Jennifer Atkinson | The Poet in Grade School



Arrayed in their box like a choir
on risers, her 64 crayons
stood waiting in rows.  The worn color-captains
in their tattered jackets—maize
and periwinkle—her favorites.
She loved them for themselves and their names—
maize, like labyrinthine corn, Pequot
as arrowheads, and periwinkle,
the low-tide snails that wander the muddy beach.
Sometimes she let the captains choose up their teams:
maize always picked goldenrod, her best friend first,
and fickle periwinkle his current favorite—
sea foam or the sylphic thistle.  After round one,
though, sheer whim ruled the captains’ choices.
(Unless she intervened, raw umber, poor ugly thing,
was always last to go.) Once the teams
were set, she’d set to work coloring
competing pictures—much more fun than
kickball—and then she’d get to judge which
of the gorgeous, resplendent pages
was the more magnificent.  The prize?
None but the honor of Best in Show.
As she colored her way through recess,
she wondered how they colored crayons
those colors, who got to name them, and
why there were exactly 64 in the biggest box.
She hungered for at least a thousand.
Then she could draw birds more peacocky
than peacocks; tropical fish more rainbowed
than real fish or rainbows; gardens, jungles,
gowns, cathedrals with dazzling indigo
windows (back then there was no such blue
in the box).  Indigo entered 10
years after her captain (O Captain) maize
was retired. When flesh’s name was changed
in 1962, she understood, I think, why flesh
was unfair as well as wrong, but peach?
That shade should’ve been named apricot
poodle all along.  Through all those slow
crayon years, Fall Leaves, The Life Cycle
of Butterflies, Dinosaurs, Bar Graphs,
Flags, The Map of South America,
she waited, drawing lines in pencil
and then back-filling with color. Quiet
with shy fear, she kept her messy head
down, but the orange-yellow hood of her colors
thrown back.  Beyond the classroom windows
in a chalk dust sfumato mulberry haze she knew
a distant elsewhere lay—a violet-
blue lake, rippled blue gray, with a skiff
tied up, lemon oars shipped and ready.



Jennifer Atkinson is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently THE THINKING EYE, from Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. She is on the permanent poetry faculty at George Mason University’s BFA and MFA programs