“Write a poem and then draw a picture that will help us understand your poem.”
I do not remember how old I was or which nun spoke those words. Was it seventh grade.
I remember fear. Draw a picture. Draw. Fear. Fear. Fear.
I felt total paralysis. I can’t draw. I remember nothingness.
I must have been scribbling on a piece of paper and praying for something to appear to me, for me. Did I start to scribble the alphabet. All I see is a letter “S”. I don’t remember if I played with it or just kept looking at it. I do remember the moment it stopped being an S and became a possibility. It became a curve and the curve made me think of something. The curve became the back line of a swan. I began to see a swan. I could make a swan from this S.
With very few lines more, I began to see a swan. It was tiny. It was very spare but it did look like the simplest swan. I think this was the only thought I had. I had a drawing. Enormous relief. Giddy relief.
Don’t remember how the words came, but words were only words. I could find words. Then done.
Next day we had to hand over the assignment. I remember nothing more than acute relief. Please don’t ever ask us to do this again. Breathing. I remember I was breathing.
Sister whoever it was looked through the papers and chose one to share. Of course it meant showing the drawing. I was sinking away in my relief. My swan would keep me safe. We looked. We listened as she read someone’s words aloud. Then we shared what we made of that someone’s words.
I began to hear words I recognized - something about a swan. Did I drop something on the floor to become invisible. No one questioned the drawing. Everyone saw a swan. She read my words again and then again. What did we hear. I remember feeling totally locked in place. Numb.
Hands went up. Words were offered. I heard them. They were telling Sister what my poem meant. She and they spoke as though they were describing what I had intended to show.
I had intended to complete the assignment by making up lines to go with the only thing I had managed to draw.
But no. The discussion went on and on. She meant this. No, she meant that. Everyone seemed to feed off everyone else. By the end, I wondered who she was. “She” had meant something so meaningful and significant.
I had not meant anything except to say something about a swan. “She” had nothing to do with me. Sister and everyone else thought they had seen inside of me. I felt more invisible than ever before.
No one ever asked me what I had tried to say. They had figured it out for me. They had loved it. I had not meant any of that. I felt a perfect sham.
In time this exercise made me think of what writers sometimes really mean and what we suppose that they mean. Was what my classmates and my teacher thought they saw really in those lines I drew from air. If so, then it came from air. It did not consciously come from me.
What is it that writers mean when they pen their words. Do they think of all the universe or, sometimes, do they simply think of words, think of them and then let them go and hope they will speak in some way to someone. I wonder, do we ever really know.