Last week I started an eight-week poetry class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. I’ve always wanted to write poetry, but perfectionist that I am I rarely set pen to paper to give it a try. When I saw the poetry course offered, I figured it would be a good impetus. The instructor, Aime Whittemore, didn’t cut us any slack; we got homework the first class: Using the first line of another poem, write your own poem. And not only did we have to write a poem, but it got work-shopped today. Oy! We had a list of first lines to choose from, and I selected “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks” from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. His poem, written about World War I, is pretty stark, but I’d never read it until after I selected that line. However, the first line brought something else to mind.
Oh, and just be prepared. I’ll probably post my poems, good and bad, and your comments would be appreciated.
(Prompt: First Line of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen)
by Phyllis “Maggie” Duncan
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Their burdens hunger and homelessness,
They fall dead by roadsides and in ditches,
Teeth and tongues the color of chewed grass:
Why I don’t smile at the wearing of the green.
My grandmother hoarded food and money;
A century later the memories were too fresh
With recollections of lost uncles and cousins,
Who left and no word ever came again,
Their empty place settings sacred at table.
Always spoken of in the present tense,
As if they would one day reappear,
Pockets full of coin and victuals to share,
To tell their stories of streets paved in gold
But never mention “No Irish Need Apply.”
To America, that was a choice.
To Australia, the price of passage
Was a loaf of bread taken in desperation
From a windowsill where it cooled
And reeked of survival.
Those memories ride in my blood,
Renew in my marrow.
My grandmother made no waves,
Asked no questions,
So she wouldn’t have to go back;
Fear of deportation stretched
Across decades to my mother,
Who dreaded applying for a passport.
In our house no talk of Auld Erin,
No parsnip or turnip eaten.
Bone and sinew bespeak my history,
And it’s undeniable in my skin
(Never tanned but freckled),
The shape of my cranium (round);
The color of my hair (red).
Barely a note sounds before my feet
Move to the music of bodhran and pipes.
I don’t set out bread and milk for the wee folk
Like the other Maggie, my grandmother,
But maybe I should.