Chelsea Wagenaar

Poem in Which Elephants Are Stupendous

After his parents moved to the U.S.
three years ago, Nathan, who is now eight,
began coming to tutoring. For help with English,
his mother said, glancing away, the blue
current of Texas sky rushing away
through the windows behind her. Now, Nathan hands me
his homework—a sentence for each vocabulary word.
It is humble to play with Legos,
he has written, and I do not know how to correct him,
because yes, one of the definitions is simple,
and he’s right. He doesn’t understand why
tremor isn’t a verb, or why he can’t say I am
tremoring at the tornado
, though I know
exactly what he means, and I am, too.
Because that is what fear does—it shakes
all our nouns into verbs so that we seism,
we twister, we cyclone. Have you ever had
kimchi, he asks, when he is supposed to be
reading about sinking cities, his hair untamed,
his thick lenses full of his eyes.
I help him pronounce the names of the cities
and he says Baton Rouge exactly the way
it is spelled, a beautiful woman with ruby cheeks
tossing a flame-lit baton in the air.
I have never had kimchi. He writes garlic
for me in Korean, though he can’t remember
cabbage or ginger anymore. For the rest
of the hour we fit words into sentences
like Legos into buildings. This one here. No, here.
Elephants are stupendous, he has written,
and I realize all my life I have used stupendous wrong
because it is not just causing astonishment;
it means causing astonishment due to size or greatness,
so fingers are not stupendous, and neither
are hummingbirds. But language is. And before it
Nathan and I tremor, and I am humble to help him,
because it is not humble at all.

Chelsea Wagenaar is the 2013 winner of the Philip Levine Prize and her manuscript, Mercy Spurs the Bone, is forthcoming from Anhinga Press in 2014. Her poems have appeared or been accepted recently in Plume, Mid-American Review, North American Review, and TriQuarterly. She is a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas and lives in Denton, Texas, with her husband, fellow poet Mark Wagenaar.
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