Listening to the Language of Things

AS I enter the fourth-grade classroom for the first time - a squall of voices, laughter, squeals - I have to remind myself: Wait, be patient. The teacher calls an end to snacktime and announces: "Mr. Ratiner, our visiting poet, is here."

I am so accustomed to the way words race, leap, and soar, so enthralled by the power language has, to open doors between our separate worlds, that I have to remind myself that the very term poetry is capable of filling my students with a feeling somewhere between anxiety and terror. For many, words are walls, stony barriers, immovable, insurmountable.

I can almost read it in their expressions: If I really write, speak my mind, no one will understand. Better to remain silent, to risk little. That way you remain safe inside. And utterly alone. The situation of one of my students, Manami, was not necessarily the most painful, only the most obvious example of these walls.

There were more than a dozen students in this school visiting from Africa, South America, and Asia. Some of their parents were working in this country or studying at one of the many local universities, and so the children understood they were only temporary members of the school community. I remembered what it felt like to visit another country when I was younger, where the posing of even the simplest questions took a monumental effort. The undecipherable voices around me in the streets were a constant r eminder that I was the outsider, the one who did not belong. Yet most of the young foreign students here joined in enthusiastically with their classmates, and it was astounding how quickly they mastered English.

But not Manami. There were two Japanese girls in this fourth-grade class. After six months in America, Yuki had little trouble with either the schoolwork or the social whirl. Manami, on the other hand, was sullen, withdrawn. Frequently, she tuned out in class and made only a half-hearted effort to keep up with the lessons. The teachers were convinced she understood far more of the English spoken around her than she let on. For the most part, unless compelled to respond, she would sit and stare out from b ehind a shield of silence.

Most times, when I stood in front of Manami's class talking about the day's writing exercise, she'd rest her head on one hand, staring off toward the doorway. Yet, during one class, when I mentioned words like haiku and tanka and the cherry blossom festival at Yoshino - each familiar syllable startled her awake as if I had been throwing pebbles at her bedroom window.

But today's exercise was about "things" - using the everyday objects around us as a source of poetry. I showed the class a large silver pair of scissors, and we brainstormed all the possible "lives" such an object might lead. If it could stop being scissors for a moment, would it become a heron, sweeping the laketop for flashing minnows? Or a ballerina in silver tights, pirouetting on one pointed toe? I read them a poem I'd written from my own musings about scissors, and the class was quite interested to

see which discoveries we'd made in common and which ones they hadn't been able to envision. I asked the students to look around their houses that night and to choose one small object they thought was curious enough, magical enough, or even boring enough to allow us to coax a poem from it.

"Don't begin to write about your object because tomorrow we're going to exchange them with your classmates so we each have something fresh and untried as our subject." Already thinking of possible choices, the fourth graders had a rush of questions. "Can't they be living things, like a pet or a plant?" No, it would be too easy to give "voice" to something like a puppy or a rose. "How about a photograph?" another wanted to know. Again, photos by their very nature "talk" out their inner lives, I warned. An d besides, I had another experiment I wanted to do with family photographs later on.

On the next afternoon, the students were buzzing with excitement over the little treasures they'd brought to class. As I'd instructed, they had kept them secret in desks until the poetry workshop. I called the kids up to place their objects onto the large table. There were oohs and ahs as each item was presented: an old pocket watch, a split geode, a goose feather, a brass candlestick, a twisted bit of drift wood. Already our minds were racing with possibilities, as special objects called out to our imag inations.

Manami approached the circle. I wondered whether she'd even understood my request, let alone decided to participate. From inside the pocket of her dress, she withdrew an old snapshot wrapped in plastic to keep it clean: three generations of women, in traditional dress, posing on the steps of a temple. A holiday, I guessed - grandmother, mother, and Manami. One boy began to mention my injunction about photographs, but I quickly directed our attention back to the task at hand.

I gave the class some ideas about how they might "listen" to an object and allow its secrets to emerge. Then, one by one, the students made their selections, took the object and a fresh sheet of paper, and retreated to their desks. In a few cases, I even allowed two or three students to share an object, as long as they worked silently and kept to their own imaginations. As the circle emptied, it became clear that no one was going to choose Manami's photograph. I watched the sad expression deepening on he r face as she looked on. "I think I'll try a new poem today as well," I announced and, with a little fanfare, I selected her picture.

I loved watching the way my students delved inside these bits of the everyday, discovering within them character and voices, memories, and dreams.

My poem was much simpler than the fourth graders' but I felt it laid a finger on the heart of Manami's photo and on her loneliness.

Manami's Photograph

Polaroid snapshot

smudge-proofed in plastic wrap.

Grandma, mother, and Manami

in formal dress, kneeling

at the foot of white brick steps.

The kimono silk is printed with

lush designs -

bamboo shoots, chrysanthemums,

the roiling morning sky.

Staring out at the camera lens,

"Home" is printed across their

dark eyes.

We had at least five days before our next meeting, plenty of time to explore and record and even refine our discoveries. Once a week, an aide came to the school to work with Manami and the other Asian students. With her help, we made a translation of my poem into Japanese. When we read it to her, Manami listened with an amazing stillness. Her face moved from her normally passive mask to a wistfulness and then to a smile. She nodded her head and said, "Yes." And then I too smiled.

At the beginning of our next workshop, when the time came to share our object-poems, I held up a large sheet of paper. On the top was "Manami's Photograph" printed in English. Beneath it, the same poem was written in Japanese characters. And at the very bottom, the text was copied in phonetic Japanese.

First I read the English version to the class. Then Manami stood beside me and, with a quiet but clear voice, read the poem in her own language. Finally, I tried out the transliteration and even invited some of the students to try their voices on a few of the Japanese lines.

Polaroido no snappu shashin

yogore nai yoni rappu de tsutsu

marete iru.

Ototho to Okasan to Manami...

We all laughed at how badly we stumbled across the words, but no one laughed harder than Manami. I remarked, "This must be just a little of what it was like when Yuki and Manami first wrestled with English, don't you think?" As I watched the eyes dart back and forth across the classroom, I could almost hear the beautiful cacophony of walls crumbling down.

"OK, who else wants to share their poem and let us listen to the `language of things?' " Every hand waved wildly in the air. Every hand, without exception.

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