Poetry Review: Rita Dove, Flash Cards

6 May

flash cards


“In math, I was the whiz kid, keeper/of oranges and apples.  What you don’t understand,/master, my father said: the faster/I answered, the faster they came.”   We start this poem from the point of view of a primary school student whose father is pushing her to be the best.  The problem she’s noticing that the better she did, the more was expected of her.  One question I always had about flash cards is why speed is such an element.  In most cases in real life, it doesn’t matter so much how fast you get to the right answer as long as the right answer comes to you.  I understand that having kids do this faster means they can master harder math faster but still I question it.  Why push hard if it only brings hardness in return?

“I could see one bud on the teacher’s geranium,/one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane./The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain/so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.”  She’s noticing this too–that in the land of math, where it’s always oranges and apples (have you ever noticed the huge amounts of apples and oranges in math world?  And how often they just give them away to each other, but I digress.) In nature she sees things in simpler numbers, she really responds to nature, acting like the tulip trees after the rain.  Also, unlike perhaps the other students she leaves school to go home where she gets more school–where it’s all performance.

“My father put up his feet after work/and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln/After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark”   She’s seeing a little of the unfairness of it all, her father gets to relax, why can’t she?  (Though to give him credit The Life of Lincoln isn’t exactly easy breezy reading, but the daughter would not know that.)  The drilling really makes it sound like she’s in the army, preparing for battle rather than doing flash cards.  Also there’s a little ambiguity of climbing the dark–it’s getting later (and it indicates going up to bed, though this phrase doesn’t finish with stairs) but she’s also climbing the dark with the unending pressure, it’s taking her to a dark place of nightmares.

“before sleep, before a thin voiced hissed/numbers as I spun on a wheel.  I had to guess./Ten. I kept saying.  I’m only ten.”   Here is the nightmare, of a voice talking on in numbers that she doesn’t understand.  She has to guess because she does not know, and finally reminds the voice–in a way that she can’t remind her father, that she’s just a little girl.

The real problem the character has here isn’t math–it’s clear she’s good at it and she understands it, the problem she’s supposed to master is the pushing of her father that puzzles her.  As adults we would know that the father wants her to excel, wants her to do better to give her a better future, however there’s a real fear that gets instilled here, a fear of failure, a fear of not being good enough, and also a fear that there is no such thing as good enough.   Parents have two extremes they have to try to avoid–first being overly accommodating and spoiling the child, but second is to treat the child like a miniature adult and have no comprehension of how things look from a limited perspective.   Also compare the child’s world with the world presented to her–the bees and geraniums and tulip tree, places of mystery and wonder, compared to the dry facts that are on flash cards.

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