This past Saturday morning I was driving westbound on Interstate 10 heading for the monthly Creative Writers Club meeting when a billboard turned my thoughts to a sixth grade classmate of mine – from that single school year when I attended the South Bay Junior Academy, which was (and still is) a Seventh Day Adventist School. Well, I thought about Bonnie Jean, and the love poems this shy eleven-year-old wrote for her, and the fact that I never gave her any of them, although I encoded a few that I presented to her but never revealed how to decode them.
From that memory I segued five years ahead in time to when I wrote poetry and essays on almost a daily basis. One of those circa 1970 poems I wrote was in the vein of Lord Byron’s: “She Walks in Beauty.” Now I wasn’t really writing the poem about anyone in particular but I was quite inspired by the English Romantic poets, which besides Byron, included Keats, Shelly, and of course the penultimate William Blake. Back in those halcyon days it was quite common for some of us to get together and share our poetic attempts with one another and tell each other how good we were. I showed my attempt to emulate Byron to my friend Shelly, which happened to be on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday, and she liked it so much she asked if I’d dedicate it her, which I did. Now since that time I’ve moved a number of times, been through a failed marriage, a house fire, lost floppy disks, and crashed hard drives with misplaced backups and, as a result, only 42 poems and 1 short story (out of the many hundreds) survived from the period of 1960 to 1983, and this one was not one of the lucky ones.
I had liked that poem so much that I’d memorized it and later showed it to my Creative Writing professor at El Camino Junior College who called it trite and clichéish. Well, so much for taste. After I discovered the poem was lost to time I tore through my memory but all I could recall was:
For Shelly Dawson on the occasion of her 16th birthday.
The beauty of my true love
Is far beyond compare
Radiant beams from high above
Accent her body bare.
The grandeur of the mystic moon
Only a fragment of the original.
By the time I entered the city of Upland on that west bound freeway my thoughts turned to the first poem I remember writing. It was late 1960 and I was in the first grade at William Green Elementary School. The previous fall I had been expelled from kindergarten for kicking the principal in the shin and on the first day of the first grade, September 6, 1960, I was told by him that I had to sit at the back of the classroom, turned away from the teacher and students, and was not permitted to turn or participate in class. What I was allowed to do was read any of the books that were shelved across the back of the classroom, draw, or write. Well, you can imagine that it’s quite difficult for a six-year-old not to turn and look when his classmates we’re laughing or giggling and so I was sent across the median to the principal’s office rather frequently for a tearful swat from his carved wooden paddle.
It’s a harsh, broken, memory, but I do recall soon finishing all of the books of even the slightest interest and thus began my writing career with an epic poem about a spy that I’m sure was inspired by one of the books I read while sitting alone at the back of the classroom. It too did not survive the wrath of time but this is how it began:
There once was a spy
The size of a fly
Who went to war
Riding a boar
Well, if you’re thinking it’s a good thing this epic didn’t survive, that’s really okay, because what did survive was the creative spirit born of the necessity for a young boy to entertain himself while seated alone at the back of a classroom.
Like the bits and pieces of the poems my memories survive in much the same way. A little bit from here, a little piece from there, sometimes even an entire scene, and sometimes only a static image of an old friend who is no longer with us, or who simply went on a path that diverged from my own.
Now that I’m nearing the end of my sixth decade I’ve decided to treasure all of my little bits and pieces, be they joyous or painful, because, after all, these fragments are my life.