Day three of what promises to be a dramatic slog through my bygone years. These epistolary poems are clearly planning to kick my butt all month long. Between the dredging up of less-than-lovely memories and the struggle with the form itself, I can see this is going to be a month of fun for me!
Some interesting things are happening, however. My first poem wasn’t at all the poem I was planning to write. I hadn’t even been thinking about those embroidered jeans. I sat down with 12-year-old me in mind and a very specific memory of that time that I wanted to explore in the poem … and the very first line set me on a completely different course, my first idea wholly forgotten. I’m always fascinated when that happens, when the writing refuses your control and just does what it wants.
I had a conversation about this with a boy last summer, this idea of letting the characters do what they will, let the story go where it’s going. He wasn’t for it, said he didn’t put much stock in characters charting their own course. (Probably that was the clear signal that he and I shouldn’t have been trying to date, but sometimes I am slow.) I, meanwhile, very much like the loss of control. Well, let me be most honest: I like the loss of control if, as with that poem, it happens so seamlessly that I don’t even notice it until the end. If I become aware of what’s happening while I’m writing, I tend to fight it. Hard. This usually culminates in either nothing getting written or something really inferior getting written, something that feels as mangled and manhandled as it has been.
Which, I think, is one of the problems I have with most poems I write. I struggle so hard to get them written that they feel pretty mangled and manhandled by the time I get to the end. Tonight’s is definitely no different.
Five Years Old, St. Ann’s School
You’re still a baby,
yet there’s already so much I don’t need to tell you.
For example, you know these children are liars —
chief among them that boy, the one who sits behind you,
the one who tells you being Black means you’re dumb.
You already know he’s inconsequential,
he and the girls who make fun of your skin.
And your teacher, who always takes care not to touch you,
showing age doesn’t have to mean wise.
It’s good that you know — it spares and prepares you —
I’m glad that you know, though I wish that you’d waited,
that you could have stayed ignorant …
at least through first grade.
I want to say it’ll all be worth something,
your annoyance, your sadness this kindergarten year.
Ugh. I hear myself writing you aphorisms:
This adversity will make you stronger!
Yeah. But sometimes, what doesn’t kill you
still kills you.
I’m not wrong, though.
This bullshit will plant a seed — deep in your center.
You’ll come away knowing you can trust yourself.
You’ll know that, when you see racism, it’s real.
This will be one place you can’t be gas-lit.
That’s a gift … a shitty and also a great one.
So maybe we can thank St. Ann’s for it.
As is often the case when I write to my past,
I have the need to point out that we have survived.
That, too, is worth something —
of course it’s worth something.
But I’m left with the sadness I see in your eyes.
In that famous photo of you and Cecelia —
Cecelia, the one child who dared to befriend you.
You’re seated together on the last day of school,
seated together in your white caps and gowns.
It’s a snapshot of an instant
but seems very telling.
Cecelia looking away, her mouth a straight line
and you making a smile, but your eyes don’t agree.
I long for a second shot of you and Cecelia
one with you both collapsed into laughing.
I want a look on your face that’s not resignation
a look that says: “Look at us! It’s graduation!”
Five years old and you’d learned that you could be hated,
hated, for being a little brown girl.
The thing that I want and don’t want to tell you
is how that hasn’t changed —
And never will?
I long for that second shot of you and Cecelia,
a look on your face, maybe knowing, maybe sure.
A look that tells me yes, you know
all the things I wish you did not have to know —
and you’re still a little girl laughing,
still five, still fine.
It’s National Poetry Month!
As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.