To Surf A Misguided Breeze: Five Parts

by Samar Abulhassan

1.

I stepped outside to find
a panther in my peppermint tree.

–Calista, Blue Heron School, Port Townsend

Thank you, Calista. Have you met a fifth grader for a soda lately? They are so sharp, bright and elegant. I open my pastel file folder to find lines like the one above, one night inside Cabin 256 (which is really a big and strange nautically-themed house), Fort Worden, Port Townsend, where I stay for two weeks while teaching poetry to fifth graders at Blue Heron School. I become infatuated with being disoriented: new luxurious winds, a dusty blue sky and odd-hued sleep, and fumbling for light switches. No olive oil in the cabin, so I saute vegetables in butter. But to go back. Calista not only wrote wonderful strange things, but she kept reminding you to not waste your life. She would pop in lines like that in her poems, followed by “The world is closer than you think.”

2.
I know the wild wind blowing with a sort of hunger,
Feasting on my freezing face.
The last light winking away as the wind slows-
Flowing down the makeshift path.

–Sophie, Blue Heron School

Days at Blue Heron School were spacious and the light outside was precious. As we read and wrote poems, we inched toward the shortest day of the year. New lavender-grey winds greeted me upon arriving home each night. Sophie’s insights were sparkly, wise and inviting. Her poem included a “spring-loaded flower” that gently loses its petals to the wind. Hearing her words, I learn to quiet down and pay attention to what trembles. The days are windy, dark and rainy but the words of fifth graders seem to attach themselves to paper boats lit by candles. The water underneath their poems: a violet gold.

3.
remember, to purr is to light quiet darkness
to purr is to dance
with the light that purrs
to simply say purr.

–Maise, Blue Heron School

We were reading “Slow Song by Mark Rothko” while allowing ourselves to be transported into the dreamy soundscapes of the poet John Taggart (Taggart’s wonderful Is Music is put out by Copper Canyon Press, which lives a few doors down from where I was staying in Fort Worden). The fifth graders and I embraced, with great affection, the infinitive, bits of song and longing, colors and simple one-syllable nouns. Bird. Sky. Book. Maise offered to share her poem aloud, each time pressing into the r in purr with a little more stretch and humor. “An aquamarine moon will purr to light” begins her poem. In another one of Maise’s poems, it’s her sharp language that alerts me, “Smelling cold wind, sucking it into my face.” We open our windpipes to new chimes and stirrings. “I want to be a surfer riding a misguided breeze,” writes Dakota.

4.
the moon the moon
opening its toenail-shaped gift
surfing on the streamy lake
of the milky way of cheese
to open to open
the toenail gift of purple cheese
the sound of the cow going
MOO MOO

–Adam, Hutch School

Adam was falling out of his chair laughing when he read the above poem, which he wrote in a matter of seven minutes – great tension lifter before the holiday break. Combining a favorite song lyric with the “gift of purple cheese,” he beamed at his quirky combination. Adam makes me want to take in the New Year with a cup of side-splitting elixir. Hot apple cider brewed with an orange punctured with cloves. Teachers, encourage big belly laughs in your students’ poems. Most important: I want to be as encouraging as possible. To plant giddy memories of language in young poets’ brains. To enjoy with caramel sauce in hand, “I am a banana split trying to eat myself” offers Craig, a fifth grade Blue Heron student.

4.
To breathe life and phantasmagoria together
To phantasmagoriate life
To swoosh like a bird
–Bryce, Hutch School

Deteriorating haunted house ride, a medley of real or imagined images, ghost shows, Lewis Carroll’s major poem … before all these things come to be associated with phantasmagoria, I sit down inside this word. I accept Bryce’s move to turn this magical, strange word into a verb. Yes, to phantasmagoriate life. It makes me think of Mark Rothko again, who inspired the poem by John Taggart that inspired this lesson. A few of Taggart’s words:

To sing to light the most quiet light in darkness
radiantia radiantia
singing light in darkness

When I lived in D.C. for a short time years ago, I went to see a Rothko exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Sitting on a bench in front of one of his giant bright canvases, I allowed the emotion(s) of the canvas to paint over me. I would gaze at his blurred, feathery edges of orange, blue or magenta paint and feel calm or glee or some combination of emotion, but was struck by how non-aggressive his stroke is. If we can show students how to soften the edges of their poem-canvas, perhaps their words will lift off the page. It’s like the Leonard Cohen quote, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

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