I first heard this poem when Orlean Anderson read it at a Northern Virginia Writing Project party in the summer of – what was it, 2002? 2003? I remember her reading it to us as we sat on the floor of someone else’s living room, the lot of us, for the summer, if not forever, writers, professionals, teachers, committed to our teaching and our writing, our learning and our students’ learning. And I remember thinking, as I heard the poem, that someday, maybe, I’d bring that poem into my classroom.
I never did.
As the file of poetry grew – first on overhead transparencies and later simply stored on the school’s server as a whole mess of zeroes and ones – it somehow never made the cut. It was just a little too much, I thought. It went just a little too far, like the one line about a “stifled come-cry” in Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” a poem that, like “Practicing,” I’ve also never read in class. And while I like the poem, like both poems, there never really seemed to be a compelling reason to offer it to the class. It’s somehow more acceptable, I suspect, to read something like Sherman Alexie’s “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City,” with its line about “Don-fucking-Henley” than it is to read of girls sucking each other’s breasts and leaving marks, lifting their nightgowns and letting the straps drop.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re both unacceptable. Maybe I’m fooling myself into thinking that either one was so much merit (either as poetry or as motivation to kids to read more poetry) to warrant its presence in my classroom. Maybe it’s just an illusion I sell myself: that we’re old enough, mature enough that this isn’t a problem, that the fact that AP English is a college class justifies treating it as such, as possessing the kind of freedom you might find in public university classroom.
Here, in any case, is what I like most about Howe’s poem: the pretense of what the girls are doing, the artifice with which they cloak their actions: this is practice, just practice; now you be the boy (for one of us has to if this it to be merely practice).
And what is kept internal, what is thought but not said, and the two ways that that works in the poem: first, the girls thinking (but not saying) “that feels good” and “I like that, and, second, the truth of the first kisses kept, for the most part, unmentioned, though obviously remembered.
And how there is something left unrevealed in the daylight, kept hidden, no matter how pure that “unreluctant desire” might have been.
And the imagery that constantly reminds us of childhood and of youthful indiscretion and experimentation: we were stoned on kisses, sleeping bags, Linda’s basement being like a boat, etc.
Growing up might mean learning how to acknowledge the truth of such desires, learning how to bring them into the daylight, but it also means learning how to hide others, learning how to be less and less emotionally open, emotionally available in order that the world, the others, the other selves, the other lives, can’t press quite so insistently, quite so painfully, and quite so joyfully on your own.
The poem calls it “practicing.” And that is what we call it. Getting ready. We tell ourselves that so much of being young is practicing, is preparing. Preparing for adulthood. Preparing for real life. We call it practicing, but I’m afraid we rarely have the courage to actually participate in the game itself, to move beyond rehearsal, to stop getting ready and start being ready, to stop preparing and start living, start participating, and start being.