"Marathon" and commentary by Heather Thomas
In the room of not-knowing,
you are texting, thumbs fluttering
in your lap like butterflies
until I mark you absent
because there are no butterflies here.
Text is now a verb like like.
Kitchen pots used for bombs!
Crystal exclaims from the corner,
scanning her iPad amid
"A Ritual to Read to Each Other."
The world's a broken bell jar.
A rabbit will be king of the ghosts.
Three days' fever washed out of my hair,
I'm about to reveal the difference
between lightning and a lightning bug,
between logical and ethical appeals.
Despite the bombing in Boston,
this is not quaint. This is not
an academic exercise. This is King
writing his Letter from Birmingham Jail
and my lesson against forgetting.
Each day it breaks through
the cocoons before me as you
who are writing down your lives
on the bomb of an alien god.
To climb out of the craters
and the hate they contain
with the same hands that move
a pen. In your taps on the screen
I hear the rush of wings opening.
"Marathon" (Vortex Street, FutureCycle Press, 2018) was first published in Fledgling Rag; also in the online anthology Excavating Honesty: Rage and Hope in America (Paper Nautilus Press).
On April 15, 2013, news of the Boston Marathon bombing interrupted my poetry writing class at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Far from Boston, my students and I were work-shopping their poems when one student's iPad flashed with the dreadful news.
"Kitchen pots used for bombs!" she blurted out from the back of the room.
"What? What happened?" I asked, with unbelieving ears. Others were craning their necks toward her iPad. Suddenly our classroom cocoon was torn open: Two bombs made of pressure cookers filled with nails, ball bearings, and black powder had exploded near the finish line of the race in Boston. Three people were dead and hundreds injured. In our distant classroom we felt the shock of living in a violent culture.
In her memoir "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf describes a feeling of shock during moments of daily life--a fight with her brother, the sight of a flower, news of a neighbor's suicide--when the scrim of unconsciousness, innocence, or ignorance is torn from her eyes. An uncanny discovery or recognition cuts through the unremarkable "cotton wool" of dailiness. The "sudden violent shock" (71) marks her for life.
News of the bombing came to us as one of those sudden violent shocks. It didn't matter that we were hundreds of miles from the scene. Pivoting from our workshop, we began a freewheeling discussion of what we knew and didn't know. Then I suggested that we pull in and write. Journals came out and the free-writing began. "Write whatever comes," I said. "If nothing comes, make marks on the page until a word arises. Go with it. Don't stop." I wanted my students to find a space of their own and notice what was going on inside. Perhaps they would find a way to their senses, to memory, or to imagination "where there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself" (Wallace Stevens 209).
I wrote with my students. In two weeks classes would be over, and I might not see them again. I wanted to write them a poem. I knew only that the poem would begin with this moment we'd shared. It would struggle to its senses out of my own shock, dullness, and confusion, as news facts converged with memory and history in a continuous present. In the "room of not-knowing," language would speak me through the process. I trusted and followed.
To some extent, teaching was a process of entering a "room of not-knowing" as I engaged students in a spirit of discovery and inquiry into a poem and its practice. They wrote on laptops or the pages of notebooks, but I insisted their phones be put away. Anyone texting, their thumbs "fluttering" like butterflies, was marked absent. Literally, there were "no butterflies here." In a poetry class filled with English/Professional Writing majors, everyone wanted to count as present.
I could understand the need to grab their phones immediately as class was ending. They craved constant contact with friends and loved ones. When we heard about the bombing, I wanted to call home immediately. I felt a heaviness in my heart, the same feeling I had on 9/11 in my 8 a.m. creative writing class. A colleague passing by my open door motioned me out into the hall. She said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She said another plane was on its way to the Pentagon. I felt a violent shock as I turned back toward my students and stoically told them. Then we were all in shock. I remembered seventh-grade reading class when my teacher came into the room and told us President Kennedy had been shot. Immediately she dismissed us. I walked home alone. The house was empty. My 12-year-old eyes seemed to go dark. I didn't know what to do. On 9/11 I suggested that my students and I write for a few minutes. We each wrote alone, yet in that room we formed a community of writers.
"Does anyone want to share?" I asked on the day of the Marathon bombing. Silence blanketed the room. Everyone knew sharing was voluntary. Time ticked on. Then one brave voice broke the silence, and another followed, until several students had read aloud. I thought of William Stafford's poem "A Ritual To Read to Each Other." My students had not let "the fragile sequence break."
As I began writing "Marathon," I invoked my own community of writers, each of whom, it could be said, wrote through their shocks of being in transformative ways. This poem could not go it alone. In came Sylvia Plath's suffocating bell jar broken open into a difficult world next to Stevens's "rabbit as king of the ghosts" (209). Then, Mark Twain's iconic distinction "between lightning and a lightning bug," advice on the need for precision.
Everything mattered in writing; an awakening about syntax--the relation between subjects and objects, for instance--transposed itself onto the world, where the struggle between subjects and objects could be seen in racism and sexism. "This was not an academic exercise," I wrote in the poem.
In composition class we had read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail," composed after his arrest for protesting segregation in the city where the KKK would soon bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four African-American girls and injuring others. Bigotry harms us all, King wrote. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (389).
The poets and writers entering "Marathon" had helped to guide me toward my life in poetry and my vocation of teaching. Members of my literary family, they were my companions of conscience, a phrase Stevens used to describe his poetry. "Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds." Yet his conscience failed to acknowledge his own racism, perhaps the unspoken limit of his famously infinite imagination. His poems have accompanied me, and continue to, the way a failed father might, who is nonetheless idolized by his child.
Another beloved and troubling member of my literary family, Anne Sexton, followed him into "Marathon" with her "bomb of an alien god" (419). Speaking directly to my students, I urged them to climb out of "the craters and the hate they contain / with the same hands that move / a pen." Now I heard their "taps on the screen" differently. The sound came through my ears with a shadow of sight, the butterflies born in a "rush of wings opening."
Woolf, who haunts "Marathon," is missing because I was not teaching her work that semester. She called "the shock-receiving capacity" central to the making of a writer, as she will want to explain the shock, and reveal it. "I will make it real by putting it into words," Woolf wrote. "It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me" (72).
Seven years after "Marathon" was written (this essay was submitted in 2020), our nation is immersed in two parallel and deadly pandemics, one new, one old: the novel coronavirus and our original sin of racism. The nationwide protests against police brutality following the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, are inextricably linked with the coronavirus. The fact that many more African Americans than whites are dying from the virus is just one linkage. MLK again: "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
I hear King's words with a shadow of sight that stretches back to my childhood. I'm 11 standing alone in front of the TV in my parents' house. I see child protesters in Birmingham hit with firehose streams that would peel the bark off a tree. As I watch, shocked and confused, I think we are alike because we are about the same age. I don't see them as different because of their skin color. Then I don't see them at all as I sit down for dinner with my parents, and nothing is said. Snarling police dogs had lunged on leashes toward the protesting children's parents. Images seared in my brain for life. Yet I don't remember any discussions in my white suburban school. I went on in my shocked aloneness, not understanding such violence. That year at Thanksgiving, I heard my uncle use the N-word in a joke. I was discovering my own shock-receiving capacity. It would forge a despair that grew, fed by other events in my life, until I found a courage to write and later managed to avoid the deaths of despair suffered by my early inspirations, Plath and Sexton.
I wrote "Marathon" because I wanted my students to know that they could survive, find purpose, and thrive in the world, despite evidence to the contrary, which always exists. I wanted my students to have the knowledge, bravery, resilience, and tenacity to refute that evidence. I wanted them to know they had the power to create a life of possibility. I wanted my writing class to nurture that space of possibility. And for them to remember, long after the final levitation of the book bags when class was over, and I was gone.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Patterns for College Writing: A
Rhetorical Reader and Guide, Laurie Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandel, Bedford
St. Martin's, 2010.
Sexton, Anne. "The Children." The Complete Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Stafford, William. The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Graywolf Press, 1999.
Stevens, Wallace. "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts." The Collected Poems,
Vintage/Random House, 1990.
---. "On Receiving the Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America." Opus Posthumous,
edited by Milton J. Bates, Borzoi/Alfred A Knopf, 1989.
Twain, Mark. Qtd. in The Art of Authorship, edited by George Bainton, 1890.
quoteinvestigator.com/2019/09/02/lightning/ . Accessed 4 June 2020.
Woolf, Virginia. "A Sketch of the Past." Moments of Being, edited by Jeanne Schulkind,
Harvest HBJ, 1985.
"Marathon" is published in Vortex Street, FutureCycle Press, 2018.