In the poem “On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High” by D.C. Berry it is easy to get lost in the powerful metaphors he uses. Dead frozen packaged fish coming alive to symbolize the surprising power poetry can have on a class. It is a vivid picture, to say the least, but the imagery is what really brings the reader into the depths of the narrative. Berry uses a variety of visual, tactile, auditory, kinesthetic and organic images to create an experience for the reader that is both familiar and nuanced. As the poem progresses the reader is slowly drawn in by the imagery so they can experience these events first hand. The speaker in this poem is a teacher, reluctantly reading to his/her class. We don’t get many details as to what the environment looks like or who the students and teacher actually are. Instead the speaker introduces us to the class by describing them as ‘orderly as frozen fish / in a package’ (5-6). In this line we are given visual and tactile imagery. You can picture them; dead glossy eyed fish staring at you through the cellophane. I personally was thrown back to fish markets in Seattle, WA or Ports O’Call, CA.
The cold air from the iced fish and that thick smell of the sea. I understand that not everyone has been fortunate enough to visit a proper fishing port, but everyone who has shopped for groceries knows how cold it gets around the frozen fish aisle at the supermarket. The word ‘frozen’ (5) is the first tactile imagery used. The speaker gives the reader a sense of the coldness in the room and the general feeling the speaker is receiving from the class. The poem goes on to say:
Slowly water began to fill the room
though I did not notice it
till it reached
my ears (7-10)
The imagery used here evokes sensations that are both auditory and kinesthetic. The muted sounds of water sloshing, along with bubbles whirling gently about. And then there is the weightlessness that the speaker would experience as the class is slowly submerged. These subtle images ease the reader further into this unique experience.
The speaker comments on how he/she tried to drown the students with his/her words suggesting a great deal of breath and kinesthetic energy to project these words out into the classroom. This leads to a change in the environment. The words that the speaker has spoken is in fact the water filling the room. The speaker then receives the auditory imagery of an aquarium instead of feeling the coldness of a fish market. The speaker then comments on the almost organic imagery of the students absorbing these words. Like fish using their gills to extract oxygen from water, these students have extracted life-giving energy from their teacher’s words.
The speaker and the class are now swimming, which is a direct kinesthetic image. I am reminded of the physical freedom that is inherent with this activity. With limitless agility anyone can become a ballerina in water. And with this agility the class of thirty is now ‘whacking words’ (20). The word ‘whacking’ implies some sharp and deliberate playful action between the teacher and the class. Although this whacking of words is a metaphor for a verbal exchange taking place, the word whacking captures the physical energy felt in the room like batting a beach ball back and forth amongst friends. The speaker and students seem to be fully engaged with each other. They are now united in their shared experience of poetic discussion. However, this communal engagement is short lived by these characters. The speaker then describes the bell (an auditory use of imagery) as ‘puncturing / a hole in the door’ (20-23). I find the writer’s decision to use the word ‘puncturing’ very interesting. He could have chose the word burst, or somehow stated that the door was opened; but to puncture something is a violent, intrusive and surprising physical act. The classroom, where the speaker and students have united into almost a single organic being has been punctured by the bell. This action would have been felt by the speaker and the students. The change in atmosphere; the weight of their bodies returning to them; the motion they would have felt as they ‘leaked out’ (24) into the world outside the classroom are again more kinesthetic sensations that I became subtly aware of through the speakers words.
As we arrive at the end of the poem the speaker and students part ways. The students go one direction and the speaker goes home:
They went to another class
I suppose and I home
where Queen Elizabeth
my cat met me
and licked my fins
till they were hands again. (25-30)
At the speaker’s place of residence we are introduced to our final character, Queen Elizabeth, along with our final piece of imagery; the tactile sensation of a cat licking a hand. When a cat licks a person, they could be doing this for a few separate reasons. They are establishing that you are a member of their family and they could also be sensing that you are feeling anxious. A cat licking someone is their attempt to comfort and make you feel safe, just as their mother did for them as a kitten (Syufy). This is possibly why Queen Elizabeth is licking the speaker. Sand paper is an awful thing to feel against your skin, but a sandpaper tongue has the ability to coax a person out of their own troubled thoughts. With lingering emotions the speaker is still a fish, engulfed by the experiences from earlier in the day, but Queen Elizabeth brings him/her placidly back into his/her ordinary self.
I am still early in my educational journey, but I have dreams of becoming a teacher myself. Whenever I get a chance to speak with a grade school teacher or professor about their profession, I do my best to get an idea of what the job is like. More often than not I hear them use words like ‘difficult’, ‘frustrating’, or ‘unmotivated’ to describe the realities of teaching. I then follow up their response with the question, ‘Then why do you do it?’ They usually reply with practical reasons why they teach: A steady living wage with benefits; vacation time seems to be a big plus also. But after talking to so many teachers and professors the thing that seems to keep them going are those small, wonderful moments where they connect with a class or student. As fleeting or as sparse as they may be, those moments of true human connection are what seem to keep educators doing the work. This poem, with its use of imagery brings the reader directly into the middle of one of those fleeting moments. Beautiful, invigorating and not quite long enough, we experience, almost first hand, what it is like to be an educator.