Monday, October 31, 2011

#7: A Poem by Brandel France de Bravo

~~This poem previously appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review (2011)

Grammar School

America the Beautiful was our soundtrack, each of the twenty-four
frames per second as bottomless, open as the holes in our desks
where the ink bottles weren’t,  like the cloakroom without cloaks—just
parkas and yellow raincoats.  Hands perpetually raised, the smell
of mimeographs redolent as our mothers’ perfume, violet fingers
quivering in the air. God shed your grace on me, which would be
the lavatory key,  shackled to a wood brick bigger than a 7 year-old’s
hand, thighs, buttocks clenched against shame.  And naps
at our amber waving desks on pillows of crossed arms, my soul
 to keep, as the radiators, skeletal beneath the windows,  sang
their hiss and clang lullaby. Waking, we tied on our thinking caps,
index fingers ready to march once more across the Weekly Reader,
 to bushwhack through the dense green words,
fearful of ambush.

America the Beautiful was our soundtrack, each of us a majestic
 purple note, and each of the twenty-four frames a forspacious story,
until the projector, its young eaten, stutters to white, until Mrs. Boston,
roaming the aisles, would single out the one not seated
to teach us proper speech. “Where’s Antony?” she’d ask, or “Where’s
Jerome?” and Denise, Deborah and “T,” falling like straight men,
hang men every time would point to the student clapping erasers
or standing startled at the pencil sharpener, and shout, proud
to know the answer to something, “There he go!” And Mrs. Boston,
hands on hips, would turn to us, smirking slightly and using
the double negative I found so thrilling—my white mother would have
slapped me for it—to correct: “I don’t see him going nowhere.
There he is,” she scolded. I knew the difference between the two verbs
but the lesson came too late for me, going always  a substitute
for being in a life spent leaving: this classroom, this brotherhood,
this sea to shining, and Antony still
not nowhere.



The idea for this poem began with memories of my elementary school (some of them positively Dickensian), and grammar or what we call bad grammar: the double negative. My teacher, Mrs. Boston, did, in fact, correct my classmates this way, and recently, I began to wonder where some of them were. Washington, D.C. public schools were my first experience in bilingualism—where I learned to speak or at least understand two languages and be comfortable as an outsider. This comfort led me to leave the city as soon as I was old enough so that I might continually recreate the experience of not quite belonging. We school children were bound, in spite of our differences,  by common ritual: the pledge of allegiance, America the Beautiful, hand-clapping songs, double-dutch rhymes, and, of course, watching movies together, the hypnotic sounds of the projector adding another layer to the soundtrack of our school days. I tried to use long, breathless lines to simulate the nervous excitement of the classroom (when we had to go to the bathroom, we really had to go), and I hint at Vietnam, which was still a very distant war for us.  I used repetition as a kind of theme and variation: the first stanza only intimating at tensions and the second stanza delivering them. The amber waves of grain are parched, a fire has begun, and it burns still.  ~Brandel France de Bravo
 Brandel France de Bravo’s poetry collection, Provenance, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize in 2008. She is the co-author of Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise your Child in a Complex World and the editor of Mexican Poetry Today: 20/20 Voices. Her poetry and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gargoyle, The Kenyon Review, and Seneca Review. She has received a prize and a fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts, and is the Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN Mexico. For more information:

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