Riveting volume of poetry tells stories of students and educators

You Are No Longer in Trouble

By Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. White Pine Press, 2019. 103 pages. $16.

Alaskans should know Nicole Stellon O’Donnell from her previous book, “Steam Laundry,” which was the 2018 Alaska Reads selection. Developed from letters O’Donnell found in an archive and told in various voices, “Steam Laundry” is a novel in poems based on the true story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, a miner’s wife during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes.

O’Donnell’s very different new book, selected for the Marie Alexander Poetry series dedicated to prose poetry, is a stunning arrangement of prose poems and short lyric essays that constitutes both a memoir of the author’s life as student and teacher and an insider’s critique of our educational system.

Readers who may cringe at the idea of reading a contemporary poetry collection will find that, as with her earlier book, O’Donnell is at heart a storyteller. The brilliance of her stories, so intimately told and finely detailed, comes from their precise crafting of language, their bursts of image and energy, and their distillation of experience. They are poetry in the basic meaning of the word; they present us with “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion.”

The three sections of the book, each made up of 20 or more poems, explore a variety of subjects and time frames — from the author’s own school days in Chicago, her relationship with her father, her time teaching in rural Alaska and at a juvenile detention center, and her years teaching high school students in Fairbanks. The resonances between her own past and more recent interactions with students and the educational system volley back and forth through the pages, alternating between heart-rending emotions and reflective calm, building meaning.

One series of 26 numbered poems, spread throughout the volume, are called “Excuses for the Principal.” These, among the most rawly emotive in the work, address O’Donnell’s father, a school principal. They often begin, “You never told me,” “I never told you,” or some variation on the theme of communication lapses and estrangement. “Excuses” in the title suggests both the kind a student offers when sent to her principal for bad behavior and excuses for the principal’s own behavior. An early one begins, “I never told you that I knew you thought I had killed myself that afternoon I fell asleep on the couch after school.” A late one begins, “I never asked you if I could read to you in hospice.”

O’Donnell, as someone who might not have survived her own teens, brings an acute awareness and sensitivity to the difficulties faced by so many young people. “Other Duties as Assigned: Go Tell That Girl to Change Her Shirt” asks “And what’s her crime, so young, so narrow, trying to learn her way into her body and algebra at the same time?” “Teaching Newton’s Third Law in Juvenile Jail” involves the throwing and catching of a medicine ball. “Equal and opposite, I think, noticing the brownness of my students in a town that’s mostly white.” “Nothing to Do but Listen” hears a student, a victim of domestic abuse: “The words being made of the facts of their life.” “I Remember That Girl, in Third Grade, with the Perfect Blond Hair” remembers a girl whose mother had died. “I did what every forty-year-old does when a memory floats up, I googled.” What she finds tells her what she couldn’t have known at age eight. “Now I know. And I know you knew too.”

Among the most affecting poems (or lyric essays — the distinction is ultimately insignificant) in the collection is a multi-part one titled “Drills.” The first section recounts the author’s youthful fears of nuclear war and the duck-and-cover drills her school practiced. The sections then progress through fire drills, calls to teachers about “credible threats” and police presences, school shootings, lockdown drills, guns in backpacks. The “drills” get closer to home — her own daughter’s school lockdown, possible shooters everywhere, drills taught by hired trainers. (“They suggest you do a classroom canned food drive and leave the box in the room, so students will have cans to throw at the shooter.”) Finally, the distance between the old fears of “red phones, pressed buttons, men in suits,” and the fears of today: “I have practiced. I have helped children practice. The boy stops right outside the door. A footstep, a shadow on the paper covered window. I don’t understand: Can paper stop boys from killing people? Just hush. Don’t ask. Follow directions. Stay off the phones. Ignore all alarms. If we all listen, close up, we’ll be able to hear his finger ready on the trigger before he even touches the door. The drills have made us ready.”

The title poem, “You Are No Longer in Trouble,” takes us back to the student O’Donnell once was, punished for cheating on homework by being made to write a story using all the words on a spelling list. “Mr. Buff might know some things about catching cheaters, but he doesn’t know that to you, words can’t ever be punishment. . . You walk back to the desk with a page filled to the last line. As he reads a smile spreads slow across his face, and you are no longer in trouble.”

“You Are No Longer in Trouble” should be read not just by those who love language and the compactness of poetry but widely by educators, parents, and anyone who works with young people in any capacity. It’s a book of essential compassion and a plea for educational and justice systems responsive to our shared humanity. These poems will live with their readers for a long time, bearing witness to intentional and unintentional cruelties and the best we can sometimes be.

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