I was just looking at this poem by Rosa Alcala called “Pedagogy.” It’s a poem about a woman looking at another woman and each of them is a woman of “another” generation and “another” race so the narrator’s looking (perhaps) across an enormous divide. Yet looking is the place where all these distances meet. This looking happens most expediently in film but it happens in teaching in a much rawer way and this is a poem about that. How much can I (the poet) bear to see. The classroom when one begins to teach can be a breathtaking experience if you can survive their collective gaze. The sea of them frozen and hating you when you stand at the front of the room. This sensation recedes but always threatens to return erratically over the months or the years of your teaching life. The new teacher can’t believe how much they loathe and distrust her. They turn in their writing and then she realizes they are brilliant, scared, suspicious, worshipful, a million things that they have learned through their years of “learning” and according to the ways of their families of keeping it all from ever showing on their face. The face is often a blank page in the classroom and I think one never truly learns to read it; you just get better in trusting your own thoughts and ideas and better at not editing them on the basis of imagined scorn. A payoff for this harrowing progress is you begin to see them apart from what they might be thinking about you.

. . . do I see her as me:
being batty, as they say of old women, getting ready to dive
into it fully, as if the older body that awaits is of water and will
swallow and distort me and fill my ears with a physical
history, most likely my own? Was she teaching me how to put myself
then pull myself apart
to reach for the other me in the wake?

The delivery of this poem contains multitudes of skillful acts for instance she moves us around with flat labile rhymes:

A notable fact:
there was no audience or class
and she sat in the back of the room
in a chair

She ends the poem after a couple of asterisks with a quick inventory of who either woman might be now or in the future. Here’s a bit:

1) My bones are speaking
and they are numbered. 2) My breasts

give milk, grow tired
and longer.

I mean the thing about writing about the female body, writing about another woman being one and simultaneously or in recollection opening oneself to also existing as that thing - a woman, someone who remains a cultural other, even or especially as she ages:

Everything about her was sharp, she did not
exceed her limits, though her age hung
from her

The thing about this kind of writing is that maybe this poem should already be written for good. A younger poet friend of mine remarked about a reading by a group of women poets last week that they were all writing about “the body.” And I think not feeling it, the need to do that is not such a gift. Yet the woman’s body is often in the man’s poem. While his own isn’t. We seem to be building it again and again, femaleness. Because a female writer at some point, or many points literally is claiming the otherness of being female and begins reeling her in. It’s a rescue of sorts, of an entire class, one by one. In this case here, in Rosa’s poem the woman has already become a scary boat, and Rosa Alcala exits her own poem alone with awe:

“I admit to praying//on desperate occasions.” The line between prayer and poetry has been liquefied in the mundane vision of this poem, in the classroom, of all places. Let’s return to what she saw:

Everything about her was sharp, she did not
exceed her limits, though her age hung
from her

This little patch of description is like a whoosh but a slow one: sharp, exceed, and hung, and together those words make a vehicle because the act of seeing is only not static, cause that’s how the seeing stops, not begins.

Originally Published: October 31st, 2011

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...