The word is the making of the world. —Wallace Stevens
It’s a filmstrip afternoon
and we’re all grateful
to the humming projector
in the middle of our desks,
the closed blinds, the absence of a real adult.
There’s a vague promise of revelation
from the title
and the dark, tree-lined streets, the voice
calling from a house
carrying within it our freedom not to answer.
Inside another house, a little girl in a pretty dress
is falling asleep
at her father’s desk, turning into
Alice in Wonderland
as her mind falls down the rabbit holes of grammar.
The Mad Hatter and Jabberwocky
tell her to lure
the letters into a trap so they can beat them
to death with mallets.
We’d like to see that. Without words
no one could tell us what to do.
We know grammar is just a byproduct,
like schizophrenia, of a brain that grew
too fast for its own good
and that history is a series of conspiracies
by accidental despots. Mrs. Bradford is
falling asleep on the wide window ledge,
her blue polyester pants gapped
to reveal her white socks
and pink spotted shins. We try not to look.
The Mad Hatter doesn’t say that the alphabet
was first used to keep track of property
or that for centuries people believed
if women learned to write
the lost world would never be recovered
or that the Mayans believed
outsiders wrote things down
not in order to remember them
but to free themselves
into the work of forgetting.
That year Mrs. Bradford taught us about
the Lewis & Clark expedition
over and over again. We never learned
why it mattered so much to her
or what possible use it could be to anyone.
The professor tells Judy about
the thousands of words
Arabs needed for camels and their parts,
the dozen words Eskimos had for snow,
and a chimp who learned seven human words.
A voice made visible says:
magic is a matter of fact to you,
Every miracle has to have its qualifications,
and our heads rise from our desks.
The rest of the year will be a series of
who teach us nothing but footnotes
and their own reservations.
Mrs. Bradford dead of a brain tumor.
We sit in our sixth-grade desks with the blinds
closed against the tree-lined streets
as the letters of the world rise up
and, forming a single word,
eclipse our world and fill our mouths with shadows.