcome as my own and I needed to put my focus on being a girl like Sandy.
Which I was anyway because I had good parents. “A good foundation” is what my Mom calls it.
Being like Sandy though, it wasn’t everything either. Anytime you’re trying to be someone else, like when Forche talks about the size of her breasts not being enough to woo soldiers, it breaks my heart because you can never win being someone else. There is always going to a better and a lesser because in our world we categorize everything.
In this poem, Victoria hoards dating memorabilia. Her breakup box lines the rearview of her bedroom mirror. She so badly wants to imagine herself as someone else, someone attached, someone from the Far East, a girl that moves a smooth lock of hair between her fingers in hopes that the man will return to her. She wanted to be wanted, and it wasn’t with quality, it was with quantity. When you feel like nothing, it doesn’t matter how large the amount of people who tell you otherwise grows, it just means you’re nothing.
This poem is an elegy to self-esteem. There are so many wishes of escape locked in Victoria’s small dream whisperings that she wishes for, “I am going to have it, you said.” Like any girl dreams, of things that probably won’t ever happen. The question in the poem though is, does she know it’s not going to happen already or is she still actually believing it? At one point in a girl’s girlhood does she realize what’s reality and what’s floating hopes? Is there a trigger moment, or is it a series of life moments, or is it just years and years of those wishes not coming true until BAM you’re an adult and you barely graduate high school, and it takes the love of a good man to make you stay in one place, and you watch those dreams evaporate to pavement, or the American Dream, or the same thing your neighbor’s did that you swore you wouldn’t do.
And why at the end. Why do girls always marry a piece of their father?
Through all this history, the reader can see the love, and the love lost, between Victoria and Carolyn and between Victoria and life. That’s what I love. Never once does she have to say they were best friends, or they loved each other, she just shows it on the page in this list of childhood memories, and comparisons, and a bit of real life thrown in, down to the possible rusting trailer on a hinge.
And now, I have so much more to say. Like how this poem feeds into my obsession with the Civil War and my relations who fought on the side of the confederacy, and one great-great-great-great who died from a gun wound to the arm. Yet, it never mentions the Civil War, and with “Far East,” we can assume Korea or Vietnam. It goes with how I imagine war widows on their porches. Their _________ stare at open fields for the man they love has been a reoccurring image in my own writing. (As you can see I haven’t figured out just how it looks yet). How women either brush obscurity or virginity, sometimes both. There are so many more words I could say about this poem, but the words you say first are almost always the clearest, aren’t they?
In an effort to share my writing and reading journey on my blog, I’m going to make this sort of reflection a regular post so that I can map how I came to this late-twenties-book-against-heart-girlhood. It wasn’t wearing Keds and pretending to smoke chapstick containers in the car that led me to a poem. It was the feeling of words as closure. Carolyn Forche will always be the one that peeled back the petals I was hidden beneath, and made sure I grew. Again.