Mr. 10 had to write a quatrain for school. Not just any quatrain, mind you, this quatrain had to be focused on one topic, have a distinctive rhyme scheme, at least 12 lines and alliteration. Reasonable enough, I suppose, but he was having trouble keeping all those things in his mind at the same time. The task seemed impossible, so he had put it off for several days. Now it was late.
Last night, he reluctantly agreed to let me help him. We looked at the list of potential topics and he chose ocean. “Great!” I tried for enthusiasm. “Let’s brainstorm a list of words that you think of when you hear the word ocean.”
“Oh, the ocean,” I sighed. “What does that make you think of?”
“Why did you choose the ocean as your topic?”
By now his arms were folded across his chest and his leg was jumping. He has big emotions, this kid, and when they swell, they can quickly drown his rational brain. I tried to calm him, but the undertow was almost inescapable. When I thought we were on firmer footing, we started again: what are some synonyms for ocean? His eyes shifted; his brow lowered; his mouth pressed shut. He wasn’t really ready to talk, but it was already 8pm; he’d put this off as long as possible. Bedtime loomed and he didn’t want synonyms. He wanted something else, but I had no idea what. Finally he spit out, “shark.” Delighted, I slid into my spiel, “ooh, ‘shark’! What a good choice! Let’s see… sharks are gray…”
“Shark, bird, ocean,” he interrupted, then clamped his mouth shut again.
He is not stupid, my boy; he is, in fact, loquacious. When school is open, he regularly gets in trouble for talking. He reads, tells stories, is enthusiastically goofy. But not now. “Sharks eat birds from the sky?” I guessed. This, of course, made no sense. “Sharks eat birds on the ocean? Like seagulls?” He shook his head. I was really trying , but I had no idea what he was thinking. He stamped his foot and I saw tears brimming in his eyes. As gently as I could, I said, “Lovey, I don’t know how to help you write poetry if you don’t use words.” I lowered my eyelids towards my cheeks. Breathed deeply. Prayed for patience.
On Saturday, Chris Cluff had asked, “What stops you from writing?” My answer came quickly: “No space of my own; Virginia Woolf nailed it. I’m ready for our family to go back into the world! Also: fatigue, fear (of failure, of success, that my ideas aren’t good/original/interesting enough); too much time thinking about commitments to others rather than to myself.” Chris’s response was, as always, interesting: “i love what uwrite with flowers. its a very cool fluency”.
I was taken aback. I mean, I walk every day, and take pictures of flowers, but I had never thought of this photography as writing. Barring a photo essay, what would it mean to write with flowers? Flowers as fluency? I needed time to mull this over, to consider, but it was a long weekend and my brain was full of teaching and covid and family and life, so I hit “like”, put the comment in the back of my mind, and imagined I would come back to it later.
It turned out that later was now. Mr. 10 was still not ready to speak. “I don’t know to help you write poetry if you don’t use words” and as the phrase flitted between us, Chris’s comment came back… what u write with flowers.
“Want to draw a picture?”
“Want to look at pictures?”
“Want to tell me a picture?”
He said, “sharks are birds of the ocean. They fly through the water. Their fins are wings.” And I was momentarily speechless.
I wish I could say that was the breakthrough, but it wasn’t. No line of this poem came easily. Often his rhymes were internal, not at the end of lines. He would get caught up in his pictures and lose his words. He fell in love with ideas that didn’t work. He struggled through synonyms and rhyming dictionaries. At one point, both of us nearly cried as we looked for a rhyme for “depths”, a word he was unwilling to let go of or even move. It would be “depths” and it would be at the end of the line. No discussion. I tried not to lose my cool, not to write it for him, not to let him off this hook.
We finally finished, exhausted. He had used almost no alliteration, but he’d written 12 lines with a clear rhyme scheme and a focus. And honestly, I don’t know what we learned, but we did it, and some day – maybe when this school year ends – I’m going to figure out what it means to be fluent in flowers.
[the poem – the flying, the strings, the hemming – that’s all him. I *did* teach him a little about enjambment, but just to tell him that it was ok.]
Sharks of the Sky
I dream of the deep dark sea
The best place in the world to be
The water around me is the sky
Sharks, like birds of the ocean, fly
By me. They glide with fins like wings
The trails they leave in the water are strings
Hemming patterns in the depths
Accepting creatures’ last breaths
Striking fast and leaving no trace
The shark must race,
A streak of grey
Hunting for its prey.