Monday, June 7, 2010

The Unspeech(ed)

Poem of the Day:
Marilyn Nelson's "Albert Hinckley"
The Best American Poetry 2006

In the very first lines Nelson sets her poem in landscape and time: "Miss Crandall's Boarding School for Young Ladies of Color,/Canterbury, Connecticut, 1833" (lines 1-2). But, the poem is by no means made stale by this timestamp.

Today I had a very bizarre subway experience. I intended to take a morning yoga class but the T had made plans otherwise. After I boarded, the subway car braked at no stops and barreled to the end of the line. Passengers like myself were utterly confused; we had not been told this was some sort of express train (do express subway lines exist?) and for several moments I envisioned myself as having fallen victim to a subway car of doom. Neighboring passengers glanced at one another with small looks of confusion. No one spoke. No one asked. We barreled on.

"Last Sunday, a white boy openly smiled at me/where I sat with my sisters at the back of the Baptist Church," (lines 3-4) writes Nelson. Her second stanza, one of three, is full of articulations of 'glancing' movement; "When the pastor spoke of the sin of slavery,/the white boy looked back with his eyebrows arched" (lines 5-6), and these looks seem so powerful on their own. That which is actually spoken, that is, the words of the pastor's sermon, speak less than the face of the 'white boy.'

Yet by ending her poem with spoken words, "that boy took my hand. 'Let me help you, miss./From this day forward, I am an abolitionist'" (lines 15-16), Nelson makes clear that gestures, be it facial or more, will not undo the wrongs of society.

Certainly a subway car that refuses to stop is no such 'wrong of society,' but its malfunction went unspoken by the passengers, including myself. The estranged mass of morning commuters failed to give spoken form to the mishap; too many have done this in the past with far greater consequences than being a few minutes late to work, or in my case, missing a yoga class.

A Poem A Day Audrey


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