Lessons

If you were that woman, sitting every Friday
in the public library, one week working through the who
and how and why
of simple questions whispering from your tutor’s lips,
the next week learning price and pay and sale and save
and How much does it cost?
if you were that woman, then you, too,
would ask for repetition of bag and back and bank,
of leave and leaf and left and live,
and you would struggle
to produce the English sounds that held the meanings
you still held inside
your head: the dappled murmuring of leaves
outside your childhood home, the trees
full of sweet yellow fruit you could not name in this new life,
the lives you left so you could live,
and as you moved your lips in all the unfamiliar ways
to make the sounds your tutor made, she would nod
and you would smile, but you would never
write, for you’d not yet know how
to form or read those fast, firm letters you watched pouring from her hand,
and so you’d have no way to store what you had learned
except in memory and hope,
alongside memories of why you’d never needed written words
in your native world, where your mother had taught you all the skills
of planting and harvesting and weaving and singing that you would ever need
for living in a lush, good place,
and alongside memories of gunfire echoing beyond the trees,
of rebels begging for or stealing food,
of soldiers from some distant city standing in your village,
shouting about loyalty and able-bodied men,
and then the memories of jungle paths for five long nights,
of sharing food and whispered hope with others who had dared
to flee, and the memories of the daughter and the son,
both born and grown high as your eye in the refugee camp on the border.
The English words would nestle in amidst all
this,
get lost, be found again, and you would have to try
to pull them out but leave the rest behind, try
to let the new sounds tell you
not only the hard-edged names and places of this brick and concrete life,
but also how to live in it: how to take
a city bus, how to pay
for light,
and you would sit again, again, again
in a mauve chair at a round table in the library, amidst the worlds
of words,  struggling with your
who and how and why,
and you would not allow yourself to figure
how much it had cost
or how much you still had to pay.
You would just smile and thank your tutor,
and come back next Friday.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Worcester Review.

Jennifer L Freed lives in Holden, MA. In other lives, she taught English in the People’s Republic of China and in the former Czechoslovakia. Her poems have appeared in various journals including Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Off the Coast, and Cloudbank. Her chapbook was a finalist in the 2013 New Women’s Voices contest.

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4 Responses to Lessons

  1. Ted Jean says:

    Bravo, Jennifer. Compelling point of view, poignantly narrated

  2. G. Louis Heath says:

    I think one of the longest sentences in the English language, ever, may reside in the poem “Lessons.” If any Lit scholar has any information, please reply.

  3. lifecameos says:

    Well said. Until I taught English to a refugee woman as a home tutor I had no idea of what they had experienced. or were experiencing now. It is so incredibly difficult for them. And they can never go home.

  4. Thank you all for your responses. And yes– That is one very long sentence (though I don’t think it rivals Virginia Woolf’s prose). I did that purposely, because it is exactly what the non-native speaker in the poem cannot do — she cannot play with grammar and structure, cannot let her language pour out into the world.
    I appreciate your thoughts,
    Jennifer

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