details

Joyce Sutphen writes these first three lines in her poem, My Luck:

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

It’s the details that I love: It was a medium-sized farm tractor, provoking the reader to imagine the treads of the wheels, the rain-worn sun-faded red paint, perhaps even the stack of the exhaust pipe. We may be unsure if there’s an enclosed cab, a windshield coated with dust except for the path swept out by the wiper blade that pivots from above, but the possibilities are now revealed because we’ve been pushed off this conceptual and emotional slope, avalanching with images that started with the humble snowball of the “medium-sized farm tractor.”

But also: “Medium-sized” makes me wonder if that is good or bad to be run over by. At least it wasn’t a full-sized farm tractor, we might say; or, If only her father had run her over with a small yard tractor, that would be better evidence that he really loved her.

And that’s the other detail that strikes me. Her father, who loved her — she spares space and words for this phrasing in the precious austerity of the opening stanza. Of course her father loved her, we must assume, because he is her father and she’s writing about him; but it’s that much more critical to emphasize this at the outset, given the turn of events. “Medium-sized,” in this case, is not so much nearly a large tractor as it’s just barely larger than a small tractor. And, in spite of the medium-sized evidence, please be assured this accident was in no way indicative of the quality of caregiver represented by this man atop the red farm equipment, a perch from which he surely jumped down in panic.

I’ve had several prompts lately that have gotten me thinking about details in and of writing. John recently reached out to me to explain that he and Sherry were composing their regular editorial piece for the little journal they manage. In it, they were trying to make the point and provide models from pieces in that issue of how to provide examples and details in science education research. As he was explaining this in the opening of an email to me, I could foresee the text continuing far below what my screen could reveal immediately.

Scrolling and reading further, I saw where this was going. Would it be okay if we used that poem you posted recently as an example? But, there’s just one thing, could you edit the last lines in order to add some clarity? He explained this politely and astutely. There was something of a dangling modifier in the last section, and even though it was obvious from context what these lines were saying, it burdens the reader with an extra mental maneuver.

So, the punch line to this was that I was being asked permission to have a poem I just whimsically threw out to the world to find publication in a scholarly journal. This is absurd; I immediately jumped at the opportunity/dare. But I needed to edit the piece.

The thing about editing is that it invites more editing. It’s the details that became important to me. 90% of the work was invested into a 10% improvement, which is typical for creative endeavors, I’m convinced. (And as I write this, I’m thinking that if I were really devoted to this piece, I’d put in again ten times more work to make it one-tenth better.) I fiddled with the last stanza and the clarity, coming up with two different options that I agonized over for two days before I chose the second one with modifications. But opening up those edits also opened up edits to other lines. Ideas were re-parsed and phrases got new paint. And then I became bothered with the entire geometry of line breaks and spacing — such small details woke me up in the middle of the night, as though a piece of poetry buried in the middle of an op ed in a specialized journal was the most important thing. Which, it was, to me, in that moment.

This reflection on detail and writing is really just a ruse to announce that I’m now a published poet. Or, maybe, it’s more clear to say that I have a poem that has found its way onto a printed page, embedded into the more eloquent and serious ideas of serious editors in a serious publication. It was solidified on the pages of Science Education(here) a few weeks ago and will arrive in mailboxes and library shelves (for those libraries who still have such) in weeks to come.

For myself, the best outcome was that I have a poem, ten percent better than it was in its original state, slightly clearer in its detail, and more meaningful to me as a result.

the physics teacher’s children have no shoes

I admired the progress of the carpenter’s work
on our home as I swept up decades old dust
released from the ceiling. Now,
spackling paste still wet around the edges,
vertical space has expanded
and a smoothed wall invites new coats of paint.

I wondered if at his house could there be
a still unfinished door frame?
A window doesn’t close quite right.
After each long day of upgrading strangers’ residences,
a sagging gutter taunts him at home.
The cobbler’s children have no shoes, they say.

So for good measure, I’ve thought,
I could leave behind eraser shavings,
spread out some loose fragments of paper.
A block and inclined plane scratched out on one,
just a question mark next to the coefficient of friction.
On another, a rotating pulley with its mass yet unknown.

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