The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train
by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate
Writers from around the country submit to Pongo Teen Writing every day. And every quarter, a Pongo editor has the difficult job of picking four poems to share with our online readers. This task proved particularly challenging for this last quarter, April-June 2016 because the corpus of poems submitted were of such fine quality.
The balmy spring weather with its blossoming ebullience must have influenced our writers because this quarter’s collection seemed defined by optimism: acceptance for the moment and hope for the future. This is exemplified in this quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize.
I hope the end of every year
Will be followed by happiness.
I hope the weakest dog will find a family
Of five people and one more dog, so the dog isn’t lonely.
The second dog is big, very fluffy and playful.
They will become really good friends.
I hope the fiercest storms bring rainbows
To part the storm:
A never-ending rainbow
I hope every empty room will eventually have
A lamp that can brighten
A lamp with flowers on it.
I hope gunfire in the distance is just thunder
Striking the tree
An evergreen tree
An evergreen tree that is 24 years old.
I hope when life passes there is a new life for me to call home.
The first thing I would do in a new life is get a dog
I hope the angriest person in me will learn to find calmness.
Calm like a white butterfly
In a sea of bees.
I hope the loneliest person in me will discover a friend.
Imaginary or real It doesn’t matter.
I hope the most lighthearted person in me will find some structure.
Structure like a sturdy bridge
From fear to hope.
I hope I will someday be able to walk that bridge.
I would not look down.
I would look straight forward.
I might even bring my dog.
The author connects feelings of hope with images: the crossing of a bridge, a butterfly, a rainbow, lamp and, of course, the image of the dog that opens and closes the lid on the little treasure box that is this poem. It’s a gift to read and speak aloud to ourselves.
Hope in a better future of course implies that there are things about our present and possibly our origins that may not be as sterling as we would have liked them to be. Yet, part of moving forward is accepting our roots. “Where I Come” from, our first honorable mention, models this for us in an important way.
WHERE I COME FROM
I'm from a place where kids hold guns bigger than them.
I'm from faith inside myself. No God.
I'm from a long line of people who work hard and try to do the best with their situation.
I'm from confusion about when people say "I love you."
I'm from laughter over everything.
I come from a place so dark, ain't nobody thought of lights.
I'm from love, and I know my people are still with me through this crucial time.
I'm from fear, especially when I think about not seeing my family again.
I come from a long line of slavery, both mentally and physically.
I come from the streets where killers and ballers dwell.
I come from a loving family.
I wish my life would become more destined and less hectic.
That's where I'd like to be from.
Part of this poem’s specialness comes from its unflinching inclusiveness of details. Their home front contains both a loving family and streets where “kids carry guns bigger than them”, an inheritance of historical trauma and good-humored perseverance. The poet seems to have taken the best from their surroundings, having learned the importance of hard work, loyalty and grit. “I’m from faith inside myself”, the poet writes. Though the place of their origin seemed so dark “ain’t nobody thought of lights”, there’s clearly a light within this writer and a hope for a future that’s “more destined and less hectic”. The “more destined” line pounds on our hearts and ears as we read, many of us living at frenetic paces without reflection.
Good thing we have poetry.
The next poem also depicts a complex experience of place and does so with memorable élan.
THE CTY THAT NEVER SLEEPS
1. new york
these cities that
we definitely own
so many people
but still completely alone
leaving your mark
meant leaving yourself
hoping to spark interest
in someone else
you have forgotten
only the broken-hearted
look out the subway window
side by side;
running, going, gone,
avenues too long
hair unruly, unrested
hands always jittering,
coffee hangovers anew
will the story ever progress
when you’re stuck on page two?
pointed toes, jazz hands
from the stands
open hearts, wide eyes
‘one more time’.
whiplash can never
replace the time
we crashed hearts
and bumped thighs
awnings are blessings
spare change, please?
still a dreamer
but not lost
without a house,
without clean clothes
the music louder,
the dancing quicker,
the hands slip lower,
the eyes to fall
bumped into each other
four years later
he’s out the door
we tend to forget
it always starts
12. rooftop dinner
big city view
big city price
big city diamonds
(he must really
13. empire state building
rats with wings
seeking french fries,
15. street performer
kennedy center sleeping
central station dreaming
case open, hats off
counting change for
a better corner
needing more rooms
you can only be in
one at a time
17. barre, bar
both your warm-up
and your mental state
depend on it
18. central park
the safety bubble
around the chaos
we sleep with
moving away from the
only leaves them within
trekking alone in this rain
will leave you more comfortable
than walking in the sunshine
by her side
they should start naming these storms
welcome to the next chapter:
your romantic impulse
hate so much"
This poem’s well-wrought lines (only the broken-hearted look out the subway window) crackle and surprise like Ginsberg. The poet’s lyricism can create snapshots of a rambling urban experience that can seem both sweet and troubling, as in stanza 20. In this is an inherent acceptance in the moment. It also speaks to the brilliance and promise inside people society may view as wayward or down-and-out. The poem’s end is abrupt, yet lifelike. We get the sense of an ongoing journey that will continue with the poet’s life. “Welcome to the next chapter” one of the closing lines states. Reading these 21 chapters made me feel alive and look forward to reading the 22nd, 23rd and so on.
Poetry has the power to reframe perspectives and, as Blake said, cleanse the doors of perceptions. Poems from this quarter work to cleanse a bleak view of the future, revealing infinite potential. This last poem is one such example:
THINK ABOUT A LIFE WITHOUT SADNESS
At first this sounds like an immaculate theory,
To forever have nothing to do with sadness,
Sorrowful, grief-filled, heartbroken, depressed,
Hopeless, inconsolable, and disconnected feelings,
Not having that burden weighing down on you
But without these negative emotions you would not be that person you love today
or if you don't love yourself right now without sadness
where would your motivation be for changing?
There is a light at the end of the tunnel which is not a train.
Thanks to this poet for reminding us of this truth and thanks to all our poets and readers. Expression is hope!
Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.