What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
Brad Aaron Modlin
First Sunday in Advent
I was still in the brave space, eating, talking and playing intentionally with like-minded others. We did not know it at the time, but it looks to me now as though we were in the last stages of hunkering down before the storm fully broke over us.
There was a moment on the final night. We had been walking and talking together in the rain. The coastal path. On one side the sea boiling below us through February mist, on the other steep hillsides of bracken dotted with gorse.
We had eaten and were watered. Now we retired to the snug, for a conversation on mental health, our experiences of losing, finding and sustaining it, for others as well as ourselves. The space was safe and brave. Raw recollection was admitted. There were silences, there was laughter.
We did not arrive at an answer, a one-size fits all bag of tricks or tips that each of us would be able to call into play the following Monday morning. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we were aware of a fixed point, but in the end there was only the dance.
Into the final space of sharing one of us read the poem above, transporting us all to that time of not understanding, feeling left out, bullied, or ignored that we call school. There was another silence. Not a poetry-reading silence, filled with hmmms, but the silence of a room of souls confronting their own vulnerability. Several of our heads were bowed, as though in prayer.
Into the silence one of our voices spoke up. It said: ‘I bloody hate poetry.’ At which point the room erupted into laughter, helplessly, for fully five minutes.
I look back at that moment with great fondness. For its honesty. For the mismatch between the intended outcome of the sharing and the actuality of what happened. For its sheer comic timing. For that person, what had started out with one English teacher’s passion (‘You will love this…’) had led, poem by weary poem, week by mismatched week, to poetry not hitting the mark, to irritation, to loathing, to giving up.
When we expect poetry to manufacture a solution which will somehow magic the actuality of the awfulness of this moment away. Into the gap between this huge expectation (and I am one of those who expects to have their mind blown with every poem) and the poem is where the actual poem takes its place. It is ‘what we missed’, whether we hate poetry or not.
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I love this poem and your post–all of your posts, really, but this one made me laugh out loud and made me long for the companion who gets it–I also expect to have my mind blown with every poem–and then I get to laugh with you at the student who bloody hates poetry and I see that poetry itself IS that companion I long for and that the longing itself is a kind of poetry. Thank you so much for telling stories and sharing them. It doesn’t just mean a lot–it means everything.