Kari (my best friend)
Some monster lay deep in the water that day.
It put its fingers to our mouths when it drifted
towards what was left of Kari's lungs.
Our eyes had never heard death, never tasted
that moment when what makes us whole,
I remember Kari, afraid of monsters,
willing herself to jump from the highest cliff
in the pits of the old quarry.
It was just that kissing game, truth or dare.
The water was deep and black, cold.
The monster cut through her with pure mean
that thickened the day into ice.
I stirred myself into a cocktail of warm.
After all, we were making snow angels in the air.
We were just teasing her a little.
It was all just fun.
Dangling arms and pretentious fingers
waited for childhood to choke as her weight
slammed the rocks and her flesh sliced
down to the water in long strips
making wet slurping sounds.
She jumped too soon.
That summer the pits had no bottom
but open earth sores watered up
to keep Kari's hands spilling over limestone.
A blood angel fades here kids
aren’t allowed to swim anymore.
Copyright 2007 by Kim Mayhall
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Kim Mayhall's poem "Kari" intersperses the awful physical sensations of a girl's death with metaphorical and fantastical images in order to capture the onlooking children's shock when their game collides with a deadly reality. Perhaps any poem about death is as much about the feelings of those left behind as it is about the person memorialized. Here, despite the title "Kari", the primary focus is the impact on her playmates.
Kari, about whom we know nothing except her fear of monsters and her closeness to the narrator, is not an individual so much as a representative of the children's own mortality, which they confront for the first time through her. She becomes a sacrificial symbol, a "blood angel" reminding them of their guilt. They feel responsible for goading her to take the fatal dive, of course, but the guilt is also something more primal that is bound up with their new consciousness of death. The immunity of youth fails in both directions. How much harm even a child can suffer is also a measure of how much harm a child can inflict on others.
Mayhall engages all of the reader's senses from the beginning, a technique that gives this poem much of its power. Fingers to mouths, eyes that hear, a moment so affecting to body and mind that it can actually be tasted. What to make of the synesthesia "Our eyes had never heard death"? The clue may lie in the contrast between wholeness and separation in the next lines. That earliest childhood state, when the self is undifferentiated from the world, and sensations flow in without being consciously recognized as "sight" versus "hearing", is like the unity among the children before Kari steps into the spotlight. Her death names and individuates her. The others are simply "we". (There is a first-person singular narrator in some lines, but she speaks for their collective experience, not revealing any special interaction with Kari.)
The children at first displace the guilt of the accident onto the "monster" that "put its fingers to our mouths" and "cut through her with pure mean". But Kari, though "afraid of monsters", jumped because she was even more afraid of losing face before her peers ("that kissing game, truth or dare"; "We were just teasing her a little"). Who then are the true monsters? They plead innocence ("we were making snow angels in the air") but the next stanza refers back to this gesture in a more candid, less flattering way: "Dangling arms and pretentious fingers/waited for childhood to choke". The end of childhood means that one can no longer blame imaginary forces outside one's control.
The physical realism of the penultimate stanza is almost unbearable, as perhaps it should be, but the lyrical yet horrifying opening of the final stanza takes an already memorable poem to a new level. Again outside the realm of realism, we are in a ghost story where the earth itself will not let the dead rest, but this time the haunting cannot be dismissed as a child's fear of the dark. Everything we fear is already within ourselves.
The grammar of the last two lines is irregular, a stylistic choice that does not show up elsewhere in the poem, which makes me think Mayhall may have meant "A blood angel fades where kids/aren't allowed to swim anymore". However, I like the cadence of "A blood angel fades here" and I feel that two shorter declarative sentences ("A blood angel fades here; kids/aren't allowed to swim anymore") has a stronger rhythmic impact than the longer single sentence. Also, the overstatement of "kids aren't allowed to swim anymore" (ever? anywhere?) conveys the totality of their expulsion from Eden. More has been lost than access to a specific watering hole. What this line tells me is, kids aren't exempt from human nature, and sometimes they discover that in the most painful ways.
Where could a poem like "Kari" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: August 31
Twice-yearly contest offers prizes up to $100 in categories including traditional verse, humor, open theme
Robert Frost Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: September 15
Competitive award for poems "in the spirit of Robert Frost" includes $1,000 and featured reading at festival in Lawrence, MA
Lucidity Poetry Journal Awards
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Free contest offers prizes up to $100 (doubled this year) for clear, understandable poems in any form dealing with people and interpersonal relationships
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques