It’s Friday once again—that day of the week when poetry decides it’s a good idea to invade the blogosphere. For days now, I was contemplating on what poems to feature for this beautiful weekly meme hosted today by JoAnn at TeachingAuthors. Week after week after week, Myra and Iphigene have shared the magical words of Joel M. Toledo. So I figured… I might as well join the “fun-wagon!” Today, I decided to do a “double feature” on his poetry—partly because Joel M. Toledo’s words are captivating, and partly because (wait for it…) I was once a student of his. (*lightbulb moment!)
I was in fourth year high school (12th grade to some of you). Sir Joel was my teacher in English Literature. He was one of the coolest, more laid-back teachers I’ve ever had. Sadly, I don’t remember much from my English Literature class or my high school days in general. However, I do remember getting away from a book report. We were delegated to choose a book from the library, read it, and write a report about it. Of the thousands of books in our library, I decided to go for that book he was fond of (or at least I thought so): J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King. The third book in the trilogy at that! To make matters worse, I was called to give a synopsis of the book. Everything else that happened that day was a blur, but I do know that I got away with it! Hehehe.
In honor of that vague high school memory, and to celebrate my love for wordplay, for literary devices, for fantasy, and for stories that begin with “once upon a time,” here is a poem by Joel M. Toledo called,
There Are No Happy Endings
“Unicorns,” she says readily, “the waves hide unicorns.” The
prince considers this for a moment then falls silent. They are
sitting on the sand. It is dusk: the sun is sinking into the horizon,
sprinkling fantastic dust on the ocean’s cheeks like the important
objective correlative established early. Or an attempt at figure
of speech: “Their sorrow gives voice to the sea,” she adds. The
prince smiles at this, oblivious to the waves sobbing by his bare
feet before retreating back to the sea, leaving the sand damp and
shimmering. Fore! shadows of the night now assembling, he
could barely make out her face. “The sea’s waiting for me,” her
voice, crumbling like sand, that overused metaphor you always
find on the beach. Now the prince could see the sea brimming in
her eyes, but he still doesn’t get it. “So will you stay?” I offer, the
point of view shifting somewhere in the middle. The prince holds
out his hand to touch her silvery hair. She shudders at his touch,
a muffled sound escaping her lips before she steps away, just in
time to avoid the deus ex machina: a giant wave dumping tons
of seawater all over the prince. He staggers backwards, fumbling
and stumbling and tumbling and just too much of the present
progressive now for comforting his tense feet, jutting into the air
like similes for cramps, or two phallic synecdoches. The woman,
who is actually a unicorn herself (because telling might help) finds
the scene funny. She snickers, then neighs the horse-like but oxy
moronic, high-pitched neigh that all unicorns make. She gallops
away from her person ification (into her unicorn self), leaving the
defamiliarized prince looking more like a court jester than the
stereotyped knight in shining armor. And you don’t get it because
you’ve never read The Last Unicorn. You haven’t even seen the
movie adaptation. You say Tolkien probably wrote it. Heck, you
don’t even know what the initials J.R.R. actually stand for. You
still think fantasy began once upon a time, and ended happily ever
This second poem by Joel M. Toledo, like There Are No Happy Endings, came from his poetry collection, Chiaroscuro. It was an accidental discovery. Accidental yet timely in preparation for my upcoming review of Margarita Engle’s The Poet Slave of Cuba. I like this poem for its element of surprise. It went straight for my heart and left me with a haunting memory. Here is,
We Have Such Solid Measures for Pain
Now I desire no more from poetry
but true feeling
Exact is not the word; the hurting is felt
in many places.
Consider the stars and their distant stabilities.
We had made sense of their positions
long before science understood
their symmetry, long before the world
was round. The way they traverse the sky
must mean something important, we say.
Such slowness, such deliberateness,
such weight. The SkyLab fell in 1979,
wounding the world somewhere far
from what is significant: wood
and its natural hardness, the difficult carvings,
the impressions, welts on skin.
A father testing the firmness of a branch.
Evening falls with its steady constellations,
its heavy meanings. But we are just too far,
too scattered. Proximity makes more sense–
the way the waxing moon threatens the tides,
sharpens the long, twisted fingers of trees.
The way grains of salt seem to open the skin
even before one kneels on them.
There is nothing to fear in the abstract,
in fact. UFOs, The Big Bang,
the pull of black holes, event horizons.
The Moon Landing, live via satellite.
A comet blazing past, wish-heavy, posing
no danger. Orion’s belt, remote and unused.
Why not something more solid? A buckle
glinting in the half-dark, its erratic arc
slicing the atmosphere, the orbit of pain,
all the aching stretches of the universe,
and the child’s body yielding
I like the prose poem; it’s almost like he spits it out, like finally we are to grow up & understand important things. At least that’s my response. The second poem is more difficult, & a little scary. Thanks to all of you for introducing this poet, and how wonderful you had him for a teacher. Must have been amazing.
Hi Linda. =)
Indeed, part of the reason why I liked There Are No Happy Endings was its prose form. I like how he chucked the literary devices and how they fit perfectly in the poem. Scary is a good word to describe the second poem. It brings the same sense of dread every time I read it.
We are glad you enjoyed reading the works of Sir Joel. I was really fortunate to have him as a teacher.
The second poem was powerful, a shock to the system. I’m still dazed by that last stanza.
Hi Tara. =)
“A shock to the system.” Very true. I read the poem again, and it still sent shivers down my spine. It paints a harrowing image in my mind that I cannot get rid of. It’s like watching a movie and when you think you’re about to reach a resolution, it shows you the most shocking part and the director decides to cut it.
That second poem is so visceral that I have been composing and re-composing a response for 20 minutes. Finally, I realized that the emotions it brought up are too raw to be put into words… I think I need a cup of tea.
Hello K. =)
Somewhere in this comments box is an invisible “like” button that I would like to spam in relation to your comment. I found myself speechless after reading the poem. The words are as powerful as the images portrayed.
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