Friday, April 20, 2018

Poetry Friday: A Madeleine and an Anthology

I've been reading madeleine poems with my eighth graders. There's a chapter in Nancie Atwell's book Naming the World of these poems. I'm not sure if Nancie was the first one to name a genre after the moment in Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu when a character eats a cookie called a madeleine, and suddenly the smell and taste of it brings on a flashback to his childhood that consumes the rest of the book.  We read the ones that she has in her book, plus a couple of others I've collected, and then I decided to write one with the kids.

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,
citrine explosions. 

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.

A Madeleine
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

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.


author amok said...

Ruth, what a wonderful post. I'm going to try this poetry prompt -- you laid out the steps so clearly. My favorite lines from your draft are: "The sharp tang brings back a time/ when I took what I was given/ and didn't ask where it came from."

Congratulations on being part of Tabatha's anthology project. Exciting!

Tabatha said...

Fascinating all the way down! I had never heard of madeleines (the poems), morsik/mursik, and didn't even realize that you grew up in Kenya.
I wonder what I would write about? Maybe peach ice cream, because my granddaddy made it from scratch. Thanks for the prompt!

Brenda at FriendlyFairyTales said...

A wonderful poetry prompt and mentor poem. I like where you've taken it, Ruth. And I'm excited to read your poem in Imperfect.

Tara said...

Your process has me thinking, Ruth. I love Bilgere's poetry - he notices the interesting and writes about it in such interesting ways.

Carol Varsalona said...

Ruth, I like the way you crafted your poem from another based on an experience. I am using a mentor poem to create also today.

Mary Lee said...

Fun to run into George here! He's an Ohio poet and I spent a long time chatting with him at the Ohioana Book Festival just last Saturday! I've written in his style, too. I'd love for him to be as famous as Billy Collins. He has such a distinct voice and his poems are so readable...but deep*. Like yours. Those last lines. Wow.

(*or, sometimes, laugh out loud funny)

Kimberly Hutmacher said...

Your poem is beautiful. I love using mentor texts to create new found or borrowed poems. Lovely!

Linda B said...

I know Nancy's lesson from the book, and now with Bilgere's poem, you've taken it to another level, Ruth. As children, there is often a single way to think of things, and that's a good thing unless some catastrophe has happened. Your poem shows that, and the aura of the years since. I hope you share some of the student poems.

Kay said...

First, congratulations on your poem's inclusion in Imperfect. I'm looking forward to reading the whole anthology! And your Madeleine poem is breathtaking! It's one I will have to try sometime.

Alice Nine said...

Ruth, this is a wonderful post. I've learned so much. And your Madeleine is marvelous! What depth is in the last lines. Now I want to try writing a madeleine. Thanks for sharing the how-to details.

Linda Mitchell said...

Wow! Your post is a whole writing lesson....and I'm going to do this. Did you see Renee LaTulippe's entry for for NPM on the 15th? It was all about memories that are evoked. That entry pairs perfectly with your post.

I love your "go all Proustian" What a great line. Fascinating details about that drink were really fun to read. I cannot imagine it tasting good. But, it probably does! I do love yogurt. So, if I'm ever in Kenya, I'm going to try some.

mbhmaine said...

I'm supposed to be getting ready to head out for a beach hike, but I started reading your post and couldn't stop! It's a beauty! So many new-to-me riches to explore---Madeleine poems, George Bilgere, mursik, etc. The Bilgere poem is fabulous and so is yours--especially those final lines. Wow! I also appreciate how you explained the form and the steps involved. What a wonderful prompt/ invitation! Perhaps after the beach...
PS--Congrats on having your poem in IMPERFECT. I have one in there as well and it's a first time for me, too. So exciting!

Catherine Flynn said...

Thank you for this rich post, Ruth! Madeline poems are prefect for eighth graders getting ready to take on the world. I love how your poem travels from such a specific moment to those "complicated questions" we all ask.

Amanda Potts said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I love the mentor text, the way you used it, your lesson (which I may well "borrow"), and I really love your Madeleine. I love the rich detail and how the concrete memory leads to the thinking, the questioning. Just wonderful. Thanks.

Joyce Ray said...

Ruth, thank you for this post. I never heard of a Madeleine poem and love Bilgere's lines- "citrine explosions" especially, and "go all Proustian." Maybe mine would be about the homemade root beer my parents made. I want to try! I didn't know you grew up in Kenya, either!

Cheriee Weichel said...

Wow. This was all new to me. Your poem makes mursik sound delightful, but I think I will pass on it.