“I never thought of it that way.” If you say this after reading a poem, the poet has done his or her job. The whole purpose of poetry, after all, is to make you consider the ordinary in a novel way. At least to you.
Take a cliché like, “You need to slow down and smell the roses.” Yes. Gives you the heebie-jeebies a bit, doesn’t it? Then you read a poem like Faith Shearin’s “Retired” and see it another way.
What if you learned patience and slowing down from people who have no choice but to be patient and slow down—the elderly? When you think about retired folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, a whole vista of modified approaches to an otherwise fast life appears. Check it out:
by Faith Shearin
On the island where I was a child
nearly everyone was retired, their fortunes
already made. Death was around them
the way water was around our streets.
They taught me how to go fishing
without catching fish; the tide’s breath
was marked in notebooks they kept
beneath their pillows. One old lady
fed me chocolates from a tin
until my teeth were stained by greed.
The old do things slowly so I grew used
to grocery store lines
that did not move, cars that stopped
in the middle of the road. One man spent
a whole day helping me bury a squirrel;
we wrote odes and dirges
to the way it once hurried and planned.
First, we’re situated on an island, which we can’t help but associate with either vacations or retirement living. No one’s thinking of Rhode or Long Island, let’s put it that way. Instead, we get a Caribbean flavor.
“Death was around them / the way water was around our streets” is a metaphorical echo of the setting. Then it’s on to activities in a key of largo (the musical term for “slow” by way of Italian and Latin): fishing, nibbling chocolate bon-bons, waiting in grocery store lines, sitting in traffic.
And the final stroke, incorporating the couplets-to-final-single-line-for-emphasis technique? Burying a squirrel. Taking forever to do it. Then noting the ironic contrast: “…we wrote odes and dirges / to the way it once hurried and planned.”
That’d be us, gentle readers. The ones just compared to a silly squirrel running madly about all day, burying nuts in locations it will never even remember.
Makes a squirrelly sort rather sheepish, doesn’t it?