for M. Maylor
Dear Anne Carson:
My friend read me the poem where your mom
said that the dead walk backwards.
You thought this myth arose from poor translation.
I can attest to your misapprehension.
My social studies teacher in grade 8, Ms. Rogers,
believed it was customary for the Chinese
to walk backwards when entering a washroom.
So when our class went to Silver Dragon for lunch,
that’s what we did, giggling, even if we didn’t have to go.
But in my family, we never believed this.
Where do ideas like that come from?
It’s true that regret looks back, that death’s shadow follows
us, and your only true companion is solitude,
whose clarity will fade to black.
It makes sense that the face of death must
be turned our way. We’re still here.
I have to read lots in order to find
what’s useful, Ms. Carson.
To walk backwards is to safeguard not knowing: in the end,
my striving can’t reach more than this. Than this.
- Epistolary poems are poetic letters, usually addressed to a specific named or unnamed recipient. Which clues indicate that this poem takes the shape of a letter?
- The speaker has been made to go along Ms. Rogers’ made-up cultural myth. What role do racism and peer pressure play in his perspective on the situation?
- In Anne Carson’s poem On Walking Backwards, she writes ‘My mother forbade us to walk backwards. That is how the dead walk, she would say.’ How would you describe and contrast Anne Carson’s mother and the speaker of But I’m No One’s feelings towards death?
- How would you answer the poet’s question ‘Where do ideas like that come from?’
- To recite the poem out loud, identify the transitions in verb tense to break the poem into phrases. Think about how you will adjust your tone and rhythm to distinguish current thoughts and affirmations from memories, and where you might pause to honour these shifts between past and present.
Write an epistolary poem dedicated to a poet you admire, directly referencing a line or image from their work and its significance for you.
Weyman Chan, “But I’m No One” from Human Tissue: A Primer for Not Knowing: Poems. Copyright © 2016 by Talonbooks.
Source: Human Tissue: A Primer for Not Knowing: Poems (Talonbooks, 2016)