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Window on Corn

by Linda Thomas

My thoughts this month have made travel difficult. I can't say that these thoughts--ranging from gruesome to profoundly sad--began with Littleton, but mass murder is hard on the value system, hard on the heart. So, here at home among the candles I've lit, hoping to draw serenity this way, I have been thinking about corn.

A few days ago, as I and my colleagues were leaving the scene of our monthly book club, my friend B. told me that she'd read an essay by Linda Hogan. Hogan is a poet, a Chickasaw woman from Oklahoma, and her volumes have earned significant prizes, including a Pulitzer nomination in 1991. In the essay, B. said--her voice solemn with reverence--Hogan accounts for her poems by saying that she "listens to the corn."

I laughed, irreverently, for two reasons. First, I laughed because for over thirty years I have read and heard poets answer the question of how they make poems by lying through their pearly metaphors. Who knows how poets make poems. Just so they keep doing it. And second, I laughed because I heard the word "corn" not in its cereal denotation, not even in its mythical connotation. Instead, I understood the corn of tossed-off humor, tasteless or sentimental or cliché.

In the face of corn, people respond variously. Some guffaw. Some groan. Some write poems. Some look for the root.

In my basic writing class this week, I and my students talked about the events in Littleton, Colorado, at Columbine High School. I asked how the parents of the boys who killed fellow students could not have noticed pipe bombs in their garage. From the back of the room, R., a young college student fresh out of high school himself, joked, "They probably thought it was a science experiment." The class laughed. Corn.

The students I teach did not do well in high school. Reading is difficult for them, writing even harder, and because they have met with so many academic failures, they often defend their ideas by masquerading them in humor. It's my job to pull off the masks. At this late date in the semester, I have to do little more than gaze in the direction of the cornball. "Good parents," R. said, composing his thought as he dug for the root of his corn, "ask their kids what's going on, then they just believe the lies because that's what they want to believe."

For the last few days, I have been thinking about what R. said, about corn, and about the window that bad humor affords me on the events of my world. I have not thought much about the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold because I fear they are people much like me. I don't like the culture of death that pervades my society these days--the daggers dripping blood, the swastikas, the skulls, the images of hate crimes replete with human beings dragged behind pick-ups and hung from barbed wire, the fact that I actually know what a .44 magnum and a TEC DC-9 look like.

Hard even to read the words of such images, isn't it?

As a writer, I face the inexorable fact that I haven't the imagination to select and arrange the words sufficient to describe the horrors that have become commonplace in my society. But worse, I am reluctant even to gaze at the death images long enough to describe them, let alone to understand. And where does my reluctance take me? Will I enable what I am reluctant to face?

Is it time to blow out the candles, leave home, and take a trip into America? Is it time to listen to the corn?

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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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