Myrtle Myers Redux

Shel

Shel Silverstein

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I took an English class from a poet named Robert Pinsky. (Actually, it was at Berkeley in the mid 1980s, but many Northern Californians would argue that Orange County is about as far away from Berkeley as I could get.) Since that time, Mr. Pinsky has received a great deal of well-deserved acclaim. Thus I frequently see him on my tv promoting poetry. A few years back I heard Pinsky say that whenever someone asks him about when he started writing poetry, he responds by asking: “When did you stop?”

I stopped writing poetry in sixth grade and took it up again about twenty years later.

Here’s what happened: I was teaching at a boys home in a special education program for SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) students, which was quite an education for me. These kids were intimate with poverty, violence, addiction, rape and murder in ways I will never comprehend. (Actually, I do know a thing or two about addiction.)

Sometimes they would tease me by asking me if I were “street.”
“Of course I am.” I would reply.
“Where you from? Inglewood, Nickerson Gardens, South Central?”
“That’s it,” I’d say. “I’m from South Central Claremont.”

I’ll never know how much good I did working with those kids, and the only life I saved was my own. But it did lead me back to writing poetry. The most coveted book in our meager little school library was Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of funny poems by Shel Silverstein. It is a work of immense skill.

In a state of profound ignorance regarding what such a task would entail, I decided that I wanted to write a book like Where the Sidewalk Ends. So I went to the library and got some books on verse, meter, and rhyme. Some time thereafter, although I still barely even understood what poetry was, I somehow sat down at my EMachine and wrote “Myrtle Myers.”

I’ve read a bunch of poetry and thousands of pages of criticism since then. I even went out and got myself a Master’s Degree in Literature. But I don’t think I’ve ever written anything better than “Myrtle Myers.”

“Myrtle Myers” is, of course, a very conservative poem. (How did that happen?) It was not written as an allegory, but it sure reads like one. When I wrote it, however, I was mostly thinking about the power of denial, a major theme on this blog.

Myrtle Myers

Myrtle Myers bought some pliers
At the hardware store
She took them home and all alone
She broke down the door

The next day she found a way
To make the toilet flood
She took a wrench from daddy’s bench
And made a great big thud

Unperturbed, her mother purred
“Well, girls they will be girls
All this rage is just a stage
She has such darling curls”

Then Myrtle took an evil look
At her mother’s dress
It made her think and with some ink
She made a lovely mess

Yet with rage unassauged
She shaved her sister’s head
With kerosene and gasoline
She burned her brother’s bed

Undistressed, her father guessed
“It’s just a child at play
They’re just jealous, those who tell us
To have her put away”

Her parents planned a party grand
Just to celebrate
Her twelfth birthday, and by the way
Myrtle showed up late

No girls nor boys bearing toys
Decided to attend
Although assured the girl was cured
They feared their lives might end

As her family huddled, scared and befuddled
By her piercing stare
Myrtle growled and then she howled
“I publicly declare

“This can’t be true! What did you do
To make them stay away?
You’ll all be blue and live to rue
This catastrophic day!”

Myrtle made a bomb that day
Intending to destroy
Her own home town and miles around
And every girl and boy

But in her hurry, she forgot to scurry
Away from her invention
She’s gone away, I’m sad to say
Results of ill intention

Her parents pleaded all she needed
Was love and understanding
And though it’s true that we all do
Life is more demanding

It takes affection to give direction
And most kids do not mind
Those restrictions and prohibitions
Which seem to some unkind

Richard W. Bray

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