By Mary Jo Salter
As punishment, my father said, the nuns
would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.
Punishment? The pounding symphony
of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead
(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)
was more than remedy, it was reward
for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)
and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk
baton, the only one who got to talk.
Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,
poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black
chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices
gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell
this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.
Mary Jo Salter is a poet, lyricist, playwright and essayist, whose latest collection of poems, “A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems,” was published in March 2008. Salter’s essays and reviews appear in the New York Times Book Review and other publications. She has received numerous awards, including NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. She is a professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.