Poem of the Week, by Jane Kenyon

If you’re interested in taking one of my one-day creative writing workshops this fall, you can check them out here.

In grad school my stories often came back with margin notes like Repetitive; you’ve used this word three times in two sentences and Transition needed here and Let the reader know how this was done or said, e.g., “she shrieked wildly.”

Me, internally: But I meant to use that word three times, and I see no need for transitions, and maybe you love adverbs but I don’t. These professors didn’t like my writing and I didn’t like theirs, so it was a relief when I took a workshop with someone who knew exactly what I was trying to do. Who admired my writing the way I admired his. Whose one or two sentence responses on the last page of my stories were all I needed.

My last semesters of grad school were completed via independent studies with this writer, except that they weren’t. I’d fill out the forms, he’d sign them, and then… I’d just take his workshop. Again.

It worked out great. When I read this stunning poem below those long-ago days of silent, fierce rebellion flashed over me.

Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School, by Jane Kenyon

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.

For more information about Jane Kenyon, please click here.
Words by Winter: my podcast

Everyone Wants to Be Found

evan-with-colander-on-headThat title is the tagline from a movie you loved. You remember it as “Everyone wants to be known,” but when you looked it up today you found that you were wrong.

Found, not known.

You thought of this line today  as you finished reading a book that you loved. It was one of those novels that you wished would just keep going, and as the pages dwindled you pushed yourself faster and faster on the porch swing, angry because you knew it was going to end.

You thought you knew how the story itself was going to end, but you were wrong about that too. At first you were stunned, and then you were resigned, and then you began to appreciate it.

The book was, at heart, about being seen. Known. Found.

You lay (laid? something else you can’t seem to get straight) on the porch swing, and suddenly you remembered something else, a look in someone’s eyes.

This was a long time ago, during the winter Olympics, a year in which Russian ice skaters dominated the news. You were at a party of some kind, and a writer you had studied under was also there.

(This writer wrote only one or two sentences on your stories, at the end. He rarely line-edited, except to underline a phrase he liked or squiggle-line something he didn’t like. He was, in retrospect, the only truly helpful writing teacher you had. There was something about those one or two sentences; they got to the heart of the matter. Also, he left you alone. He let you be. He knew what you were trying to do and he defended you fiercely against others who didn’t.)

This writer was from Russia. He spoke English well, with a strong Russian accent. At some point during the party you were talking with someone about the  Olympics, and you said something about Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, using their full names and pronouncing them as best you could.

It was at that moment that the writer turned around from his own conversation, dipping his head swiftly toward you, and met your eyes. There was a look in them, those dark brown eyes, that you couldn’t then decipher. It was gone immediately.

But you always remembered it, that decisive moment, the way he caught and held your eyes – there was surprise in his look, but something more, too. You didn’t understand it.

Now you do.

He, turned to the window and talking to someone else, had heard his language being spoken. Just a few words, but still, the language of his birth, his childhood, his heart.  He had turned and looked at you in surprise and longing – he loved his country and he was far, far away from it.

You understand now because you’re older, and you too have been far, far away. Moments like his have come for you too.

When you get off the plane in upstate New York, and you hear that familiar flat “a” upstate New York accent, and you see the flannel,  and the John Deere hats. The first time it happened you went weak in the knees with relief. You could talk again. You weren’t conscious of yourself all the time. You didn’t have to hold yourself in, hold yourself back. You were home.

Home, where you can sit in the diner with your father and Dwight and Charlie and John and the other John,  and the waitress will come over and pour their coffee without asking and bring them their personal jar of strawberry jam.

Home, even unexpectedly, such as the first time you walked down the street in Taiwan and saw everyone crouching, squatting on their haunches, to read the paper, drink tea, talk with their neighbors – the way you had crouched all your life. Only before, you were the only one.

Everyone wants to be known.

Everyone wants to be found.

Once, you and your dog had a terrible day. This was in your first months together, and he had misbehaved in every possible way. You were so, so tired of reprimanding him and training him and trying to work with him, to no avail. He was tense and on edge and only getting worse.

You looked at him and saw his small body, his black curls, his legs rigid and his eyes bright and wary. You knew, somehow, that he was trying as best he could. Something in you changed and you said, “Come here, come here, sweet boy,” in a changed tone of voice.

His entire body relaxed immediately. His ears and head lowered, he trotted to you and looked up at you and let himself be stroked and spoken to soothingly.

Everything was different from that point on. For a moment, he had been seen, known. Found.

Once,  in the classroom, a student read his work aloud. It was a strange piece of writing, unlike the writing that had come before. Indefinable, uncategorizable. Flawed, but there was something enormous and wonderful in it, and from the feeling in the air of the room you sensed that you were the only one who knew that.

After a silence, others in the class spoke carefully, trying not to offend, trying to offer up something constructive. You watched the writer deflate, slump, gradually pull himself into himself. You held up your hand.

“This is a very fine piece of writing,” you said. “Let me tell you some of the reasons why.”

You started to talk, slowly, pointing this out, and that out, and reading aloud particular passages. You watched the student come alive again.

You think of your friend, at 22, standing in the subway in Boston, wearing her red shirt and gray coat.  She was waiting for her boyfriend. People swirled around her, walking,  dawdling, running for their trains.  She leaned back against the wall, watching.

A man, an older man in a suit, a businessman sort of man, emerged from the crowd and walked right up to her.

You, he said, pointing at her with his finger and looking straight at her, are beautiful.

That was it. He walked away and she never saw him again. But he comes back to her every now and then, and she sees herself again as he might have seen her, back on that day, in that moment.

Once, when you yourself were a small girl, and lonely, and holding everything inside, watching the world around you, a man said to your mother about you, “She’s got it.”

He was talking about you. You couldn’t have explained what he meant, and you still can’t. But those  words have stayed with you all your life.

Everyone wants to be found.