April 12, 2016

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Poetry Friday: First Generation

Robyn Hood Black is hosting
this week's round up of poetry
at Life on the Deckle Edge.
I was listening to news of the European refugee crisis on the radio today. The crisis touches me in several ways. First, when I was in Italy this summer for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change world conference, several poets from Africa were denied entry into Italy. Why? For fear that they weren't really coming for a conference, but instead were refugees. Then my good friend, poet Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey of Ghana, was harrased as he passed through Germany on his trip home from Italy.

But the story also touches me because I am a first generation American. My mother came to the United States in 1966, when she married my father. Even though my mom is British and shares a common language with us Yanks (as my uncle used to tease), there are a million small ways that she didn't fit in, didn't understand how things worked, felt isolated and alone. These small things are embedded in my childhood memories.

Leaving one's country is never an easy choice. I can't imagine what it must be like for families caught up in the current refugee crisis. Even if they make it to a country that offers asylum, there are a million small ways that they will remain outsiders. Integration into a new culture is gradual and often painful.

I'm so glad to introduce you to the poet Leona Sevick. 

Leona and I first met at the 2013 Gettysburg Review Conference for Writers. Like me, she is bi-cultural and a first-generation American. Her poem "Lion brothers" walks the fence that immigrants must walk: acceptance lies on one side, maintaining one's home culture and sense of self lies on the other.

Lion brothers
by Leona Sevick

Sometimes they sent her home early,
her hand bandaged tight where a needle
had pierced her. Home from school,
we found her curled on the floor, watching. 

She woke early to put on her face
before we could see it for what it
wasn't, round and smooth and yellow.
Her legs tucked under her,
she held the mirror in her tiny hand
and painted on the jungle colors:
blacks and blues. At the factory
she tied tools around her waist,
slimmer than any boy's, though her arms
were knotted in muscles. She climbed up
beside the men, four feet above ground
on their vibrating monsters, machines
that worked like animals. Like pieces
of thread cut from the loom and dropped
clean, their words gathered around her feet.


It seemed like a child's word
if you didn't know the meaning.

Originally published in Frontiers:  A Woman's Journal (Univ. Nebraska Press).

I asked Leona to tell us about the genesis of this powerful poem.

Lion Brothers is the name of a factory in Taneytown where my mother worked for 25 years. She made patches there--the kind that are sown on uniforms of every type (military, athletic teams, Boy Scouts, etc.). Every morning she woke up at 5 am to "put on her face." I thought of her makeup as her armor. She was the first non-white person to work at the factory. While she had a couple of very good women friends who worked alongside her in that ugly place, she also worked with many bigots and rough men. In time, many of them accepted her as well, though she never called them friends.

I remember that, Leona. Although she didn't work in a factory, my mother had a very hard time making friends after she emigrated. I don't think she had real group of girlfriends until my brothers and I were in our twenties.

Classroom teacher friends: I think "Lion brothers" would be a wonderful discussion prompt to get your upper middle school or high school class talking about stereotypes and the power of words, especially ethnic slurs.

And here's a little gift from Leona. This poem is for everyone who's using this weekend to recover from the first week of school.

Leona says, "Every day as I drive to work I pass a herd of 'Oreo' cows--Belted Galloways.  One particularly dreary morning when I faced a task at work I wanted to avoid, I fantasized about being one of those cows.  I know almost everyone can relate."

Belted Galloway
by Leona Sevick

Weeks like this one make me wonder how nice
it might be to be a cow just chewing, slowly moving
my jaws in clockwise angles. Frothing green trickles
between my teeth and at the drooping corners of my
single-minded mouth, I could lie down and rest
on legs not asked to move except to escape the winds
and stinging rain that come up from the south sometimes.
Or maybe I'd just stand here, letting the water wash my
tough hide--brown rivers of yesterday's dirt rolling
inevitably down into the holes I'm standing in--
thinking of nothing and no one in particular.

Leona Sevick's work appears in The Journal, Barrow Street, Potomac Review and is forthcoming in Poet Lore. She is the 2012 first place winner of the Split This Rock Poetry contest, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her first chapbook, Damaged Little Creatures, was published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press ( She is associate provost and associate professor of English at Mount St. Mary's University.

Buy it on Amazon.


Linda B said...

Leona shows more than one poetic face with the bittersweet poem for her mother and the tongue-in-cheek poem about those oreo cows. Both poems to keep and remember. I believe the first time I really understood the challenges of being an immigrant was when I read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. More books and articles add to my understanding, as does this post, Laura. Thank you.

Sheri Doyle said...

Thank you for sharing these poems. I'm haunted by the words "gathered around her feet" and can hear the "vibrating monsters" but what stands out most for me are her mother's "knotted muscles" revealing so much enduring strength.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Wow. Thanks so much for introducing us to Leona. She is an amazing poet who packs a punch. The ending of "Lion brothers" brought me to tears.

Margaret Simon said...

This comes at the end of a week's work with students on writing an epilogue to One Green Apple. This story is a picture book about a young Muslim girl going on a field trip to an apple orchard. Apple is her first English word. To read my students' responses to this story just brought home to me the strong desire they have to make it all right in the world. Their epilogues were all happy endings. No one wants to see the results of prejudice. We are not born to be like this. These poems struck me today. They made me notice. Thanks for sharing.

Violet N. said...

What a timely post for what's happening in the world. It's so important to be reminded of what it feels like to be the outsider. Thank you!

Mary Lee said...

Thank you for again letting us see the world through new eyes. So important for me to remember about the immigrant children (and their families) in my class.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Such a timely and moving piece - thank you for sharing. And thanks to Leona for sharing her talents.

Also appreciative of those cows. They kept showing up in my mind yesterday - a welcome diversion!

Bridget Magee said...

Both of Leona's poems are so raw and powerful, but in very different ways. I also love the description of Oreo Cow. I want to read more of Leona's work so I am going to seek out her Damaged Little Creatures chap book. Thanks for the introduction, Laura. =)