Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Sep 08
Firelight in the Dark Corners of Memory

 by Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor and youth advocate


Writers who submitted poetry between October and December of last year (2014) wrote about loss. One poet wrote about the loss of oneself in an abusive relationship, another about the loss of a friend, another about the confusion inherent in the memories of losing someone. But our authors also, in turning to writing, found a safe place to reflect, remember and recover a part of themselves. In doing so, they’re a model for not only other youth but for everyone out there dealing with trauma.

Let’s start with this quarter’s winner.

I am not yet sure I am ready to forgive you.
You ripped me to pieces so small,
I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore.
Your words cut me deeper than
any blade ever could.
You burned my skin;
gave me 3rd degree wounds.
For over a year,
I dealt with the blame.
I dealt with the threats of suicide when I said no.
I dealt with screams, the shoves,
the “I’m-sorry, I-love-you”s.
The “It-won’t-happen-again”s, the “take-me-back”s
I dealt with the pain.
As if all the showers
could scrub away
the filthiness I’ve felt.
Almost 3 years later,
and I’m still unlearning
what I was taught to be sorry for.
But almost 3 years later
and I can tell myself that I deserve better.
I can look at my scars now,
and see that that
is no longer me.
I can be happy
with someone else.
I can look at myself now
and not feel ashamed.
This is to myself.
This is for me.
I don’t forgive you,
but I forgive me.


This relationship tore the author into pieces so small they almost lost themselves (“I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore”). Yet this poem is the author putting themselves back together. They are able to look at themselves and their scars now, the poet writes, without shame. The poet forgives themselves, we can suppose, for letting someone else treat them so badly. Though some readers might wonder if there’s anything the author needs to forgive themselves for, the poem is the author’s act of mercy to themselves and, I would argue, a way of gradual self-reclamation. The author’s willingness to share it with us is a testament to this long and painful process that is the beginning of moving on.
Our first honorable mention for the October-December 2014 quarter, has similar themes.

No one knew but you.
No one seemed to care but you.
When I first saw you, I knew I could say things and I’d be alright
Because no one but you would know.
I would tell you my hurts, my fears
and all those things he did to me that I didn’t understand.

You didn’t tell me to stop talking
or to go away
or that you were too busy to listen.

You sat beside me with eyes full of welcome and let me talk.
In the shade of the chicken coops
we would sit in the space you had created where we would be safe.
You would lean in and listen—the mere presence of one who cared was like rain on parched earth.
I drank it in.

But those days were soon cut short—
those days made way for other things.

So many years have passed.
I think I glimpse you at a park or a crowded avenue
but I quickly realize it’s not you
and it never can be.

I greatly miss you, my beloved friend.
I sometimes wonder if there are dogs in heaven.


There’s double loss in this poem: the loss of the child’s equilibrium in response to sexual abuse and, of course, the loss of the dog, the child’s only confidant.
Still though, in the act of writing this poem, the author’s silence on their abuse has ended and a strength found. The author demonstrates courage in trusting an invisible web audience as a new kind of confidant. It’s no substitute for the author’s childhood friend, but the author, with their words, has taken a measure of control that they did not have as a child.
Sometimes losses and our memories of loss create a confusion that’s difficult to put into words. The next author captures this well.

Oh, she was hopeless, oh, she was hopeless.
She didn’t mean to say goodbye.

Certain memories linger deep beneath your skin,
go no further than your fingertips, move your feet through their steps,
stumble and they’re departed, departed, departed.

Certain rushes drag off you like cigarette smoke
some glass bottles shattering down, down, down,
dispersing out, around, all over,
till the whole world’s brimming with the screaming of your thrills.

But oh, she was hopeless, she was just hopeless
and she didn’t mean to say goodbye.


Through repetition and alliteration, this poet creates a frantic sense of descent. This poem’s exact meaning is illusive, but it has an essential strangeness that the best poems have. The “she was hopeless” line sounds borrowed from an authoritative third party—a parent, a family member—either about the author or someone they knew. It’s a phrase that was used to label someone and exacerbate their alienation. The two middle stanzas expound upon this and articulate a sense of powerlessness as something is removed from you. Whether this poem is about the loss of a friend or about the loss of self through the “thrills” of self-destruction, the poem captures the dizzying helplessness inherent in trauma.

No matter how strange the experience or how painful the memory, a poem can become a vessel to contain it and share it with others. Poetry may not take away the pain of an experience, but it can substitute the feeling of powerlessness with articulation via creation.

The next poet writes about a bonfire that brings a “false but comfortable” sense of belonging:


A glance around flames that cough out smoke and memories
and, as it crackles to mother nature’s tune,
the flames stretch up higher like lost but graceful limbs.
They take wind into their burning embrace
and together they dance.
Warmth found within pine-cones sticks and loose paper.
The secrets and pastime lusts jump out.
Around the fire, eyes have no difference because
the reflection of dangerous comfort
flickers inside of each iris.
A longing look across the pit,
a shoulder bumped, a marshmallow burnt,
two hot dogs slipped.
But all is good in the now.

Around the fire
bored with truth and no energy to spare for lies.
A game in the trees without the help of bulbs or moonlight.
Crickets howl. Footsteps that do not belong to you
Or another human
remind you that you are never alone in the night.
A squeal, running feet, the unmistakable crunch of gravel
beneath feet in a happy panic.

Around the fire in the trees on the gravel
time lost.
Forgotten sleep.
Around my fire,
my fire that built a false but comfortable safety.


This poet’s diction and penchant for sensory detail create a vivid experience that has both the mellow enjoyment and the anxiety (“happy panic”) of being in the woods at night. The safety is “false” because the wild animals—and our lives—lurk just outside. But for the moment “all is good in the now”.

Poetry can be that centering experience—for writers and those who read their work. When the poet says “my fire” they could literally mean the bonfire or, more likely, their poem that has become symbolic for the fire. Though perhaps “false” in the sense that it’s not a literal fire, the poetic fire re-creates an experience that out-burns the literal one.


Poems are bonfires for the imagination. For our authors who have experienced trauma and loss, poems can be places of safety where their reflections bring light to the dark corners of memory. And in these acts of creation, these young poets regain a sense of control over the losses their poems may reflect. In doing so, they inspire their readers to do the same and we at Pongo are sincerely grateful for their writing efforts.

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.