Friday, January 1, 2010

January 2010 Poetry Challenge

During the December holidays there is a lot of focus on children, which causes many people to think back on their own childhood. Some people have a Disneyesque view of childhood, as if it were all fun and play. I’ve always know that is not the case, but the truth was pounded into me one day when I was leading a workshop for a small group of persons working with children in their churches. I asked the participants to think quietly about one time or space in their childhood when or where they felt especially happy, safe, warm and loved. One man became very morose. When it came time to share, he said that he realized during those quiet moments that there had never been a time in his childhood when he felt really happy and safe in his own home. He had to place his young self mentally in a friend’s home to find a safe and warm spot. I fear that there are many people who can identify with his experience.

My own childhood was a more normal mixture of happy and unhappy experiences. There were members of my family whose love I never doubted—and a missing father whom I never knew and of whom I have only one traumatic memory. There was the apple tree where I had my own special branch—and occasionally switches broken off to be used when I was naughty. There was a lengthy separation from my older sister and my grandparents (in whose home I lived)—with the resulting adventure of six months in New York where Mother helped care for cousins and my uncle did rounds of the neighborhood when there were brown-outs due to World War II. There were good childhood friends as well as teachers at church and at Longfellow School in Iowa City who took a special interest in me—and a few boys who bullied me.

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that all these experiences, both the good ones and the bad ones, can inspire us to write. Writing can help us re-experience the good times and heal from the painful ones.

Here is a poem based on one of my powerful childhood memories, the first time I was allowed to go to the neighborhood store alone. It was an experience from which I learned an important lesson about people.


I squeezed the loaf of bread tighter,
as tears burned a path down my
dirty cheeks. Here I was,
in the middle of the block,
on the right side of the street,
exactly where my house should be.
But it was not. What evil magic
had changed the world?
Where was my home, with Grandmother
waiting for bread? My head
turned to the ground. I shrank,
my wails now larger than I.

Hearing something, I looked
through the fog of tears
and there you were.
You - the wolf who ate
Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother,
Peter, Peter who kept his wife
in a pumpkin shell, the witch
who tried to push Hansel in the oven.
I'd known who you were since I was four!
If I peeked between lilac bushes
and saw you in your garden, I would run.
Fridays, I saw taxi drivers bring you home,
help you stagger to the door.
I heard your wife crying in the night,
your son's shrieks, saw welts
and bruises next day - and his eyes.

And here you were.
You knelt, and with a tender voice
I'd never heard you use,
asked, What's the matter, Billye?
How could you understand the words
I sputtered, saying I was lost?

And yet you did. And with one hand
lightly on my shoulder, the other
pointing, said, Look,
you can see your house from here.

I bolted across the weedy field,
still clutching the bread,
not saying thank you.

Wilda Morris

Published in Prairie Light Review XXIX:2 (Spring 2009), p. 6.

Helen Degen Cohen recently published her book, habry, a memoir in poetry of growing up Jewish in Eastern Europe during a frightful time in history. Her father was a barber, which gives hair special metamorphic significance, even as it brings back tactile memories. In this powerful and poignant poem, she braids father, mother and child, head hair and underarm hair, into one family. The poem combines realism with something somewhat mysterious, which represents well the fact that often a child intuits the fact that something important is happening, but doesn’t know or understand what is going on.

Here is what the poet herself says regarding this poem and the book it appears in: “First of all, many Habry poems were inspired by my writing of the novel, The Edge of the Field, several pieces of which were published (with awards) over the years (the latest in Where We Find Ourselves in 2009) -- poems wafted up AS I was writing that book decades ago. “Hair” is one of those concrete, tactile, and I'd say physical/emotional more-than-images, about which many writers (including myself) have written. For me it had an added meaning, given that my father was a barber all his life and through the war. It actually helped to save our lives. Ah, but there was more (there always is): he said he married my mother because of her ‘red hair’.”

If your mother braided your hair, or if you ever curled up in the arms of your father, smelling his underarm hair, you will find this poem especially moving!

For Joseph and Bella, on the eve of War

That is my pale, orange mother
Crinkling the pert panienka’s hair.
Her own, an abandon of warm silk
To and fro. Then it fades away.

Sometimes she braids my hair into circles
And hums, as if ours were a place for humming.
What is it mothers know?
What is she braiding into my hair?

The sun is shining. There’s a bird in the window,
There are voices in the street, in our old village, there is
Darkness around us, yet everything is bright,
Stars seem to shine through the very daylight.

My father’s hurt eyes come closer,
Closer, he takes me into his arms.
I lie beside the fragrance of his underarm
Hair, his warm, moist turnings, the stars.

Soon I will be almost five years old.
And still, what I know hides behind the star.
So said the gypsy, long ago,
Your father the barber is going to war.

Up and back he walks, to the door.
He carries me on his back, we laugh,
And still, curled in his eyes are ghosts.
He touches my crib, my toes, my ear,

Knowing that without me there will be no world,
No scissors, no long black combs, no hair,
No brown strap to carry the razor
Up and back, up and back.

Up and back, he walks to the door,
The gypsies stirring the hair on the floor

And that is my pale orange mother
Suddenly trying to fade away.
She braids her humming into my hair,
Her silence into my wild hair.

Helen Degen Cohen(Halina Degenfisz)

(Chicago: The Puddin’Head Press, 2009), pp. 8-9.

Helen Degen Cohen has also just published another highly regarded book of poetry, On a Good Day One Discovers Another Poet


The challenge for January is to think about your childhood and write a poem about a particularly poignant memory (happy, sad, scary, or whatever you come up with). You may, of course, take poetic license and change names, details, locations, and so on. Let the memory lead you into poetry and let the poem take you where it will. The poem, however, must be based on your own childhood, not a reflection on childhood in general, or on other children.

In addition to the poems above, you may draw inspiration from "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" by Robert Lowell (In his Selected Poems: Expanded Edition: Including selections from Day by Day), “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas (n The Poems of Dylan Thomas, New Revised Edition [with CD]). Christopher Merrill’s poem “Childhood,” has an interesting combination of realistic detail and more emotional (and mysterious) content. You can find the poem in his book, Watch Fire.

You may use a form (label it as a sonnet, triolet, or whatever), or write in free verse. Poems of 40 or fewer lines have a better chance of being selected. I still have not figured out how to post shaped poems or poems with indents, so it is best to submit a poem with every line starting on the left margin. The winning poem or poems will be posted before the end of January. Sign your poem with your name as you would like it to appear on the blog if you are a winner. Winners retain rights to their own poems. Send your poem to me at wildamorris [at] Ameritech[dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces. Or you can access my Facebook page and send the poem in a message. Be sure to give me your e-mail address so I can respond.

Challenge Deadline: January 15, 2010.

©2010 Wilda Morris