Thursday, July 10, 2008

Playgrounds and Catechism

I was one of the those lucky enough to attend Catholic School for grade school, junior high and early high school, and it was, to be sure, an odd place to go through the awkward teenage blues; one's obsessions with comic books, monster movies and an bewildering and growing fascination with girls mixed in delicious confusion with the discipline and moral instruction given us by nuns as to the purpose of the Church and the mission being given to it's young members. It made for radical shifts in focus when the bell rang indicating the end of recess, when all the rude jokes, dirty talk, leering and horsing around stopped abruptly and some institutional rigor entered one's spine, and surreal attentiveness to what nuns and lait teachers were saying came over otherwise expressive faces. Charles Grosel gets it mostly right with his poem "In the Fourth Grade", a succinct an artful blur of external forces vying for a young man's attention. It lacks, however, the third act, the additional detail that would elevate this above oh-hum irony that keeps too many poems chained to the earth. This is a poem that should have soared high and grand.

One might be too severe in deriding the comparison between catechisms and Adventure cards, but both both have something to do with what role is too play in the world; one learns their parts, becomes aware of their weaknesses, and pursues their ends for a good that is , finally, greater than oneself. Catechism, it should be said, is simply the first layer of a Catholic Theology that is about as sophisticated and textured view of man's place in the universe which God created and how one may best use the abilities and skills they've been gifted with to make way through an pitiless existence for the purpose of bringing some of His grace and goodness to this life. It is a whole system , elaborate beyond the basics regular catechism outlines, and in that a central tenet is that Man has free will and must intuit and intellect his way through ambiguous circumstances to move toward teh good , the goal, shall we say, entails honing strategy skills and such no less than what pop culture past times offer.Adventure cards, as Grosel calls them, in fact mirror the Christian mythology that institutions like the Catholic Church have developed a substantial moral philosophy from.

I suppose what the poet is getting at is that the boy, attempting various cool hoodlum poses and such before the bell rings and the lines form, drops his mannerisms and learned street attitudes and takes on the proper behaviors and deference the nuns expect of him and the other fourth graders. Conversion, in this sense, is a pun, a weak one, in that one can relate this to how one converts currencies; the young man here converts his playground attitude to one that enables him to get along under the sister's watchful eye. It doesn't work, though, and something more is needed, another idea besides the easy resolution involving conversion experience is required. We have, as is, a well turned construction that delights with the indirect rhymes and disguised alliteration that lacks the third act; Billy Collins, or better, Thomas Lux would have been able to twist the readers off the neck. This is merely sweet and feeble by the end.



As far as it goes, the poem is a fine bit of observation to my mind, and Grosel treads lightly with the parallels he brings to our attention; some other poets would have talked the comparisons into submission, others would have pounded you over the head, while still others would have choked on the incoherence they were creating. Not so with this writer, who maintains his balance, does not lose his cadence, keeps his emphasis visual, and terse. The poem is fine for what it sets out to do, and the only failing , for me, comes with the ending, which was too easy, too obvious a matter to deploy, but which is not irredeemable with a smart revision.


I suppose what the poet is getting at is that the boy, attempting various cool hoodlum poses and such before the bell rings and the lines form, drops his mannerisms and learned street attitudes and takes on the proper behaviors and deference the nuns expect of him and the other fourth graders. Conversion, in this sense, is a pun, a weak one, in that one can relate this to how one converts currencies; the young man here converts his playground attitude to one that enables him to get along under the sister's watchful eye. It doesn't work, though, and something more is needed, another idea besides the easy resolution involving conversion experience is required. We have, as is, a well turned construction that delights with the indirect rhymes and disguised alliteration that lacks the third act; Billy Collins, or better, Thomas Lux would have been able to twist the readers off the neck. This is merely sweet and feeble by the end.