Le Hinton: Cards Flash Back

This post first appeared on Michael Dickel’s blog as part of April’s Poetry Month postings. Thanks, Michael, for your encouragement and for sharing Le Hinton’s fine poem.

Le Hinton is a great friend and an inspiring poet. I met him several years ago when he was a featured reader in a local poetry series, and I was struck by the heart that comes through in his work. Besides Le’s ability to convey powerful emotional experiences in his poems, one of the things that I most admire is his willingness to share his expertise with other poets. Last fall, we both presented at a poetry retreat where Le did a wonderful session on playing with form in poetry. He talked about linebreaks, staggering lines, and unexpected arrangements as tools for enhancing the power of a poem. In this post, I explore a few examples from one of my favorite Le Hinton poems and urge you to give one or two of these techniques a try.

In Le’s poem “Cards Flash Back,” the reader sits next to Le as he remembers his time in speech therapy sessions as a child born with a cleft palate. Interspersed with his memories are some of the things his classmates said to him that still sting so many years later.

You sound like toilet
paper is stuck in your nose.

You’d have a good singing voice
if you were a cartoon character.

Using a few lines of dialog, Le takes us back in time to experience the pain he felt as a child who struggled to speak.

Another technique that Le uses with great effect is to stagger his lines to emphasize meaning. As you read the last three lines of the stanza below, you are commanded to slow down and let the power of his words sink in. The image of hiding in the pages—silent—almost foreshadows Le’s work as a poet—a master of words.

“I hid in the pages. Silent.
But not empty. The page isn’t blank.
Chisel a life from a sheet.
Hold tangible the words on paper
Hold something.
Be someone.
Do something.”

Finally, Le brings the reader into the present where he has triumphed over his physical and psychological challenges and reaches back in time to embrace and kiss the baby smiling and the little boy who sang alone. He triumphs over the bullies of the past and brings us into his circle of celebration where he stands as an adult who has not only mastered his speech, but also the power of the spoken word. He ends where he began, playing with the words apple, book, and thumb and the idea of flashcards in his memory.

“I’ve learned to speak out and still write.
To hold the little boy whose voice sings alone.
To kiss the tiny baby whose lips still smile.
Write the poetry and shout the words
Small no more.
Now without pain,
without bullies,
without fear
or a cleft palate.

Apple. Book. Thumb. I remember.

Here is Le Hinton’s poem in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it.

Cards Flash   Back ~ Le Hinton ~ The Language of Moisture and Light, 2014

Apple, book, thumb. I remember
each card with three pictures.
Pronounce each one, slowly,
precisely. Initial consonants.
Final blends.
Open vowels.
b’s, th’s, o’s. Each carefully articulated.

You sound like toilet
paper is stuck in your nose.

You’d have a good singing voice
if you were a cartoon character.

I learned to be quiet, I learned to write.

On our way to the clinic there was always time
for breakfast at the Cameron Street diner
or a stop for hot dogs after we arrived in Lancaster.
The corner of Lime and King.
A town full of fruit and royalty.
Lemon, Lime, Orange.
Queen, King, Duke.
All streets seemingly one way.

One way to speak.
One way to sound.
One way to turn.
This clinic in this town
with its one-way streets
and hope dressed in white,
doctors dressed in smiles.
Surgical cuts to open a future, to open a life.

Once, it rained so hard getting there, Dad almost stopped.
But dad never stopped driving, never stopped caring,
never stopped steering. Not for hard rain,
heavy traffic, or an imperfect son. Dad never stopped.
I remember those drops of rain falling through a bright sun,
bouncing like marbles off 60s sheet metal,
now baring memories almost 40 years old.

I have to babysit on Saturday, so I
can’t go out with you.

You’d never know that colored boy
was smart from the way he sounds.

I hid in the pages. Silent.
But not empty. The page isn’t blank.
Chisel a life from a sheet.
Hold tangible the words on paper
Hold something.
Be someone.
Do something.

Find the words that take you in,
Find the words that love you safe.
Caress those words.

I’ve learned to speak out and still write.

To hold the little boy whose voice sings alone.
To kiss the tiny baby whose lips still smile.
Write the poetry and shout the words
Small no more.
Now without pain,
without bullies,
without fear
or a cleft palate.

Apple. Book. Thumb. I remember.

Note: I was unable to keep the original line breaks due to formatting issues. Apologies to Le. 

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