From MRA 2013: “Shrug”

For those of you who have asked for the poem from Saturday’s presentation, here it is for a brief period of time. I am actually embarrassed by how rough this is, having written it at about 4:30 in the morning in the hotel room.

But. . .then. . .when I think about it, this piece may have been writing itself for 25 years.

But. . .here is the deal. . .we will only leave this up for a day or two and then it will be gone, okay? It needs some polish (note that no revisions have been made the scribbled notes I brought into the room for the presentation) and I’d like to have some kind of control over where the piece goes when it is in the condition it is in right now. And the last line is really a gesture which is difficult to render or communicate on the page. . . 

And note. . .the original plan was to have left these notes in Room 368, but I grabbed them at the last minute before check out this morning. 



For a year,

I could see

the high school across the street.


Like watching The Divine Comedy

through the bay window where I discerned

that there were two hells to which I could report:


the hell in which I resided


the hell to which I would be assigned.


On the tour of that same high school,

at the end of my eighth grade year,

I noticed that my classmates all seemed to know someone already.

High school students greeted them.

Slapped high-fives.

Friendly teachers called some of them by their first names.


Today, I might have thought that they had all received

an Advanced Reader Copy of the eighth grade class

while I was the book separated out,

full of remainder marks,

a card pocket in the back filled in with appointments kept

and return dates for when I would be skimmed again

by the bookish and the smart.


During this time, I used to walk

with my shoulders pitched upward,

arms tight to my side.


My eighth grade classmates called me “Shrug.”


As I approached them in the halls,

they would immediately begin to mock my posturing,

these fake readers of my story.

Who could blame them for having only read the CliffNotes

of the chapters of abuse that had been set down in ink.

They couldn’t have possibly appreciated that was an illustrated text,

all of the hurt drawn in long before.


Terrified for the duration of the tour,

we entered as a group into a classroom full of high school students.

That’s when I heard a voice from the corner of the room shout,

“Hey, look at that screamer!”

I turned to see the face of the one who would be my tormenter

for the next three years and I saw

his shoulders go up to his ears, and his body turn

from side to side to the delight of the others in the room.


In that brief encounter,

I had been skimmed, highlighted, and underscored.

All of the stars from my review went to the one who gave it,

and I drew even tighter into myself if only to assure

that the glue would hold,

that whatever bound me together would not break.


In time, I learned

that by carrying my books around from class to class

my posture seemed more natural and appropriate.

And until the moment came when I would no longer require the bracing,

I was held up by the books I carried.


Do you feel this way sometimes too?

That moment you’ve read something

that makes you draw all of yourself in–

the arms go back, and the book moves upward

and you find yourself embracing it?

You do, don’t you?


I do too.


There were times that I second-guessed this response

thinking it were some kind of relapse,

an abridged re-issue of some pulped fiction,

the battered dime-store novel,

the book fair title you might find

in the free box.


The, one day, it hit me:


I pulled that book up because I wanted

my heart to see its reflection in the story

I was holding, to show. . .to render

a better image than the manipulated,

fun house glass that made me to appear

thinner than I really was.


Holding that book so my heart could see

I began to sense that I–“Shrug”–

was just a rough draft of what might be


a bestseller.


Okay, maybe that would too much to ask,


but I could be a book club selection at least.


Because, in time, I have come to decide

that there are two shelves I can go to:


the shelves I reside within


the shelves to which I assign myself.


And if you were to ask me

how I came to any of this,

I can only respond:


*(shoulder shrug)*

One thought on “From MRA 2013: “Shrug”

  1. Bravo, Paul. Once again, you manage to expose a wound too many have nursed, and are nursing now; in classrooms all across a nation that points its finger of focus at the ability to leave No Child Behind. I am happy you have found some shelf space among so many other favorites. Nerdy We Are.

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