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  • Amber Shockley

I'm not a country girl, but I'm not exactly a city girl, either. One of the hardest things about living near Charlotte, NC has been the frequent confrontation with poverty that comes when living in highly populated areas.

There are intersections I pass regularly where, more often than not, people stand with cardboard signs, asking for help.

I don't want to be someone who rolls my windows up and looks away, sealed off in the protection and comfort of my car.

And anxiety disorder(s).

We're in a pandemic, and masks are hit or miss.

And what if someone is dangerous, what if they becomes physically aggressive?

As a Myers-Briggs ISFJ and an Enneagram 6, I think of these things in the forefront of my mind.

Still...The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

I'm not a wealthy woman. Not by any means. I wouldn't be able to afford much of a cash impact, given the number and frequency of people I pass that need help.

I have a plan. More on that in a later post, perhaps.

Today, I caught a red light when trying to exit onto the interstate.

A tall man with sandy brown hair was walking the media with a sign. The sign said he was a vet. He had a knapsack a few feet away.

My heart started beating fast. I decided I was going to give him the last bit of cash I had on me - a five dollar bill.

He'd turned his back to the first few cars and was walking slowly down the median away from me.

I put on my mask, took my five out of my coin purse, rolled down my window and called out "Sir?"

The man turned around and walked toward me, saying an eager "God Bless you, ma'am." When I handed him the five, a slip of paper fell and went swiftly twirling onto the road.

He asked "What was that?" and bent down.

I knew exactly what it was, and a little pang of loss hit me as I watched the paper flutter away.

"A fortune cookie fortune."

"Oh!" The man chuckled. It was good to see him smile, a personable man, not a subservient beggar invoking God for his benefactor.

He bent down and picked up the paper.

When he stood, I told him that my father was a vet, and the man blessed him too, and asked me to thank him for his service.

He was already walking back toward the safety of the median as cars rolled forward through the light that had switched to green.

Now, I'm worried about what that fortune said. I have no idea. I keep them regardless of what they predict, stash them in tucked away places. I hope he got a good fortune. I hope it was fitting and meaningful to him.

I'm also worried about what else I might've inadvertently slipped him along with the fiver.

I don't know why I told the man that my father was vet. I don't have any special sense of my father's service. I don't feel like the daughter of a veteran (whatever that feels like) although, technically I am.

I think I just wanted to connect him beyond handing him money.

I worry that I gave the message that identifying himself as a veteran was the only thing that let me see his worth and evoked my compassion.

So many worries, don't you see?

I am trying to remember the man's chuckle , the soft way he took the money from my hand.

I'm trying to fill my life with more compassion, action to weigh out the worry.

It’s well past time for another OPP. I am, indeed, still down with other people’s poetry.

To crack my knuckles after a long hiatus, I’m dipping into “Goodnight Mother, Goodnight Moon” by Nancy Reddy, published at Poetry Is Currency. This poem is among the more lengthy I’ve read, with multiple sections, each separated by a small dot.

A diversion right off the bat, by way of a pondering on aesthetic:

As a poet and a perfectionist (aren’t they the same?), I am aware of just how stickling poets can be about the way their work presents on the page. We toil so tirelessly to produce alchemy from space and words - ingredients sometimes as difficult to harvest as “eye of newt and toe of frog.” When editors presume a detail doesn’t matter, it really does put us out. As an editor, I’m aware of just how difficult certain details can be to reproduce. I’m wondering whether the details here - small dots - were the choice of the poet, the editor, the content management system, or a combination of all. Did the poet separate her sections with a squiggle in her original manuscript? with a dash? Was she told, or convinced, those wouldn't work? This may seem a paltry matter, but all it takes is a brief gander at the history of fonts to realize that the shape of the most minute swoop or dangle on an individual letter can make a difference in our perception, and reception, of a text. So too then, the dot, dash or squiggle.

Okay, back to the text at large. I will be taking a bit of a bit of it, from the second section:

When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?

I want, of course, to jump directly into the deep pool of music. Before we do, however, it would behoove us to take in the title of the poem.

Goodnight Mother, Goodnight Moon.

Obviously, Reddy’s choice is reminiscent of the famed children’s book, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. If it were possible to induce warm and fuzzy feelings any further, that would surely be accomplished by adding Goodnight Mother.

I am enthralled with this poem, in part because comfort begins and ends with the title. The rest of the poem provides a twisting tension against more genteel ideals of motherhood. The poem reads as if the writer is wringing her hands, and by the last line we look down to see rope burns on our own palms. The reader sinks back into their chair with exhaustion and a new sense of the raw edges of a mother’s experience.

Now, music. In the lines I’ve selected, s sounds dominate throughout:

When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?

Please note that these s sounds are all sinister slither and hiss - there’s no calm of the repeated voiceless palato-alveolar fricative you might hear as a mother rocks her child to sleep.

Wait, what? What’s a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative, you say?

I found that mouthful like a pot of gold at the end of a Google rainbow. I’m sure the context clues gave it away, but for those who haven’t figured it out yet…

Actually, there’s one exception with “sugar,” but as it’s surrounded by so many other, discomfiting sounds in the same stanza, that hardly matters.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

The stanza begins and ends with thick-tongue bookends of the th sound.

The th sound. That’s uncomfortable to say, isn’t it? Like your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth. Of course, the tongue must hit the roof of the mouth to make the th sound (did it again) and, when repeated, as it is here, the effect can be downright aggressive.

Other sounds cash the check the th sounds have written.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

These sprinkled in c-k-ck-g sounds all involve certain contractions just at or near the back of the throat. Like choking. None are particularly pleasant to make, or to hear. They are not the sounds you’d want to cozy up close to a lover’s ear and recite. Notice how these harsh sounds, these word choices, magnify the tone of the poem. The poet isn’t cutely describing a mother’s late night snack. The poet is dragging us into a damned hell - scour, cracking, crusted, against her teeth.

A muffin turned into a treat from Satan? Again, that’s tension.

Next, more mouth gymnastics.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

In the same stanza, the lines end with ee - in the second line, the ee is repeated. This forces us to draw our lips back, exposing our teeth like scared dogs. It is a grimace, not a smile, I assure you.

I wouldn't be thorough if I didn’t mention the f sounds present in the text, and their effect.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

The f sound makes us bite our lip. Not in lust. Here, it’s f as in wanna fight? or fuck off.

Finally, notice that there is no mention of the baby in this musically metal rock stanza. Following the alluding adverb asleep, the baby is dropped down to the next stanza.

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?

Here, we find dull, perhaps lulling b, d and m sounds. Sounds with soft, rounded edges. Sounds of a baby babbling. Indeed, baby appears twice. Yet again, we have tension, because the baby is defined as “a solid mass,” which is hardly complimentary. You wouldn't expect “solid mass” to appear on a birth announcement. Maybe you’d find the phrase in a medical record as a euphemism for a tumor. What is the mass made of? Not sugar and spice and everything nice. Muslin, okay. Milk, okay. Spittle? Yuck. It reminds me of Edward Gorey's Beastly Baby.

The stanza asks a disconcerting question: Where does the baby go in sleep?

Not What does the baby dream? The poet asks, Where does the baby go? How does a helpless baby go at all? Is this a magical wizard baby? Or, does go assume in dream rather than in reality? Or, in what sense go? Perhaps I am taking the wrong perspective. Maybe this is not speaking to the baby’s sleep journey, but to the mother’s. Where does the baby go, what happens to the baby, when the mother is asleep, not conscious of the world around her?

The uncertainty of meaning at this point in the stanza adds to the ever-building tension otherwise created by language and tone typically disparate to motherhood, including, perhaps, the indication that the mother abandons her baby when she sleeps - for all intents and purposes, the baby disappears to her, so much so that the poet, perhaps taking the mother’s perspective, questions the baby’s whereabouts.

Clearly, at this point, I’m not sure how to interpret this question, and I’m okay with that. I told you, reader, to keep it loosey goosey when reading poetry. I never promised that loosey goosey would get you answers. Sometimes, the journey is the reward.

Of course, I’m only giving you a bit of a bit here, remember. If you keep reading, you very well may find answers…

But before you go, I want to take a look at the first stanza in this selection now.

Yes. I know this is ass backwards. But just quickly.

When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.

Right away, the section opens with exhaustion and exacerbation. The baby finally sleeps. We feel the colic, the weary hours of walking and rocking.

Next, a simile provides tension of uncertainty that precedes the whole baby go question.

...the house seals itself like an envelope.

A house seals itself? An envelope seals itself? How do these things happen?

Unless, the “house” here is not a house, not a house-house, but a metaphor…

Like I said, if you head over to Poetry is Currency and read the poem in its entirety, you might get answers.

Or you might not. But the journey through this poem is worth it either way, if only for the display of how poetry can make us understand, relate and feel for others. I am not a mother, but through Reddy’s poem, I was able to experience some modicum of the many, varied, frightening aches of being a mother. From this poem at Poetry is Currency, we see that poetry is empathy.

The absolute majesty of craft in this poem.

It almost shames me to say that, because the maddening pain chiseled for the reader’s witness is born of such evil that you’d expect it to defy appreciation of human art. The only way to beat the devil is to reveal rather than attempt to contain him, and my God, my God, Porsha Olayiwola has done that. Published in the February 2021 issue of wildness, The Cops Behind Us, I Hold My Breath remembers Ashaunti Butler, Laniya Miller, and Dominique Battle, three teenage girls who drowned in 2016 without benefit of rescue by the police who were present at their deaths, four years before George Floyd suffocated under a police officer’s knee.

“& what gave chase to them in the dim

break of day when the sirens jailed the night—

the cops, grinning after realizing the collision,

stood at the water’s bank & teethed like the

grill of a pontiac smiling into the mouth of a

pond while the lips of the girls closed to hold

breath or widened to wail—the cops, too

worried about mudding their shoes, their suits,

while laniya, dominique & ashaunti sank”

I want to detail the entire poem, but this is Other People’s Poetry - it isn’t mine to post in full. The whole point of this series is to support poetry, poets, and journals publishing poets. I put a snippet of the poem here, and refer you to where you can read more.

It isn’t always easy to select a snippet though, and the architecture of this poem is such that removing a few lines feels as correct as lifting the roof off a house. That said, any given selection of this poem works to give you a glimpse of the entire poem’s excellence - there are no weak or rotten columns.

In fact, the structural soundness of the poem, the rushing way one enjambed line flows into another, racing over even the few end stopped lines like unmarked speed bumps, no squealing tires or taps of the brake, is of course one of many devices that bring us fully into the panic and ruthless horror of what is described in the poem.

It is perhaps because of the interdependence of the lines that I am loath to even take my usual tack of examining each individual line on its own.

So, what I want to do for this deep dive is just look at the music of the entire selection. Music is the thing here. As usual, I’ll highlight the notes.

“& what gave chase to them in the dim

break of day when the sirens jailed the night—

the cops, grinning after realizing the collision,

stood at the water’s bank & teethed like the

grill of a pontiac smiling into the mouth of a

pond while the lips of the girls closed to hold

breath or widened to wail—the cops, too

worried about mudding their shoes, their suits,

while laniya, dominique & ashaunti sank”

A cacophony of sound, yes? At this point, you might start to think that this note highlighting thing I’m doing to poems is a bunch of bullshit. Words have sounds, you might think. The repetition is coincidental. Maybe serendipitous, at best. Probably even happens in regular speech, by accident. You can make anything of anything, if you try hard enough. Is the poet even aware of this, or doing it on purpose?

Well, yes. Yes, they are. That’s craft. And that’s part of why I admire the poems, and the poets, so much. It happens at different levels, but behind every level is intent, purpose, and awareness. At the level of alliteration, the poet is absolutely and most obviously making decisions about sound. But outside of deliberate alliteration, the poet, by nature, is intensely attuned with every aspect of language - the definition, connotation, and effect of every word - including sound.

That doesn’t mean that the poet sits down and chooses certain sounds, then sifts through their infinite word bank to map the sounds onto the page. It does mean that the poet is carefully choosing every word as they go forward, carefully selecting for, among other things, sound. Choosing, here, “grinning,” not “smiling,” and “realizing,” not “seeing,” for instance.

Poet as hypnotist. Listen to the sound of my voice.

Listen to the sounds of this poem. I’ve categorized them into three groups:

m - l - n - w

g - b - p - d


Let’s talk about what is happening in this poem. Three young girls are drowning, their car moving forward into a body of water, while men, police officers, look on.

You could read this poem and think that the horror of this moment is simply spoken, that the fear and outrage you feel while reading is a result, solely, of the magnitude of evil being described. You would be right to feel that fear and outrage, regardless of the delivery.

But please, please don’t overlook what this incredible poet is doing. She reaches so much further than bold, bald delivery of this horror. Incredibly, inexplicably, she is crafting. Even this.

I mentioned at the beginning that I felt some hesitance at acknowledging craft when the event of the poem itself is so profoundly grievous. Yet, I think it is important to look at the crafting, and wonder at it, and yes, even revel in it. The craft happening here is victory in action - victory even at the very moment of memoriam. If the poet-survivor can find the strength and skill to craft around these moments, readers owe that craft, and that poet, the honor of recognition.

The craft of music happens by use of sound to not just invoke a mood or emotion, but to effectively mimic the actual sounds of the event.

In the previous post, I pointed out that m, w and l sounds are muted, lulling, as in dream. Here, along with n, these muted sounds have an entirely different effect. Trapped in a car, screams are muted. The thuds of fists beating on glass are muted. The splash and submerge of a car into deep water is more muted than you might think. It is nearly silent. With the muted m, l, n and w sounds, the poet places us, auditorily, at the scene. This is a scene of deadly silence, of muted voices - girls dying unheard in the dark, surrounded by men that keep their sins an unspoken secret.

At less frequency, there are g, b, p and d sounds. These are also slightly muted sounds, made with soft percussion of the lips and tongue. At one point, the poet focuses specifically on the girls’ lips, creating an intimacy with their fear and survival drive that is almost unbearable, heightened by the g, b, p and d sounds which mimic the mouth movements and breathy, sputtering noises that might occur when holding your head just above rising water, trying to breathe without taking in liquid. The poet has placed us not just at the scene, but has unflinchingly taken us inside the car with the girls. We are made to hear and ache at their helplessness.

I want to point out, particularly, the brilliant mimicry at work in the phrasing when the poet takes us inside the car with: “closed to hold” and “widened to wail.” To vocalize the d sounds of closed and hold, we must briefly place our tongues at the roof of our mouths, behind the teeth, indeed closing off our ability to gulp air through the mouth. That airway is blocked by the tongue. To pronounce the wi and wa sounds of “widened to wail,” we might also open our mouths enough to cry out. More than witness, the poet is forcing us, our mouths, to embody the experience that the girls suffered.

Finally, there are s sounds throughout. To my mind, s is always serpent, hiss. It is danger, threat, betrayal. It is gas leak. It is defaming whisper. I can not call to mind any time that s sounds have been used to indicate or foreshadow something good. Here, appropriately, we see it most often used in association with the police at the scene - cops who stood in their shoes and suits, smiling.

I’ll end with some notes that I did not highlight above because they are not found throughout, but the sounds and mouth movement are important nonetheless - these are discordant notes struck in the song. They stand out, and there’s a reason, a choice behind them. In other words, there’s craft.

With “teethed like the grill” we read vowel sounds that, when spoken aloud, pull the lips off the teeth - again, perhaps mimicking what the poet is describing. So far, the poet has used “grinned” and next she will use “smiling.” Between, we have “teethed,” and I at once immediately read this as another word for grinning and yet wonder what it could really mean. Why this choice, beyond the effect of sound?

Babies teethe. They cut their teeth. The things we first learned or experienced, we say we cut our teeth on. Cut. Learn. There’s a certain ripping and violence associated with learning, growing, changing. But, the men in this poem aren’t shown growing or learning. They stay short-hearted and sinister. The girls, their lives stopped, aren’t allowed to grow into the women they would have become.

So, perhaps that is the wrong direction to take it. Teethed is also slang for theft. The girls were accused of stealing the car they were driving. Later, “grill,” a slang for teeth, mouth, or adornment thereof, is used in its more formalized meaning with relation to the car, but, through simile, again is linked to the grinning police. There’s also the aggression of smiling into the mouth - up close, defiant.

What’s clear is that there is word play - a dance, a mingling of meaning, slang, imagery and sound that shuffles and links the police and the girls. There is a creation and/or handling of multiple mouths - the girls, the police, the pond, the poet/speaker, the reader - all working, all part of the roaring machine that is the poem. All intentional. All purposeful. All masterful craft.

Last, we’ll look at some end rhyme that is thrown in for good measure. It’s used sparingly, judiciously, and, once again, to link the police. “the cops, too,” “their shoes, their suits.” Here, we have an oo, oo sound. We use “ooo” to express a range of emotion, from amazed wonder to furrowed-brow concern. Because of that, it is the perfect sound choice to overlay this moment of absolute terror that the police have been reported to have treated with nonchalance. When the tires of the car hit the water, there should have been an immediate “oo” of alert and action. Instead, the police are suspected of enjoying the moment.

You should read this poem in full. It is difficult. You should still read it. Anyone, everyone should read it, but especially if you are a poet. I don’t see how you have any excuse not to read it if you are a poet. Read it and learn how to dance on a twisted ankle, in a theater where patrons have billy clubs hidden under their chairs. Learn how to write a poem under, and on, the worst circumstances.

* In this post, I refer to Porsha Olayiwola as poet-survivor. I did this because I believe that, when an entire people are subject to ongoing abuse, violence, mistreatment and injustice, each individual incident is in fact experienced - and survived - culturally. Therefore, we must recognize each individual of the culture as a survivor, and let that recognition inform our appreciation of their victories. This poem is one such victory - the victory of speech, of music, of craft over death and silence.

** I usually try to break up my wall of text with GIFs. There weren't any GIFs in this post because at no point did I feel that humor was appropriate.

** If you are the poet, and anything I have put forth here is wrong or offensive, please do let me know.

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