Poetry Classroom: Public Safety Film

Over the next few weeks of Poetry Classroom, a new-ish feature here at Tweetspeak, we’ll share poems from Anne M. Doe Overstreet (the teacher of our new 2013 Poetry Workshop). You are invited to discuss the poems—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Anne and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Public Safety Film #217

On the first day of the month, a cloudless afternoon,
it’s time for the next in a series of safety films:

What to Do In Case of a Bomb. Mrs. M.
rolls out the projector and flips off the overhead lights.

One kid with a freshly shorn head forms a fist.
The homeroom class is worshipping in slow reptilian shock

the ticking of celluloid looping through a reel, blooming
a bubble of bombs and ash. The girl by the window

curls fetal under her desk, grasping her shoes, listening
to the sound of the world ending. We’re all hoping

to be saved, sent out into a day redeemed from disaster,
color bleeding back into tree limbs, the cinder grass.

These are the smells of last days—Tide detergent,
mown grass clinging wetly to our sneakers, Bazooka gum

tucked between cheek and molar. Clasped hands protect
the fracturable spine. We dream a shell, mesmerized

by the way patterns form on the back of the eyelid, sparking
red and gleaming horn. Crouched in our incomprehension,

we wait for the bell’s release, turtles softened by the clean
sun, the carotid artery beating tetherball tetherball.

The next day recalling a slow boil of dust
and the way we blew over like wheat in the wind.

Photo by Seya, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Anne M. Doe Overstreet, author of Delicate Machinery Suspended.


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  1. says

    Much to commend in this poem.

    Those of us of a certain age keenly remember the drills and how, at a certain point, their utter futility became so obvious. The poem relays that well.

    The details (Tide, Bazooka gum) are wonderful, helping to anchor it in time and place. I like “cloudless afternoon” in the first line and how the concluding lines shore up the sense of what we cannot control.

    The images (cinder grass, patterns gleaming red, the carotid artery beating tetherball) are so apt, keeping the poem focused without being obvious.

    We have contemporary substitutes, of course. Who can read this and not think of 9/11 and even Newtown, and how we tell ourselves (and need) stories to think ourselves safe.

    • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

      Wow. I hadn’t thought about the parallels–can you believe that? Now I will. Actually, writing this piece was one of those odd moments when I realized there was a distinct point when how we view violence on that scale shifted. I had these drills in public school, at least early on, while Jeff (my husband)never did (he’s a bit younger). My peers and I were no doubt one of the last groups to watch those sad films, which, then, seemed so unbelievable.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    Especially struck by that last observation, Maureen. We do tell ourselves stories to keep ourselves safe. And sometimes, at some level, it works.

    And other times, the Tide and the Bazooka gum juxtaposed with the bomb reveal an incredible frailty.

    I like how the Tide connotes an attempt to clean what cannot really be cleaned (our mortality). And how the repeat of “tetherball” shows both a resilience and yet the way we are tied to our weakness.

    There is a lot in this poem. I could say more :)

  3. L. L. Barkat says

    Anne, I am curious how you write poetry. Did you choose Tide and Bazooka for any particular reasons? Did you have other images first and get rid of them in exchange for these?

    • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

      I almost always start with a phrase, something thick with sound that opens a door into a thought; here, it may have been ‘fracturable spine’ that got me thinking about turtles and vulnerability and I went from there. But Tide and Bazooka gum were very much smells I associated with that part of childhood. I do however, often make substitutions for the sound of the thing. In those circumstances, it is the emotional truth (what the poem is really getting at) that I shoot for and can let a small detail go.

  4. says

    My son and were recently talking about these drills. I’m going too share this with him.

    Your poem has a chilling quality that reminds me of how this felt, how it never left me even though I stored it away pretending it was just this thing we did.

    These are the smells of last days…..

      • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

        For me it begins with the fracturable spine, the fragility of the body, and the distancing the children have to do, drawing feet and mind into a shell, a going away. As if that would protect them. And I could not get the image of the bowing wheat, face to the ground, out of my head.

    • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

      I’m so glad you said that. I do mean it to be hopeful or at least reference the ability of a child to get up and enter the outside world again. But I wanted the lightness of some of the imagery to disturb the reader because of the subject.

      • says

        Children, to me, are the most courageous beings… To consider what they witness/experience and absorb, attend to (or not), and then move out again every day like its a fresh new start…. Because it is and they somehow know this with no convincing. I do remember, however, a day in high school when we’re to be forced to watch as a class a movie about ravages of some kind or another… War or drunk driving or drug use. I can’t remember, but I remember this: I flat out refused to watch and, to my surprise and relief, the teacher let me leave. Wondering if I’d had enough of this forced training that made my heart rip. Maybe. little children cannot refuse or if they can they don’t often think to. Yes. I think you definitely did!

  5. says

    “Turtles softened by the clean sun”. I am struck by the child-likeness and youthfulness of words and images juxtaposed with the potential of death looming, so large and unreal. What awkward turtles crouched, backs bent, yes going through the motions.The routine and drill and pattern of just walking, ghostlike through the certain uncertainty of a bomb shows up so strongly. A bomb exploding on suburban clothes washed in Tide and jaws filled with pink, sugary wads? Could it? There is safety anchored line by line, doubting really that anything could or would upset the sterile routine. The tetherball speaks to me, a heart tethered to the pole beating tied, a sense of permanence in the thinly veiled certainty. Love Mrs. M…

      • says

        I realize anew how important punctuation is. I ended my comment on Anne’s poem with Love Mrs. M….meaning her character, the teacher, in the opening lines of Public Safety Film #217. Love that short, punchy name for the teacher. Reminds me of a sixties sit com character or cartoon name. It appears, at another glance, that I may have been signing my name…Love Mrs. M… Oh these words and their interpretations. I do love the poem. warmly, ewm

  6. says

    I don’t think anyone’s mentioned the title yet, which for me can also offer insights into the poem’s subject. Here, it carries a sense of that need I mentioned about story-telling, and it’s apt for the school setting: reinforcement through repetition. And yet it prompts questions of how much, how often (217 is no small number), what sticks? And how do we know until we come face to face with what we want to believe can or won’t happen?

    • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

      I can remember a slew of safety films. The sound of a reel to reel projector is very evocative for me. Did you have the same experience?

      • says

        Yes, Anne, the experience was the same. It seemed there was always time for a film of one kind or another, though, interestingly, I can’t remember much discussion about any of them. One film that I remember all too well, that had nothing to do with the possibility of safety, was “Night and Fog”, the French documentary. That was shown while I was in elementary school (I think I was in 6th grade)!

        • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

          Oh my. That’s a harsh film to see at that age. We want to shield children from that sort of thing, and yet they have the simplicity of heart, usually, to recognize the clear stark horror of what is happening.

    • says

      (She laughs back), the other Mrs. M..not the actual Mrs. M. Am hoping I will be taking your poetry workshop. Have not signed up yet…hope the money tree drops its leaves on my head. I shall gather up and come your way.

  7. Anne Doe-Overstreet says

    Does anyone else have vivid, pre-apocalyptic or final days ‘anchors’ connected to the senses?

    • L. L. Barkat says

      I read this cool thing about how we have something like 21 senses.

      One is related to spacial issues, I think. And another is balance. So, yes, both of these are vivid anchors for me. A sense of being tipped or tilted and a sense of both too much space and suffocatingly small space.

      Make sense? 😉

      • Donna says

        21!! So, a.) that’s more like it and b.) I kept writing and deleting here bc nothing fit into the limited 5 senses, or even the 6th if you believe in metaphysical stuff (which I do). and c.) 21!!!? That’s more like it.

        Very cool.

  8. L. L. Barkat says

    Okay, at the risk of taking up *way* too much space in a comment box, here is a poem I wrote after reading that article about the little-known senses (because, you know, we concentrate on the 5 that Aristotle laid out)…


    After she finally takes that walk,
    I want to say to the woman,
    what did you sense along the way?

    She’ll be tempted to answer me
    Aristotle-style, ticking off the fives
    we know by heart: sight, sound,
    smell, taste, touch.

    Maybe she’ll tell me about the thorn
    that pricked through her coat sleeve,
    like a claw torn from the paw of a cat,
    and how she had to carefully remove it,
    thumb and index finger held together,
    her hand now become a pincer.
    Will she know she missed an ocean
    of sense, maybe twenty-one shells
    she forgot to run her fingers over?
    Proprioception would allow her
    to do this with her eyes closed,
    if she wished; she would still know
    where her feet were on the lava-black
    sand trail. And if you were standing
    near, she might be able to brush
    her shoe over the tips of your toes,
    if she had first taken note of your
    whereabouts in relation to hers.
    Equilibrioception would keep her from falling,
    unless she couldn’t help herself and leaned
    too far in your direction, or into the field
    of wineberries, stripped to their red backs
    for winter (what they’re doing near you
    on the basalt beach is a question
    she can’t answer, even as she begins
    to sense her thirst for touch,
    her hunger for a pristine nakedness
    that tastes like the air rising from
    the loamy side of the trail).

    If she had felt you, and the fur
    of the red bending wineberry canes,
    the distances between her and the rest;
    if she had not only tasted and heard
    but also lost track of her sense of time,
    I would say she’d done the work of metaphor,
    and magnetoception would then align her
    with the poem she thought she sensed
    on your warm skin or in your beautiful eyes.

  9. Donna says

    Love this. I’ve seen this…. Where? Maybe linked on twitter? I remember thinking “I’ve got to look those words up” and then I forgot to (until now). SO glad you printed it here using all of the space necessary in the comment box…. :)

    This piece of the last line is my favorite: “magnetoception would then align her
    with the poem she thought she sensed” and makes me want to be more aware of those “sensings” so often cast aside. Funny, when we say “I sense” more often than not we aren’t referring to any of those famous 5 senses, yet that robotic urge to try and categorize everything into those 5 slots can be very strong.

  10. says

    Reading this poem, I am suddenly back in childhood, experiencing a moment from those old school drills for disasters of one sort or another.

    The linoleum is waxy cold and sticky under my bare, skinned knees.
    I tuck the edges of my dress into bent knees as I huddle in a ball.
    I inhale the chalkiness of concrete walls and the damp sweatiness of the little boy next to me who is, like me, fresh off the playground.
    Stillness descends even as we squirm within, awaiting the shrill release of the bell.
    The drill ends.
    We unfold from rolly-poley shapes, some rounder than others,
    then we are batches of butterflies, ready to emerge again into the spring
    afternoon of multiplication tables, cursive writing, and the tick of the clock towards the three o’clock bell.
    My mother will ask me what happened at school today.
    How to explain what I didn’t even grasp?

    • Donna says

      Lane, you hit it… spot on. I can feel it when I read “The linoleum is waxy cold and sticky under my bare, skinned knees.”

      I wonder what our children will recall about the preventative “tips” and “protocols” schools employ to protect them. I wonder at what cost? I guess we’ll know when the therapy bills come.

    • Anne Doe-Overstreet says

      It actually began as triplets and started with the third strophe… my poems rarely have strict stanzas…. But though I felt like the experience was anchored primarily in the sense of smell and in physical movement, I couldn’t get the ticking of the reel out of my head, so I worked that in. But that was after the poem sat for a while, with only minor fiddling. I did know exactly what the last few lines were to be, which is rare for me. The division into couplets came after reading and re-reading it through out loud and hearing that the breath wanted different pauses than the eye. Just a bit.


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