The Poetry Of Deeds

The MoveOn group, you know them, in-your-face progressive to the point of evangelism, periodically pummels my social media feed with soi-disant “awesome” and “moving” videos, in addition to graphs that sum it all up and posterized quotes from bygone Presidents. I kind of quit watching the videos after one clip proposed to stir my bowels of compassion with the spectacle of tears welling in Al Franken’s eyes (is this some sort of weeper showdown between him and Boehner, or what?), but some random instinct made me click on this one.

From teacher to performance artist: not that big a leap, now is it? Actually, here it says on his website that he is a goddam poet, and not only that but that he makes a living at it, which I guess includes going on stage with what I thought was just a bravura monologue. Whatever. At least he spent nine years in the classroom, which is about eight years, three hundred sixty-four days and twenty-three hours longer than I ever would at the absolute outside, a sobering thing to contemplate. I chose a poem on his site at random.

Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior
by Taylor Mali

Have you ever seen a Viking ship made out of popsicle sticks
and balsa wood? Coils of brown thread for ropes,
sixteen oars made out of chopsticks, and a red and yellow sail
made from a ripped piece of a little baby brother’s footie pajamas?
I have.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

The Vikings often buried their bravest warriors in ships.
Or set them adrift and on fire, a floating island of flames,
the soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke.
In order to understand life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages,
you must understand the construction of the Viking ship.

So here’s what I want the class to do:

I want you to build me a miniature Viking ship.
You have a month to complete this assignment.
You can use whatever materials you want,
but you must all work together.
Like warriors.

These are the projects that I’m known for as a history teacher.
Like the Greek Shield Project.
Or the Marshmallow Catapult Project.
Or the Medieval Castle of Chocolate Cake
(actually, that one was a disaster).
But there was the Egyptian Pyramid Project.
Have you ever seen a family of four
standing around a card table after dinner,
each one holding one triangular side
of a miniature cardboard Egyptian pyramid
until the glue finally dried?
I haven’t either, but Mrs. Steinberg said it took 90 minutes,
and even with the little brother on one side saying,

This is a stupid pyramid, Tony!
If I get Mr. Mali next year, my pyramid
will be designed in such a way that it will not necessitate
us standing here for 90 minutes while the glue dries!
And the Tony on the other side saying,
Shut up! Shut up, you idiot!
If you let go before the glue dries
I will disembowel you with your Sony PlayStation!

It was the best family time they’d spent together since Hanukkah.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Mr. Mali, if that’s true,
that if you died with your sword in your hand
you would go straight to Valhalla,
then if you were, like, an old Viking
and you were about to die of old age,
could you keep your sword right by your bed
so if you ever felt, like, “I think I might die of old age!”
you could reach out and grab it?

If I were a Viking God, I don’t think I would fall for that.
But if I were an old Viking about to die of old age,
that’s exactly what I would do. You’re a genius.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Tony Steinberg had been missing from school for six weeks
before we finally found out what was wrong.
And the 12 boys left whispered the name of the disease
as if you could catch it from saying it too loud.

We’d been warned. The Middle School Head had come to class
and said Tony was coming to school on Friday.
But he’s had a rough time.
The medication he’s taking has made all his hair fall out.
So nobody stare, nobody point, nobody laugh.

I always said I liked teaching in a private school
because I could talk about God
and not be breaking the law.
And I sure talk about God a lot.
Yes, in history, of course, that’s easy:
Even the Egyptian Pyramid Project
is essentially a spiritual exercise.
But how can you teach math and not believe in a God?

A God of perfect points and planes,
surrounded by right angles and arch angels of varying degrees.
Such a God would not give cancer to seventh grade boy;
wouldn’t make his hair fall out from the chemotherapy.
Totally bald in a jacket and tie on Friday morning—
and I don’t just mean Tony Steinberg—
not one single boy in my class had hair that day;
the other 12 had all shaved their heads in solidarity.
Have you ever seen 13 bald-headed seventh grade boys,
all pointing at each other, all staring, all laughing?

I have.

And it’s a beautiful sight.
And almost as striking as 12 boys
six weeks later—now with crew cuts—
on a Saturday morning,
standing outside the synagogue
with heads bowed, holding hands
and standing in a circle
around the smoldering remains
of a miniature Viking ship,
which they have set on fire,
the soul of the brave warrior
rising slowly with the smoke.

Mali. Taylor. “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-­‐Grade Viking Warrior.” The Last Time As We Are. Nashville, TN: Write Bloody Publishing, 2009. Print. (ISBN: 978-­‐0-­‐9821488-­‐7-­‐7)

My heart was begging at every line for Mali to take it back and make it into a poem, a real poem, with cadence and assonance and alliteration — with what little effort you could have done that! I thought. Tell us in a way that makes the words nag at our inner ears, refuse to get out of our heads, sway us to music! — but I can imagine it, like the one he utters in the video, as a performance piece.

And the actual pyre, of popsicle sticks and footie pajama scraps? That was a deed of poetry, deserving of honor. The original class project whiffs more than a little of that old Vikings movie with Ernest Borgnine (who dies sword in hand) and Kirk Douglas (who recedes from the camera’s eye laid out in his ship amidst licking flames). I think of Baldr, dying young and beautiful, betrayed rather than offered a fair fight; burned in his boat (so Snorri tells us) only after a giantess was found to heave the great craft off its rollers and out onto the water.

But that probably is matter for AP classes in sophomore year. We live in an Iron Age when craft and sullen art seem to have leaked out of poetry and not much is left beyond passion and choice of subject. I’m not sure if we’re looking at poetry or revival preaching here; maybe a good teacher embraces a little of both. Still, if we get a story and a deed in which meanings and metaphors are hammered together till the heart staggers a little with them — a task the poem’s language itself ought to do — we are half way home, I guess. The image will stick with me for a while, and I don’t even like kids. That’s something.

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7 thoughts on “The Poetry Of Deeds

  1. I don’t mind (sorry for repeating myself) the absence of assonance and alliteration. For my tastes, though, whether it’s called a poem or performance piece, I wish it were not so explicit, so clear.

    I think of Duke Ellington: You have to find a way to say it without saying it.

    Still, liking things (even part way) is a good idea.

    • Agreed, though there is a certain suspended chord in the notion of a Viking ship (however miniature) solemnly fired in front of a synagogue.

      I wish people who wanted to be poets would refrain from telling us what to feel, too.

  2. A moving story even without rhymes. And, dear Sled, you claim too often to be a kid hater for it to be true.
    Once in Court a lawyer, trying to prove his client was a bit crazy asked me, on the witness stand :” IS it normal for a mother to wish throwing her baby on the wall?” I answered very calmly: ” I raised three children and yes it’ s normal at times to want to throw them against the wall. What is not normal is doing it; to my knowledge your client never did it”. The judge held back a desire to laugh.
    The guy eventually lost the case.

    • If screaming profanities at them counts, I have done that. The only reason I have not shot-put one is that I do not have time for the court case.

      I really don’t want to ever be around them, at least until they are at the age (varying with the kid) when they are willing to admit that other people actually have feelings and carry on a conversation in complete sentences, without feeling entitled to rush up and down the greensward (bookshop aisle, restaurant atrium) emitting shrill cries. In my experience that happens no earlier than nine and in some cases as late as thirteen.

      Just the sight of a child being pushed along in a stroller or tagging at a parent’s heels can curdle me with loathing.

      But it’s still a good — if not a poem, at least an oration.

  3. Agreed – not what I would consider poetry, but still moving. The language is a bit sparse, common, dry, for it to be poetry…I didn’t get many mental images despite being asked to make them. Usually poetry doesn’t need to ask for my brain to be busy. A good story, even if I actually find it hard to believe as I also dislike kids.

    • A small class of kids in a private school is likely to be less barbaric than the average day care or grade school class, which I liken to a prison population — thrown together in large numbers, given half-ass supervision mainly aimed at maintaining a certain regimented order, and basically allowed to evolve their own primitive society. So I can believe it happened pretty much as narrated.

      “Common and dry” is a good characterization for the choice of words, though there is a passion to the phrasing that breathes in some life. The rub is that so few people can even construct sentences (read any Internet forum or Facebook page) that people who can convey complex thoughts in what is essentially still prose occasionally think, somewhat understandably, that they have reached the pinnacle. Sigh. I want the pinnacle to be higher than that.

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