Poem-A-Day: Lynn Melnick

I have to admit I’ve been distracted lately. My daughter’s birthday is this week; the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass is turning fourteen. While it’s enough that organizing the festivities (as well as coordinating everything else going on in my life both personal and professional, and wow, there’s a lot of that) has taken up most of my attention, I can’t let go of the scratchy little tickle in the back of my brain that reminds me she’s becoming more and more a young adult every day, and not just because she can raid my closet now and look better in my clothes than I do.

I can’t put the brakes on this train and wouldn’t if I could. We all know adolescence is a time of Figuring Things Out, and that can be a messy process. And I wish there were things I could still protect her from. Not gonna lie, if I could go back in time and not give her a cell phone in middle school, I’d absolutely do it in a heartbeat. If I could pare down the internet to make it less about entertainment and politics and nonsense, I would. But some genies just won’t go back in their bottles. And even the stress of this morass has got me mixing metaphors, so I’ll just get to the poem and then get back to catching up everything else on my “ever-expanding, self-spawning to-do list.” (And thanks to David Jón Fuller for that gloriously apt phrase.)

This poem by Lynn Melnick always makes me think of my daughter. And my mother. And everything else about the water we swim in.

.

Twelve.

When I was your age I went to a banquet.
When I was your age I went to a barroom
.
and bought cigarettes with quarters
lifted from the laundry money. Last night
.
I did all your laundry. I don’t know why
I thought this love could be pure. It’s enough
.
that it’s infinite. I kiss your cheek when you sleep
and wonder if you feel it.
.
It’s the same cheek I’ve kissed from the beginning.
You don’t have to like me.
.
You just have to let me
keep your body yours. It’s mine.
.
When I was your age I went to a banquet
and a man in a tux pinched my cheeks.
.
When I was your age I went to a barroom
and a man in a band shirt pinched my ass.
.
There is so much I don’t know about you.
Last night I skipped a banquet
.
so I could stay home and do your laundry
and drink wine from my grandmother’s glass.
.
When I was your age boys traded quarters
for a claw at my carcass on a pleather bench
.
while I missed the first few seconds of a song
I’d hoped to record on my backseat boombox.
.
When I was your age I enjoyed a hook.
You think I know nothing of metamorphosis
.
but when I was your age I invented a key change.
You don’t have to know what I know.
.

***

Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and

photo credit: Timothy Donnelly

Violence (2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), both with YesYes Books, and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in APR, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and A Public Space, and her essays have appeared in LA Review of Books, ESPN, and the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

.
A former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and previously on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, she currently teaches poetry at Columbia University and the 92Y, and works with saferLIT. Born in Indianapolis, she grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.
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Poem-A-Day: Jeannie Gambill

My children are eleven and about-to-be-thirteen. Sometimes I wonder whether I will ever stop worrying about them. I’m confident the answer is likely no.

Sometimes at school events, I test this. I’ve been teaching at this school for eighteen years. They’ve been attending this school since they were four. They treat the campus — which, after all, is a comparatively safe one most of the time — like they have the run of it. This is not uncommon among faculty children who have grown up within its walls and gates.

But I still worry. Part of me wants to walk them to their building every morning and pick them up from it after school. (I don’t, though, not anymore.) And sometimes when we go to a game, I even let them run off and play — excuse me, “hang out” — with their friends on the other side of the fields, and I plant myself in the bleachers as if it were the only place I wanted to be.

On such occasions I like to tell my friends I’m snapping off a helicopter blade.

At the last reading I gave, several poets were presenting their work, and one of them, Jeannie Gambill, read this one. It resonated, to say the least.

I sometimes think I will start to relax when my kids are past the age of twenty-five. Jeannie assures me this will not be the case.

***

Directive
to a grown daughter

When you ride your motorcycle
wear your helmet.
Not the half helmet.
Wear your full helmet
always.
When you go out on your motorcycle
take only streets
where
there are no cars
no trucks
no buses
no other moving vehicles.
Do not go out in the rain.
Never on the freeways.
When you decide instead
to go on your bicycle
be faithful to all of these
instructions. The routes
you’ve shown us you take to work
through neighborhoods
on your bicycle, there are
cars parked on these narrow
streets. Be careful. It’s hard
to see you.
Your motorcycle surely lost
from view when you are in traffic.
Do not go into the traffic.
Do not go anyplace where
there is danger. Stay
blocks away from any vehicle
in which the driver
is un-focused. Please say
you will do these things.
When you train on the highways
in the hills   when you want
the challenge   need the long
stretch   the cumulative miles
when you bike into the hills

when you take your bicycle
round the curve   slow
on the upward incline
and   down   down   gaining speed
the curve   go round the curve
go round and down the hill’s
curve     not too fast.
When you line it out
the song of you
adhere please
to this
entreaty.

***

Jeannie Gambill’s poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Cenizo, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston, and the Texas Poetry Calendars of 2011 and 2012. She was recipient of the 2011 Dana Award for Poetry, and a winner in the Artlines Competition (2012). She has been a featured poet in Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series and was a finalist in the Ruth G. Hardman/Nimrod Poetry Competition. She lives in Bellaire, Texas.

Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer (again)

It was difficult to choose just a couple of poems to feature here from the book Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. (I posted one yesterday as well.)

This year, National Poetry Month begins and ends with weekends. At the beginning of April, I featured two poems by the multi-talented Paula Billups, poems which touched me deeply. Ending this month is a weekend of poems by another person whose poetry has impacted me in a profound way. (You can read more of how and why on yesterday’s post.)

The following poem, “Natural History,” broaches the grim subject of the Anthropocene Era we have found ourselves in, while framing the debate in the real root of its sadness: our descendants and the mess we seem to be leaving them. On a weekend when half of my little family marched for the climate, I keep desperately clinging to the hope of productive tasks and resistance willpower, using what influence and abilities I have to chip away at the problem and, ideally, lead others by example.

Like parenting, like teaching, I don’t always know if my leading by example actually makes an impact, but I continue to try to do it, because the alternative feels cowardly.

***

NATURAL HISTORY

 

To say love is why explorers trekked north
with oilskin and sextants believing mastodons
were still alive is fiction, but I would haul a sled

over tundra, hoping a herd survived, hoping you
will survive. My body opens like an umbrella
as you become an abstract of history, speeding

through evolution until you are covered
with arboreal fur. Before you have fingerprints,
or even hands, your ribs unfurl in fiddleheads.

They articulate in pairs. The world without us
is nameless. There are words for all the molten ages
before the seabed bloomed, but none for after us,

not even in Latin. Our imagination spurns
extinction, even when shown a dinosaur egg
or skies once darkened by pigeons. In the museum,

a diorama waits for the future, a camouflage
of blankness. I surrender to your small chance
of being, though you are only a faint shadow

in sonar, a muffled thrum. This love is talons
and wild valor against the baying of hounds.
Glass boxes bear sabertooth skulls, meteorites,

and tracks in volcanic ash. The revolutions
are numerous. A blue whale drifts from the ceiling,
navel wide as a dinner plate, a half-ton heart

on the floor underneath. It is doubtful hearts
will be larger in the future. I want to promise you
permanence, my constant orbit, but even continents

are revisions. I am only your diving bell in water
hemmed by shifting plates. For now, the only name
I give you is my own, though maps are drawn

for seas ten million years ahead. In Ethiopia,
a rift will open wide enough for water
to pour a new coastline and drown the valley

where the skeleton of a woman, not quite human
or ape, was found. As you take my bones
for your own, my greedy passenger, the certainty

of elements is all I have. Your inheritance
of calcium was starfish, then mountain,
then lettuce, and will be a third of what remains

when we are afterward and underwater again.
Bones will say stop before they snap. To reach
the heart, a surgeon cranks open the awning

of ribs until they gasp. My chest expands
without lathe or scalpel, only the force
of your arrival loosening the baleen corset.

To say I made you is inaccurate. You make
yourself from secret blueprints, a shapeling
clutching a manifest of your demands, the parts

salvaged from my body. The revolutions are sudden.
In-between marine, you command dark tides
and destroy me in your making. You wind

umbilical inside, as if to stay. I let the doctors
carve me open like cardboard. My body
could have been a grave. After nothing familiar,

all you know is survival, a green bank of yelping.
You practice a pantomime of instinct, crying
in my accent, grasping for branches with flung-out

arms, and rooting for my breast. Intricacies
of milk and sleep dismantle me. I empty
myself into you, hollowing by the ounce.

There are seven white rhinos when you are born.
A year later, six. I try to tally the animals
vanished in my lifetime and lose count. The frogs

in Costa Rica are gone, an ibex of the Pyrenees,
clouded leopards in Taiwan, the Caspian tiger
and Java tiger, a boa in Mauritius, and grizzly bears

last seen beside the headwaters of the Yaqui River.
Their names chant a grim litany for you to learn,
a half-formed loss. We are in a great dying.

You are going to die. No longer my throat
or temple, the most breakable part of my body
is on the outside now. A javelin anchors the air

between us. Fifty billion creatures have lived
among antlered legends and trampled mud,
but only one percent still ambles leeward.

Dream wary, I feign courage or madness.
There may be no refuge in greenwood,
but you are a stockade of light. I abide

in your clear voice in the grass. You have
only words for what you love: apple,
book, and home. You name the rest yourself:

cat a plaintive moan, spiders are wriggling
fingers, the sky is hands waved above.
But you have no word for me. The question

of who I am confounds you, as though asked
to name a reflection. Not mother or son: us.
We are a coral reef, a pod of whales, descendants

of slime, an endless expanding. Under the city,
aquifer fills with seawater, slowly drawing
the avenues down. Someday, someone

will find our ribs in a midden of oyster shells,
ship hulls, and wooden doors. Instead of a cage,
may they lash our bones together as a raft.

***

Credit: Robin Beth Schaer, “Natural History” from Shipbreaking, published by Anhinga Press. Copyright © 2015 by Robin Beth Schaer. Reprinted with the permission of the author. 

***

Robin Beth Schaer is the author of the poetry collection Shipbreaking (Anhinga 2015). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Paris Review, and Guernica, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Saltonstall, Vermont Studio Center, and VCCA. She has taught writing in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, and she worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot ship lost in Hurricane Sandy. Her website is www.robinbethschaer.com.

It’s Time

Okay, I just sent my daughter off to camp on a school trip. It’s her first time away from home for an extended period without any family members. She’s excited! So am I.

But, oh.

When she first got on the bus, it looked like she didn’t have anyone to sit with, and she started to get sad, and suddenly every ounce of my childhood came back to me in one long sigh of pain. And then one of her friends started waving frantically at her from toward the back. She had cleared the seat next to her so my daughter could sit there!

My girl ran up and hugged me fast and then ran back and sat down and didn’t give me another look, all smiles and relief. So I went back to my classroom, wondering whether I should have stayed to watch the buses leave.

But no, it’s time for her to go on this trip and have her own fun time, and it’s time for me to have my normal work day. As I was walking to breakfast a little while later, she called me to say the buses had left, and she loved me, and would see me in four days.

Time to go grade papers. *le sigh*

Featured Poet: Kaye Starbird

I didn’t post a poem yesterday because it was the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass‘ birthday. (She’s now a yellow belt, by the way.) And since I’m a working mom who throws her kids birthday parties and even bakes them cakes (that often look as if they’ve been drawn by Dr Seuss), I was too busy on a weekday to post. I had every intention of doing so, but I also figured you’d live if I skipped a day.

This cake's primary ingredient is love, and its three layers are held together with Type A overcompensation for being a mom who has two jobs, teaching and authoring. Okay, not actually. It's really Cool Whip.
This cake’s primary ingredient is love, and its three layers are held together with Type A overcompensation for being a mom who has two jobs, teaching and authoring. Okay, not actually. It’s really Cool Whip. My daughter wanted to decorate it herself, so she placed the candles.

When I was in fourth grade (as my daughter is now), I read this poem in my Literature class textbook, and for some reason it stuck with me — and has for all these years. But finding this poem, when all I could remember was a title and the first stanza and last two lines (because how could I forget them?), was a challenge. Hooray for the Internet and crowdsourcing information! I was able to track down the text of this poem here on someone’s blog. Et voilà.

***

.

Tuesday I Was Ten

.

Tuesday I was ten, and though
The fact delights me plenty,
It sort of startles me to know
I’m now a half of twenty.

 

It’s nice to own a bigger bike
With brakes along the wheels
And figure skates (the kind I like)
And shoes with little heels,

 

And have a real allowance, too,
To make me wise and thrifty;
But still, I can’t believe (can you?)
I’m now a fifth of fifty!

 

Although an age like ten appears
Quite young and un-adventure-y,
My gosh! In only ninety years
My age will be a century!

.

***

.

Kaye Starbird lived from 1916-1993. I know nothing else about her except that she wrote this adorable poem. “Tuesday I Was Ten” was published in 1963 in Never Cross A Crocodile. Enjoy.

The Allowance Conundrum

When I was a kid, I got an allowance. It was tied to my chores, and if I did them, I got my dollar or two a week. I saved it in a thick glass Snoopy bank that cleverly had no stopper, so in order to get the money out, I had to literally break the bank. Once I figured that out, the money started going into a wallet. I’m sure I must have spent it here or there, but the only place I really remember doing so was at the annual Book Fair at my school’s library. I have a vivid memory of excitedly counting out seven dollars when I was in second grade, money I had carefully saved, knowing that I would be able to buy not only three new books for myself, but new bookmarks and tree ornaments for my siblings for Christmas. Good times.

When I had children of my own and the “gimme!” tantrums began every time we went to the store, I realized it was time to give them an allowance. But I didn’t like the idea of paying them to clean up after themselves. Picking up your toys when you’re done playing with them and putting your dirty clothes in the hamper are skills you should have by kindergarten. My husband and I wanted our kids to be able to pick up after themselves because they are capable of it and it’s appropriate that they should; we are not their maids.

As they got older, we wanted them to assume more responsibilities, like helping to set the table or bringing their dirty dishes to the sink. Carrying their backpacks out of the car every afternoon. Making their beds. And if they grew up with the expectation that we would pay them to be, essentially, functioning members of the household, then they would never have the motivation not to be slobs if there weren’t a monetary reward. (And if this seems like an unrealistic concern, then you’re hanging out with much more evolved children than we are.)

***

Speaking of more evolved children… My friend Steven Tesney recently published this post on the Daddy Issues blog about the way they handle allowances in his family, and it’s an interesting system — more sophisticated in its philosophy than most I’ve encountered so far. I’m interested in what you think of it.

***

So instead of paying our kids to not be slobs, we started giving them a few dollars a week for no other reason than to have it, just so they can learn how to manage money for themselves. If they want to buy candy or Pokémon cards from the grocery store, that’s coming out of their allowance. We give them a smallish amount, because there’s not really much call for them to need to spend their money; we pay for things like gifts for their friends and extra fun things at school and outings. We give them bonuses, too: if they participate in a big chore (like helping us clean the cars or pulling weeds from the garden or raking leaves in the yard), there’s extra money for that; if we go to a festival or on vacation, we give them a chunk of money to spend on souvenirs and games and rides, and anything they don’t spend, they get to keep.

And if they don’t do their chores? They lose privileges like screen time.

But our system isn’t perfect. I wonder whether we’re giving them enough money. Some people advocate a dollar for each year of age per week, but most of the people I know who do that have only one child. Even though we tell the kids they need to divide their allowance equally between “spend,” “save,” and “donate,” sometimes the lines between those blur a little when Tiny Beowulf really wants to spend money on something. Sometimes they lose one of those little banks or wallets somewhere in the depths of their closets or bedrooms and choose to compromise quickly rather than spend some time looking for their stuff. The inconsistency makes it difficult to establish a good habit.

What do you do? If you have kids, how do you handle allowances, if at all? If you don’t have kids yourself but received an allowance when you were young, how did you earn it, and did the mechanics of your family’s system work well? I’m interested in hearing how the allowance debate is treated these days among all of you.

Please, discuss.  🙂