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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | A poetry workshop

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Poet and Yellow Springs resident Maggie Dean has kindly let me use her wonderful poem “Mental Math” to demonstrate some aspects of poetic craft I’ve learned over the years. I appreciate her willingness to let me share her edited work. Honest — never brutal — critique is based on the agreement that the critic honors the poet’s vision while the recipient never loses ownership of her own work.

Maggie’s original poem appears first, followed by my edited version. Many of her lines extend beyond the width of the YS News’ columns, and those that do are indented to signify that the line continues.

MENTAL MATH

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I.
At our daughters’ school conferences, we’re told they both have excellent number sense,
And this is something that’s hard to teach.
They dread math, but they do it so naturally, and so often.
Deciphering exactly how many years and months apart they are from one another,
And will it always be so?
The youngest wonders if this age gap is changeable,
As if she’ll somehow end up older if she grows taller than her sister.
The oldest starts to grieve for her childhood as she approaches ten and a half,
Understanding that with every trip around the sun, you feel time differently,
And it moves. too. fast.

II.
I remembered what I wanted to tell her, but by then it was too late.
I wanted to tell my mom that the shirt she bought me for my birthday had
Washed up really well,
I followed the laundering instructions just like she taught me.
This felt like such an important detail at one in the morning that it woke me out of a deep sleep.
But it was too late to call with this trivial information.
So instead, I did some mental math:
If I’m forty-two, that means my mom is sixty-seven.
If my calculations and predictions are correct,
We’ll have many more birthday shopping trips ahead.
There will be time for me to remember the details I want to tell her.
We’ll have time for frivolous conversations about laundry.

III.
As I sit in a sun speckled room, I forget to track time for a brief period,
While I watch the cat stare out the window, fighting a nap to watch every bird and squirrel,
Little chirps from her mouth.
I watch the old dog sleep like he’s barely alive; tongue out and milky eyes twitching.
If I was twenty-eight when we got him, he will soon be fifteen.
Fifteen! That’s older than our marriage.
He was our first baby.
I don’t need to do much math to know that he’ll soon be gone.
But that thought is too sad for a Monday morning,
And I only have three and a half hours until the kids come home.
Back to the list, the clock, the checking things off.
Holding tight to the false promise that in this fleeting life,
We can bargain for more time.

With memorable images and details; Maggie charts time’s inevitable changes and losses. And while I admire her “plainspeak” voice, I find that, along with those long lines, “Mental Math” feels a bit too much like prose than poetry for my taste. In the edited version below, I started further into the action, strove for shorter lines and sped up the pace with fewer words:

I.
My youngest daughter wonders if the age gap
between her and her older sister is changeable.
Will she end up older if she grows taller
than her sister?

The oldest grieves for her childhood
as she approaches ten and a half,
knowing every trip around the sun
makes you feel time differently.
And it moves. Too. Fast.

II.
I wanted to tell my mom that the shirt
she bought me for my birthday had
washed up really well.
I laundered it like she taught me–
such an important detail that it woke
me out of a deep sleep at one a.m.

Too late to call, so instead,
I did some mental math.
If I’m forty-two, then mom is sixty-seven.
We’ll have many shopping trips ahead.
Time for all I want to tell her, including
frivolous conversations about laundry.

III.
I watch the old dog sleep, tongue
out and milky eyes twitching.
If I was 28 when we got him,
he’ll soon be fifteen. Fifteen!
That’s older than our marriage.
He was our first baby.

I don’t need to do much math
to know that he’ll soon be gone,
a thought too sad for Monday morning,
with only three and a half hours
until the kids come home.

Back to the list, the clock,
the checking things off.
Cleaving to the false promise
that in this fleeting life,
we can bargain for more time.  

Note, though, how we both wind up at the same place, ending on a powerful note.

In order to succeed, the critique process requires an open-minded desire to see one’s work objectively and a willingness to increase its impact on its intended audience. Maggie Dean has generously fulfilled those requirements for the benefit of the literary community!

Send me your poems at edavis903@sbcglobal.net.

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