Look, there’s only so much grading you can do. And when you assign writing, you might as well resign yourself to a long week of commenting. After such an assignment, I offer up work that is easy and quick to grade.

One such assignment is to find an author interview. Students choose a book or author they really, really like and find an interview with the author. Text, video or audio, the interview has to be focused on the creative process. Nancie Atwell has written about the importance of students identifying themselves as writers, and seeing themselves as peers of their favorite writers. I find this assignment does the trick.

For assessment, I have created a Google Form where they submit their name, author, book/series and the URL of the interview. Next time, I’ll add a check box for content being mature (the interview with the author of “The Kite Runner” is a tad graphic, considering the subject matter). At the due date, I can look at the responses and see who did and who did not. Then, I post the spreadsheet and use it as a resource for a later lesson.

While creating an “exemplar” (a word I try to sneak into every conversation, because it is so edu-speak), I read a series of interviews with Robert Cormier. ‘The Chocolate War’ is one of the first YA books I saw, as an adult, as being real Literature (capital L). I still love it for its honesty and violence and serving a theme and never letting the reader go from it. The ending is still the best YA ending ever (it was tied by ‘The Giver’, but then Lowry ruined it with the sequels. But, I guess, Cormier did the same thing with ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’, so….) In scanning one site, I read his other works and saw ‘The First Death’. I have a vague memory of this being an After School Special that still sticks with me, but that might have been another kids-surviving-in-a-school-bus movie. Then, that same week, I happened to be reading some Atwell (which I do every few months when I feel insecure about my program) and she mentioned reading this Dylan Thomas and connecting it to the book.

All of which leads to the obvious class activity: What is the significance of the title of your book? An old saw, but one I love. So simple. So concrete. Yet, complex and deep. Support with evidence, blah, blah. You can push them beyond the literal (‘Yes, they are selling chocolates, but what does the ‘war’ indicate?’)

You can/could also have them find a new title. Have it come from a poem that matches the theme.

I don’t think this poem comes from this book, but the cover’s great!


Reworking book packaging can have many lessons. Redesign the cover (the one above is great, even if the dog is a poor role model). Rewrite the copy on the back (a lesson in summary writing, details and creating writing that hooks the reader). Even crafting a quote from the book–THE quote from the book–into a bumpersticker.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 31, 2014

206: Paradise Lost: Book II: John Milton

Common Core a bit overwhelming?

One afternoon, I was going to do the hard work of going through my ELA Common Core standards line by line and pulling out the recurring verbs–dull stuff–when I figured that, in this computer age, there must be a better way.  

And it hit me: Wordle.

Like Xerox, a Wordle is a specific site and not a generic noun or verb, so let’s call them “word clouds” because…. we care about words and being exact.  Plus, my chosen word cloud renderer is called ABCya!, as Wordle demanded I download a program that I didn’t have time to install, but you can find half a dozen sites that do the same thing.  Word cloud.

This is a word cloud of the English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Literature: Grade 7:



Of course, that doesn’t tell us much (too many words), but ABCya! lets you adjust it a bit.  It came to this:


ABCya! also allows you to delete specific words, so “eg” and “CCSSELALITERACYYRL73″ can be deleted as they are probably not very important in designing lessons for next year.  But, looking at the word clouds above, you can see the patterns: Analyze, text, story, compare, contrast, determine, etc.  Theme, on the other hand, is less important.  And while “poem” makes the cut, “verse” does not.

It is a quick way to cut through the clutter.  You can drop all of your standards in there (both Reading and Writing, for whatever multiple grades you teach) and see what the big ideas are.  Then, hit those concepts again and again.

This came up in a unit on symbolism.  Besides the fact that I love symbolism, I wanted to have kids break down text so that they could understand how it works.  Since as long as they remember, students have been drilled on how to write, but in middle school they start to wonder how it all actually works.  Nancie Atwell embraces this, inviting experimentation and reflection as a reader and writer, but in this age of NCLB those types of programs are rare.  Why do we write in five paragraphs instead of four?  Six?  Hmmmm….  But important questions to ask if we want kids who can really write.

In this unit we also looked at experimental writing and criticism.  Let me give you a few links before I continue:

It was this last presentation where the issue of textual analysis, formalism and semiotic criticism came up.  It so happened that Slate magazine did a piece on the frequency of certain words, sentences, adjectives and adverbs in popular YA literature.  One of the lists was this:


My Google Presentation for this can be found here.  Looking at the lists above, you can see the clear difference between the “Twilight” series and “Harry Potter”.  My students could see it, too.

Which brings it all back to poetry and text.  If textual criticism can be used on YA novels and the Common Core, why not use it to analyze poetry?  Using Book 2 from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, here is the results of Stanford University’s WordSift:


Not only did it give me a word cloud, but it began graphing the words and offering up visuals that might (or might not) go with it.  I don’t know if the results are useful in a real, critical sense, but they can get kids thinking about hard texts.  More important, it can get them thinking about text in ways other than the traditional lines of a poem.

Below are the first few lines from “Paradise Lost: Book II”, where Milton makes the devil a really interesting character (William Blake’s knock on the poem), but also sets up his doomed fate that plays out through the rest of the poem.  Ask the students about the images they see in this wonderfully over-the-top chapter.  Can they picture it?  Then, throw it through a word cloud.

Paradise Lost: Book II
John Milton

HIGH on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised 5
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven; and, by success untaught,
His proud imaginations thus displayed:—


Posted by: Tom Triumph | February 27, 2014

205. what your mother tells you now: Mitsuye Yamada

I thought I might find a poem called “Frequently Asked Questions”.  The prompt of “Frequenty Asked Questions (about me)” would, I thought, tie together a lot of insights, both concrete and ethereal, in a poet looking to use a modern phrase to explore their inner self.  But no one has yet produced such a work worthy of notice, according to Google.

Then I typed in “procedure” in hopes of finding a poem that used a process as its backbone.  I know they exist, but they are not so easily found.  Instead, I got back hospitals who offer Peroral Endoscopic Myotomy (POEM) for the treatment of Achalasia.  Because it has to do with the esophagus, I’ll allow the link between the acronym and the procedure it relates to.  Still, not helpful.

Is this, I wonder, the state of poetry?  That the word now is simply an acronym?

This search began because parent conferences just ended.  When I began teaching, my two-person team cycled  through our parents, many of which were together or, if separated, amicably came at the same time to respect the outlay of our time.  Now, being a four person team with over one hundred students, we host a cattle call.  We are available for an eight hour block and parents simply walk in when convenient.  For many students, we have a separate conference for each of their parents.  

And many parents don’t make it in.  

For them, I created a “Frequently Asked Questions” email based on what I was being asked over and over.

When I first began in the field (and I began as a high school teacher), I created a syllabus.  That was the tradition, as taught to me.  It came out the first day, and meant nothing to the students because it was all just theoretical.  Until the first few assignments came back graded, late penalties were handed out, and kids began to wonder what texts were next, the syllabus had no real meaning. 

And they are so unfriendly.  Someone once told me that the syllabus needed to be intimidating in order to set the tone for the year.  We WILL do this.  Your GRADE will be determined like so.  My POLICIES are that.  And so on.

But businesses use the FAQ.  It’s friendly, even if they are snowing you into a huge disappointing rip-off.  I’m not so devious, but I recognize that most parents a) want to do what’s best for their child, b) having the parent on your side really helps the kid succeed (and makes your life easier), and c) most parents come to parent conferences just to gauge you as a person.  So, I created my own FAQ and sent it out via email following the last conference.

Here is a sample:


It was great to see parents at conferences, but I know a number of parents could not make it for a variety of reasons.  As I sat listening to and answering questions, I found myself repeating certain things.  For those who could not speak to me in person, I thought it might be helpful to offer a post-conference “Frequently Asked Questions” email.
What is homework, typically?
I assign homework on Monday and collect it the following Monday.  It is called the Packet of Fun, which can be ironic at times.  Students have one week.
We all live busy lives and this allows students to work around obligations to family, school and activities.  But, they need to plan–they will need this skill come CVU (and life).  If they struggle with planning, this assignment provides a safe way to develop the skill (see late penalties below).  I recommend they do their homework for me on Monday, if they can, and be done.  Assignments done Sunday night tend to be rushed, and not their best work.
In addition, students are to read their own independent reading book each night for at least twenty minutes.  My rule-of-thumb is a new book every two weeks.
Where is work passed in?
Any work due for me is placed by the student in a picnic basket next to my desk.  I never take it myself because I don’t want to misplace it.  From the basket it goes into my bag, is taken out only to be corrected in a single spot, and put directly back in the bag.  I keep the loop tight so nothing is lost.  The first step, though, is a student placing it in the basket.
How does my child earn a B, or an A?
The grade of B indicates a student shows proficiency on that assignment: They understand the content and can do the skill.  The B is about the student repeating what has been taught.  
To earn an A, the student needs to shift focus to the reader–the student needs to have something to say, and then focus on the needs of the reader so that the reader leaves the assignment having gained something.  The skills serve the ideas, and the ideas need to have insight.  It is a high bar.
How is my student doing?
Hopefully, you are checking JupiterGrades from time to time.  It can be set up so that you receive a grade report weekly–I recommend Friday afternoon (the default) as most grades are entered by the….
See?  Now you know the beginning of how my class works–and a little about me, too!
If you are sick of “I am…” poems (your students are, except the ones who don’t really like a challenge), try to work on some sort of “FYI About Me” assignment.
Lacking a decent FAQ poem, it is instructive to look at a poem about advice.  This is from a collection by Mitsuye Yamada written shortly after her internment during World War II.  
This poem was reprinted in the collection “Poetry Speaks: Who I Am”.  I do not have it (yet), but the reviews are quite positive.  From the comments on Amazon, its contents clearly touched a number of people.
Perhaps, if reworked for today, Ms. Yamada’s follow-up might be “FAQ From My Mother.”  That, too, might serve as a good prompt.  Imagine the amount of empathy required (and research) to answer questions as another person–a parent, a friend or even an unknown peer.  And it allows the student to direct the advice to, really, those questions they want to ask most frequently.
Not to show my ignorance, but I am assuming that the first lines are phonetic translated Japanese.  Also know that the formatting of the English text is unclear in my sources (it varies).

what your mother tells you now
Mitsuye Yamada

haha ga ima yu-koto
sono uchi ni
wakatte kuru

What your mother tells you
in time
you will come to know.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 18, 2014

204. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note: Amiri Baracka

I know, another suicide poem. But this poignant and ends with hope.

I write this a week after Amiri Baracka died. His death made me think about his post 9/11 poem, “somebody blew up america”. It’s quite the polemic. A study in anger–a dream denied (as Langston Hughes observed) just explodes, and Baracka is plenty explosive in this poem. Worth a read. Poet Laureate of New Jersey, at the time. He wasn’t fired for the piece–they just abolished the position while he had it.

He’s an interesting cat, who the Poetry Foundation lists as being “free verse.” Okay. You can read their piece on him here. My question is: Are our most important artists anti-social? Looking at Baraka’s biography, why would someone make him Poet Laureate and expect him NOT to write something that would create controversy? Stir the pot.

And there is room for stirring the pot.

Some do it as Amiri Baraka did. Larkin liked to swear to get attention and make their point. Others, quiet like Emily Dickinson.

Have students look at themselves. Who, in the class, stirs the pot? To what end? Do they serve a positive purpose in the class–a reality check or truth teller? Or are they just vandals and foul mouth punks? What is the profile of the model student? Citizen? Who moves the class forward? Profiles.

Looking at this poem, ask them how they are weird? I have a student who thinks she’s weird because she likes watching the Discovery Channel. Today, I stumbled across a student at a wrestling meet–I hadn’t known he was a wrestler. Last week another revealed he was a fencer. A third let it be known she was into making people up as monsters for horror films.

How do they look at the world? Are they so different?

Looking at the speaker of this poem–someone who is depressed–how does Baraka make their outlier way of seeing the world accessible to the reader? Let’s assume the reader is “normal”. How does he bridge that gap?

Looking at their own oddity, how do they bridge the gap to classroom normalcy? Humor? Secrets? Acceptance? Perhaps their lives are poetry. How does that work? Discuss.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Amiri Baraka

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 12, 2014

203. Richard Cory: Edwin Arlington Robinson

The last post–Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”–was a bit long and deep and could be considered a downer.  Suicide.

This  is about a suicide, too.   Not as much of a downer.  Perhaps it’s Aristotle’s often quoted “comedy = tragedy + time”.  Not that Robinson is funny, but Cory’s death isn’t as tragic as the narrator in Carson’s poem.

“Richard Cory” is a staple of the American Literature textbooks.  For some reason, in eleventh grade, I took a shine to the poem.  This poem was the one I analyzed for one of the three required papers we wrote–I even made a graphic novel of the story for extra credit.  I think it might be because  nobody seemed to champion Robinson.  He was a stop in the chronological march through the text, obligatorily tossed into the Realists.  This is the only poem they gave us.

I hadn’t come into contact with “Richard Cory” again until I took an Introduction to Poetry class in graduate school (I was making up for not having taken any English classes as an undergraduate–one of three “older” people among the nineteen year-olds.)  Our professor, Del Janik, used to the appropriately titled “Introduction of Poetry” by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.  The class was transformative, showing poetry to not be a quirky writing style but an intentional manipulation of language leading the reader towards art.  Professor Janik helped.  But Kennedy and Gioia broke poetry down element by element, chapter by chapter, and built it back up.  By the end of the course, I realized that I would never be a poet because, darn it, it’s hard work.

Let me take a moment to recommend X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing”.  The section on poetry is really the “Introduction to Poetry” book.  Like poetry, Kennedy and Gioia do the same break-down with fiction and drama.  It is full of great stories, poems and plays.  A nice variety, both classic and modern.  The editors have a great sense of humor and understand the Literature is not all weight, but can be fun.  My favorite aspect of the text is that, in the back, they index the Literature by themes.  When I’m teaching a certain theme, I flip to the back and find several great pieces.  It’s a hefty, textbook price, but worth it.

And, he included not only Robinson’s “Richard Cory”, but compared it to Simon & Garfunkel’s version.  Here is them singing it live, 1966

I offer the lyrics below Robinson’s original.  Note the similar perspective, but with slightly different emphasis. Robinson wrote during the Progressive Era, and this is certainly a product of those times. Still, ask students which is the better poem? Which do THEY relate to?

You can also get into a whole “are songs poetry” discussions, but….

It might also serve as a springboard into historical criticism. Does it being historically significant (Progressive Era, 1960′s) matter? Why, or why not? Taking away the historical significance, which is the better piece? Neither? Does time pass it by?

And, you could touch on the suicide/death thing. Is this tragic? Really? How so? Or, looking at that Aristotle idea of time, does this no longer sting?

Richard Cory
Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Richard Cory
Simon & Garfunkel

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 8, 2014

202. The Glass Essay: Anne Carson

Okay, this is a really long poem.

Okay, this poem is very mature and serious.  Not with language, but with ideas and suicide and death.  Not for kids, perhaps, but….

In the previous post, I wrote about how publishers use different covers to attract different markets.  What brought me there was Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and an interesting post about the 50th Anniversary Edition.

For older, mature YA readers “The Bell Jar” is a great book.  Several of my 8th grade girls have responded positively, and it is much better written than other youth-with-problem titles.  Still, mature (overall, the protagonist sinks into depression and tries to commit suicide.  She’s goes into an institution, and even receives electroshock treatment.   There is also smoking, alcohol and a disastrous loss of virginity.  So, mature.  But, no worse than Ellen Hopkins).  But when I spoke with my students, they said they liked Plath because of the strong female protagonist.  Suicide did not interest them, but her maturity and strength did.  It was in looking for more such women that I came across the blog about the covers, and the trends in books with strong female  protagonists.  It went into the reselling of “Wuthering Heights” and its connection to the “Twilight” series (“Bella and Edward’s favorite book!” the jacket copy exclaims).

From which, I  found Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” as a line from it was mentioned in the comments’ section.

I’m not going to go into all of the ways you can teach this.  One is how to read a long poem.  Two is how Literature gives us context in our lives.  Three is how suffocating our homes can be, and the adults in our lives.  Four is how things like eating toast can be signals writers use to express personality.  Five is emotions, depression and the like.  Want to talk about mental illness: Go!  You can pick a few lines, a bit of stanzas or whatever you need.  So much here.

The Glass Essay
Anne Carson


I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking

of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.

My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.
I rinse the face and return to bed.
Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?


Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.

A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

“In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . .”

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,

too early for melons.
Hairdresser in town found God, closes shop every Tuesday.
Mice in the teatowel drawer again.
Little pellets. Chew off

the corners of the napkins, if they knew
what paper napkins cost nowadays.
Rain tonight.

Rain tomorrow.
That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name
Anderson died no not Shirley

the opera singer. Negress.
Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?

Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes

curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.

My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me

at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept

and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,

I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
that Emily.

It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.
Dr. Haw says grief is a long process.
She frowns. What does it accomplish

all that raking up the past?
Oh—I spread my hands—
I prevail! I look her in the eye.
She grins. Yes you do.

Emily’s habitual spelling of this word,
has caused confusion.
For example

in the first line of the poem printed Tell me, whether, is it winter?
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.

Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.

She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
wide open.

To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
no ledge to climb up to—like a swimmer

who walks out of the water at sunset
shaking the drops off, it just flies open.
To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,

although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.

But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.

“Emily is in the parlour brushing the carpet,”
records Charlotte in 1828.
Unsociable even at home

and unable to meet the eyes of strangers when she ventured out,
Emily made her awkward way
across days and years whose bareness appalls her biographers.

This sad stunted life, says one.
Uninteresting, unremarkable, wracked by disappointment
and despair, says another.

She could have been a great navigator if she’d been male,
suggests a third. Meanwhile
Emily continued to brush into the carpet the question,

Why cast the world away.
For someone hooked up to Thou,
the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.

But in between the neighbour who recalls her
coming in from a walk on the moors
with her face “lit up by a divine light”

and the sister who tells us
Emily never made a friend in her life,
is a space where the little raw soul

slips through.
It goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel,
out of sight.

The little raw soul was caught by no one.
She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary
or a fear of death. She worked

in total six months of her life (at a school in Halifax)
and died on the sofa at home at 2 P.M. on a winter afternoon
in her thirty-first year. She spent

most of the hours of her life brushing the carpet,
walking the moor
or whaching. She says

it gave her peace.
“All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall all be this
day 4 years,”
she wrote in her Diary Paper of 1837.

Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,
vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,
locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.

“Why all the fuss?” asks one critic.
“She wanted liberty. Well didn’t she have it?
A reasonably satisfactory homelife,

a most satisfactory dreamlife—why all this beating of wings?
What was this cage, invisible to us,
which she felt herself to be confined in?”

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.
As a rule after lunch mother has a nap

and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light.

Something inside it reminds me of childhood—
it is the light of the stalled time after lunch
when clocks tick

and hearts shut
and fathers leave to go back to work
and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering

something they never tell.
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
She shifted to a question about airports.

Crops of ice are changing to mud all around me
as I push on across the moor
warmed by drifts from the pale blue sun.

On the edge of the moor our pines
dip and coast in breezes
from somewhere else.

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows

of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.

Law lived in a high blue room from which he could see the sea.
Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now
still carries the sound of the telephone in that room

and traffic far off and doves under the window
chuckling coolly and his voice saying,
You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s

heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—
No, I say aloud. I force my arms down
through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water

and the videotape jerks to a halt
like a glass slide under a drop of blood.
I stop and turn and stand into the wind,

which now plunges towards me over the moor.
When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die.
This is not uncommon.

I took up the practice of meditation.
Each morning I sat on the floor in front of my sofa
and chanted bits of old Latin prayers.

De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.
Each morning a vision came to me.
Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.

I called them Nudes.
Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.

It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
It pains me to record this,

I am not a melodramatic person.
But soul is “hewn in a wild workshop”
as Charlotte Brontë says of Wuthering Heights.

Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights is a publicist’s masterpiece.
Like someone carefully not looking at a scorpion
crouched on the arm of the sofa Charlotte

talks firmly and calmly
about the other furniture of Emily’s workshop—about
the inexorable spirit (“stronger than a man, simpler than a child”),

the cruel illness (“pain no words can render”),
the autonomous end (“she sank rapidly, she made haste to leave us”)
and about Emily’s total subjection

to a creative project she could neither understand nor control,
and for which she deserves no more praise nor blame
than if she had opened her mouth

“to breathe lightning.” The scorpion is inching down
the arm of the sofa while Charlotte
continues to speak helpfully about lightning

and other weather we may expect to experience
when we enter Emily’s electrical atmosphere.
It is “a horror of great darkness” that awaits us there

but Emily is not responsible. Emily was in the grip.
“Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done,”
says Charlotte (of Heathcliff and Earnshaw and Catherine).

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.
The scorpion takes a light spring and lands on our left knee
as Charlotte concludes, “On herself she had no pity.”

Pitiless too are the Heights, which Emily called Wuthering
because of their “bracing ventilation”
and “a north wind over the edge.”

Whaching a north wind grind the moor
that surrounded her father’s house on every side,
formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit,

taught Emily all she knew about love and its necessities—
an angry education that shapes the way her characters
use one another. “My love for Heathcliff,” says Catherine,

“resembles the eternal rocks beneath
a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
Necessary? I notice the sun has dimmed

and the afternoon air sharpening.
I turn and start to recross the moor towards home.
What are the imperatives

that hold people like Catherine and Heathcliff
together and apart, like pores blown into hot rock
and then stranded out of reach

of one another when it hardens? What kind of necessity is that?
The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.
Autumn had begun,

my knees were cold inside my clothes.
A chill fragment of moon rose.
He stood in my living room and spoke

without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold
it was like burning. I put out my hand
to touch his. He moved back.

I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.

Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.

Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language
like the children we used to be.
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,

as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down
on the two souls clasped there on the bed
with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.
I saw the lines harden.
He left in the morning.

It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.
No sound from the rest of the house.
I wait a moment
then open the fridge.

Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.
My mother lives alone and eats little but her fridge is always crammed.
After extracting the yogurt container

from beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake
wrapped in foil and prescription medicine bottles
I close the fridge door. Bluish dusk

fills the room like a sea slid back.
I lean against the sink.
White foods taste best to me

and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.
Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:

Violante in the pantry
Gnawing at a mutton bone
How she gnawed it
How she clawed it
When she felt herself alone.

Girls are cruelest to themselves.
Someone like Emily Brontë,
who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,

had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.
We can see her ridding herself of it at various times
with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.

Reason with him and then whip him!
was her instruction (age six) to her father
regarding brother Branwell.

And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)
into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied
them directly to her arm.

Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.
More than thirty years in the time of the novel,
from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen
and vanishes over the moor

because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine’s
(“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”)
until the wild morning

when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning
on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff is a pain devil.

If he had stayed in the kitchen
long enough to hear the other half of Catherine’s sentence
(“so he will never know how I love him”)

Heathcliff would have been set free.
But Emily knew how to catch a devil.
She put into him in place of a soul

the constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system
every time he drew a breath or moved thought.
She broke all his moments in half,

with the kitchen door standing open.
I am not unfamiliar with this half-life.
But there is more to it than that.

Heathcliff’s sexual despair
arose out of no such experience in the life of Emily Brontë,
so far as we know. Her question,

which concerns the years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain
came to her in a kindly firelit kitchen
(“kichin” in Emily’s spelling) where she

and Charlotte and Anne peeled potatoes together
and made up stories with the old house dog Keeper at their feet.
There is a fragment

of a poem she wrote in 1839
(about six years before Wuthering Heights) that says:

That iron man was born like me
And he was once an ardent boy:
He must have felt in infancy
The glory of a summer sky.

Who is the iron man?
My mother’s voice cuts across me,
from the next room where she is lying on the sofa.

Is that you dear?
Yes Ma.
Why don’t you turn on a light in there?

Out the kitchen window I watch the steely April sun
jab its last cold yellow streaks
across a dirty silver sky.
Okay Ma. What’s for supper?

Liberty means different things to different people.
I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.
Law did.
My mother does.

But as soon as the morning light hits my eyes I want to be out in it—
moving along the moor
into the first blue currents and cold navigation of everything awake.

I hear my mother in the next room turn and sigh and sink deeper.
I peel the stale cage of sheets off my legs
and I am free.

Out on the moor all is brilliant and hard after a night of frost.
The light plunges straight up from the ice to a blue hole at the top of the sky.
Frozen mud crunches underfoot. The sound

startles me back into the dream I was having
this morning when I awoke,
one of those nightlong sweet dreams of lying in Law’s

arms like a needle in water—it is a physical effort
to pull myself out of his white silk hands
as they slide down my dream hips—I

turn and face into the wind
and begin to run.
Goblins, devils and death stream behind me.

In the days and months after Law left
I felt as if the sky was torn off my life.
I had no home in goodness anymore.

To see the love between Law and me
turn into two animals gnawing and craving through one another
towards some other hunger was terrible.

Perhaps this is what people mean by original sin, I thought.
But what love could be prior to it?
What is prior?

What is love?
My questions were not original.
Nor did I answer them.

Mornings when I meditated
I was presented with a nude glimpse of my lone soul,
not the complex mysteries of love and hate.

But the Nudes are still as clear in my mind
as pieces of laundry that froze on the clothesline overnight.
There were in all thirteen of them.

Nude #2. Woman caught in a cage of thorns.
Big glistening brown thorns with black stains on them
where she twists this way and that way

unable to stand upright.
Nude #3. Woman with a single great thorn implanted in her forehead.
She grips it in both hands

endeavouring to wrench it out.
Nude #4. Woman on a blasted landscape
backlit in red like Hieronymus Bosch.

Covering her head and upper body is a hellish contraption
like the top half of a crab.
With arms crossed as if pulling off a sweater

she works hard at dislodging the crab.
It was about this time
I began telling Dr. Haw

about the Nudes. She said,
When you see these horrible images why do you stay with them?
Why keep watching? Why not

go away? I was amazed.
Go away where? I said.
This still seems to me a good question.

But by now the day is wide open and a strange young April light
is filling the moor with gold milk.
I have reached the middle

where the ground goes down into a depression and fills with swampy water.
It is frozen.
A solid black pane of moor life caught in its own night attitudes.

Certain wild gold arrangements of weed are visible deep in the black.
Four naked alder trunks rise straight up from it
and sway in the blue air. Each trunk

where it enters the ice radiates a map of silver pressures—
thousands of hair-thin cracks catching the white of the light
like a jailed face

catching grins through the bars.
Emily Brontë has a poem about a woman in jail who says

A messenger of Hope, comes every night to me
And offers, for short life, eternal Liberty.

I wonder what kind of Liberty this is.
Her critics and commentators say she means death
or a visionary experience that prefigures death.

They understand her prison
as the limitations placed on a clergyman’s daughter
by nineteenth-century life in a remote parish on a cold moor

in the north of England.
They grow impatient with the extreme terms in which she figures prison life.
“In so much of Brontë’s work

the self-dramatising and posturing of these poems teeters
on the brink of a potentially bathetic melodrama,”
says one. Another

refers to “the cardboard sublime” of her caught world.
I stopped telling my psychotherapist about the Nudes
when I realized I had no way to answer her question,

Why keep watching?
Some people watch, that’s all I can say.
There is nowhere else to go,

no ledge to climb up to.
Perhaps I can explain this to her if I wait for the right moment,
as with a very difficult sister.

“On that mind time and experience alone could work:
to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable,”
wrote Charlotte of Emily.

I wonder what kind of conversation these two had
over breakfast at the parsonage.
“My sister Emily

was not a person of demonstrative character,” Charlotte emphasizes,
“nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings,
even those nearest and dearest to her could,

with impunity, intrude unlicensed. . . .” Recesses were many.
One autumn day in 1845 Charlotte
“accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s

It was a small (4 x 6) notebook
with a dark red cover marked 6d.
and contained 44 poems in Emily’s minute hand.

Charlotte had known Emily wrote verse
but felt “more than surprise” at its quality.
“Not at all like the poetry women generally write.”

Further surprise awaited Charlotte when she read Emily’s novel,
not least for its foul language.
She gently probes this recess

in her Editor’s Preface to Wuthering Heights.
“A large class of readers, likewise, will suffer greatly
from the introduction into the pages of this work

of words printed with all their letters,
which it has become the custom to represent by the initial and final letter
only—a blank
line filling the interval.”

Well, there are different definitions of Liberty.
Love is freedom, Law was fond of saying.
I took this to be more a wish than a thought

and changed the subject.
But blank lines do not say nothing.
As Charlotte puts it,

“The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives
with which profane and violent persons are wont to garnish their discourse,
strikes me as a proceeding which,

however well meant, is weak and futile.
I cannot tell what good it does—what feeling it spares—
what horror it conceals.”

I turn my steps and begin walking back over the moor
towards home and breakfast. It is a two-way traffic,

the language of the unsaid. My favourite pages
of The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë
are the notes at the back

recording small adjustments made by Charlotte
to the text of Emily’s verse,
which Charlotte edited for publication after Emily’s death.
“Prison for strongest [in Emily’s hand] altered to lordly by Charlotte.”

I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.

She puts her toast down on the side of her plate.
You know you can pull the drapes in that room, she begins.
This is a coded reference to one of our oldest arguments,
from what I call The Rules Of Life series.
My mother always closes her bedroom drapes tight before going to bed at night.

I open mine as wide as possible.
I like to see everything, I say.
What’s there to see?

Moon. Air. Sunrise.
All that light on your face in the morning. Wakes you up.
I like to wake up.

At this point the drapes argument has reached a delta
and may advance along one of three channels.
There is the What You Need Is A Good Night’s Sleep channel,

the Stubborn As Your Father channel
and random channel.
More toast? I interpose strongly, pushing back my chair.

Those women! says my mother with an exasperated rasp.
Mother has chosen random channel.

Complaining about rape all the time
I see she is tapping one furious finger on yesterday’s newspaper
lying beside the grape jam.

The front page has a small feature
about a rally for International Women’s Day—
have you had a look at the Sears Summer Catalogue?

Why, it’s a disgrace! Those bathing suits—
cut way up to here! (she points) No wonder!

You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?

Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.

One of Whom? My voice is very high. Mother vaults it.
And whatever did you do with that little tank suit you had last year the green
It looked so smart on you.

The frail fact drops on me from a great height
that my mother is afraid.
She will be eighty years old this summer.

Her tiny sharp shoulders hunched in the blue bathrobe
make me think of Emily Brontë’s little merlin hawk Hero
that she fed bits of bacon at the kitchen table when Charlotte wasn‘t around.

So Ma, we’ll go—I pop up the toaster
and toss a hot slice of pumpernickel lightly across onto her plate—
visit Dad today? She eyes the kitchen clock with hostility.

Leave at eleven, home again by four? I continue.
She is buttering her toast with jagged strokes.
Silence is assent in our code. I go into the next room to phone the taxi.

My father lives in a hospital for patients who need chronic care
about 50 miles from here.
He suffers from a kind of dementia

characterized by two sorts of pathological change
first recorded in 1907 by Alois Alzheimer.
First, the presence in cerebral tissue

of a spherical formation known as neuritic plaque,
consisting mainly of degenerating brain cells.
Second, neurofibrillary snarlings

in the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus.
There is no known cause or cure.
Mother visits him by taxi once a week

for the last five years.
Marriage is for better or for worse, she says,
this is the worse.

So about an hour later we are in the taxi
shooting along empty country roads towards town.
The April light is clear as an alarm.

As we pass them it gives a sudden sense of every object
existing in space on its own shadow.
I wish I could carry this clarity with me

into the hospital where distinctions tend to flatten and coalesce.
I wish I had been nicer to him before he got crazy.
These are my two wishes.

It is hard to find the beginning of dementia.
I remember a night about ten years ago
when I was talking to him on the telephone.

It was a Sunday night in winter.
I heard his sentences filling up with fear.
He would start a sentence—about weather, lose his way, start another.
It made me furious to hear him floundering—

my tall proud father, former World War II navigator!
It made me merciless.
I stood on the edge of the conversation,

watching him thrash about for cues,
offering none,
and it came to me like a slow avalanche

that he had no idea who he was talking to.
Much colder today I guess. . . .
his voice pressed into the silence and broke off,

snow falling on it.
There was a long pause while snow covered us both.
Well I won’t keep you,

he said with sudden desperate cheer as if sighting land.
I’ll say goodnight now,
I won’t run up your bill. Goodbye.

Goodbye. Who are you?
I said into the dial tone.

At the hospital we pass down long pink halls
through a door with a big window
and a combination lock (5—25—3)

to the west wing, for chronic care patients.
Each wing has a name.
The chronic wing is Our Golden Mile

although mother prefers to call it The Last Lap.
Father sits strapped in a chair which is tied to the wall
in a room of other tied people tilting at various angles.

My father tilts least, I am proud of him.
Hi Dad how y’doing?
His face cracks open it could be a grin or rage

and looking past me he issues a stream of vehemence at the air.
My mother lays her hand on his.
Hello love, she says. He jerks his hand away. We sit.

Sunlight flocks through the room.
Mother begins to unpack from her handbag the things she has brought for him,
grapes, arrowroot biscuits, humbugs.

He is addressing strenuous remarks to someone in the air between us.
He uses a language known only to himself,
made of snarls and syllables and sudden wild appeals.

Once in a while some old formula floats up through the wash—
You don’t say! or Happy birthday to you!—
but no real sentence

for more than three years now.
I notice his front teeth are getting black.
I wonder how you clean the teeth of mad people.

He always took good care of his teeth. My mother looks up.
She and I often think two halves of one thought.
Do you remember that gold-plated toothpick

you sent him from Harrod’s the summer you were in London? she asks.
Yes I wonder what happened to it.
Must be in the bathroom somewhere.

She is giving him grapes one by one.
They keep rolling out of his huge stiff fingers.
He used to be a big man, over six feet tall and strong,

but since he came to hospital his body has shrunk to the merest bone house—
except the hands. The hands keep growing.
Each one now as big as a boot in Van Gogh,

they go lumbering after the grapes in his lap.
But now he turns to me with a rush of urgent syllables
that break off on a high note—he waits,

staring into my face. That quizzical look.
One eyebrow at an angle.
I have a photograph taped to my fridge at home.

It shows his World War II air crew posing in front of the plane.
Hands firmly behind backs, legs wide apart,
chins forward.

Dressed in the puffed flying suits
with a wide leather strap pulled tight through the crotch.
They squint into the brilliant winter sun of 1942.

It is dawn.
They are leaving Dover for France.
My father on the far left is the tallest airman,

with his collar up,
one eyebrow at an angle.
The shadowless light makes him look immortal,

for all the world like someone who will not weep again.
He is still staring into my face.
Flaps down! I cry.
His black grin flares once and goes out like a match.

Hot blue moonlight down the steep sky.
I wake too fast from a cellar of hanged puppies
with my eyes pouring into the dark.

and slowly
consciousness replaces the bars.
Dreamtails and angry liquids

swim back down to the middle of me.
I t is generally anger dreams that occupy my nights now.
This is not uncommon after loss of love—

blue and black and red blasting the crater open.
I am interested in anger.
I clamber along to find the source.

My dream was of an old woman lying awake in bed.
She controls the house by a system of light bulbs strung above her on wires.
Each wire has a little black switch.

One by one the switches refuse to turn the bulbs on.
She keeps switching and switching
in rising tides of very hot anger.

Then she creeps out of bed to peer through lattices
at the rooms of the rest of the house.
The rooms are silent and brilliantly lit

and full of huge furniture beneath which crouch
small creatures—not quite cats not quite rats
licking their narrow red jaws

under a load of time.
I want to be beautiful again, she whispers
but the great overlit rooms tick emptily

as a deserted oceanliner and now behind her in the dark
a rustling sound, comes—
My pajamas are soaked.

Anger travels through me, pushes aside everything else in my heart,
pouring up the vents.
Every night I wake to this anger,

the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.

I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
I reach up and switch on the bedside lamp. Night springs

out the window and is gone over the moor.
I lie listening to the light vibrate in my ears
and thinking about curses.

Emily Brontë was good at cursing.
Falsity and bad love and the deadly pain of alteration are constant topics in
her verse.

Well, thou halt paid me back my love!
But if there be a God above
Whose arm is strong, whose word is true,
This hell shall wring thy spirit too!

The curses are elaborate:

There go, Deceiver, go! My hand is streaming wet;
My heart’s blood flows to buy the blessing—To forget!
Oh could that lost heart give back, back again to thine,
One tenth part of the pain that clouds my dark decline!

But they do not bring her peace:

Vain words, vain frenzied thoughts! No ear can hear me call—
Lost in the vacant air my frantic curses fall. . . .

Unconquered in my soul the Tyrant rules me still—
Life bows to my control, but Love I cannot kill!

Her anger is a puzzle.
It raises many questions in me,
to see love treated with such cold and knowing contempt

by someone who rarely left home
“except to go to church or take a walk on the hills”
(Charlotte tells us) and who

had no more intercourse with Haworth folk
than “a nun has
of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates.”

How did Emily come to lose faith in humans?
She admired their dialects, studied their genealogies,
“but with them she rarely exchanged a word.”

Her introvert nature shrank from shaking hands with someone she met on the moor.
What did Emily know of lover’s lies or cursive human faith?
Among her biographers

is one who conjectures she bore or aborted a child
during her six-month stay in Halifax,
but there is no evidence at all for such an event

and the more general consensus is that Emily did not touch a man in her 31
Banal sexism aside,
I find myself tempted

to read Wuthering Heights as one thick stacked act of revenge
for all that life withheld from Emily.
But the poetry shows traces of a deeper explanation.

As if anger could be a kind of vocation for some women.
It is a chilly thought.

The heart is dead since infancy.
Unwept for let the body go.

Suddenly cold I reach down and pull the blanket back up to my chin.
The vocation of anger is not mine.
I know my source.

It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,
when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.
I switch off the lamp and lie on my back,

thinking about Emily’s cold young soul.
Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands occasionally

From the next room I hear my mother shift and sigh and settle
back down under the doorsill of sleep.
Out the window the moon is just a cold bit of silver gristle low on fading banks
of sky.

Our guests are darkly lodged, I whispered, gazing through
The vault . . .

The question I am left with is the question of her loneliness.
And I prefer to put it off.
It is morning.

Astonished light is washing over the moor from north to east.
I am walking into the light.
One way to put off loneliness is to interpose God.

Emily had a relationship on this level with someone she calls Thou. She describes Thou as awake like herself all night
and full of strange power.

Thou woos Emily with a voice that comes out of the night wind.
Thou and Emily influence one another in the darkness,
playing near and far at once.

She talks about a sweetness that “proved us one.”
I am uneasy with the compensatory model of female religious experience and yet,
there is no question,

it would be sweet to have a friend to tell things to at night,
without the terrible sex price to pay.
This is a childish idea, I know.

My education, I have to admit, has been gappy.
The basic rules of male-female relations
were imparted atmospherically in our family,

no direct speech allowed.
I remember one Sunday I was sitting in the backseat of the car.
Father in front.

We were waiting in the driveway for mother,
who came around the corner of the house
and got into the passenger side of the car

dressed in a yellow Chanel suit and black high heels.
Father glanced sideways at her.
Showing a good bit of leg today Mother, he said

in a voice which I (age eleven) thought odd.
I stared at the back of her head waiting for what she would say.
Her answer would clear this up.

But she just laughed a strange laugh with ropes all over it.
Later that summer I put this laugh together with another laugh
I overheard as I was going upstairs.

She was talking on the telephone in the kitchen.
Well a woman would be just as happy with a kiss on the cheek
most of the time but YOU KNOW MEN,

she was saying. Laugh.
Not ropes, thorns.
I have arrived at the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a low swampy place.
The swamp water is frozen solid.
Bits of gold weed

have etched themselves
on the underside of the ice like messages.

I’ll come when thou art saddest,
Laid alone in the darkened room;
When the mad day’s mirth has vanished,
And the smile of joy is banished,

I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling
Has entire, unbiased sway,
And my influence o’er thee stealing
Grief deepening, joy congealing,
Shall bear thy soul away.

Listen! ’tis just the hour,
The awful time for thee:
Dost thou not feel upon thy soul
A flood of strange sensations roll,
Forerunners of a sterner power,
Heralds of me?

Very hard to read, the messages that pass
between Thou and Emily.
In this poem she reverses their roles,

speaking not as the victim but to the victim.
It is chilling to watch Thou move upon thou,
who lies alone in the dark waiting to be mastered.

It is a shock to realize that this low, slow collusion
of master and victim within one voice
is a rationale

for the most awful loneliness of the poet’s hour.
She has reversed the roles of thou and Thou
not as a display of power

but to force out of herself some pity
for this soul trapped in glass,
which is her true creation.

Those nights lying alone
are not discontinuous with this cold hectic dawn.
It is who I am.

Is it a vocation of anger?
Why construe silence
as the Real Presence?

Why stoop to kiss this doorstep?
Why be unstrung and pounded flat and pine away
imagining someone vast to whom I may vent the swell of my soul?

Emily was fond of Psalm 130.
“My soul waiteth on Thou more than they that watch for the morning,
I say more than they that watch for the morning.”

I like to believe that for her the act of watching provided a shelter,

that her collusion with Thou gave ease to anger and desire:
”In Thou they arc quenched as a fire of thorns,“ says the psalmist.

But for myself I do not believe this, I am not quenched—
with Thou or without Thou I find no shelter.
I am my own Nude.

And Nudes have a difficult sexual destiny.
I have watched this destiny disclose itself
in its jerky passage from girl to woman to who I am now,

from love to anger to this cold marrow,
from fire to shelter to fire.
What is the opposite of believing in Thou—

merely not believing in Thou? No. That is too simple.
That is to prepare a misunderstanding.
I want to speak more clearly.

Perhaps the Nudes are the best way.
Nude #5. Deck of cards.
Each card is made of flesh.

The living cards are days of a woman’s life.
I see a great silver needle go flashing right through the deck once from end to
Nude #6 I cannot remember.

Nude #7. White room whose walls,
having neither planes nor curves nor angles,
are composed of a continuous satiny white membrane

like the flesh of some interior organ of the moon.
It is a living surface, almost wet.
Lucency breathes in and out.

Rainbows shudder across it.
And around the walls of the room a voice goes whispering,
Be very careful. Be very careful.

Nude #8. Black disc on which the fires of all the winds
are attached in a row.
A woman stands on the disc

amid the winds whose long yellow silk flames
flow and vibrate up through her.
Nude #9. Transparent loam.

Under the loam a woman has dug a long deep trench.
Into the trench she is placing small white forms, I don’t know what they are.
Nude #10. Green thorn of the world poking up

alive through the heart of a woman
who lies on her back on the ground.
The thorn is exploding

its green blood above her in the air.
Everything it is it has, the voice says.
Nude #11. Ledge in outer space.

Space is bluish black and glossy as solid water
and moving very fast in all directions,
shrieking past the woman who stands pinned

to nothing by its pressure.
She peers and glances for some way to go, trying to lift her hand but cannot.
Nude #12. Old pole in the wind.

Cold currents are streaming over it
and pulling out
into ragged long horizontal black lines

some shreds of ribbon
attached to the pole.
I cannot see how they are attached—

notches? staples? nails? All of a sudden the wind changes
and all the black shreds rise straight up in the air
and tie themselves into knots,

then untie and float down.
The wind is gone.
It waits.

By this time, midway through winter,
I had become entirely fascinated with my spiritual melodrama.
Then it stopped.

Days passed, months passed and I saw nothing.
I continued to peer and glance, sitting on the rug in front of my sofa
in the curtainless morning

with my nerves open to the air like something skinned.
I saw nothing.
Outside the window spring storms came and went.

April snow folded its huge white paws over doors and porches.
I watched a chunk of it lean over the roof and break off
and fall and I thought,

How slow! as it glided soundlessly past,
but still—nothing. No nudes.
No Thou.

A great icicle formed on the railing of my balcony
so I drew up close to the window and tried peering through the icicle,
hoping to trick myself into some interior vision,

but all I saw
was the man and woman in the room across the street
making their bed and laughing.

I stopped watching.
I forgot about Nudes.
I lived my life,

which felt like a switched-off TV.
Something had gone through me and out and I could not own it.
“No need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind.

Emily does not feel them,”
wrote Charlotte the day after burying her sister.
Emily had shaken free.

A soul can do that.
Whether it goes to join Thou and sit on the porch for all eternity
enjoying jokes and kisses and beautiful cold spring evenings,

you and I will never know. But I can tell you what I saw.
Nude #13 arrived when I was not watching for it.
It came at night.

Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 4, 2014

Judging a Book By Its Cover

A fascinating and engaging project for the classroom is comparing book jackets. To the right are two real covers for Sylvia Plath’s classic “The Bell Jar”.  The one on the left is the original, while the right one is for the 50th Anniversary Edition.  Quite a difference.

Follow this link to an interesting discussion (and comments!) on the covers.  In response to these covers, some artists have created parody covers like this one:

If you go to the library, check your own shelves and put out the call among parents (and scour the Goodwill shelves!) you’ll find different editions of your favorite books. Science fiction is the best breeding ground for diverse cover creations. Check out “Ender’s Game”. I think this is original cover (or it’s something like it):

None of my students wanted to read it based on this cover, although the adults who love the book have a strong emotional attachment to this one.

Publisher’s are never quite sure what to do with Ender.   The original Orson Scott Card story was for adults, but it clicked with young adult audiences.  Now, it’s a staple of the Young Adult canon.  So, they created a cover that young adults would be drawn to.

Our library has this cover:

That’s just goofy. Of course, this cover is in reaction to the book becoming a YA staple.  Look kids, it’s about video games (not really).   My students who have read “Ender’s Game” hate it, and are even embarrassed to read it.  Those who have not read it do not feel compelled to based on this cover.  Awful.  There is, of course, the movie tie-in edition (with the movie poster).  Like the original adult version, it’s neutral but not much of a draw.

The assignment then becomes: What would YOU design as a cover to get kids to read the book?  Break out the glitter!

Laying any series of books out for students, you can have a great discussion about judging a book by its cover.  As I said, Science Fiction is a great source, mainly because publishers try different markets for the book (“Fahrenheight 451″ and “Slaughterhouse Five” are two examples of books that wander the sci-fi, literature, pulp, anniversary, school-adoption, young-adult markets. Plus, the groovy ’60′s cover  is very different from the Reagan era one).

If you cannot round up the books, have students put together a visual presentation consisting of the different covers (see: Google Images).  Pick books that have knocked around for years.  For a rich source of book titles, have students talk with adults  about the books THEY loved as kids.  This will not only provide fodder for the assignment, but gets kids talking to their parents and other adults about reading.  Connections!  And, it will expand their knowledge of “good” literature.  So many great books lay unread because of their dated covers.  Judy Blume has run the gamete of covers, while those “Little House” books barely change.  Why?  Discuss.

“Harry Potter” is a special case.  You not only have the time issue, but also the United Kingdom  vs. United States gap.  When “Potter” first came out, adults in the UK were  embarrassed to be reading an kid’s novel (but it was awesome, so they were in a conundrum).  Knowing an untapped market when they saw it, Bloomsbury put out an adult version–same book, but with adult covers.

You can read an interesting article about different “Harry Potter” covers here.  Now that all seven books are out, Scholastic is putting out new sets with new covers.  Discuss.

There are a lot of good projects you can do with covers.  In the end, kids will connect with books in a way they did not when they just read them.  It breathes new life into the discussion, expands their horizons, and taps those non-reading brains in a new, creative way–bring on the visual learners!

Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 22, 2013

201. western springs zoo: Sonja Yelich

Want to seem hip to your students? Good luck with that.

I had a class on democratic organizations in college, and the professor used a lot of orchestra analogies to demonstrate his point about leadership and organization. These were mostly lost of us; at least, they were not as meaningful as he meant them to be. In an attempt to bridge the gap, he also tried a lot of football analogies. Fine. But his football knowledge was all from the 1960s and all involved Green Bay Packer’s coach Vince Lombardi. Even that would have been okay, but he knew very little more than five facts (one of which was that New Jersey had named a comfort station after the man).

The class did, though, appreciate the effort. He was a good guy. On the other hand, our Modern Chinese Political Thought professor also used Vince Lombardi as a constant analogy, but no one appreciated it because that professor was a bit of a dull idiot.

But, soldier on. Keep making it relevant!

Lorde is a thing at the moment. I’ve heard the song “Royals” around, and it was on one of those “best of” video compilations where MTV tells people like me (Read: Old) what’s hip in sixty seconds. Perhaps, by the time you read this, Lorde will be old hat. But I see a long life of her providing soundtracks, at the very least.

Here’s the original New Zealand video:

Here is the U.S. version.  It has an ad at the start, but has a lot more of the singer Lorde in the visuals.

She’s intriguing and will provide plenty of chatter about her haunting look and sound, mixed with the “story” within the video.  Plenty to talk about here, but this post is not about interpreting visual media.

One thing that intrigues me are origin stories.  When people become successful, I’m always interested in their influences.  In some cases, they are rebelling from the lifestyle they grew up on.  Others find support from family members, building careers as young children.  Lorde’s mother is a poet.  Go figure.  She has a flair for the dramatic, and knows how to use silence and meter.

Sonja Yelich is that mother, a minor poet of some note, carving out a New Zealand career in the aughts.  Now, her daughter is a superstar.

One area of discussion is the legacy the parents of your students are leaving them.  Student long-term plans?  Are they leaving their small burg, or are they happily going to set up shop near where they were born?  I’ve told students that the idea of an education is not to get them into college, but to offer them choices.  They can choose McDonalds, but it should be a choice.

What do their parents give them? Other than biology, what values and skills have they been taught. Make sure to do an inventory of the bad along with the good. Think about nail biting–how many do it, and their parents do it, too? What are the genetics of behavior? It might make a good research project for a high-flying kid with some time on their hands.

But I’ve never been one for biographical criticism (I wonder if you can do reverse biographical criticism–using the biography of the child to understand the parent?).  In the end, I’m a New Critic.  I look at the text.

The issue that intrigues me is the notion of scarcity of mementos, and how that’s changed.  Back in the day, we took a roll of film.  Done.  Those twelve or twenty-four pictures were all the memories you’d have from a trip, party or event.

Now, we take two hundred of a non-event. Sherry Turkle wrote in the New York Times article “The Documented Life” that we were missing life because of our obsession to document every moment of it.

I do wonder about the three photographs I have of my Oma (German: Grandmother) in her youth, and how precious each is. We examine each of the three for clues of how she felt at age twenty, before and after she crossed the sea and came to America. Every muscle is a clue. The smile. What’s behind the eyes.

Meanwhile, I have a few hundred of our recent trip to Turkey and have not really looked at a single one.

How do your students capture their moments? Have them make a collage of their already-taken photos. Some kids will have gobs, while others very little. Is this a boy-girl thing? Class? A technology gap? Take them to the journals! And what do they take photos of? If my students are any indication, friends are the foreground and the background is…. whatever. Yet, my adult friends with cameras (not phones) take landscapes void of people. Is this a generational thing, or a technology thing?

The other issue to explore is that of nostalgia. Sure, your students may be twelve, but they have a strong nostalgic streak for naps in kindergarten. Show them YouTube videos of old ads (Webkins, which I had never heard of, sent mine into memory-induced hysterics). They won’t stop telling stories. Are they happier now? Would they go back to a certain age? Why? Can they capture that moment?

Have they looked at the old photos their parents have (do people still keep photo albums?). In this digital age, do parents even have physical copies of the photos? One project might be to scrapbook. Create a keepsake. No photos? Perhaps they could interview their parents about a memory the student has–a birthday or family event. How else can you keep a memory? Journal or diary? Perhaps a poem.

Memory. Memoir. Go.

western springs zoo
Sonja Yelich

At the zoo my mother is from 1972.
Our TV is black & white with knobs.
The school bander prints in violet ink.
We have a v dub BJ1476.
My mother is 26 no more.
in a red halter neck that does up
under the fanny part.
With cork heels
& skirt.
My pigtails are in rubberbands.
I wanted plaits but never got them.
The Americans say braids.
We were somewhere by the polar bears.
in a pair.
There’s the fizzing of water & concrete
icicles which drip concrete icicles.
You cannot see me ~
I am gripping my brownie camera in hard plastic
which was an adventurous buy for my parents.
It will only ever take one film
of 12 shots
in its whole whole life.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 5, 2013

200. You Are Odysseus: Linda Pastan

Cultural currency is squat these days.

You can’t talk about misogyny and how we’re taught cultural norms from media because no one knows the basic princess stories anymore (and that they, traditionally, always wait for Prince Charming to save the day–of course, boys and girls still carry around the traditional norms). Grimm’s Fairy Tales are something from a bad horror story with none of the original facts correct (No, Hansel and Gretel did not use crossbows); as they have never heard the original they don’t know any better (and, never, ever the gory fates that went along with them). One of the lesser discussed outcomes of this generation turning away from Judea-Christian religion is that before you teach any kind of symbolism you first have to teach them the Bible.

This was once all assumed. Cultural currency.

And while the minute details of Greek mythology might not be necessary to run a metal press, I’d like kids to know when they gas up at Mobil what that winged horse is (Answer: Pegasus). Kids don’t know!

Insert cranky old man joke here.  Fine. But I’m teaching those myths so when they work for NASA they can name their rocket something cool.

Discuss myth. What do they know? Discuss the purpose of…. anything we teach them. Word origins, symbols, structure….  Who cares? What’s the purpose of a story? Of heroes? What goes bump in the night, and why does she have snakes for hair?

But this is about poetry. Here is a list of poems someone put together. I found Ms. Pastan’s poem there, and could put out twenty more posts from it (but I won’t, probably….).

The next question to ask is: Can we understand a poem without knowing who someone like Odysseus is? Do we need the Wikipedia definition? The teacher telling us? Or to read The Odyssey ourselves to “get it”? How much culture do we need to know before we delve into the world?  (Honesty: I would not have made it through my T.S. Eliot class in grad school without an annotated edition of his poems).

Think about their own kid culture. The AV Club blog/magazine has a series that identifies the key episodes of various popular shows for those just discovering it. For students: Choosing a topic YOU know, what 5 episodes, songs, stories, books, etc. does someone have to watch, listen to, read, etc. to “get it”? If I want to “get” Sponge Bob, what five episodes will explain it? Have them create the list and share with the class (depending on how far you go with this, watch out for content and appropriateness–you know your community).

What is cultural currency today?

As for Ms. Pastan: Do they “get” this? What myths should ever kids “know” in order to be literate? Brainstorm as a group and then teach them where the gaps are. Or have them teach each other.

You Are Odysseus
Linda Pastan

You are Odysseus
returning home each evening
tentative, a little angry.
And I who thought to be
one of the Sirens (cast up
on strewn sheets
at dawn)
hide my song
under my tongue—
merely Penelope after all.
Meanwhile the old wars
go on, their dim music
can be heard even at night.
You leave each morning,
soon our son will follow.
Only my weaving is real.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 1, 2013

199. A Dirge: Christina Rossetti

Did I mention that I wrote a mystery where the protagonist is a teacher?

Shameless Self Promotion


When I was young and enjoyed the idea of terse verse and clever writing, I held a fear that old age meant reading genre fiction.  There is a lot of bias in that statement that you can parse out word-by-word, and I’ll let you do it on your own time.  Suffice to say, I have now thrown my lot into the genre, leaving younger me taunting older me as officially “old”.

To younger me I reply that my interest in good Literature (capital “L”) is still intact, and it applies to genre as much as the young upstarts I used to idolize.  Simply because genre writers have a less erratic use of punctuation does not diminish their value.  Their writing simply uses cleverness to a different, and often more useful purpose.

J.K. Rowling is a woman whose literary ability was first dismissed because she dared be successful in the children’s genre, not only in ability but in popularity and cash.  How vulgar!  Now that the “Potter” haters have no new text to dismiss, they clucked about her nerve in writing a grown-up text that included grown-up language.  “The Casual Vacancy” is actually quite good.  It is clearly written by Rowling, with the same dense prose, full of keen observations, propelling the reader forward towards an inevitable-yet-surprising conclusion, but as it contains no wizards it was discarded.  Had she used the pen name “Martin Amis” or “Ian Mcewen” it would have been shortlisted for the Booker, a statement that does not go towards quality but bias.  The book was good, though.

Since the tumult of abuse she got for that effort, Rowling has cranked out a nice little mystery called “The Cuckoo Calling”.  This time, she used a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.  The nerve!  There is a lot of vitriol on her sidestepping the critical gatekeepers by tricking them into reviewing the book she wrote and not the author.  In fact, the book got good reviews.  Now that the secret is out, those same reviewers  cannot take back their objective analysis now that Rowling’s name is attached.   Instead, they snipe about her motives for revealing the truth NOW (“The Casual Vacancy” is coming out in paperback that same month–what a coincidental timing!).

As a New Critic, I applaud Rowling’s deception.  Why shouldn’t she jerk critics around?  The work is what matters.

Did I mention I wrote a book? A mystery?

Anyway, in the novel it starts with this Rossetti poem and the second line made it’s way to the title.  Poetry: It’s everywhere!

Mention Rossetti to my wife and she rolls her eyes.  “Interesting life,” she said.  But the poems are a bit to rhymy for her taste.  Me, too, but I like this one.

First, what is a dirge?

Talk to your students about symbolism.  Why are  birth and snow opposites?  Summer and death?  Hmmm.  There’s something going  on here.

With your smarty-kids, ask  about tone.  Is Rossetti being objective, or being more of a sarcastic smartalec.  I see it leaning towards a Dorothy Parker  response to death.

And then there is the rhyme.  What mood is THAT supposed to work on the reader?  Lull?  Again, I lean towards sarcasm, with the importance of something like a friend’s death being lulled away with a sing-song rhyme and plain, symbolic images.

Sing-song.  Sing-song.  Dead.

A Dirge
Christina Rossetti

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

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