We Share the Earth and Sky: Reading Student Poems in the Pandemic

by Peter Markus

Lucky for me, when the pandemic hit last March and schools here in Michigan were shut down, I still had a job to do. I’ll tell you a bit about that job in a minute, but first let me share a poem with you by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, who writes in his poem “The Tree and the Sky”:

There’s a tree walking around in the rain,
it rushes past us in the pouring grey.
It has a job to do. It gathers life
out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard.

When the rain stops so does the tree.
There it is, quiet on clear
nights waiting as we do for the moment
when the snowflakes blossom in space.

(Translation by Robin Fulton)

My work takes place in the schools, where I am a writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts in Detroit. My job: to inspire students to write, to write poetry, which in its own way is a kind of gathering of “life / out of the rain like a blackbird in an orchard.”

The main job that I had to do, when the school year was cut short, was to make sure that I not only gathered together, but that I also bring out into the world, through publication, the poems that my students—in Detroit, in Dearborn, in River Rouge—had written up until that second week of March. 

Like trees that blossom in the spring, whose branches fill with leaves, my students had given me much to be thankful for. Or as poet James Wright realizes at the end of his poem, “A Blessing”: 

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

In the work that I do, I often invite my students to step outside their own selves, to enter into what we often like to refer as “The Poetry Portal.” We take our hands and draw with them a circle in front of each of us and on the count of three we collectively step inside. Even the air inside this space seems suddenly easier to breathe. 

As I sat down with their writing folders, many of which are decorated by their elaborate doodles filled with their handwritten poems inside, I was reminded, time and again, of why I do the work that I do.

Here’s a few of their poems which so often speak about love, and the heart, and the fact that both anything is possible in a poem, and nothing is ever as it seems to be: “waiting as we do for the moment / when the snowflakes blossom in space.”

Student Writing: 

Not Just A Circle
by Hanady M., Grade 3

This isn’t just a circle,
this is a hula hoop
that I can play with.
This isn’t just a hula hoop
that I can play with,
this is a snowball made by the sky.
This isn’t just a snowball
made by the sky,
this is a poem.
This isn’t just a poem,
this is a light
used to see words.

by Kartier W., Grade 5

Always be
like an elephant
who lets a bird get on
its back.

Under a Tree
by Anwar S., Grade 3

The sky sees a little boy
with a blue balloon under a tree.
The sky hears everyone
talking about it
and writing about it.
The sky thinks of a huge tree
that gets cut down.
The sky wonders if an earthquake
is happening in the middle
of the ocean. The sky
wants to go to sleep early today.

Self-Portrait as Robot with Butterfly Wings
by Jaleelah A., Grade 3

What if my eyes were a river
with fish swimming in them?
What if looking at them meant
you would have to look forever?
What if my head was made of jelly
waiting to be eaten?
What if my hair was a forest
made of dazzling stars?
What if my mouth is full of rocks
in the water like a beach?
What if my body was both
a robot and a butterfly with wings?

I could go on and on with these poems. There is an abundance here—in these poems written by children under the age of ten—that fills my heart, that makes pushing on and pushing through worth it. Maybe we all have a job to do, to make sure that the voices of these children are not only heard but listened to.

Green Folder
by Hasna M. Grade 3

So much depends
folder filled with
wonderful poems.

Yes, so much depends upon us, all of us, in this world together.

For Earth
by Mukbal O., Grade 3

The universe admits a secret:
“I am really just the galaxy
helping the earth fix itself.”

Peter Markus is the author of six books, the latest of which is Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools. He is the Senior Writer with InsideOut Literary Arts and is a frequent contributor to Teachers & Writers Magazine

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