What memory should I choose? I decided to go with food and drink, and the most obvious example was an experience I had at seventeen or so when I was helping with a class field trip at the school I used to attend in Kenya. We went to the part of the country where I had lived as a young child, and I was served a drink I hadn't had in a long time.
I decided to use a poem I'd read with the kids by George Bilgere as a mentor text for my poem. His poem is actually called "A Madeleine." It starts like this:
For me, it's a bit of cool hide
from an orange, a continent
torn from a pulpy planet,
held to the light and squeezed
until its cratered field
bursts with little geysers,
Here's the rest of the poem.
I think this is an absolutely masterful poem. Notice how Bilgere describes the orange itself in the first stanza and then life growing up on an orange grove in the second, and how the first makes him remember the second. The "continent torn from a pulpy planet," the "little geysers" of juice coming out of the peel, and then the end, where he compares his family to an orange that hasn't been peeled yet: just amazing.
I decided to borrow his first two words and then the first two lines of the second stanza, so I gave the kids this template:
For me, it's...
Fill in the blank. Maybe it's a food or drink (start there). Or maybe it's your grandmother's perfume, or a stuffed animal that you still cuddle for comfort even though you're afraid maybe you're too old. What is it that brings back memories of your very early childhood?
The two lines from the second stanza are:
Hold it to my nose
and I go Proustian;
I told them they could change that to "hold it to my ear" or "show it to me" or whatever works for the object they are discussing.
I decided to write about morsik. I told the kids about it in class and they wanted to see pictures, so I googled it, and didn't find much until I changed the spelling to mursik, which is apparently the official way to write it. And then...well, the internet came through for me, as it always does. Photos, a video including someone making it and claiming that it's the secret to the athletic skill of Kenya's world-famous distance runners, articles about people lamenting that it's now available in plastic containers (I had no idea!). You have to understand that I haven't lived in Kenya since I left for college, and apparently time has continued to move on, in that way it does.
So here's what mursik is. I should warn you that in the following video, some people speak without interpretation in languages you probably aren't going to know (unless you are from Kenya, in which case, karibu and can I pour you a cup of chai?), but the main narration is in English and you will see the whole process of making mursik. And here's a really interesting article from the Kenyan newspaper The Standard.
Basically, mursik is milk mixed with soot from a burned stick (and apparently it matters what kind of tree the stick comes from, which I didn't know), and left to sour for three to five days until it has a yoghurt-like consistency. The Masaii add cow blood to theirs, but I've never drunk it that way. The kids were suitably horrified and my minilesson was launched.
I put my template up on the screen and made a bunch of notes, telling the kids I would work on the poem and show them my completed draft later. Then I encouraged them to write their own madeleine poems, and many started them. I've only read one so far - about a Barbie doll - and I loved it. I can't wait to read the others when I get the drafts.
So here's my completed first draft, which falls very far short of Bilgere but which I like because it's the first time I've written about this experience.
after George Bilgere
For me, it's mursik
poured from a gourd into a tin cup.
First they burned the end of a stick,
and then scraped it in the gourd,
coating the inside with soot.
Then they filled the gourd with milk
and put it aside to rest for a few days.
Now it's thick and clumpy,
with a delicate flavor of yogurt mixed with charcoal.
Hold it to my nose
and I go Proustian
when, years after my last taste of it,
someone offers me a drink
on a back porch in Kericho District in Kenya.
As soon as I smell it,
and then taste it,
I'm a little blond, blue-eyed girl again,
begging for mursik from my parents' students.
The sharp tang brings back a time
when I took what I was given
and didn't ask where it came from
or whether there would be more,
a time when I knew who I was
and where I came from
and it hadn't yet occurred to me that any of those
were complicated questions.
Ruth, from thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com
Tabatha has today's roundup, and news: today's the release day for the new anthology she's editing, Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes, an Anthology for Middle Schoolers. And I have a poem in it! This is my first time being in an anthology and I'm pretty excited. You can order your copy here. And stop in at Tabatha's Imperfect Fête, too! As she points out, "Considering we can't help making mistakes, we have to learn how to deal with them. How to make amends, how to forgive, how to laugh about it, how to move on." That's a good lesson to learn in middle school, or at any other time in life.