Students may feel confused or lost when identifying a speaker’s attitude toward in a poem. I offer this post as a means to help teach students how to grapple with tone, starting with a poem that has a clear — no — more like, in-your-face tone, followed by a poem with a tone that’s a little more subtle and complex.
Rachel McKibbens is one of my favorite poets for many reasons, one of which is the hardcore honesty of her speaker. In her book Blud (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), McKibbens explores the traumatic relationship between her speaker and the speaker’s parents, most notably her mother. How many students sitting in your classroom might be able to relate to having strife with their parents? Whether their parental problems are monumental or superficial, I think every single student will be able to relate to McKibbens’ speaker in some way.
by Rachel McKibbens
Mother, you lousy walk-on.
You muddy old witch.
I have become your good daughter,
I have given you a part
big as Mississippi, I have authored
you a new womb filled
like a gas chamber. Here is your
fat mouth brimming with
pills. This is no poisoned apple
movie-star spell, Mother.
You still are what you are: a plotting
who hobbles the halls like a jilted
landlady, babbling on & on
about a ghost-skinned girl.
Your angry daughter.
Your bad invention. Where did you
go for so long?
Why did you leave us alone with
Did you know I have five dizzy
dwarves of my own?
They have heard all the stories.
They know your real
name: Carol! Carol! We sing
knots into your hair
& piss on your soap. We’ve built
you a castle covered in
witches & if you should come,
dear Mother, to visit us
we will serenade your face with
a choir of hammers.
Feed you to the river in a dress
made of stones.
McKibbens, Rachel. Originally published in Blud. Copper Canyon Press, 2017.
If you click on the Tumblr link in the title, you’ll see a different format. I have typed the poem here as it appears in Blud, with the second line of each couplet being indented. In the book, each couplet is actually single-spaced with a blank line in between couplets, but WordPress’s formatting options aren’t that advanced, so I tried my best to preserve the structure of the poem. And, judge me if you will, but when I teach this poem, I do change the B-word in the first couplet to “witch” (as seen above). The majority of my class are freshmen, and I would just rather avoid the phone calls from parents. I think “witch” still effectively gets the same message across while maintaining school appropriateness.
Even the students who tend to struggle with reading tone and/or with poetry, can understand how McKibbens’ speaker feels toward Carol, her mother. She is certainly not Carol’s number one fan. Students can pick out connotative words and heavily charged phrases used by the speaker that contribute to tone. They can recognize the fairy tale allusions of the mean, ugly, witch-like stepmother archetype.
Next, we read Patrick Rosal’s poem, which has a more subtle and complex tone.
If All My Relationships Fail and I Have No Children Do I Even Know What Love Is
by Patrick Rosal
This fireman comes every afternoon
to the café on the corner
dressed for his shift in clean dark blues
This time it’s the second Wednesday of January
and he’s meeting his daughter again
who must be five or six
and who is always waiting for her father like this
in her charcoal gray plaid skirt
with green and red stripes
She probably comes here straight from school
her glasses a couple nickels thick
By now I know that she can sit (except
for her one leg swinging from the chair)
absolutely still while her father pulls
fighters’ wraps from his work bag
and begins half way down the girl’s forearm
winding the fabric in overlapping spirals
slowly toward her fist then he props
her wrist like a pro on his own hand
unraveling the black cloth weaving it
between her thumb and forefinger
around the palm taut but
not so much that it cuts off the blood then
up the hand and between the other fingers
to protect the knuckles the tough
humpback guppies just under the skin
He does this once with her left then again
to her right To be sure her pops knows he has done
a good job she nods Good job Good
Maybe you’re right I don’t know what love is
A father kisses the top of his daughter’s head
and knocks her glasses cockeyed
He sits back and downs the last of the backwash
in his coffee cup They got 10 minutes to kill
before they walk across the street down the block
and out of sight She wants to test
her dad’s handiwork by throwing
a couple jab-cross combos from her seat
There is nothing in the daughter’s face
that says she is afraid
There is nothing in the father’s face
to say he is not He checks his watch
then holds up his palms as if to show his daughter
that nothing is burning In Philadelphia
there are fires I’ve seen those in my lifetime too
Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Rosal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 23, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
When asked to identify the tone, students’ first inclination is to go to the the way the father feels about his daughter: loving, caring, protective. I let them explore that for a bit, and have them identify phrases or lines as textual support. But here’s where the complexity comes in–because the father is not the speaker. I direct students back to the title which includes information about the speaker with “I have no children.” I ask them,
“Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it the father?”
“Okay, then, who is it?”
“Some guy watching the father and daughter.”
“Right. So how does he feel about watching this moment happen in the cafe?”
With some guiding questions students will start to pick up on the poem’s complexities in regard to tone.
I like this lesson because it starts off by building students’ confidence in identifying tone with McKibbens’ poem, but then stretches them to infer more between the lines in Rosal’s poem. My class also finds the topic of parent-child relationships relevant to their own lives, and are able bring experiences and opinions of their own to the poem based on their individual familial relationships and backgrounds.
More poems by living poets about parent-child relationships
“Icarus Does the Dishes” by Tommye Blount (Kenyon Review, March/April 2018)
“Learning to Pray” by Kaveh Akbar (from Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Alice James Books, 2017)
“Barbie Chang’s Father Paid,” “Barbie Chang’s Father Calls” and many more by Victoria Chang in her collection Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
“Fish Heads” by R.A. Villanueva (from Reliquaria, University of Nebraska Press, 2014)
“Counterfactual” and “a lineage” by Clint Smith (from Counting Descent, Write Bloody Publishing, 2016)
“c’mon” by Ross Gay (from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)
“Boy & The Belt” and “My Mom Puts on Makeup” by José Olivarez (from Citizen Illegal, Haymarket Books, 2018)
“Mother” by Tarfia Faizullah (from Registers of Illuminated Villages, Graywolf Press, 2018)
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