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.
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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.  🙂

 

Women Writers Wednesday 11/19/14

In this series, I’m showcasing books written by women authors through reviews of and responses to them written by other women authors. The idea? To better highlight some of the many contributions women have made to literature in our history and now. If you’d like to contribute to this series, leave a comment below, and I’ll be in touch with the details. To see the first post in this series, click here.

Today’s book response is by, well, me. It’s about a series of books by Patricia Coombs which were really important to me when I was a child about a character named Dorrie the Little Witch. For information about this series and how to get these books, click here.

***

Dorrie the Little Witch’s First Library Card

 

Certain periods in my life have been marked by things other than time. In my childhood, I divided the years by how many siblings I had, or whether my godfather was still living in Texas or my cousin Chuck was still alive. In college, I could always remember which semester something happened in by the classes I was taking or whom (if anyone) I was dating.

One constant throughout my life has been my reading habits––that I had some, and they were voracious. My young childhood was flavored by fairy tales; I think the first book I ever read on my own was Grimms’ common canon. In my early adolescence I discovered and devoured the classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott. Then came novels from the 1950s and 1960s aimed at teenage girls and focused on solving mysteries (I preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew) or dating; books like Love Is A Four-Letter Word and Johnny and Janie are still vivid in my mind. My high school and college years were all about fantasy and science fiction (but mostly fantasy). At university, I was introduced to magic realism, the more academically acceptable cousin of fantasy, and Gothic literature, and I eagerly invited those genres to join the party too.

A few characters have stayed with me over the years. Alice in Wonderland, Batman, Sleeping Beauty, Lizzie Bennet, the vampire Lestat, the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And then, Dorrie.

Dorrie the Little Witch has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was seven years old for a lot of reasons––but most especially because it was over Dorrie that my mother performed one of the most awesome feats I’ve ever seen her do, when she came to my defense at the public library.

Turning seven was a big deal for me. Seven years old was considered the age of reason in my family’s faith (Catholicism), and so in second grade at my parochial school, we got treated to a slew of new experiences and obligations. First Penance, First Communion, really being held accountable for understanding our moral choices. And those were all fine and good, I supposed, and somewhat interesting, I guessed, but the really exciting thing I’d been looking forward to was that at seven years old, I could apply for my own library card.

My mother took me to the Walter Branch Public Library down the road from our house so I could eagerly fill out the application, but when I turned it in to the crusty librarian at the circulation desk, she told me I would have to wait for my card in the mail. My mom checked out a Harlequin novel for herself and let me pick out a couple of Dorrie books, marvelous stories by Patricia Coombs about a little witch who didn’t quite have herself all together and whose mother, Big Witch, was usually a little too busy with her job (as an important witch in their town) to be the most effective and involved single parent. But Dorrie had Cook (the somewhat surly domestic help) and Gink (her black cat) and her friends, so she was okay.

 

Dorrie, Gink, and Big Witch

 

Dorrie had messy hair and a black dress. She had elf-like black shoes and a black hat whose point was crinkled. Her room was as messy as my closet, and her long striped socks were always mismatched. She got herself into little episodes of trouble, like protagonists are wont to do, and she often had to escape it without any help from the absent or otherwise incapacitated or ineffectual grown-ups, like the protagonists in children’s books must.

 

Dorrie in her messy room

 

I wanted to be Dorrie. I pushed the couches in our den together to make a fort and stood on top of the piled cushions and blankets, intoning the spells Dorrie recited in her stories, anxious and thrilled and waiting for something to happen. Whatever befell Dorrie never happened to me, but something important was imprinting on my brain. I didn’t know yet what was happening, but I could feel my affection for literature growing and warming me in ways that little else did.

I loved Dorrie the Little Witch like I loved fairy tales; I adored her like I adored my Yorkshire terrier, Wizard; I cherished her like I cherished the activity of reading itself. Dorrie, a character unknown to most of my classmates and cousins and every babysitter who set foot in our house, was my witch.

I checked the mail daily, waiting for my library card to arrive. The mailbox, on the wall next to our front door, was too high up for me to reach when I stood on the porch, so I had to bring a dining room chair over to stand on. I leaned across the threshold each day to peer into the box, but each day was another chapter of disappointment and despair. When my card finally showed up about a week and a half after I’d made my application, I tore open the white and taupe envelope and stared at my name in beautiful dot-matrix printing and squealed. I made my mother take me to Walter Branch that day.

I marched into that library like I owned the place. I waved at the other patrons sitting on beanbags and in chairs to my right and turned my nose up at my formerly favorite section, the “audiobooks” (plastic snap-handled bags containing children’s books and the vinyl records on which their text had been recorded). I reached the stacks and then raced to the children’s fiction section, plopped myself down in front of the C’s and went to town.

 

Dorrie reading

 

I pulled out all the Dorrie books I could find. Dorrie and the Blue Witch, Dorrie and the Wizard’s Spell, Dorrie and the Haunted House, Dorrie and the Magic Elixir, Dorrie and the Witch’s Imp, Dorrie and the Halloween Plot. The list went on. I stacked up ten Dorrie books, all the ones I hadn’t read yet, and hefted the impressive collection across the library to the circulation desk, through an obstacle course of bookshelves and other children, of tables and chairs and rolling carts filled with books. I heaved my treasure onto the dark brown laminate counter and reached my little hands out to keep them from tumbling all over the place.

The librarian, looking like an extra out of some children’s movie whose underlying theme was the inability of grown-ups to relate to kids, peered down at me over, no joke, half-moon glasses. I was so short and my stack of books so tall on the counter, she had to lean over far enough to see me that her glasses slipped down to the tip of her nose and threatened to slide off.

“Where is your mother?” she asked.

I pointed across the room to my mom, browsing the adult fiction section for a murder mystery novel. I called to her, and she walked over.

“Are you all ready?” she asked me, smiling.

I nodded.

“Did you find enough books?” she teased me good-naturedly.

I giggled. “It’s a start!” I said.

The librarian wasn’t nearly as amused as we were. She half-sighed, half-snorted. “Do you have a library card?” she asked me.

I proudly produced my new card from my pocket and held it up for her to see. She reached over and took it from my fingers. I couldn’t stop grinning. She peered at the card, then at me, then at the card again.

“Is this your first time to check out any books on your own?” she asked me.

“Yes!”

“Then you may check out only two books.”

As her meaning washed over me, I thought I might cry.

“You may check out only two books the first time you use your card.” She pushed the card back at me and settled into her chair, finality in her posture.

“But I’ve picked out ten,” I said, hoping she would understand the importance of my needing to take those books home right then. I couldn’t articulate how much these books meant to me, how much reading meant to me. I couldn’t express the plain and simple truth that Dorrie the Little Witch was my friend, and in choosing to take all her books home, it was as if I’d invited her to a party at my house, and by leaving her books at the library, I was shunning her, telling her she couldn’t come play with me after all. So I just repeated, “I picked out ten.”

“You can have two,” the librarian repeated. She turned around to the other side of the desk and began shuffling papers.

I didn’t know what to do, what else to say. I’d pled my case. I looked at the lopsided stack of books on the counter and realized I wasn’t even tall enough to pull them all down without scattering them on the floor, and I sure didn’t want to make a mess now in front of this librarian, for fear she would tear up my library card and not let me check out any books, ever. I couldn’t even move.

My mother cleared her throat. “Okay, then,” she said in the stridently cheerful voice she used when making lemonade out of the disappointing lemons of circumstance. She picked up the books and held them down to me. “Go ahead and pick two.” I stared at the stack. Two? “Go ahead, Angélique, just pick your two favorites.” Her voice was clipped, efficient.

How could I possibly choose? Of course I couldn’t, so I glumly slid the top two into my hands. My mother replaced the rest on the circulation desk, just off to the side, and put my slim selection and the book she’d chosen for herself on the counter. She put her library card on top of her book and my library card on top of mine, and cleared her throat again, more forcefully. When the librarian turned around to look at my mother, she gave the woman a tight smile. “We’re ready,” she said.

Checking out the books was a quick process. The glowing enthusiasm I had expected everyone in the room would share as they congratulated me on my first library card was absent, the muffled sounds of people whispering and pages turning and books being shelved and selected echoing the silence of my muted joy.

“There now,” my mother said, trying to cheer me, “you’ve just checked out your first books! Isn’t that exciting? Good job!”

I nodded, clutching my two Dorrie books, my gaze lingering on the eight I had abandoned. She gently ushered me out the door, and as we walked back to the car, she replaced her sternly chipper voice for a more sympathetic tone.

“I know that was disappointing, honey,” she said. “I’m sorry.” I just nodded. We got to the car, and as my mother unlocked it and I climbed in, she said, “Let’s go home, and you can read your books, and when you’re done with them, we’ll come back and get the others.”

This did cheer me up some, and I started reading one book as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. By the time we’d been home half an hour, I’d devoured both of them, and although I was sad to take them back to the library so soon, I knew I had to relinquish them to get the rest of my stack. I thought of it as a hostage negotiation.

I walked into the living room where my mother was reading. “I’ve finished them,” I said.

“So soon?” she asked. “All right then.”

And true to her word, my mother took me back to the library right then. I walked up to the circulation desk where the librarian still sat and launched the books onto the counter. The other eight were still sitting there.

“I’ve finished,” I told her. “May I please have the other books now?”

She looked skeptical. “That was fast,” she said.

“She’s a quick reader,” my mother said, all the friendliness in her voice gone. “Now let her have those other books and stop giving her a hard time, or I’m going to report you to the main branch for harassing a seven-year-old.”

The librarian looked stunned. My mother’s face was resolute. I held my breath.

No one said another word as the librarian checked out the other eight books to my now-veteran library card. She pushed them across the desk to me. I tried to pull them down and nearly dropped them, but I managed. Once I had them secure in my arms, I beamed at my mother.

“All set?” she asked me. I nodded, smiling. “Good.” She held the door open. “Now let’s get out of here.”

Dorrie the Little Witch, like so many little witches, has been relegated, when remembered at all, to the season of October, but she’s always there in my subconscious, drinking tea with the Mad Hatter and wondering when Big Witch will come home. Hallowe’en always brings out that childlike spirit in me, and I channel my inner Dorrie. Part of me wants to return to the Hallowe’ens of my youth, before my cousin died, when we and all the kids we were friends with in our neighborhood went on trick-or-treating hayrides. When dressing up in costume was normal and fun and exciting and didn’t have to be confined to something other people did. When a holiday couldn’t be ruined for everybody in the parish because one ignorant and uptight family decided the holiday was all about devil worship.

I can’t bring back the past. But what I can do is share Dorrie with everyone else. Her books are coming back into print; you can find them here. And when you do, you might find something of yourself––a charming independence, a domestic flexibility¾in them as well.

Even after so many years, I still do.

***

All images obtained from a search for free images of the character.

To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Happy Banned Books Week!

It’s that time of year again: Banned Books Week! The week where we conspicuously celebrate the fact that we, as adults*, are allowed to read what we want to and that no one else has the right to tell us otherwise or foist their hang-ups on us.

 

RB burning book poster
Censorship causes blindness.

 

So in honor of Banned Books Week, I offer my students extra credit during the whole month of September to read a book from the official Banned Books list, one they’ve never read before, and then to write a short review explaining why they think the book was banned and whether they agree with that. (A few notes for those who might want to share this assignment: I tell them they must not, on their honor, look up why the book was banned, since that would defeat the purpose of the assignment, which is all about THINKING FOR THEMSELVES; whether they agree with the ban is completely irrelevant to their score on the assignment or whether they get the extra credit, because as long as they present a cogent argument, I don’t have to agree with it to give it high marks.)

So I’m curious: what’s your take on banned books? Have you read any banned books? What did you think about it/them?

Chuck Wendig’s blog today asks about books you love but others hate and books you hate but others love. This is really interesting to me, too. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

***

* Note the “as adults” part. As a parent, I still monitor what my young children are allowed to read, as best I can. I don’t sanitize things for them, but I do strongly caution them against books which I know have too-heavy subject matter and help them gently through the consequences if they go against my recommendation. And this also has limitations. For example, I counseled my daughter when she was eight through her existential crisis over the death of Sirius Black, but there’s no way in heaven or hell I’m going to let her read anything by Kresley Cole till she’s at least eighteen — or maybe twenty-one!  😉