Thursday, April 22, 2010

Underlife

Dear visitor,
Today my blog is the bus stop for the book tour of January Gill O’Neil’s Underlife. I liked many of the poems in this book, but I’m going to talk about just one, “Old Dog,” which January has permitted me to re-post.

Old Dog

Sounder! Here girl. Come . . .
He shouts to me like I’m a coon dog
chasing possums out in the fields.

The school’s back lot became a small country where
names were given but not deserved
and I took it and took it,
even laughed with everyone else
at my own black self, suffering like most of us suffered –

quietly. The laughter so loud you forgot homework,
the blue-and-white uniforms, red veils worn in church,
Jesus on a beaded noose in our pockets.

Today, on this purgatory of a cloudy day,
I stare blankly into an open meadow from my desk
as wind kicks up dust and memory;
more so, the chance to recall
a small morsel of a boy and his big mouth

and my harsh resolve to talk back,
even if it’s nothing more than this,
a romp through a few stanzas.
I am grateful for that old dog of memory –
for what it lets you keep
and what it lets you throw away.

Of all the things I like about this poem, what impresses me most is the grace with which the poet handles the topic. Thirty or 40 years ago, the situation addressed here was called “getting picked on” – it wasn’t called “abuse” or “bullying,” now punishable by a jail sentence. I could launch into a tirade about how folks today should get their shit together and stop calling themselves “victims” every time the cashier shorts them 4 cents at 7-Eleven. But I’ll restrain myself, because here is a person who “took it and took it” and could have ended up lynched like Jesus in stanza 3 but instead shrugged it off, an act that these days seems to demand superhuman effort.

Those last two lines killed me. The speaker gives the occasion what she considers its due, tossing it in the garbage where it belongs, and all that without showing her claws, without loosening a sluice of expletives, without malice or really much trace of resentment at all. So while this poem is a personal triumph, it’s also an ode to reason, balance and sanity, and it’s also a great long raft of fresh air.

In her review a few days back, Donna Vorreyer said the reader would find herself in these pages. The poem went for me beyond the points I’ve mentioned because some decades ago in a parallel universe, I was the one white girl in my grade school class. I kept a very low profile and put up with my share of taunting. I remember being followed home one day by a clutch of kids who had a chant that started “Black is beautiful / white is shit / if you don’t believe….,” and I have to say I’d forgotten all about that, and maybe there’s a poem in it somewhere and please god may I emerge as gracefully as January has.

Information on previous and upcoming stops can be found here.

6 comments:

djvorreyer said...

Great review, Sarah. This is indeed a poem full of grace.

January said...

Thanks Sarah! You probably know this, but Sounder is a YA Novel by William H. Armstrong about a poor sharecropper family and their dog (Sounder).

I really appreciate your thoughts about the poem. It's amazing that we can have similar childhood stories from two different perspectives.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for this, all of it. Wonderful poem, wonderful reflection. Also roused from me a memory of being beaten on the back by schoolmates, all of us white, in England. They didn't like that I was American. On and on it goes.

Jeff said...

Maybe not to confront and toss it away, Sarah. Maybe to remember and resolve it.

Memory can be the salve as well as the wound.

Just my own humble thoughts...

Lovely poem - reviewed by a lovely poet... :)

- Jeff

SarahJane said...

Thanks for reading.
I really enjoyed this poem. I never read "Sounder," but I do remember the movie! Cicely Tyson.
I have to say, regarding my own memory, that when it came to me it was a kind of shock, because I'd forgotten it all.
Jeff, yes, resolve is what I mean, but I like the idea of tossing it in the garbage, too.

Nic Sebastian said...

Very nice. Thanks to you both!

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