Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 29, 2015

215. Fire Safety: Joshua Mehigan

Another poem exploring safety, from our year-long look at Maslow (each stage a unit).

Three things to take away:

First, how does Mehigan capture an everyday object? Why use such a ubiquitous object as the subject of a poem? After looking at this poem, ask students the next day if they noticed the fire extinguishers in the school more than in the past. Did they even know where they are? They probably know they exist, but, before the poem, you could ask them to write down where, exactly, they are. Try landmarks in town (police station, fire station, church, etc.). Do they know where they are? Why not? How about items at the supermarket?

Because we take so much for granted, which leads the question of what other objects we take for granted. Substitute fire extinguisher for a parent. Or friend. When was the last time they told that person how important they are? One nice exercise is to have students write a very brief note to a teacher who made a difference. It is a good time to teach letter writing skills (still important!) or, at least, the value of a “thank you” card. Why do we take so much for granted? And, could we function if we noted every important thing, like the location of every fire extinguisher we passed in our day. Thus, holidays.

T.Z. Suzuki is a Buddhist philosopher who claims awareness happens in three stages: Parroting, consciousness and unconscious consciousness. Note: I don’t believe these are the terms he uses, but the ideas at correct.

The first is parroting, where we say things without thinking. For example, we say “Good morning” without thinking it being about “good” or, sometimes, the morning (we’ve all said it after lunch). Have a student recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” solo and they often stumble, after doing it for eight years!

The second stage is awareness–“It’s morning, and I want you to have a good one.” Blow. Your. Mind. What are they pledging to? What does allegiance mean? What does the flag stand for? Hmmmm. You can also talk about game controllers–when they first get a gaming system, they look at it a lot. And gaming is slow. Consciousness.

The third stage is unconscious consciousness. Ask how many of them don’t even look at their game controller anymore. Some have good stories about that. It becomes an extension of us. We wish a “good” morning in earnest. We need the second stage to be human–we are the only animal that is reflective. That’s what history is.

How, then, do we revive this reflectiveness so we move forward? Brush our teeth with the left hand? Sleep the wrong way in our bed? It’s a start. Question everything. Read a poem about an ordinary object, like a fire extinguisher. Write your own poem. And thank your parent.

The second lesson is similes and metaphors. Where are they in this poem? How do they work? Why did the author choose these? Explore.

The third lesson is the moral. Until the last stanza, this is a simple descriptive poem. But the whole theme is wrapped up in the last stanza. That last line. In this poem, students should be able to see how a simple thing like those last two stanzas elevates this to art. Why is one painting of a tree art and their’s is not? How is one story worthy of class time and another not? Theme. Truth. In understanding that last line, they “get” the poem.

Now, theme in hand, work backwards and see how those similes and metaphors lead to that understanding. Then write that note to your old teacher.

Fire Safety
Joshua Mehigan

Aluminum tank
indifferent in its place

behind a glass door
in the passageway,

like a tea urn
in a museum case;

screaming-machines
that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke
or hands or heat,

positioned like beige land mines
overhead,

sanguine on walls,
or posted on the street

like dwarf grandfather clocks
spray painted red;

little gray hydrant
in its warlike stance;

old fire escape,
all-weather paint job peeling,

a shelf for threadbare rugs
and yellowing plants;

sprinkler heads,
blooming from the public ceiling;

all sitting
supernaturally still,

waiting for us to cry out.
And we will.

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