Thursday, October 22, 2020

Poetry Friday: Conversation with a Ghost from Derek Walcott's Omeros

I've been rereading Derek Walcott's Omeros, a Caribbean retelling (sort of) of Homer's Odyssey. I could keep reading it forever, always finding new aspects. Sometimes something incredibly complex like this work is what you want to read, something that you have to wrestle with and read again and again. At least, that's how I feel. (I wrote more about Omeros here.) After I share an extract from Walcott, I've got a poem I wrote using some of his words.


I picked this to share today because of the way I've been kept from travel the last 16 months or so. I'm "stuck" here on a Caribbean island, which is not at all the worst fate one could imagine. I miss the family members I can't go to see, especially my daughter, but there's so much that's beautiful here.

In this extract, Walcott (or the version of him in the poem) meets the ghost of his father (who died when Walcott was a child) on the cold beach in Boston. (You can see what I meant by calling this "a retelling (sort of)." There's a lot of other stuff in it as well.) 

By the way, in the Odyssey, Odysseus goes to the underworld to meet the ghost of his mother, but he never goes to Boston to meet the ghost of his father.


Walcott is talking as the extract begins, telling his father's ghost that this place is too cold for them to talk. His father suggests a warmer place, and then talks about his travels around the world, and how he ended up coming back to his island and loving it.  

"cherish our island for its green simplicities"

I said, "This is hardly the place; maybe I called

but it's too cold for talk; this happens to old men,

and I'm nearly there. You could have been my child,

and the more I live, the more our ages widen."

"We could go to a warmer place." My father smiled.

"Oh, not where you think, an island close to Eden.

But before you return, you must enter cities

that open like The World's Classics, in which I dreamt

I saw my shadow on their flagstones, histories

that carried me over the bridge of self-contempt,

though I never stared in their rivers, great abbeys

soaring in net-webbed stone, when I felt diminished

even by a postcard. Those things I wrote to please

your mother and our friends, unrevised, unfinished,

in drawing-room concerts died in their own applause.

Way back in the days of the barber's winding sheet,

I longed for those streets that History had made great,

but the island became my fortress and retreat,

in that circle of friends that I could dominate.

Dominate, Dominus. With His privilege,

I felt like the "I" that looks down on an island,

the way that a crested palm looks down from its ridge

on a harbour warmer than this one, or my hand.

But there is pride in cities, so remember this:

Once you have seen everything and gone everywhere,

cherish our island for its green simplicities,

enthrone yourself, if your sheet is a barber-chair,

a sail leaving harbour and a sail coming in,

the shadows of grape-leaves on sunlit verandahs

made me content. The sea-swift vanishes in rain,

and yet in its travelling all that the sea-swift does

it does in a circular pattern. Remember that, son."

The surf was dark. The lights stuttered in the windows

along the empty beach, red and green lights tossed on

the cold harbour, and beyond them, like dominoes

with lights for holes, the black skyscrapers of Boston.

Derek Walcott, from Omeros, Chapter XXXVI



I took a quote from this passage and wrote a golden shovel poem:



Sometimes you don't know what you cherish

Until you can't have it any more - our

Affectionate kiss of greeting on this island

                                Is gone for now; for

Now we stay apart as contagion spreads its

Dangers. But rain falls gently, the world is green,

We hold our families, fall back on simplicities. 


Ruth, from

Jama has today's roundup.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Weight

"I lost 17 pounds!" announces my husband triumphantly as he bursts out of the bathroom.

"Seventeen pounds? Really? How on earth did you do that so fast?" I ask. I mean, it just isn't fair the way he decides to lose weight and it's gone.

"Well," he says virtuously, "I've been eating better, and I've been exercising. Yeah! I was..." and he tells me what he weighed to start with and what he weighs now.

"Um," I say, manipulating the numbers in my head, "that's not seventeen pounds. That's twelve pounds."

I think now I know how he loses weight so fast. It's a matter of the math. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Poetry Friday: Short

Today I have three short poems for you. I wrote one back in March, and the other two, this week.


I’m reading in bed
in the early hours of the morning
because I can’t sleep,
and suddenly a mosquito appears.
I kill it with my thumb
against the background of
the article about the breakdown of the healthcare system in Italy,
so that its body,
filled with blood already drained from me,
is smooshed on my phone screen.
Seems appropriate.


Birds on wet branches -
Dislodged by palmchats' breakfast,
Last night's raindrop falls.


fruit-punch colors, spiky thorns,
Haitian October.



Here's today's roundup.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Hair

My last passport had a terrible photo on it. It looked as though I hadn't even combed my hair that morning (maybe I hadn't). I had a baby at the time, and was taking him to get his first passport. His photo was adorable. 


Every time I traveled with that passport, I wanted to explain. I don't really look like that. I was getting my baby ready that morning, and didn't even look in the mirror. That's why it looks like a mugshot. I'm not a felon, honest. 


I feel that way all the time now, now that I haven't had a haircut in eight months. Honestly, I didn't grow this terrifying mop of grey elflocks on purpose. I prefer to have my hair cut every eight weeks. I don't really look like this. 


So I was surprised the other day at work when a high school student walked by me and commented, "Miss, you're so pretty! I love your hair! It looks like the seventies!"


I managed, "Thank you," but other than that I was rendered speechless. Probably just as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Reading Update

Books #58, 62 and 63 were the last three in Gary Paulsen's series about Brian, Brian's Winter, Brian's Return, and Brian's Hunt. I enjoyed this series very much, and I think my students will too, now that we've finished reading the first one together. "He had forgotten the most important thing about living in the wilderness, the one thing he'd thought he would never forget - expect the unexpected." In one of the books, Paulsen has an author's note where he explains some of his own experience in living and surviving in the wild, and reading that helped me understand how vivid his descriptions are, both of Brian's surroundings and of his sensations, physical and emotional. 

Book #59 was a reread, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor. I often read this when I wake up in the night and can't sleep. I've written about it before herehere, and here


Book #60 was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor. This is the very heavy, sad story of the Logans, a sharecropping family in Mississippi in the 1930s. It goes well with a book I read recently, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. (I wrote about that book here.) Because of reading Wilkerson's book, I didn't take any of the Logans' experiences as fictional. They were so real, so typical of the way African-Americans lived at the time, with a maddening lack of justice and agency, as possible victims of whatever white person might happen to come along. It's not that I wasn't aware of these realities before reading The Warmth of Other Suns, but that book added context and depth and emotion. 

Book #61 was Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson. I liked this book (it was the second or third time I'd read it), but I'm not sure it's a great choice for eighth graders.  From the crush on a much older man to the lactation-related resolution, this seems more appropriate for someone with a little more life experience, like, maybe, my age. I didn't pick it, but I'm going to teach it. I'll let you know how it goes.

Book #64 was The Mirror and the Light, the third in Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's secretary/fixer/victim. I wrote about the first two here after I read them in 2013. This was absorbing and kept me reading even though I knew exactly the tragic way it would end. ("Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims.")


Book #65 was A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. I read this first when I was ten years old, then again (at least once) as a teenager, then again a few years ago when I taught it to the seventh grade (they begged for it because the movie was coming out). It didn't go very well in seventh grade; I had forgotten how static and full of philosophy it is. I'm going to teach it to the sixth grade now (again, not my choice). But oh, it's so good. I sobbed through the last chapter. If anything, the book has even more power over me than it did over my fifth grade self. 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Poetry Friday: Louise Glück and a Zoom Poem

I read this week that Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Some of her poems I have shared before: here and here. Congratulations to her!


Last Sunday I tried to go to the Family Quarantine Assembly (which is what my brother has named our family Zoom meeting), and failed. For over an hour I tried, but never succeeded for more than a minute or two at a time. 


So I wrote about it.



Zoom Poem


away from here
to see you all,
got sidetracked
by who knows what.

couldn’t reach you,
just sat here
watching the circle spin,
promising connection

A few times
reached the virtual room
where you all sat
but only for a moment.

Someone said
sounded as though I was melting
and someone else
wondered why
was singing.

It stretches out every syllable you say
someone started to explain

was already gone
from there,
from the Family Quarantine Assembly.

Someone said
She’s trying to be here,
until the meeting was over,

was left
sitting here
(not there)


Ruth, from


Bridget has today's roundup.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: First Year Teacher

Today I said to someone that my job in 2020 feels like being a first year teacher. I'd said it before, and I'll probably say it again. I'm learning new software, teaching almost all novels I've never taught before (some of them I'd never even read), making do with half as much class time as last year, adding on a new grade level. I'm keeping a week or two ahead of my students, using a curriculum I've never used (purchased by the school to make the back and forth between online and in-person more doable), and managing both groups (online and in-person) at the same time. I'm Zooming and wearing a mask and disinfecting desks after the kids leave the room. It all feels new and strange.


Then I started thinking about my actual first year of teaching, a very long time ago, in a different millennium from this one. I was 21, a first year graduate student, and in addition to the courses I was taking, I was given two sections of college French 101 to teach. I was a newlywed, living in our first apartment, reading many fat novels, and writing about them, in French. Those were exciting days.

But though I would love to relive some aspects of that life, I wouldn't want to be a first-year teacher again. I'm grateful for that year of experience, and all the others since, and in spite of everything that is new this year, it's the experience that makes the difference. 

I remember how I used to agonize over the mistakes I made in class, and there were many. Each one would bother me for weeks, and I'd get hot and cold all over when I thought of them. I had a tiny fraction of the grading I have now, but it overwhelmed me. I dreaded teacher evaluations, from my students or my professors, and would fixate on the (few) negative comments and forget all about the (many) positive ones. I had no confidence at all, none. I faked confidence every day, pretended I knew what I was doing, and knew deep down that I didn't. 


And now? While still a pretty intense over-thinker, I am completely chill compared to that long ago youngster who had the same name as I have now. When I make mistakes, I fix them and move on. Although I have mounds of grading, I can handle it, and in fact I pride myself on getting it done and turning work back quickly. I don't love being evaluated, but I don't worry about it, either. (And it can't really happen this year, anyway, since we can't fit any more people in the room and still distance appropriately.) Best of all, I have confidence now. I do know what I'm doing. There are still many things I don't know - I learn new facts and skills every day - but I know now that it's not about me, performing at the front of the classroom, but about my kids, and figuring out how to reach them. I'm not faking any more. If I don't know the answer, I don't hesitate to say so and to look it up, sometimes right there in front of my students. (We didn't have the internet when I was a new teacher - how did we manage?) I've been teaching much longer than my kids have been alive, and I've learned a trick or two along the way.

Yes, 2020 brings challenges I haven't faced before. No, it won't be an easy year. But as the T-shirt says, "You can't scare me; I'm a middle school teacher."