Tuesday, January 19, 2010


This morning I’ve gone round and round with Michael Jr. He doesn’t get it and apparently my powers of elucidation/per-suasion are weak. He is studying poetry and he wants me to explain to him why it isn’t stupid and a waste of his time.

Admittedly I don’t sit around reading poetry often but the good stuff moves me. The way the sounds and meanings of words come together to provide something close to an experience. Today he read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, “Sympathy” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; all amazing poems. I guess I’ll just have to sit down with him and discuss them line by line. Not that I’m an expert but I don’t think he’ll get that the Robert Frost poem is about death and suicide. He understood that “Sympathy” was about slavery but maybe he didn’t understand that it’s also more specifically Jim Crow laws and generally speaking struggles we all face. The Longfellow poem is maybe a little less nuanced but powerful nonetheless and exactly the message this young man needs.

I guess what he’s not grasping is the whole concept of metaphors. Not everything is black and white and science and math. And I’m glad of it.

Not long ago I noticed that one of my classmates is now a professor and poet. Jenifer Vernon teaches at the University of Alaska Southeast as a professor of communication. That’s Fabulous! She wrote a book entitled Rock Candy and Garrison Keillor even read her poem “Blackberry Pie” on Writer’s Almanac. Incredible! Her book received a glowing review in the Juneau Empire. The reviewer noted that her “Elegy for Chastity” was the heart of it. A thirteen-page heart to be exact. Chastity. Hmm. It was ringing a bell and then I read that it was about Chastity Batram. No, he must have it wrong. It had to be Chastity Bartram.

Chastity died on July 26, 1998 of a gunshot wound. Gut-shot by her estranged boyfriend. I knew she and her grandparents were my dad’s patients and I knew that her boyfriend was the son of my piano teacher back in the day. At the time, I was staying with my parents waiting for Sierra‘s grand entrance and the completion of our first home. We’d just had our 10 year high school reunion the night before. When my mom told me the news my mind raced trying to place this girl somewhere in my life but there were no matches. Was she in middle school with us? I didn’t see her in our yearbooks. But her name was familiar. The only thing that came to me was the scratch of my piano teacher’s super-fine point pen on my assignment books and her self-aggrandizing “HI-IQ” personalized license plates. I didn’t know her son and I guess I didn’t know Chastity either.

She was remembered by someone who took the time to write it down and that’s powerful. We can all hope for that and most of us would fall short. Poetry gives us an opportunity to make that leap into the mind of another and understand them. Maybe even feel what they’re feeling. It’s connection and it’s powerful. Now how to get that through Michael’s thick skull?

P.S. The reviewer referred to Yelm as “a dirty river Pacific Northwest town”. What’s up with that? Is that poetic? Yelm isn’t even known for the river (Nisqually) that divides it from McKenna and points north. How about the prairie or the incomparable view of Mt. Rainier? I guess that doesn’t quite work when you’re reviewing a poem about a life cut short.


  1. I remember Chastity.

    She was my friend in 2nd grade. I remember her in my 6th grade class. Then somehow she disappeared from my awareness.

    When I think of her now (as I occassionally do), it's a combined picture of all the Chastitys I knew: the little girl with freckles and blond pigtails with pink ribbons; the preteen with long blond hair that I longed to have; and the woman whose life was cut short, with blood running through her beautiful blond hair.

    Thank you for reminding me of her once again. I'm glad Jenifer's poem will keep her memory alive.

    (Darn it! You made me cry! And now I must head over to Amazon and order Jenifer's book.)

  2. And about the reviewer's description of Yelm: perhaps he was meant to be describing McKenna, which was more of Jenifer's early experience, being from the Pierce County side of the NISQUALLY river ;)

  3. You got me there--better fix that! I was thinking of the river closer to our place but of course it's the Nisqually. I wondered about the "dirty river" comment because the article said she was from Yelm. But she lived out by Hart's lake right? I remember staying the night with Gretchen Graham once many, many moons ago:).


So, what do you think?