Sunday, October 20, 2013
The Poet of Schools
By Ken Zegers
Dos Madres Press
Review by Dennis Daly
Kip Zegers proffers, in his modest but compelling book of poems entitled The Poet of the Schools, pedagogical revelations of a very high order. His pieces eschew the standard slice- of- life fare for deeper, more psychologically based insights into teacher-student relationships. Some of these insights appear momentary, a chance perception, a fleeting acuity; others continuously draw you in to a nexus of awareness and sensitivity. But, be warned, this is not the Stand and Deliver world of Jaime Escalante with its optimistic logic and neat packet of inspiration. Rather, Zegers inspires by recording the little miracles which happen along the way during and sometimes in spite of the educational process. Apparently, this high school teacher of 29 years reinvents himself each September to match his students’ needs. Zegers aptly titles the first section of his book Busy Being New. He means it.
From the collection’s opening poem, The Pond in Room 318 Zegers makes it clear where he’s going—fishing. He brings poetry as bait. He tries to hook those students with that spark of curiosity that every good teacher looks for, indeed, craves. This is how the poem begins,
In that room, Fall was a green surprise.
Entering class was paddling out
on a windy surface. I’d brought
a rod and reel and thought I had the perfect
poems to fish with. I lost them the first day,
but new tools rose to hand, proving
or disproving themselves by use.
Life in that room obeyed laws.
Not only do schools seem to have their own natural laws, they also have their own seasons. Autumn is the spring, the planting season Winter for growing, Spring the harvest time, and Summer, a time of emptiness. The poet puts it this way,
Fall is its fresh beginning, winter
Its abundance, spring the harvest,
And summer an empty field
The children are leaving…
If this sounds a bit like Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in the movie Being There so be it, but it is a pretty cool metaphor nonetheless.
The poem Listening In begins with an extraordinary scene. The teacher takes a book , a fantasy novel, from his student. The student reacts with an autistic tantrum. The poem goes on detailing one after the other telling moments of student-speak. Here’s one,
…the 8th grade girl
took perfect notes, kept one hand in the air,
and narrowed her eyes when I faltered: class
should be a certain way, a place for “A’s,”
but her poem saw a homeless man buy
hot milk tea, a shop where broken hands
hold warmth. Then the year ended,
and she doubled back, “I was hoping…
I would not be forgotten.”
Reverse engineering, a concept not usually associated with educational theory, let alone poetic manifestations of teenagers finding their own voice, proves the perfect metaphor in Zegers’ short poem entitled Krazy Kitchen. The poet says,
Off with their lids! After a time
what’s inside the open jars turns green, fuzzy,
and it’s not mold, it’s apples
budding from applesauce, grapes
rising from jelly to the vine. This kitchen
has worried windows, no recipes,
and a stove whose pilot light
Personal involvement with students weighs heavily on some teachers—the good ones. Zeigers speaks to this burden in the poem called The Poet Of Schools Is Worried. The piece begins with him riding the “1” train down the Bronx. Observing the cityscape he notes the grinding process directed against those innocent souls who shine with awareness or who have found their voice. The poet continues,
…To his right he can see red jeans,
a blue bag, to his left an olive sweatshirt,
and in his head, hears day old voices, “7 hours
sleep,” in a boy’s voice, “that’s over 3 nights.”
“Coming back to school has begun to seem
pointless,” one girl said. And now,
worry has arrived in this, the poem.
In the poem Some Kingdoms Zegers takes a shot at politicians and their seemingly endless attempts at public education reform. He says,
…politicians, squirt guns filled
with money, axes swung from high offices,
smash things they do not understand.
The poet of Schools marks his territory,
Later in the same poem he has a lovely subtle section on both the commonality of students and their ultimate individuality. Here are the lines,
Behind the dunes of Jersey, a field
of swallows. Thousands upon thousands
bend branches, thicken bushes, and
some few rise, ready to start south.
It is not time; they settle, wait.
That these have thought it over
is not why they’ve arrived. That all
will survive is not why they take flight.
Each lives the species whole. Back
for a second look, he finds a field,
its empty air still pulsing.
The third and final section of the book Zegers entitles The Kenny Poems. The protagonist, Kenny, goes to a parochial school, circa 1960, 1970 or thereabout. The culture encompasses good helpings of cruelty, sadism, effective rote teaching, with an overlay of religious confrontations. That was my experience. A priest-brute arrives to confront the barbarian children in the second poem of the series. The sermon given describes a geographical hell with some memorable images. The priest elaborates,
…”Sin ends in hell,
and you boys, you think you know?
Imagine soft skin on a grill, your white
skin burning but you can’t move, you boys
all know what a single match feels like,
but in hell, when you scream, Satan laughs,
puts his fork in you and turns you over. Mmm?
I definitely remember that sermon.
Throughout the collection Zegers’ sense of wonder strikes you as the perfect counterpoint to a student’s grappling with language and searching for his own voice. I’ve heard many of these same themes in prose, but without the intensity. The Poet of the Schools deserves to be read and read widely.