American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29
Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:
Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Reflections on Lives Past
During the autumn of 1994, I was a full-time ACLS fellow immersed in studies of Shakespearean tragedy, the Harlem Renaissance, and poetry. It was, however, the life and work of Langston Hughes that was and still is my major study of interest.
Although a familiar name to me in August, Langston Hughes was still a stranger. By January he had become a close acquaintance. As I read about his childhood in Missouri, Kansas, and Ohio, I thought about my own. As I read his accounts of his grandmother and the influence she had on him, I reflected on my own grandmother and the imprint she had made on my psyche. As I read his poetry, I began to write my own. A by-product of my studies of Langston Hughes has been an exploration of my own roots.
My paternal grandparents and father immigrated to this country in the mid-1930s from Lithuania. My grandparents were in their early forties when they left everybody and everything but for their immediate family and a few personal belongings. Almost everyone they left was murdered by the Nazis or by Lithuanian fascists. My grandparents were married for sixty-five years until my grandfathers death in 1885. My grandmother lived for another seven years in grace and dignity. Sestina for a Grande Dame is dedicated to her memory.
Sestina for a Grande Dame
She was always the Grande Dame of our family realm,
ruling from the regal heights of a former world.
It was vanishing, she feared, so she tried to focus
our mundane visions on allegories and stories,
(of her uncle from Berlin who bought her trousseau),
to her claims that she was a voice in our lives.
We knew her in our life, not the many lives
she had already lived with her family
in cities and villages and towns where the power
resided in an affluent language our world
does not speak and will not learn so stories
remain buried beneath layers of lenses out of focus.
She commanded through her presence that the present focus
on the past, that her childrens childrens lives
remember their heritage through her stories
about a time when sacrifice secured family
values of unity and spirituality in a world
that was losing its center through its abuse of power.
We understood that her source of power
was in her uncanny ability to focus
our sights, if only fleetingly, into her world
of backs bent over books and female hands with lives
of their own encircling candles that gave light to family
memory collectively created to pass on her stories.
She never forgot a detail as she sifted stories
like sand through hands that had once held power
in a Polish shtetl on the German border where her family
life centered around her holy father whose prayers focused
on searching eyes imprisoned in gaunt bodies and tattered lives,
but his attentions rested on her. He was her world.
We were humbled by her blend of the simple with her world
wiseness that yielded recipes for stories
so rich in taste that our own lives
became bland, not by her design, by our loss of power
in a culture committed to sound-bites of unfocused
rage compelling us to seek solace in our family.
She regaled us with fables of her old world family
but pierced our souls with poignant stories focusing
her breath on her second life and giving power to our lives.
Fredric Lown has taught English, Drama, and Social Studies for over 20 years in the Randolph and Brookline, MA, public schools. With poet Judith Steinbergh, he is co-authoring a two-volume text/anthology on teaching poetry to youth, to be published in the spring of 1996 by J. Weston Walch of Portland, ME. He was a 199495 ACLS fellow.