Poem Audio #4 – “School Poems”

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Here is my discussion of “School Poems” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.


“School Poems”

The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,

Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers

Looking for love in the smile their words might make.

 

Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,

Bent over a row of screens,

Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems

As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,

Letters dripping on documents,

A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.

 

I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb

Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,

Drumming his palms against his knees like his life

Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon

Of one who’d learned to walk the plank

As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards

And blades sharpened

As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”

 

The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,

Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold

Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.

So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,

Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.

 

Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,

Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,

Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms

As they told their parents they loved them

With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,

A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.

 

So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century

Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body

Like bread for summer swans

And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,

The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth

As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.

My English Teacher

I’d like to remember you with a poem,

Not an assignment or a free response to some prompt,

But a dedication for all you’ve done for me.

 

It’s just that I’ve been dropping years into the water

For quite some time, trying to fill the well

Until I’d know where to begin,

 

And the truth is I couldn’t write one if I tried.

 

To tell how firmly rooted you are in my memory, my life,

I’d have to haul out the early timbers

And diagram my gratitude from the ground up,

Fastened together by predicates and adjectives.

 

I’d also owe you for each figure of speech,

For it was you who first lay my young ears against the railroad

To hear the aching distance

Where words and meanings surge with locomotion,

Carrying the freight of all my poems to the paper.

 

Not to mention the box of highlighted quotations,

Underlined passages and dog-eared pages I have stored away

In the attic of my mind,

I climb up there often to smell the time that has passed.

 

No, I couldn’t write a poem like that,

For you don’t know how I’d seen you on the mountaintop

All those years ago,

Your eyes looking toward the sweet mint of the pine,

Brimming with vision, clear as prayer.

 

There, your hands held the robins’ feet of souls,

Nestled gently in the worn creases,

Looking for light.

 

So near the wonders of heaven, you discovered

The language of God in poetic rhythm,

The muffled drums of meter and the pounding pulse of students,

Poems reading poems.

 

You taught me to carve my name into every stripe of sunlight,

Grab the wind with my ready hands, pull the sky around my shoulders,

Cloaking myself for flight.

What’s more, you emptied out the plastic bin

Of imagery and motion, assembled a thousand amplifiers

Pointed to my chest,

And gave me the keys to my voice

That I might hear myself for the first time.

 

So the only thing I can say is that the poem I would write

If I could

Would end with a single image, not the firm grip

Of your fingers on a sharpened pencil, or the quiet burn of lamplight

Over your late hours of grading,

But rather, the moment

You descended the sharp, granite surface,

Found me at the foot of my future,

And handed me a torch.

School Poems

The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,

Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers

Looking for love in the smile their words might make.

 

Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,

Bent over a row of screens,

Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems

As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,

Letters dripping on documents,

A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.

 

I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb

Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,

Drumming his palms against his knees like his life

Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon

Of one who’d learned to walk the plank

As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards

And blades sharpened

As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”

 

The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,

Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold

Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.

So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,

Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.

 

Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,

Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,

Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms

As they told their parents they loved them

With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,

A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.

 

So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century

Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body

Like bread for summer swans

And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,

The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth

As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.

Students

A poem to my students…


I wonder if it’s a sonnet,

The poem of your life,

As I hear your shoes squeak their stanzas across the floor to your desk

And you click your blue mechanical pencil

Twice to take a quiz.

 

For I happened to notice two index cards,

Like a light pink couplet,

Tucked beneath the tidy layers of your notebook

As you closed your eyes, breathed, reassured yourself

Of what you knew and filled your name at the top.

 

Or do you live and breathe in music,

All elbows and gym bags, your fingers

Twitching steadily the edges of your sweatshirt?

Perhaps your life is a lyric, a rhythm

Kept in meter by the beat of basketballs,

Or the wild and fearless drummings of your

Feet along the track?

 

Or you, there in the far row,

Do you see the world in free verse?

Eyes bright from gazing through kaleidoscopes,

Bending the sky around your ballpoint pen?

From here I see your frenzied scribbling in that beat-up journal,

The back of your homework, the length of your arm,

Scrambling to seize your swelling thoughts,

Your echoing afterthoughts,

Your madcap fever of creativity.

 

And I bet hers is a ballad, a song,

Her eyes telling the fear in the horizons,

Dreaming of afternoon, of evening,

Of the time she’ll spend with her father

Before his illness takes a turn.

 

Whatever they are,

These poems in your mouths, your hands, your smiles,

They somehow fit each one of you, like shadows

Filled with beauty and, ironically,

With light.

 

And when I am old,

Beyond the reach of my podium,

My pen, my worn and dog-eared Hamlet,

I will see you all,

Again and again and again,

As young as autumn leaves

Reddening, then leaping

Into the constant winds of change.