South Dakota Poets You Should Know: Jeanne Emmons

I’m a fan of Jeanne Emmons’s poetry in general, and though the poems in Rootbound are my favorites, a good poem of hers that you can access easily online is “The Poetry Class at The Girl’s Club” from The Glove of the World at her publisher’s website, The Backwaters Press:


The Poetry Class at The Girl’s Club

Your swagger and sullen stare
had better be more than a steel box
whose lid springs up if you touch the button,
because inside is that small bud,
that dark, velvet self nobody should peel open
but should wait for it to bloom in its own time
in the light a person sheds on it.

That smile, those hugs and florid words,
your pearls and roses, are scattered
all over the page you write, like petals
on the church carpet after a wedding,
delicate but sad, like something trying too hard.
Sometimes the glint of a tougher, more metallic you
shines through and irks me but gives me hope
your so rose-like self may not be hailed to bruises
after all, may not be plucked bare to the hard hip.

Your brown eyes are fisted over emptiness,
and the back of your hand with its burn scars
is shiny and ridged like a relief map.
The other girls tease you for your nappy hair,
which from parted sections twists into eight braids,
stiff and pointed as Medusa’s snakes.
Your eyes are brown and so round
a person floats on their surface like Columbus.
You demand complete attention.
If I sit with you long enough,
your hand opens to lay down
on the page a diamond you could only
have made by gripping a lump of coal
in the deep, hot mineshaft of your rage.

You said you had nothing to write.
“What is in the bottom of your heart?”
I asked. And you said, “My mother.
She’s in Decatur, Illinois.”
“That’s a long way off,” I said.
And after that, your pencil moved of its own accord.

You know your brain cannot wrap around this poetry
the same way others’ do, and your tongue is
too thick for your mouth, as the words are too thick for you.
I know you know this because sometimes
your mouth opens wide and crooked around
your spaced out teeth, your wordless throat grieves in silence,
and the drops come down your face, huge and round,
like the giant letters you make, looping into words
that slide down the page and go off the edge of it,
getting smaller as they fall.

Your sober face like tanned deer hide
is deeply composed at the brow where your eyes meet.
You seek your own corner and write steadily,
page after page. You write,
“people think I am precious, but really I am vicious.”
You like the sound of the words, “precious” and “vicious.”
I know this because I also am a poet.

You told them to write what is close to them
so you write of them, the untouchables,
the love-sponges. And, because you are large
and they are small, and you are gray and they
are black-haired and yellow-haired, and you
are teacher and they are students,
they must listen when you say that they
have the words in them like spit growing
under their tongue, metallic and hot,
and the words are on their tongue, their teeth.
Say, spit. Say, Spit it out like nobody else is looking,
like you got a big chaw, like the sidewalk’s
gonna dry up and crack in the sun if you don’t.



This poem so easily could have participated in a kind of white savior complex of teaching the people with “nappy” hair to write, but I think it doesn’t—I think it’s an honest exploration of how different writers, the narrator included, come to writing.  That last stanza, about “Myself,” acknowledges all the ways the speaker has power over the students—because of her size and age and position, they “must listen” to her.  However, by the last three lines of the poem, it’s turned into an imperative command for the speaker herself, too—she is telling herself to say “spit,” to say, “Spit it out like nobody else is looking.”  I love the consonance of “a big chaw, like the sidewalk’s / gonna dry up and crack”—those repeated w’s and k’s form contrasting sounds that are fun to say throughout those lines, and they reinforce that the speaker herself is telling herself how to teach writing—she’s in the audience for how to write, too, so we see a moment of vulnerability and an act of practicing what she preaches by writing what is “close to” her, in this case, her students.


The precision of the imagery in the rest of the poetry is respectful, beautiful, and specific, which I think elevates the poem above an instance of telling other people what to do.  The “velvet self” in the first stanza, the “rose-like self” that’s “plucked bare to the hard hip” in the second stanza, the “deep hot mineshaft of your rage” in the third stanza, and the discussion of “precious” and “vicious” in the sixth stanza are all instances where the speaker reaffirms the inherent strength and abilities of these girls and writes about them from her own mandate, to write to what she’s close to.  It’s clear she cares for these new poets and seems to believe they’d do just fine without her—but she’s lucky enough to inhabit this moment of poem-making with them, and she’s got the poetry chops to be an able mentor.

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