In my poetry class this week, our homework was to write a poem based on one of five different poems that we'd analyzed in class: Often I am permitted to return to a meadow, Corsons Inlet, St. Roach, Two Trees, or What Did I Love. They were all very good poems, but the prompts our teacher gave us just didn't inspire me. Still, I needed to do the assignment, so I spent time turning them all over in my head, brainstorming ideas. None of them sounded like they were going to make a good poem.
But yesterday, in the car with my dad, I told him about the five different prompts, including the one based on "St. Roach." I copied the text of the poem, which is by Muriel Rukeyser, below:
(by Muriel Rukeyser)
For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.
Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.
I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.
Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.
After reading this poem in class, we were given the prompt to pick something in nature that filled us with disgust or fear and to approach it and try to understand it, just as Rukeyser had approached and tried to understand the roach. When my dad heard this, he said, "Why don't you write a poem about the time I took you to the pet store to look at birds?"
For those of you who don't know, I have a terrible phobia of birds. I know, stupid, right? Birds are cute and tiny and cheep harmlessly and flutter about. But phobias don't make sense. For most of my life I've been unable to even come close to a wren or sparrow. Now it's a little bit easier, as I've learned to control my fears better, but I still shudder when I get too near a bird. It's odd- I've never feared spiders or snakes, and even if I were to see poisonous ones, I would only have rational caution, not horrible fear. But birds are terrifying.
My dad, in his infinite wisdom, decided to try and get me to Conquer My Fears when I was twelve, and took me to the pet store to look at the birds. The parakeets, the cockatiels, the finches, the doves. I could barely stand in front of the glass containers and watch them. It was pretty much useless at the time- I stood there freaking out and we eventually left. (Later my dad surprised our entire family by purchasing four little finches. We returned them when my parents got sick of cleaning up, and I could once again sleep at night.)
But now, I decided it was time again to go to the pet store and check out the birds, for the sake of my poetry assignment. We drove there and I walked in. It was much easier than when I was twelve. This time, having learned techniques for calming my other anxieties, I could stand in front of the cages, secure in the knowledge that the birds could not break through the glass walls. I observed them, commenting to my dad that they were cute, how interesting their intelligence is, how curious their behaviors. Despite it all, I still shuddered, and had the glass wall not been there, I probably would have been hiding on the other end of the store.
I stood there for a while, watching the birds, fluctuating between my curious mind and irrational heart, and trying to explain to myself what exactly about them sparked my fear. Would it ever be possible for me to not be afraid of them, or would it even be possible for me to control it enough that I could hold a bird in my hand? For now, it doesn't seem possible, but it has gotten better.
Today, thinking about all these things, I sat down and wrote my poem:
Why am I afraid of you?
Nobody taught me to fear you-
but here I am,
cowering behind the shelves of cat food,
shuddering at the twitters floating towards me.
I am twelve years old.
I have to be led around the corner,
over the dirty pet store floor,
to walk past the glass walls encasing
parakeets and finches.
There is no part of my mind, now,
that wants to consider them anything but shadowy,
beady eyes, cocking heads,
sharp beaks and sudden movements.
I mirror them,
hide my head beneath my arm and rustle like wings.
Why am I afraid of you?
I am eighteen years old.
I breathe in and out.
I have control over my blinding, jerking fear.
In front of me is the glass wall.
Behind the glass wall are the finches,
tiny, utterly harmless, beautiful and fascinating.
I am still, scientific, observing them
like I do my squirrels and trees in the woods.
One has a length of nettle in his beak,
is fluttering up and down, trying to string it through a nest,
frustrated wing muscles snapping, strategic.
So intelligent, so sentient.
I lean in to watch him closer-
I startle backwards, heart radiating with fear,
at the dinosaur’s descendant lurching its head at me.
Breathe in, breathe out. It grooms itself, not even seeing me.
Why can’t I find you unconditionally beautiful?
Thanks for reading this week! I'll be back on Wednesday with a TCWT blog chain post.