Mark Jarman’s “Ground Swell” is one of my favorite poems. I taught this poem in my creative writing classes, and gave my students the following writing prompt: What is your ground swell? My students had some amazing stories to tell.
If you click on the link to Poets.org, you can listen to Mark Jarman read his poem. Enjoy!
Ground Swell by Mark Jarman
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen, Going on sixteen, like a corny song? I see myself so clearly then, and painfully-- Knees bleeding through my usher's uniform Behind the candy counter in the theater After a morning's surfing; paddling frantically To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me, Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor's Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt. Is that all I have to write about? You write about the life that's vividest. And if that is your own, that is your subject. And if the years before and after sixteen Are colorless as salt and taste like sand-- Return to those remembered chilly mornings, The light spreading like a great skin on the water, And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges, And--what was it exactly?--that slow waiting When, to invigorate yourself, you peed Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth Crawl all around your hips and thighs, And the first set rolled in and the water level Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck The water surface like a brassy palm, Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed. Yes. But that was a summer so removed In time, so specially peculiar to my life, Why would I want to write about it again? There was a day or two when, paddling out, An older boy who had just graduated And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus, Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water, And said my name. I was so much younger, To be identified by one like him-- The easy deference of a kind of god Who also went to church where I did--made me Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed. He soon was a small figure crossing waves, The shawling crest surrounding him with spray, Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise To notice me among those trying the big waves Of the morning break. His name is carved now On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave That grievers cross to find a name or names. I knew him as I say I knew him, then, Which wasn't very well. My father preached His funeral. He came home in a bag That may have mixed in pieces of his squad. Yes, I can write about a lot of things Besides the summer that I turned sixteen. But that's my ground swell. I must start Where things began to happen and I knew it.
Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets, and her poem about Kansas is particularly significant to me now in many ways. Enjoy!
Driving across the center of Kansas
at midnight, we’re talking about
all our regrets, the ones we didn’t marry,
who married each other, who aren’t happy,
who should have married us.
Ah, it’s a tough world, you say,
taking the wrong road.
Signposts appear and vanish, ghostly,
I’m not aware it’s the wrong road,
I don’t live here,
this is the flattest night in the world
and I just arrived.
Grain elevators startle us,
rimmed by light.
Later you pull over
and put your head on the wheel.
I’m lost, you moan. I have no idea where we are.
I pat your arm.
It’s alright, I say.
Surely there’s a turn-off up here somewhere.
My voice amazes me,
coming out of the silence,
a lit spoon,
here, swallow this.
Words Under the Words, 8th Mountain Press, 1995
We went to visit my father at the nursing home yesterday. He is 92, but he seems to be slipping back in time. He thinks he lives in Dodge City, Kansas. My mom and dad moved to Michigan in 1992. People who worked with him in the restaurant at McKinley-Winter Livestock are alive and running the kitchen at the nursing home. People we camped with at Cedar Bluff or the sandpit are chasing him down the hall to beat him up. These stories remind me of the stories my mother used to tell me, before Alzheimer’s disease erased every memory she had. Dementia and confusion seem to be taking over my father’s brain. He no longer remembers my brain tumor or my surgery. He no longer asks me how I am doing. It is difficult to walk out of the nursing home without feeling incredibly sad. The following is a true story based on the years 1968-1976. Many of my Dodge City girlfriends will remember my dad and his sense of humor.
Who’d a thunk it? My mother said this to me frequently all through her life. The question began popping up when I was younger, typically when someone we knew achieved some minor goal she seemed surprised by. Minor goals were getting a driver’s license or getting a job. My mother’s comments would range from “Some people shouldn’t drive” (something my mother knew too well) or “She’ll last a week on that job.” She immediately followed these statements with “Who’d a thunk it?” Indeed.
The achievement of major goals received equal consideration, but expectations were higher and usually reserved for relatives or neighbors. My mother was finely tuned into the small-town grapevine. Stories meandered around Dodge City, Kansas, a town of seventeen thousand people, circled the metaphorical wagons, and often propelled the unfortunate main character of the story out of town. Since my parents ran a very popular restaurant at a livestock auction place, they were always aware of the dirt on anyone. We certainly did not need reality television.
To fit into the “who’d-a-thunk-it” range, required either very little (depending upon where someone started from) or a lot if one were considered to have at least a little bit on the ball. To be considered a dimwit was a very bad thing. The term “dimwit” was often used to refer to the guys I dated. My mother would say things such as: Well, Mr. X is a real dimwit. Did you see what he was wearing? Or what’s Mr. Y’s problem? He can’t come to the door anymore? What a dimwit. Isn’t Mr. Z a little too old for you? He should date girls his own age, the dimwit. He’s robbing the cradle. She seemed to be bothered by the fact that Mr. Z was nineteen, and I was fourteen.
“Mom, we met in church camp.”
“Last year it was the blonde in the hearse at church camp. How old was he? Sixteen? You were thirteen?”
I did not fill my mother in on the rest of the stories of my complicated love life with older men although she had a way of looking at me that sometimes made me think she knew. Had she somehow found out Mr. Z had an older girlfriend whose friends threatened me with physical harm because of our clandestine romance during church camp? The blonde’s downfall came when he showed up at my house in a hearse (non-functional), and my father somehow connected his arrival to the popping of the snap above my zipper on belly-button exposing blue jeans. “What the hell?” my father asked before he even started up the sidewalk. I’m sure my mother heard about it, and she probably found the long, love letters he had written to me. Perhaps I was the dimwit.
My mother’s method of dissecting boyfriends contrasted sharply with my father’s method of controlling my dating behavior. If he didn’t like the poor unfortunate teenage boy I was infatuated with, he had a particular outfit he would wear as he sat in his recliner in the living room, conveniently located near the front door. My father could also look out the window and see the car as it passed in front of our house and turned into the driveway. We lived on a dead end road. My father liked to wear his white jockey underwear and smoke a cigar in the evening. Upon the arrival of the boyfriend’s car in the driveway, he would yell, “Hey, throw me the afghan.” I’d throw the damn yellow and brown afghan his way, and beg him to get dressed. Please. Pretty please.
This routine was typically a very good way to get rid of potential suitors. Parents of today may want to try this. Imagine your young daughter is thrilled to be going out with the cool guy in high school (after she has been beaten down in her attempts to date older church-camp-going boys). He shows up. She is wearing an extremely cute mini-skirt, an embroidered shirt, and platform shoes. Her hair is perfect. She has talked about this date for two weeks, until you feel as if the next step in the relationship is marriage. You are the father (or mother, although this could bring up other, larger issues if the mother is waiting in bra and underpants), and you express extreme disinterest as the object of your daughter’s affection stands before your recliner throne, while you puff away on a brown stogie, with an afghan covering your underwear, and you say: “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”
If my father liked the young man, wait, I have no idea. It never happened. The only young man I remember my father being fully dressed for, without afghan and cigar, was my future husband, Jim. Of course, my father had to know my fiancée was coming, because we were driving in from Michigan during a Kansas blizzard. If my future husband had been driving in alone, I am sure the conversation would have gone differently, and my mother would have said dimwit, and my father would have stripped down to his underwear.
One last thing: My mother never let me leave the house on a date without washing the dishes. Guilt, guilt, guilt, and we weren’t even Catholic. My dates had to help me finish the dishes if we were running late, and we were always running late. If the poor unfortunate boy showed up early, he would also be forced to sit at the table with us and make small talk. This would happen once per suitor.
My mother stood firm in her conviction. Dishes aren’t done? No date. Dad’s in the living room in his undies smoking a cigar? No problem. I’m surprised teenage boys ever dated me more than once, or that I ever married. Who’d a thunk it?