Here’s the final installation in this mini serial. I’ve been wanting to write an imagist poem for some time now, because I envy what William Carlos Williams does and want to do it myself. A colleague dropped an imagist poem on my desk a few weeks back–something she literally scratched out on the way to work based on something she saw during her drive. That got me thinking about this all the more. Truthfully, I was jealous. I know there are images in my daily life that are ripe with deeper meanings if only I take the time to sit down with pen and paper and mine them. Finally, this came to me two weeks ago when we were let out of school early because of… of course… the horrible winter weather. I spent some quality time that night crafting this, and am pleased with the results. I think I’ll try to do more of these. If nothing else, they are an excellent exercise in concision.
And I borrowed that semi-colon from Ezra Pound.
Faculty Lot, January by Jeff Burd
Wipers pulled away from windshields,
the blades tilting and tottering in the wind;
a chorus of arms waving us away,
warning us: Danger. Go home.
Since running outside has been pretty much impossible given the horrible conditions we’ve had for two months, I’ve been making time on my bike on the trainer. An hour-long ride each week has been enough to keep up my stamina, and watching some Netflix while I do it makes it at least tolerable. The poet in me wants to find the deeper meanings in this and other mundane activities. Writing this poem helped me to that exact thing.
This was another fun one to write as I labored to figure out what the activity really meant, and what the poem was going to say. I picked up something from studying Kay Ryan and made use of it starting in the middle of the first stanza, and I borrowed from myself with “Frost crackles and creeps up the window glass.” The closing lines aren’t quite doing what I want them to yet, but here they are nonetheless.
When The Old Man Heaves Snow At Us by Jeff Burd
I jack my bike up on the trainer
and take long rides to nowhere
right there in the living room.
I hunch over the handlebars and
pedal. Sweat rivers down my chest.
My legs are young again.
I sit up and ride hands-free
because why not?
My tires hum on the asphalt
as I fly past golden wheat
waving in the wind beside
the long, shallow-sloping
roads of last summer. The sweet
smell of ryegrass hangs like perfume
over fields striped with windrows.
Cows raise their heads in time
to see a blur of a smile.
The thermometer outside is
a vacant tube.
Frost crackles and creeps
up the window glass.
I can’t outride it.
I can only ride through it.
In case you haven’t heard, winter in Chicagoland totally sucks this year. We’re already on record as having the 5th-most brutal winter, and we still have three weeks to go. There have been more sub-zero days than I care to count. Snow that fell on New Year’s Day is still on the ground. I’m sick of wearing my winter coat. I haven’t run outside in over six weeks. I’ve had enough.
One benefit, though, is that I’ve been able to practice some poetry. I was reading Poets & Writers while I was still on the holiday break two months ago, and came across a segment about a writer who practiced writing tonkas as a warm-up to writing. The person got so good at them, and so comfortable with them, that he was able to publish a book of them. Ooops… my practice is publishable! I got curious about tonkas. I had never heard of them. Turns out they are a bit like haikus in that there is a fixed pattern of lines and syllables (five lines; 5-7-5-7-7 syllables). Also, the third line is supposed to be a “turn” from observing something to the personal reaction to it. I had some fun producing this one, though my personal reaction isn’t what I did with the last half of the poem. But hey–poetic license!
A neat trick I learned while experimenting: The first three lines should be able to stand alone and make sense, as should the last three. That makes that “turn” line in the middle pretty critical since it has to play both sides of the quintain. Also, once I started working on this I decided to use what was right in front of me and literally in my lap. The restraints made it easier to focus the poem.
Tanka by Jeff Burd
Winds howl. Frost creeps and
crackles on the window sill.
Warmth is near heaven.
Kitty finds my lap and curls
into a purring cherub.
Strangely, only one page before the bad romance passages from my old journal that I shared the last two days, I found the final drafts of an actual love poem I wrote. It’s legit–I was actually dating someone at that time, and had written her a poem. Love poetry is not something I ever really do (I practically crucify my students for it), but this one ain’t bad. Looking back, I surprised myself with what I came up with considering that I was a neophyte poet. My journal shows that I drafted it for a week back then. I’ve retouched it a little bit here. Happy Valentine’s Day! ~Jeff
A Brief Meditation on Time by Jeff Burd
How long until the future?
Not the speculative future
you see in movies
with spaceships and robots,
the near-certain future
when we will lie together
after midnight wondering
how on Earth
the stars could align
to make the future
greater than the present.
continued from yesterday…
Later on, as we chatted about jobs and hobbies and respective educations and all that other first-date stuff, she asked, “You’re an intellectual snob, aren’t you?” She had an in-between tone, sort of joking, but a little edgy.
In my mind, I said, “Yeah, sure,” but on the surface I said, “That’s probably saying it too strongly. But I am very intellectual.”
Now I have to explain. We were at a hotel bar, and the reason I was at a hotel to begin with was because there was a writing conference being held there, and I was attending the writing conference. So the whole lobby (and especially the bar) was teeming with writers and professors and editors, who themselves are very intellectual. So I was really in my element. I tried to consider how this might make her feel uncomfortable; I tired to tone down the intellectual intensity I know I have. However, the second and third time she accused me of being an intellectual snob, I let all consideration go and thought, You’re on your own, sister. I didn’t feel so bad about it, either, because she was a therapist and I think it’s reasonable to expect that she should be able to manage her emotions effectively if for some reason she is uncomfortable in public.
We parted way and haven’t spoken since, which surprised me because we had a 2 or 3 week lead-up to the date ripe with emails, texts, and phone calls. But at least I know she walked away with some nice Ferrero Rocher chocolates. I realized, too, that she torpedoed things form the word “go” when she opened our conversation by announcing her plans for 7PM and it was already 4:30. But like I said, she’s a therapist and I’m certain she figured it out. But that leads me to question: If therapists need to talk about things and figure out their issues, do they go see another therapist? I think they would or should be aware of things in their own heads because they are trained to recognize things in the heads of others and help them with their cognitive processes. But then again, if that were true, then therapists would be the most emotionally balanced and lucid people we could imagine walking down the sidewalks right next to us. And that’s not true, so I guess it’s fair to suppose that therapists go see a therapist hen they need therapy.
I think it’s mere happenstance that these two dates took place on Valentine’s Day. Regardless of the day, it was the people on the dates that was the problem. These dates wouldn’t have worked on Bastille Day or Cinco De Mayo or even Arbor Day. Some people might be thankful that at least there was some sort of romance on Valentine’s Day so I should be happy about that, but I’m not one of those people. That’s usually what happens on Valentine’s Day anyhow. Besides 2003 and 2009, I’ve usually had a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day (all except for 2007, when for whatever reason I didn’t).
I was digging through an old journal a few weeks ago and stumbled across a long piece about a pair of Valentine’s Day adventures I had some years ago. I re-read them and thought it would be good to post them here in honor of the day of love and romance, regardless of how things work out. I’m trying to preserve the original journal as much as possible, so this might look a little rough. ~Jeff
April 9, 2009
For whatever reason today, or last night actually as I pulled into Wal-Greens to buy cold and allergy medicine, I realized that on two occasions I had first dates on Valentine’s Day. The reason I thought of this is because both times before the date I stopped by Wal-Greens to buy my date a card and some candy, and both times it was the same candy (I had remembered the candy from the first date in 2003, and thought it was a good idea then… good enough to repeat with someone totally different six years later). I had bought one of those plastic heart-shaped boxes with a dozen or so Ferrero Rocher chocolates inside. They’re simple, elegant, the candy is delicious, and it’s perfectly priced for a first date. The card, on the other hand, is much more complicated. You can’t go too sexual with it (and there are plenty of cards at Wal-Greens slathered in sexual innuendo) because you don’t want to come across as some kinda first-date Lothario. But you don’t want to be all friendly handshake nice-guy, either, because it’s a date and you want to have some sparks to see if any fires will ignite. So picking the card takes lots more time.
Anyhow, both dates took place at a bar downtown, and I just happened to be downtown on Valentine’s Day, so why not have a date? I sat with my date both times and had a few drinks and gently batted pieces of conversation back and forth. We tried each other out for size (intellectually) and walked around a little bit in our minds. After a few hours, we called it a night. She went her way with a nice, perfectly appropriate card and some delicious Valentine-themed candy, and I went my way thinking it was kind of nice to have a date on Valentine’s Day, and it was even nicer of me still to bring a gift for my date.
The story could end here and it would be all cool and everybody would walk away thinking how sweet things were and how great it is to have a date like Valentine’s Day to celebrate (or initiate) love. But the story doesn’t end here. It’s not sweet, and it doesn’t celebrate love. Those first dates ended up being last dates, and with the exception of one phone call there was no more communication between those two ladies and me. No emails, no texts, no letters, and I’ll be damned if either one of them hired a bi-plane to scrawl “Thanks for the great date, Jeff Burd!” across the sky out over Lake Michigan.
The dates weren’t even average. With an average date, you might be left thinking, “Hey, that was okay… let’s try again and see what happens… .” No. These dates were reminders of the types of people we don’t wish to date. From my point of view, one was so pre-occupied with sailing (it was all she talked about over a few drinks at Jaks Tap on Jackson Street) that I was left wondering how I would ever be able to see her again. She was ready to rearrange her job and earn less money so she could take long boat trips over the summer on a boat that she helped crew. As for the other one, she had plans early in the evening that made our date seem rushed. What’s more, she announced those plans almost immediately after she arrived at the bar in the Hyatt Regency and gave me a hug. I should mention that I accidentally stepped on her foot, but only because it’s funny and not because it in some way influenced the outcome of the date.
The “affluenza” case in Texas has been back in the news lately. If you haven’t been following it, the long and short is that super-entitled teenager Ethan Couch killed four people and injured two others when he plowed into a disabled car as he barreled down a street at 70 MPH in a pickup truck. He was drunk out of his mind. The defense portrayed him as a victim of “Affluenza,” which they determined meant that his parents were so rich that he was completely sheltered from the consequences of his actions throughout his life. As such, he had never developed the proper cognitive mechanisms that told him he was doing something bad and that people could get hurt because he had never before done anything bad and nobody had ever been hurt by anything he had ever done. Suffering from “affluenza” helped him escape twenty years in prison. Instead, he gets to kick it for ten years at a swanky rehab facility.
One piece I read when the story came to national attention several weeks ago noted that “Affluenza” is not covered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Elsewhere, it would seem like a clever defense if it came up in a movie or helped a lovable rogue escape unjust persecution in a John Grisham novel or something, but since actual lives were lost at little consequence to the perpetrator, it doesn’t seem so clever or unique. I can only hope that a greater justice than that which was served in Texas will overturn the ruling and help Ethan find his way to a standard prison, though I’m not going to keep my fingers crossed.
This all sounded a bit too familiar to me when the story broke, and I discovered that it sounded a bit like what I experienced when I worked at a high school down by the Chicago city limits early in the new millennium. These thoughts came out when I was writing my thesis five years ago. At the time depicted in the story, I was in grad school at University of Illinois-Chicago and was working with a lot of Chicago Public School teachers. Though we were only a mile apart geographically, the gap between the communities we served was immeasurable. I was lamenting the students I was encountering at my school and the community mindset that was at conflict with how I was raised:
“My frequent contact with the CPS teachers helped me realize I was no longer teaching for social change. What change was needed for 97 percent of the students at my school, except for moving from middle class to upper class? Most of the students had been born into families that had planned and prepared for their birth. Those same families had lived in the neighborhood for generations; they owned property; many of them also owned a local business. Most students seemed guaranteed by birthright to attend a state college or assume a position in the family business after they left high school.
“Once I began to question what I was fighting for, I began questioning if my school and students needed me. When I had taught poor students at my first two schools, I knew they needed me. Most everything I taught them helped them in some way, or at least pushed them a half inch closer to a better position in life. But my district was already on the winning side of the public education equation. We were living proof that the whiter and richer the school, the more successfully it scores on the standardized tests that essentially determine the worth of a district and community. The glut of money in the community was just one factor that helped the students achieve high scores on the tests that were essentially made to reflect their values and experiences anyway.
“I blamed the same glut for encouraging mindsets in the students that conflicted with my middle-class sensibilities. Foremost was the students’ sense of entitlement. So unknown were consequences that they frequently bragged openly about having swilled alcohol at the previous weekends’ bashes. Some even passed around pictures of themselves dragging on joints. They dared school officials to do something about their brazen behaviors, and when something was done they ran to parents who all too often told the school to mind its own business.
“One episode near the end of my second year epitomized my dealings with the entitled students. I had chaperoned a week-long band and choir trip to Disneyland and soon found myself to be one of the only adults who would intervene with students who were out of control. Much to my surprise, it was me who was wrong for redirecting kids who whined when they didn’t get what they wanted, or for insisting that they speak respectfully to Disney officials and other adults after they routinely went on swearing binges in front of them…”
So it seems that Affluenza has been around a lot longer that I imagined and might be at epidemic level. I guess it won’t be long before more people are claiming to suffer from it, especially if you can use it to escape consequences. But what do you do about a sickness that only affects the rich and well-to-do? Nothing. There is no helping people who don’t know or won’t admit they are sick. Too bad that now it seems their victims can’t even rely on justice.