Elementary

Most mornings I deliver my child
into the arms of strangers

who will lead him through passages
papered in apples and rainbows,

pencils and stars, each holding
a single name, the names’ owners a crush

shouting cascades of syllables, furious energy
heating the room, swallowing my joyful son.

Not safe to play outside today
—shadows hoard snow, perilous footing—

so they’ll gossip and make messes, grow
irritated with each other in a room

where one side is all glass, spilling
light over their worksheets and books,

their backpacks and tissue boxes
their chairs with grimy tennis-ball feet.

Their teacher is winter-tired. I feel it too,
walking home in the keen wind

through the silent neighborhood.
Behind me the school looms lightly

jutting out from a hill like a glacial castoff,
red boulder among pebble houses.

I don’t know the grit in my neighbors, just
their placid shells: yards and sensible siding,

cat under a pergola, dutiful recycling bins.
Landscape painted with smoke and pine sap.

Potted cypresses guard a red door.
Here’s a garage left open, a crisp flag,

a stack of pallets tenderly grazing a gutter,
old oak arresting the downward press of sky.

This afternoon, a shell cracks: something
brackish spurts. Fighting, maybe guns.

Police come. At the school locked doors,
lights turned out. No help for windows.

Later, my arms shaking around
the luscious weight of not this time,

I listen while my six-year-old explains,
calmly, as if there is no other way,

how they turned their desks into shields
“like Captain America,” how they huddled

near the sink where they wash away
paint and glue, how they were oh so quiet,

how today, they needed to be perfect.

 

Carolyn Oliver’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in FIELD, The Shallow Ends, The Greensboro Review, Booth, Gulf Stream Magazine, Tar River Poetry, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her writing can be found at carolynoliver.net.