“Teach Us to Number Our Days”
In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.
Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams
he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.
And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.
August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
—Rita Dove, from Yellow House on the Corner (1980)
“Teach Us to Number Our Days” is strikingly visual. The original Bible verse (Psalm 90:12), from which the title is taken, is a prayer from Moses that the children of Israel always stay faithful and true servants God’s and gain His wisdom, as He is everlasting while they are but blades of grass. Dove’s poem takes on a slightly different tone. Life is tragically short in this low-income, urban neighborhood (the “hood,” “projects,” or “ghetto”), where crime and death is rampant, the “funeral” has become a business, and emotionless cops patrol the streets prepared to shoot anyone who gets out of line. The lone ray of hope is the image of a boy who dreams of making it out (“A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon/crossed by TV antennae dreams/he has swallowed a blue bean.”), a narrative used often in hip hop culture. The image of the boy playing tic-tac-toe on the moon could allude to the televised broadcasting of the moon landing and the common childhood dream to become an astronaut. When he swallows the “blue bean,” it represents his desire to escape, also alluding to the fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Unfortunately, his route is snapped off by a cop who holds all the cards (“beans”), reminding him that soon he will suffer the same fate as the rest of this neighborhood’s residents: death or prison.
It’s a heartbreaking depiction of a life that hasn’t much changed since the time this poem was written. Unfortunately, the average American has a nasty habit of blaming these people for their current circumstances. They call them lazy, criminals, drug addicts, etc. when they’re just as much victims of the system as slaves or blacks living in the Jim Crow South. This is the result of housing discrimination, job discrimination, the elimination of government funded at-risk programs, the stigma against raising the minimum wage and the assumption that a certain “type” of person only works these jobs and thus doesn’t deserve a livable wage, the misguided belief that “because I pulled myself up by the bootstraps with no help, you should too” when you didn’t grow up in this kind of environment, elected officials disconnected from a community and opting to ignore its existence entirely instead of taking the time to understand and fix its problems.
When did we become so heartless? This country was built on Christian principles. Did we forget that the early Christian church gave to those in need? Knowing this makes the title of this poem all the more ironic. Maybe the “Us” is actually referring to the self-righteous reader. Maybe Dove is asking the American “Christian” to remember Psalm 90, to seek God’s wisdom and fear His wrath because one day, they’ll have to face judgment for their actions . . . or lack thereof…
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (Matthew 25:45; NIV)
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the young child trapped in the “hood.” Illustrate his tragic environment with striking images. Why is he so often ignored or misrepresented? Be that single person who shows him sympathy. Give him hope that there is a way to “get out” other than in a body bag or a prison cell.