Portrait of a Young Girl as a Poet
by Dorothy Rice
I pulled the old brown leather volume of poetry off the bookshelf in the living room and tiptoed into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. The book was a compendium, a compilation, like English Poetry of the 19th Century, a substantial and weighty tome with thin, wispy pages, my mother’s name handwritten in the flyleaf. I flipped the pages, searching through hundreds of poems with purpose and precision. I knew what I needed and would know when I found it—a female author, a poem that was short but not too short, clever but not too clever.
I found my poem. I remember that it described a wild English garden. There was a stream running through the damp grass I think, gurgling or dancing or doing something equally poetic, trees and Bowers that likely shone in dappled sunlight and there was a bench, no, it must have been a swing, wooden and worn with time and weather, that rocked gently in the breeze, empty, with that hint that someone had just hopped off and was wending their way up the pebbled path. Or it might have been the gentle breeze that rocked the empty swing—that played alone in that forgotten, magical place. It was poetic, my poem, very poetic, yet simple and sweet.
Once I had my poem, I read it slowly, my lips moving, a low, contemplative murmur, as I lay on my stomach on the tufted chenille bedspread. The sunlight from the window that looked onto the backyard was bright on the page. The voices of my sisters and the gang of neighbor kids playing red light-green light or mother-may-I on the lawn below rang in the late afternoon air.
I transcribed it to a yellow pad in my loopy, girlish hand. And then I studied my poem, each word, each line and stanza. Any words that were too formal, “British,” or old-timey had to go. O’er became over and ode I changed to poem or song. Words that weren’t part of my vocabulary were altered too, like ethereal and arbour. I snuck back into the living room, snatched the dog-eared thesaurus off the shelf, and searched for alternatives to these stuffy, strange-tasting words. The title—I imagine it was something like “Ode to an English Garden”—became “The Empty Swing.”
My poetess was obscure. She was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay. I doubt I knew of these accomplished ladies then, the ones I rejected as unsuitable, but my lady had but one lonely entry in the fat leather book while Elizabeth, Emily, and Edna had many, and from that I inferred their relative fame, their place in the pantheon of dead lady poets and by contrast hers, my lonely, one poem gal. Like her output, her lifespan had been short. Perhaps it was 1898 – 1923. She could even have been a girl like me when she wrote her simple, single ode Carefully, making no mistakes, I copied my doctored poem onto clean sheet of ruled yellow paper.
* * *
It was 1963: the year of Martin Luther King’s “l Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, JFK’s assassination from knoll in Dallas, and a year before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and launched the British Invasion. I was in the fourth grade.
I forgot about my poem after I turned it in an auspicious letter came to the house. My mother turned the letter over in her hand, seeming to weigh it on her palm before she open, preserving the envelop, and read it through. She called me Into the living room, and I sat beside her on the couch.
“The Empty Swing” had won the citywide poetry contest. I remember mother’s pale blue eyes, appraising me as if for the first time, the pucker of pride and surprise on her mouth, and the catch in my stomach, the sick feeling of tumbling down a well, of never landing. Yet I had known this could happen when our teacher said she was entering all our poems in the contest. My poem was good. Of course it was good. I found it in the big book with Edith, Elizabeth, and Edna.
I didn’t know then, but I think I do now, that for all the effort I put into selecting and manipulating that poem, altering it to match Poetry. I didn’t think I could do what others had already done so well; I didn’t see the point in trying. And, I think, until I saw how good and true, and then wrote my name at the top of the page and handed it in to Mrs. Burns, I hadn’t known I would really go through with it. But I did. Once I’d gone to all that effort, I half-believed it was actually mine.
* * *
There was a fancy luncheon downtown to honor the winners. I went with Mrs. Epperson, the new Language Arts teacher, an angular gray-haired woman, all elbows and knees, who tied scarves around her neck, swooped her hair up in a French twist sort of thing, and wore stinky perfume. I don’t remember the lunch but I remember her look in the stuffy car, down at me through the reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, as though I were an interesting specimen she’d managed to corral on the seat beside her.
“It was a lovely poem,” she said. “Just the right number of words and syllables. Neither one too many nor one too few.”
She laughed at her own words, simpering.
“l imagine you meant something very personal with that empty swing.”
I would have looked Mrs. Epperson straight in the eye, a fixed, winsome gaze, an expression that could mean so many things, or nothing at all, and that seemed to let adults imagine it meant whatever they chose. That day it meant something like, Can’t you see I couldn’t have written that poem, you ridiculous praying mantis. But she didn’t see, and I thought less of her for it.
“You, young lady, must join me in the Language Arts program,” she said, all but drooling with excitement as she said it, as though it were Shangri-La.
Language Arts was something new at our school that year. It must have been a precursor of the Gifted and Talented Program that began in the public schools twenty years later.
My mother said I was likely selected based on test scores. But I knew it was “The Empty Swing” that got me in. After that, my father referred to me as “the smart one” when he introduced me to people, as in, “Dorothy is the smart one. She’s a real brainiac.”
* * *
Language Arts met once a week in a small room with one big table and chairs set round it. A select group of kids left their regular classrooms, summoned through the cracked door by Mrs. Epperson. We walked through the empty halls single-file, like baby ducks, her trail of special ones, our saddle shoes clacking on the linoleum. We sat at the big table, mostly quiet, sliding our eyes at one another with if nervous curiosity, while Mrs. Epperson gushed over her chosen brood and we worked on what she called “enrichment projects.”
My two friends at the time, Debbie O’Leary and Debbie Feinberg, crossed their arms on their chests and glared at me when I was picked for the new program. Their grades were every bit as good as mine, their penmanship on the faded mimeograph sheets neater, yet they hadn’t been chosen for Language Arts.
Debbie O’Leary had long, glossy hair held back by a satin ribbon and a delicate smatter of freckles across her petite turned-up nose. Her father was a cop with a poufy dark hairdo and a thin moustache, as handsome as crooner Robert Goulet, my mom said. Her mother wore a checkered gingham apron and made perfect white bread sandwiches. Though I was never at ease at her house—there was something scary about the rumpus room down the dark Hight of narrow stairs—I thought they were the ideal TV family.
Debbie Feinberg was small and scrappy, with spindly legs, long arms, and short, curly hair. When she spoke to her mother, who bore tattooed numbers on her arm, they both shouted as though there were a river between them. In a tense whisper, I would ask her what was wrong and she’d shove my shoulder to shush me.
There were no raised voices at my house—the anger, when it was there, was in the eyes and the set of the jaw.
“Those aren’t the smart kids,” Debbie O. snickered. Debbie F. nodded in agreement. ” Yeah. Gary got mostly U’s on his last report card. I saw it.”
“I wouldn’t want to be in stupid old Language Arts anyway. I bet my mother wouldn’t even let me,” Debbie O. said, her pert nose in the air.
They were right about Gary, the only other kid in our class who was in Language Arts with me. Everybody knew Gary was trouble. He threw an eraser at a girl during a rainy day game of kings and queens. It hit her in the eye and she had to go to the nurse. And he drew dirty pictures in the margins of his social studies book. When the teacher was at the blackboard, he turned the book to me once. When he knew I had seen, he hissed, “That’s my sister,” and then he snapped the book shut and slumped low in his seat. I had sisters too. I knew what it was.
I didn’t want to be pulled out of my class to sit around a stupid, big table with Gary and the rest of Mrs. Epperson’s band of misfit losers. I wanted to be with the Debbies.
I don’t remember much about what we did in Language Arts that year. There was one fancy report about the Italian Renaissance. My father constructed a cardboard cover for it, big as a world atlas with thick cutout letters for the title, spray-painted a shiny gold. And he made a toothpick replica of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines. The report was displayed at open house in the Language Arts room.
* * *
My family went away for most of that next summer. I left my goldfish with Debbie Feinberg. When I got home she refused to give him back. Hands on her scrawny cocked hip, she explained how, according to her mother, if you feed a stupid fish for three months and change its water, it’s yours. I wanted my Dad to march over there and demand my fish back. I wasn’t about to confront Mrs. Feinberg. But when I told him what Debbie had said, he laughed, like it was funny.
In his opinion the fish had likely died and long since been Hushed down the toilet and saying they wouldn’t give it back was just a way to avoid telling me the truth. Probably, he called it a euphemism and then said, “Look it up, brainiac.” He liked to do that.
I hoped the fifth grade would be different, that I could get back in the Debbies’ good graces. But early in the term, one morning as we were all just settling in, Mrs. Epperson sashayed into my classroom, poking the air with her elbows. She came right up to me and stood in the aisle beside my desk.
“Thank you for the lovely card. That was so thoughtful of you. I was tickled,” she said, her words ringing in the sudden quiet. I wanted to sink through the floor. My cheeks burned with embarrassment.
“I didn’t send you any card,” I said gruffly, getting to my feet.
“I see. It had your signature on it.”
I stared fixedly at the ground. I knew my mother had sent it. I remembered signing it. But why did the bony, old bat have to bring it up right in front of everyone?
Mrs. Epperson sniffed, pursed her lips, and left. My little display of indifference got me nothing. The kids in my class saw through it and neither of the Debbies ever invited me over to play again. I never found out whether my Dad was right or my fish was sitting on Debbie F’s dresser, growing old in gold fish years, wondering where I was.
* * *
Until I graduated sixth grade and moved on to A.P. Giannini Junior High School, my poem and the award I won were on display in the locked, glass cabinet outside the principal’s office. “The Empty Swing” was mounted on a sheet of red construction paper with a gold foil “First Place” sticker like a jagged sunburst at the bottom of the page. As the months passed, the red paper faded to a dull pink.
At first I had thought about telling the truth, but as time passed, it became more and more difficult to tell. The truth would only make it worse. In a way, my last two years of grammar school were a sort of prison sentence. So long as the poem hung in the hall, I had to do my daily penance. There was the lingering chance, the ever-present possibility, that I would be found out and exposed for what I really was, a fraud and a thief.
Likely, I punished myself more than anyone else would have.
I don’t write poetry anymore. Well, sometimes I try. It’s really hard. Yet every once in a great while, a word, a line, a phrase makes me remember something, and it’s so vivid that my eyes tear up with the shock of it. There’s that flash, like looking at a photograph that grabs you hard before you can even think why, because it’s feeling more than thought, image gone straight to emotion, like those Pulitzer prize-winning photos of the horrors of war or John Kennedy Jr. in his little-boy shorts and chubby legs saluting his assassinated father’s coffin. Poetry can do that too. Not my poetry, but the good stuff. It does that.
I wish I could remember the author’s name and the title of the poem I stole so many years ago. Whoever she was, she died young and once sat on a swing in an English garden, and she left it still moving, that splintered, old swing, for me to find and wonder at. That winning poem I didn’t write when I was nine years old had something to do with who I am today, with the labels I have worn on my sleeve for nearly fifty years—the smart one, the serious one, the sensitive one. Her one poem did that—one poem that could have been mine but wasn’t. I only wish I could remember her name.