(photo credit: The little match girl of Tucia on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)
The other day, I decided to submit something to our town’s annual Festival of the Arts writing competition. What started as one entry (an essay) turned into two (an essay and a poem) and then back to one (an essay) again, as the festival only accepts shorter poems than the one I planned to submit.
I found this poem, which I wrote a year or so ago, which I thought would be ideal as a spoken word piece (that’s slam poetry), but I only performed it for a few close writer friends. They encouraged me to take it to the stage but I didn’t because I am a wimp and I still believe one day I will overcome such wimpdom and do some performing.
But that has nothing to do with the actual poem, which I am sharing with you here. It is called “My First Act of Violence.”
My First Act of Violence
by Sara Walpert Foster
I lashed out at a child,
Standing tall in her new Izod dress:
blue and white horizontal stripes, red collar, with a tiny green alligator,
which her trained right hand covered as she recited
the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag
with her classmates on picture day.
I unleashed my hatred on a girl
Who ate Cool Whip for breakfast with her crazy comedian grandfather,
Who tried to fade into the bathroom wall
After she flushed his cigarettes down the toilet out of love.
He stood over the bowl with pursed lips, and shouted “Fuck” or “Shit”
or maybe other curse words, worse ones, thick with vitriol.
She couldn’t yet know how frightening it can be
Even for a day, even for an old man,
to be forced to travel the world on broken crutches.
I shattered the image that I despised
Because it didn’t live up to Miss America,
The pageant I never missed,
Fascinated by the long legs and coiffed hair and flawless skin.
Not by the pretty women playing the trumpet or answering questions about world peace.
My anger was an explosive force
That threw its weight against
that child, that girl, the victim,
My little girl face framed by a seventies’ shag,
Wisps of willful hair fighting to fly free,
despite the saliva on my mother’s hand
that tried to force my cowlicks into submission.
I was seven or eight and already had formed ideas
about how important it was for me to be beautiful,
if I wanted to go places, to see things, to be a woman of the world.
Without realizing it, I had set a bar for myself
Impossible to clear,
even if I had been an Olympic high jumper
or Miss America.
It was a shameful act of violence and it changed me right after,
and then again when I had daughters,
And now, as I unravel it, is changing me once more.
It began when I followed my sister’s lead and
hung my 8 x 10 school portrait on the bulletin board in our room,
When she left, I examined my face
And all I could see were those two freckles on the bridge of my nose
Which gave me two extra eyes
According to the boy in class, who pointed at me, called me four eyes, and laughed,
A laughter not that different from the laughter of my parents,
Behind their bedroom door, where I stood that night,
about to go in because I couldn’t sleep.
I didn’t know then that their laughter was to comfort themselves.
What had I done?
After my sister left the room, I pulled two thumbtacks
from the cardboard rectangle where they were in perfect rows
and I whisper-screamed at the photograph,
“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
And I aligned the point of each tack so it aimed for one of
those freckles that made me a freak show with two extra eyes,
the reason I would never be a model or a movie star
or the girl who, one day, every girl would want to be,
and then, I viciously stabbed the likeness of my face
until those freckles
were so DEAD
I stepped back from my work and crumpled onto my bed.
Two black holes remained, larger than the freckles.
They shouted, “Look here, look here, this is where the imperfection begins.”
At that moment, I felt something whirl inside me,
a strong wind twisting itself into a funnel, tightening,
lifting shreds of particles, bits of my insides,
and folding them into each other, forming a windstorm, a tornado,
the whole of who I am,
the contradiction that is girl or woman (or man)
a natural disaster so intensely beautiful that it cannot last.
My younger daughter at age eight was upset one day.
“It’s my freckles,” she said. “I hate them.”
She pointed out the worst offenders: the two freckles on the bridge of her nose,
Same shape, same size, same location as the ones I tried to destroy when I was her age.
I examined those freckles and beamed.
In the smallest details, we are our family.
Who knows for how many generations those two freckles have survived?
How can there not be beauty in something that refuses to let go?
People say I have my father’s smile,
his drive, his determination, his warmth.
I have my mother’s face
plus her love of books, music, theater.
There are days when I see women my age whose faces appear younger than mine
And I feel a twinge of jealousy and consider what I can still do
Before it’s too late, to keep me from growing old or at least looking like I have.
And then I think of my grandfather, gone twenty years,
Whose humor-filled, hazel-green eyes are alive and well
And residing on my face
And I think, “Don’t mess too much with what you have
Because you are the carrier of something strong and true and beautiful.
And if you are too quick to take a knife or a needle or a thumbtack to yourself
The bits of who you are, your genetic links
What you’ve become through your unique experiences,
may be absorbed forever into a massive black hole.”
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