poem for a new school year

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Snow Day News

This just in from Providence: Snow Days are excellent for reading and grading essays and armchairs and coffee and braiding and re-braiding my hair. I’m a teacher, and we’re nearing the end of the quarter, so I’m working from home today— should I take a selfie with my stack of papers to grade? I’m also taking time to myself to rest and renew and light candles.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “snowflakes dancing,” but have you thought about what this actually looks like? I was sitting cross-legged on my bed this morning and staring out the window, and I realized that the way snowflakes dance is not individualistic — sure, they bounce around and they’re cute, but the dancing part is more than that. As the wind changes direction, the snowflakes all swerve in unison, moving with a rhythm that is collective and graceful and known only to them and the gusts of winter wind. It reminded me of contra-dancing, which I learned way back in Virginia. A caller shouts out directions, and the group all changes direction or switches hands or swaps partners in parallel motion. It’s a dance you have to do with a bunch of laughing, jolly people, and it happens either in a big circle or in lines like the Virginia Reel. Snowflakes move like that, in packs. But there’s no caller telling them which way to waltz. Or maybe there is.

Maybe that’s what snowstorms are for: a reminder that there are forces bigger and more destructive or generative than us. Maybe we should take more time to marvel at that.

 

Poetry in a Violent World

Today, despite the news that I heard on the radio, I had to go to school and teach children who are vulnerable and brave and hopeful and wise. I want their generation (which is still my generation) to be the one that ends the senseless gun violence that we’re living with.

Here’s a poem for them:

The Opposites Game
by Brendan Constantine

for Patricia Maisch

This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. “My life had stood
a loaded gun,” it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –

My // Your
Life // Death
Had stood ? // Will sit
A // Many
Loaded // Empty
Gun ?

Gun.
For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –

Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That’s stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts

and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It’s a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?

A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You’re so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It’s a whisper, a star,
it’s saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone’s ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president

of Stupid-land? You should be, When’s the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it’s a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl

snatches it from my hand. Nothing’s decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.

There’s a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.

“It’s a diamond, it’s a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It’s the moon, it’s a mirror,
it’s the sound of a bell and the hearer.”

The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.

Well, maybe. Maybe it’s everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn’t say. It’s words and the spaces for words.
They’re looking at each other now. It’s everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.

It’s everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it’s a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.

Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems.