Community Feedback: Caits Meissner reads “Miss Bradshaw” by Ellen Birkett Morris
Community Feedback is our recurring column that provides an opportunity for our audience to get some quick, free & exceptional feedback on a new poem. Submit your poem here. This month’s guest editor is Caits Meissner.
This month, we chose the long poem “Miss Bradshaw” by Ellen Birkett Morris. Scroll down to the bottom for Caits Meissner’s comments. Thank you to all of our submitters.
She was impossibly tall and unimaginably old,
though I was small and young,
so this may have skewed my perspective.
I see a plaid dress, hair a neat bob,
Cat-eye glasses, but nothing,
not her height nor her vision,
kept Miss Bradshaw from manning the little red wagon.
I sat in front of her, my legs folded into the wagon
as she rode side saddle pushing with her feet until
the slight downhill slope of the playground propelled us.
She flung the wagon handle forward at just the right time
to stop us from running into the fence.
The delicious mix of danger and safety
that are part of all worldly experiences.
Nap time, when she caught me crawling over to kiss Jeff Martain
and said no kissy, kissy and we all laughed, even me.
But my most vivid recollection was of a spring day,
parents lining the playground, as we wound
long ribbons around a maypole. How when I fell
she came over, took my hand, and together we held the ribbon
and skipped in perfect time with the other children
until the pole was resplendent in rainbow colors.
Find Myself Curious
This portrait poem of Miss Bradshaw is a blooming tribute, an ode to a larger than life character of acceptance, and safety, in the speaker’s childhood. I love the world that is beginning to emerge in this poem: the impossibly tall teacher due to the perspective of the young speaker, crawling to kissykissy on the nap time cot. There is a wonderful innocence in the voice, achieved through the storytelling quality of the poem, and the full sentences broken by line. Ooo the exquisite music of slight slope of the playground propelled us and wound long ribbons around!
For me, the rhythm of the poem really catches a groove in the last 4 lines— but here, I also get caught. Even though I like the sounds of resplendent (especially near the alliterative rainbow), I wonder is it too big a word for the mouth of this poem? I can’t help but think of Sandra Cisnero’s Esperanza in the House on Mango Street, and how effective her young voice is. Could this poem benefit from pushing the voice to be more boldly childlike? Could pulling back even further, in fact, increase the poem’s emotional weight?
I also turn to Esperanza for her deceptively simple capacity to reveal so much. So much! The bones of the Miss Bradshaw poem are here, and the poet has a strong lyrical sensibility. But what is missing for me is a sense of stakes. I want to know Miss Bradshaw through the speaker’s emotional landscape—for example, cat eye glasses always made me think of old photos of my mother as a child. This might intrigue me because Miss Bradshaw felt like she belonged to another era that only my mother understood.
I am curious, too, why the speaker is recalling the red wagon’s safe container for risk that Miss Bradshaw provided, or what the comfort meant to her when invited to rejoin the activity after taking a spill. Is this in contrast to a dangerous world? A fear of being ostracized? What makes these moments important, or worthy of highlighting over another teacher’s guidance?
Similarly, I find myself wanting to read into May Pole—an image that holds the weight of being the centerpiece of a European festival ritual. I am unsure of the writer’s identity, and if this symbol is meaningful to the poet in any way. The parents are all gathered around the ritual— where are the speaker’s parents? I am also curious if this poem sits in a larger series, which might help contextualize the character. But now I’m making swipes at the unknown—all we have is this page. I find myself guessing, which becomes a distraction to the poem’s message.
I don’t always promote the adage show don’t tell, after all, poets break rules all the time, but, consider this. I had a friend in college who was studying to become an art teacher. She worked with elementary students and I’ll never forget this amazing detail she shared: kids are so excited by small things that they literally draw them outsized on the page. The new bright green toothbrush will be human sized, laid across the entire bathroom in the picture. I crave the specific details of this specific child and specific teacher in this poem. Can the poet optimize the outsized memorializing in this rendering of the childhood experiences? Perhaps the wagon produced the same feeling as a roller coaster—or, heck, riding on a dragon’s back! I wonder about some of the poet’s leading of the audience, and can’t help but feel there is a way to (sorry to be that teacher), show this, instead: “the delicious mix of danger and safety / that are apart of all worldly experiences.”
Even if the poet can’t quite recall these now distant details, there is room for invention. Poets (assuming this poem derives from personal experience), are not handcuffed to the hard facts of their own lives— rather, must pledge loyalty to the generation of feeling in the reader. Perhaps a silly example, but does anyone else think of Carrie Bradshaw when they see the title of this poem? Just me? Sex and the City was hugely popular when I was in college, blame HBO. But it brings me to the question: if poems are allowed to bend truth, it’s worth an ask if the name—even if what the character’s name actually was—is the best fit for the poem at hand.
Finally: form. This poem is quite attractive on the page—I love a good ragged edge. As a visual artist, I am prone to making my poem-ragged edges a little too perfect, which can sometimes defeat the purpose of the messy freedom they imply. Here, I wonder if the poet can get wilder in form, and wonder if the line breaks are being used to their full potential. In another draft, where more juice is extracted from the memory, I’d love to see this played with—just to see! I also think about this poem ! katya ! by Chrissy Williams, which is marvelously inventive with the use of young voice, punctuation, and the way the poem moves on the page.
If this poet was in my class, I’d recommend a brain dump of writing on Miss Bradshaw, but also, on this time in the poet’s young life. Write and write and write and write, then synthesize the details in the next draft. I look forward to seeing this poem grow and change, and thank Ellen for opening her poem to a stranger’s thoughts! I really enjoyed the chance to spend time with your words.