Letter to Ada Limon

by John Samuel Tieman

Dear Ada,
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him —

I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

I recited it several times until he had it memorized.

A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.

I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.

And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.

Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.

So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.

The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.

Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?


Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Poetics, Prose