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1703 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Belated Homage

by Dorothy R. Rice

Girl seeks poem. Must possess the following characteristics:

Female author
Written while young (preferably under 25, 30 tops)
Short (but not too short)
Clever (but not too clever)

The last two criteria apply to the poem, not the author.


Mom was out back pulling weeds. My sisters were playing “Mother-May-I?” on the lawn. Finally, some privacy.

I snuck into the living room. Pulled a musty old book from the shelf. English Poetry of the 19th Century. With the book under my arm, I tiptoed down the hall to the bedroom I shared with Roxanne and Juliet. My sisters got their names from Shakespeare and Cyrano de Bergerac. Mine was my grandmother’s. Life was so unfair.

From my bed by the open window I could keep an eye on them all. Mom bent from the waist to pluck a dandelion. Her dress rose up so I saw her slip and the backs of her puckered knees. I wished she wouldn’t do that. The neighbors could see over the fence. Parents were such an embarrassment.

I opened the book and flipped through its dusty pages, thin as the Bible’s. Wriggling my bare toes in the tufted chenille bedspread, I searched for the perfect poem. I must have scanned through hundreds.

Women were hard to come by. And none of their poems met my requirements. They were too long, too mushy, or too larded up with weird words. Lots of thee and thou, whence and wither, and way too many apostrophes.

“Weenie,” Roxanne shouted up from below.

My middle name is Rowena. Roxanne made sure the whole world knew it.

“I know you’re up there, Madam Oscar Meyer wiener. You better not touch anything of mine,” she said. “Or else.”

I could see her raised fist without looking. It was near impossible to be creative in a house full of cretins. But what choice did I have? I got back to work.

Just as I was about to give it up, I stumbled upon the perfect author and her perfect poem about an English garden. A stream meandered through it. The water gurgled or babbled. Something poetic. Trees and flowers shone in dappled sunlight. And there was a bench. No, it must have been a swing. An empty, weatherworn swing that swayed. As if a child had just hopped off. I could feel it. I was that long ago girl.

My poet was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not that I knew who they were back then. But they had written lots while my poet had only one entry in Mom’s fat leather book. A poem so modest I almost missed it. And like her one poem, her life was short, which seemed tragic, yet romantic too. I was nine.

I read it through a couple times. It was possible, I thought. With a few tweaks, it would do. I copied her poem onto a yellow pad. My cursive was round and loopy then. I used little o’s to dot my i’s. A year later I would realize how lame that was. Some girls never do.

Then I got to work. I scrutinized every word, line and stanza. Any words that sounded too English or too old had to go. No tarry. No naught or nary. My dead poet’s ethereal arbour became my dreamy garden. The title, which I think was something like “Ode to an English Garden”, became “The Empty Swing”.

I copied my doctored poem onto a fresh sheet of paper.


It was 1963, a year before my sisters and I lay on our stomachs, heads in our hands and inches from the television, to watch the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that year. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. My fourth-grade teacher cried and covered her face with her hands when another teacher brought her the news. We went home early that day and watched it on television.

After I turned “The Empty Swing” in to Mrs. Burns, I forgot all about it. Until the letter arrived.

When I handed it to my mother she turned the letter over in her hand, seeming to weigh it on her palm before she knifed the envelope open. After she read it, she patted the couch cushion beside her. I sat. Close but not too close.

“The Empty Swing” had won a citywide poetry contest.

I remember Mother’s pale blue eyes, appraising me as if for the first time, a pucker of pride and surprise on her mouth, and the catch in my stomach, the sick feeling of tumbling down a well, of never landing. I must have known this could happen when Mrs. Burns said she was entering all our poems in the contest. Mine was good. I’d found it in the big book with Edith and Edna.

For all the effort I put into finding and tweaking that poem, I could have written one of my own. But I didn’t know that then. Poetry scared me. Besides, once I’d gone to all that effort and written my name at the top of the page I sort of forgot that it wasn’t mine.


There was a fancy lunch downtown and speeches to honor the winners. Mrs. Bumble, the new Language Arts teacher, drove me there. She was tall and bony, all sharp elbows and knees.

“Such a lovely poem,” she said. “Just the right number of words and syllables. Neither one too many nor one too few.”

Mrs. Bumble enjoyed the sound of her own voice.

“I imagine you meant something very personal with that empty swing. Didn’t you, Dear.”

She peered at me over the tops of her reading glasses. I peered right back. I couldn’t tell her what I was really thinking. That she looked like a praying mantis and that if she had half a brain she’d realize I couldn’t have written that poem. But she didn’t see. No one did.

She smiled and patted my hand.

“You, young lady, must join me in the Language Arts program,” she said, as if her stupid program was Shangri-La.

Language Arts was something new at our school that year. This was before the Gifted and Talented Program that began in the public schools twenty years later. My mother said I was chosen because I was smart. But I knew “The Empty Swing” was to blame.


My two best friends before that year, Debbie O’Leary and Debbie Feinberg, were not happy I was picked for Language Arts. They said their grades were as good as mine, and their penmanship on the faded mimeograph sheets neater.

Debbie O’Leary had long, glossy hair held back by a satin ribbon and freckles across her turned-up nose. Her father was a cop with a poufy hairdo and a thin moustache. My mom said he looked like Robert Goulet. Her mother wore a checkered gingham apron and cut the crusts off white-bread sandwiches. I was never comfortable at her house. There was something scary about the rumpus room down the dark flight of narrow stairs. Even so, I thought they were the perfect TV family.

Debbie Feinberg was small and scrappy, with spindly legs, long arms, and short, curly hair. When she spoke to her mother, who had numbers tattooed on her arm, they both shouted like there was a river between them.

Debbie O. snickered when Mrs. Bumble came for me that first Wednesday afternoon.

“Language farts,” she said, under her breath.

“Yeah,” Debbie F. said, arms crossed over her skinny chest. “My mom says even if they asked me I couldn’t go.”

“Mine too,” said Debbie O.

And that was the end of the Debbies. I blamed that stupid poem.


Until I graduated sixth grade and moved on to A.P. Giannini Junior High School, my poem and the award I won were on display in the locked, glass cabinet outside the principal’s office. I had to walk past it every day when Mom dropped Juliet and me off for school. “The Empty Swing” was mounted on a sheet of red construction paper with a gold foil “first place” sticker like a jagged sunburst at the bottom of the page. I pretended it wasn’t there. But it was. The first few months, it seemed like Mrs. Burns mentioned it a million times. That won me some new friends. Not.

As the months passed, the red paper faded to a dull pink. I thought about telling the truth. Lots of times. When my mother opened the letter. Before the luncheon. When my award appeared in the glass cabinet. But I didn’t. And then it was too late. All that year, and the next, I was afraid someone would figure it out and I was convinced the humiliation would be worse than the lie.

I graduated. The poem became ancient history. But that feeling, that I’m hiding some horrible secret, has hung on, more faithful than any friend. Once, when I complained that they’d given me such a lame first name, my Dad said we could change it to Desdemona, which I later learned is Greek for misery. Guess I was pretty good at wallowing in worst-case scenarios. I bet my sisters would say I still am.


I sometimes think of her, my secret poet. A walk in the garden, a playground swing, perhaps a faded tombstone will trigger the memory and it all comes back, so vivid my eyes tear up. But I cry pretty easily these days. Sloppy sentimentalism seems to be one of the curses of growing older. My youngest daughter just rolls her eyes.

That winning poem I didn’t write when I was nine years old had something to do with who I am today, with the labels I have worn on my sleeve for fifty years. The smart one, the sensitive one, the self-indulgent drama queen. Her one poem did that. A poem that could have been mine but wasn’t.

I only wish I could remember her name.


—“Belated Homage” is a significantly edited version of a piece which appeared in The American River Review (2013 edition) with the title, “Portrait of a Young Girl as a Poet” (author retains all rights).



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Dorothy R. Rice

is a native San Franciscan living in Sacramento with her husband, the youngest of her five children (ages 14-33), and a menagerie of pets. Recently retired from a 35-year career in environmental protection during which she clambered up the rungs of the state civil-service ladder, she is now a fiction MFA candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The American River Review, and other literary journals. She is working on a novel inspired by her father’s paintings, many of which can be seen at:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury