With the onset of summer, I can’t help but always be reminded of kids on bikes. Of kids playing tag. Of kids running the streets till dusk, their voices echoing up and through every open window, every screen door. I know because I was one of those kids. I typically spent all day at the community playground, riding my bike up and down the enormous hill on Ionoff Road, where at the top was a gravelly road and an unfinished cul de sac. I would circle that driveway, fast, and gain momentum before coasting downhill, feet removed from the pedals, certain I would either be tossed from my bike or perhaps hit warp speed and end up elsewhere. Either way, I loved it.
So, for this week’s selection, I pulled “Slow Children Playing” from my MFA Thesis. This poem is a good 10 years old, and it’s one I came to like. It’s a poem based mostly on very real events and memories from my childhood in Paxton Crossing. And, yes, on several occassions we made each other pass out, as described in the poem. Looking back there’s something awfully scary about it, and you realize it’s the sort of things kids do because there is no sense of their own mortality. In any event, the title comes from those street signs that warn drivers to slow down because children are playing, only I always read it to mean that slow children were at play. It’s the asshole in me, I suppose. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the great poet James Tate, whose wonderful poem “Deaf Girl Playing” (from Absences) also acted as inspiration. (And by the way, I’d urge any of you to pick up Tate’s first collection, The Lost Pilot, whose title poem remains one of my most favorite pieces ever written.)
Slow Children Playing
We positioned one man flush against the fence,
arms folded across his chest in a self-hug, and he
took a massive breath as one of us collapsed
our fists against his sternum, knocking him out cold.
In summer we’d escape to that modest playground
every evening and well-past lights out – only footsteps
from our parents, from our respective front doors,
and somehow area codes away. My brother, me,
our cousins, Matt and Josh, and the rest of the neighbor-
punks searching for air or a secret smoke, each of us
arriving by bicycle, a ridiculous row of Huffys
and Schwinns: the escape vehicles of the underage.
After dark, in that quiet, sweet-smelling breeze
particular to summer – the one that wafted newly-
cut grass and each other’s sweat smack into our bronzed
and peeling faces – all hell’d break loose. We hung
insults like Pussy and Fag on the shoulders of the closest
man, busting each other with gut-shots and jabs, unafraid
of a little blood or the bruises that would purple
by morning. We must have been crazed or stupid to think
no one would ever hear us, or care. But we’d always
end up back beneath the weather-beaten signpost at the end
of my development, the one that cautioned Slow
Children Playing, where the swing-set, see-saw, and merry-
go-round fastened by stripped lug-nuts and bolts struggled
to hold things together. There we took turns slipping in
and out of consciousness, laughing uncontrollably as our
unsuspecting bodies spasmed and flailed beneath the full
moon of summer, the spots of light that glimmered off
our teeth, never knowing for sure if any of us would wake up.