What’s in a name poem

I love the mid-monthly Ethical ELA Open Write for educators. The kickoff for July is hosted today by Mo Daley, who offers the invitation to explore your name, and who you are, through poetry.

I happened to write a post about my name in March: Frances. This morning I rework it here, with a few more layers of meaning…

Early morning
before the dawn
as first birds begin to sing

I light a candle
on my table

I sit
by its wavering halo
to write
about my name.

In the beginning
I didn’t even know
it was my name.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, 
called the roll: 
Frances?…Frances?

She finally narrowed her eyes at me: 
Aren’t you Frances?

Sitting before her at a tiny table, I blinked: 
No. I’m Fran.

An inauspicious start
to my academic career.

The first shaky foot
on the lifepath
of learning who I am.

I didn’t love it at first,
my name.

Early on
(sometime after kindergarten,
that is)
Daddy told me
it was after his mother,
Ruby Frances

Grandma

my consummate storyteller
avid letter-writer
daily diarist
devout reader
tireless defender-angel
Grandma

On the day you were born
I stood at the nursery window

and cried.

You looked
like a little angel.

Grandma

My life’s memories
begin in her arms
on her lap
being rocked
in time to the beating of her heart
and the cadence of her voice
singing
Jesus loves me, this I know
or reading reading reading
until I could recite
the rhyming stories
by heart, page by page
long before I went to school

Grandma

who read the entire Bible aloud
several times over
to Granddaddy
who could not read it 
for himself

Grandma

who was named
after her beloved Papa,
Francis

a very religious man

who nevertheless hung himself
on a tree in the woods
in front of her childhood home
when she was just sixteen

Grandma,

I asked, when I was around sixteen,

did you know
that the name Frances
means ‘free’

or ‘one who is from France?’

We talked about it in French class
today

—Does it? I didn’t know.
I loved taking French

—You took French? Really?

—Yes. Such a beautiful language

I didn’t tell her
we got to choose French names
for class
and I chose to be Renée 
without realizing 
that it means born again

or that the kids back in elementary school
could never get our name right:
Hi, France! they’d cheerfully greet me.

I’d grit my teeth:
It is Fran
or Frances.
Not ‘France’.
I am not
a country.

No one else in school
had my name.

It wasn’t cute or popular
since maybe 1886

not to mention
the spelling problem
such as on labels
from the pharmacy:
Francis

Does the world at large
not understand
or care
that the feminine spelling
is with an e?

I wanted to hurl
those little orange bottles
through the window

along with my problematic name

until the day I was teaching
a group of little Spanish-speaking girls
how to read English
and one of them grabbed my badge
to decode my name:
Fran

Very good! That’s really my nickname.
It’s short for Frances.

Ooooo, breathed my little student.
That sounds just like ‘princess’.

In all my years
I’d never thought of that

even though Princess Diana’s middle name
was Frances

and I have to laugh a little now
because Daddy always said
You ought to take Spanish instead of French,
it would be more useful.

He couldn’t have been more right, alas.
He usually was.

I wonder what he’d say now
if he knew my DNA tests
reveal a dollop of French ancestry
that he very likely
passed down…

and as I’ve been writing
the sun has risen
bright and ever-new

a red dragonfly
lands on the little statue of Saint Francis
by my front steps

never minding that I’m not Catholic

nesting birds find sanctuary here
on my porch
along with a host of small creatures
seeking a resting place
even the occasional stray cat in need
for whom I leave fresh water.

The candle’s wavering halo
is invisible now
in the sunlight spilling
through the windows

as I write about my name
this inheritance
I’ve come to treasure
at last

and it just so happens
that the candle’s fancy label says
chèvrefeuille
French for “honeysuckle”

the flower and scent
of happiness
of hardiness
of devotion
and everlasting bonds

like a legacy of love

and unseen angels

that are
always near.

Note on red dragonflies, mentioned also in my most recent post: I’ve seen them for the first time this summer. They’re stunning and in some cultures, considered a sign of the sacred.

Memory, like morning (on the day of a friend’s funeral)

with thanks to Denise Krebs who shared the hay(na)ku form on Ethical ELA today.

First draft:

On waking before dawn on the morning of a beloved friend’s funeral

Memory
Like morning
Shimmers with light

Gathering
For Christmas
Across the years

You
Playing Santa
Giver of gifts

Laughter
Colorful, bright
Exquisite as snow

Stories
Like wine
Better over time

Dinners
Savored moments
Ending too soon

Envisioning
Your eyes
Always Christmas-bright

Awe
At love 
Given so freely

Embracing
Many others 
Ever-widening circle

Gathering
Together today
In your memory

Celebrating
Your life
Colorful, bright, exquisite

Testimony
To faith
In Lord Jesus

Returning
your body
to your homeplace

Earth
Where our
Young selves walked

Gathering
For Christmas
Across the years

Now
In springtime
Oceans of flowers

Bloom
Like promises
Around your grave

Friend
No good-byes
Only more homecomings

Rising
From darkness
In heaven’s embrace

Memory
Like morning
Shimmers with light

Indelible (a tritina poem)

Finished a poetry course this afternoon, with the writing of my first tritina.

The form: ten lines comprised of three tercets and a final line. The tercet lines end with three different words, in this pattern: 123, 312, 231, with the final line containing all three words, usually in 123 order.

The image of an old table finally came to mind, along with the three end words. As I started writing, I noted that my first couple of lines happened to have eight syllables. It then became a “thing” for me to keep eight syllables in EVERY line…so here you have it:

Indelible

Heirloom table, cross-hatched with scars
I would refinish your surface
if not for erasing stories

family-gathering stories
traded while the bread knife yet scars
daily life, beneath the surface.

-Oh, how the memories surface
as I stroke these silent stories
told by generational scars.

Our scars surface in our stories.

1880s heart of pine table. Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge. CC-BY

A poem is a pearl


Inspired by a course I’m taking on poetry. Although I am learning a lot and have been given a trove of resources, I’ve found my output to be lackluster. The word “why” floats in my brain like a hard nugget beneath layers of questions. I ask myself: Is this my best work? (no) Has my inspirational well run dry? (feels like it) Is the attempt of something of this caliber at the end of a school year—this year in particular—a bad choice? (possibly) Do I love anything I have written? (maybe a line here and there but much of it feels stilted, stunted, superficial; my verse is not “alive,” Miss Dickinson, I don’t even have to ask). It’s a conundrum, really, how I can write poems every day for a month straight and then dive with great eagerness into a course on the craft only to find my Muse has departed. I am adrift in the ocean in a makeshift raft. Am I having a writerly crisis? (not exactly…but I AM re-evaluating my efforts). Is this my own fault? (perhaps I am not pouring myself into it as I should) If I were to “name my feelings,” what words come immediately to mind? (is “paralyzed” a feeling? How about “shy,” not as in being timid in front of others—heavens no!—but as in going to the doctor’s office and being handed a cup for obtaining a urine sample and discovering you have a “shy” bladder. Which leads me back to the thing at the center of it all: why).

I only know one antidote for writing malaise.

Writing.

Since the problem is poetry, poetry I shall write. On my own terms, for my own self.

Here’s a small beginning, anyway…

A poem is a pearl
with organic origins
that will not be rushed

hard grain entering
the shell of my skull, somehow
scratching my soft brain

provoking action
jets of milk-stimulation
solidifying

layer on layer
it materializes
from my own nacre

I can’t estimate
its costliness, completeness
beyond my own brain

…to be continued, I think…

...and, it just so happens that as I hit “publish,” WordPress tells me this is my 500th post.

Cracked pearl. Filter Forge. CC BY

Lead photo: Pearl. amboo who? CC BY-SA

Writing

With special thanks to Dr. Kim Johnson who hosted Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week with the invitation to compose “Your Life’s Table of Contents” poems. There is no formula, just lots of freedom; Kim said: “I started thinking about how I might write a table of contents organizing the poems I have written over these past few years, in verse…Imagine you are creating a collection of your own work, and try your hand at an organizing poem to be a table of contents or any other feature of a book.

My poem is based on a timeline of my writing history, starting at age 6.

My Life’s Writing Anthology

Bible story plagiarized
in blocky big letters
on lined newsprint paper

All About Me
carefully rendered detail
teacher-praised

Myth of Shoeani
on the origin
of shoes

Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat
a play composed
around four words
heart
lion
clock
—I forget the fourth

The Poetry Years
of rainbows
friendships
love
loss
even a baby dragon
rhythms of my soul
attempting to understand
itself

A short story
a mystery
a secret
a little girl
kept safe

All-nighter
research paper
on the function of 
King Claudius
in Hamlet
—still tied two of my best friends
for the highest marks in class

Oral tradition
of grandparents
put to paper
for the first time

Novel ideas
captured in notebooks
beginning to live
even if 
they haven’t breathed
in a while

Critical research
on children’s fantasy lit
taking the last of my strength
and the humanities prize

Short stories
hammered out
within word counts
for competitions

Mentor texts
for students
and teachers
learning how to write
and to love
memoir
essay
story
fantasy
poetry

The blog:
the archive
the scrapbook
of my writing life
my love letter
to words
and the world

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 23, I am writing around a word beginning with letter w. How could it NOT be “writing”?

Threads

While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.” 

I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.

Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.

People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.

Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas. 

Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.

Threads 

This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.

As I balled them up to throw them away

I realized the tangle of color in my hand.

They spoke to me: Remember?

Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.

Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by

or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.

Fragments of my mother’s handiwork

vestiges of the artist she was

crafter of clothes we wore

tailor for many more.

Who’d have believed that such a creator

could destroy so completely?

A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color

in seams ripped apart

scattered far and wide

drifting on

and on

and on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.

The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.

My colleague wept.

I share it for the children.

Reading

With special thanks to Kim Johnson, who invited participants to write around “second grade pain” on Ethical ELA this week. She modeled with a form of poetry, the pantoum.

I knew right away what my poem would be about…

2nd Grade Trouble Pantoum

I’m in trouble for reading
My little heart bleeding
For I hid during math with a book
When Teacher came to look

My little heart bleeding
To numbers, conceding
When Teacher came to look
In my cloakroom nook

To numbers, conceding
Warrior Teacher, succeeding
In my cloakroom nook
Oh, treasured book, that the pillager took!

Warrior Teacher, succeeding
For I hid during math with a book
Oh, treasured book, that the pillager took!
I’m in trouble for reading.

*******

Note: A pantoum doesn’t have to rhyme, although mine does. It is a form comprised of repeating lines in this pattern:

  1. Begin by writing four original lines.
    1 2 3 4
  2. REPEAT lines 2 and 4 and expand ideas in lines 5 and 6:
    2 5 4 6
  3. REPEAT lines 5 and 6, expand ideas in lines 7 and 8:
    5 7 6 8
  4. FINALLY, repeat lines 1, 3, 7 and 8 in the following order:
    7 3 8 1

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 18, I am writing around a word beginning with letter r.

Also shared for Poetry Friday this week; many thanks to Linda at TeacherDance for hosting the Roundup!

Breakaway poem play

At SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, Ruth encourages playing with paragraphing and line breaks, as “a simple break changes the sound and, sometimes, the meaning.”

I am resharing this memoir poem I wrote a few months ago, wherein I played with line breaks. I am still playing with them.

This is one of my favorites. For many reasons. A scene I witnessed last year, during my husband’s recovery:

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game’s in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching,
her arms, her hands
almost too small
to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other
like a whole world
passing.

Photo: Marcus BalcherCC BY-SA

More fun wordplay in my post title: A hinged basketball hoop that bends downward with a slam dunk and springs back into place is called a breakaway rim.

If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join the open-hearted group at
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
#sosmagic

Also celebrating poems and poets in the vibrant Poetry Friday community – many thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Roundup at Reflections on the Teche.

When

“Crippling grief

Note: Roses are the National Flower of the United States

words
wielded
wound

when
will
we
stop

what
have
we
wrought

with
word
warfare

who
will
remain
whole

in
the
unholiness

who
will
wise
up

in
the
wreckage

to
work
toward
well-being
for
all

for
we
are
not
you
and
me

we
are
we

us

without
unity
peace
healing

we
will
cease
to
be

where
are
the
words
of
mending
not
rending

where
is
the
ending

words
create
worlds

and
destroy
them

within
and
without

where
are
the
words

who
will
speak
them

who
will
live
them

and
when


when
when
when

*******

written for
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog

all are welcome here
to write
and to be

where words
are not
wielded
to wound

Alight with expectancy

The following is an invented form of poetry called “Spirit’s Vessel(see shadowpoetry.com). It’s three stanzas of six lines, each line containing six syllables. Rhyming is “a plus.” It’s also an acrostic designed to convey faith: VESSEL OF YOUR… with a final six-letter word chosen by the poet. My final word: SPIRIT. I have entitled this piece “Alight with Expectancy” for two reasons: the title is a nod to “Awe(another acrostic). If you know about the One Little Word tradition, you know about choosing a guiding word for the new year. After the year that was 2020, I hadn’t planned on choosing a word for 2021…more on that later. Just know that “awe” chose me as soon as the calendar turned. Who doesn’t need awe? Reason #2 for the title : This photo. It sparked my desire to try the Spirit’s Vessel for the first time. Those candles, at a church Christmas Eve service, in the time of COVID… thank you to photographer Ann Sutton and to Margaret Simon for sharing it on “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem” at Reflections on the Teche.

Thanks also to the Poetry Friday gathering and to Ruth in Haiti for hosting the Round Up.

My first post of 2021: Alight with Expectancy

Votives cast haloed light
Eclipsing dark of night
Shadows flicker and play
Stained-glass luminants pray
Expectant, glistening
Lord, we are listening

Offering petition
From hearts of contrition
Your conduits, help us be
Of Your all-healing sea
Undulating with grace

Rippling out from this place

Salvation receiving
Penumbral believing
Illumination starts

Restoration of hearts
In holy candleglow
Touched by the Spirit—know