As promised, I am giving you a second “A Favorite Poem” for this month, considering that I didn’t do so for the month of October (for the poem earlier this month, check it out here).
Today’s poem is that of Abigail Deutsch, a freelance writer and the winner of Poetry magazine’s 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing. After stumbling upon it while perusing through some poems online, I was immediately struck by the form and content of “Twenty-Two,” in terms of how it was at once a playful and pensive piece about, from what I interpreted, a sense of existentialism and doubt at such a young age.
Twenty-Two (by Abigail Deutsch)
I walked to the baker’s
and thought about the bread.
And at the corner store
the butter. Four kinds of butter!
I bought them in order
of saltiness. I studied slang
in secret. I said little.
And my students were
I couldn’t teach a thing.
Instead I made them sing.
Twenty-two. Nothing to do.
New York had vanished,
My students grew hair
and got haircuts, grew hair
and got haircuts, and sang.
I’d lie in bed and masturbate
and wonder why I’d come,
and come and come again
and then rise for some bread and a run.
Does the village persist? It must.
Right now, someone hums “Nowhere Man”
and thinks of that shy teacher from —
Manhattan? New Orleans? Bel Air?
And she brushes her lengthening hair.
Even through a skimming of the poem, readers can pick up on the wordplay with rhymes like “Bel Air” and “hair,” “thing” and “sing,” and so forth. The way I see it, these bits of rhyme throughout the poem are ways either to break up the monotony of the everyday happenings that the speaker is reflecting on, trying to spice up the language with some fun, or as a way to hide something more serious underneath it…perhaps an existential crisis?
At the same time, however, I should not let my cynicism lead to conclusions that this poem is about a young individual having an existential crisis being a teacher stuck in an endless loop of having new students each year, those who “grew hair/and got haircuts, grew hair/and got haircuts, and sang.” I wouldn’t say, though, that this poem is merely an observational piece about the typical, day-to-day life of a young teacher, for lines such as “I’d lie in bed and masturbate/and wonder why I’d come,/and come and come again” definitely makes you pause for a minute, not just because of the content matter, but also the incessant use of repetition similar to that in the students-and-haircuts passage.
I believe that the daily-life atmosphere of the poem’s content, along with the rhymes and repetitions, demonstrates some kind of emotion in the speaker, although we as readers cannot know for sure if it’s a positive or negative sentiment. If anything, it’s a neutral one.
Besides the style and content of the poem, I was especially drawn to “Twenty-Two” because I felt that I could resonate with it from experience. As you can see, the poem is set in Moissac, a small town in France. From her description as a teacher, I assume that she is an English teacher abroad, just like myself. With that, along with the title of the poem (presumably her age at the time of writing and/or teaching), it hit really close to me, for last year I, at the age of twenty two, had moved to a small town in France to teach as well. That said, the experiences describe in the poem remind me of the frustrations of teaching English to French students (and instead making them “sing”), along with the uncertainty and possible home sickness that one gets when abroad for a long time (as implied in the masturbation scene: “and wondered why I’d come”).
It’s funny, because as I’m writing this, the poem itself starts to make more and more sense. That said, the emotion that I can think of in this poem is that of neutrality, as I’d mentioned, but one of isolation, being in a foreign country and not quite fitting in. From my experiences, I can imagine the speaker to be happy to be in France and being independent for the first time, but also wondering their purpose for being there. It’s an unsettling medium, but until then, enjoy it while they can.
Phew, that was a lot to write about! Now reading it over a second, third time, the poem is growing on me more and more, and I do encourage you to give it a go. Enjoy your day! 🙂
P.S. If you would like to learn more about Abigail Deutsch, you can check out her Tumblr blog here.
— The Finicky Cynic
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