Successful Student Poems: Ninth through Twelfth Grade

Poems featured on this page also appeared in the 2016 volume of Cascadia, OPA’s student poetry journal.


Speak slower.
Be the soothing lullaby of the train instead of the bullet,
even if you thought you were already doing that.

Use your tongue.
Even if you did not know you were using it wrong in the first place.

Be open to advice.
You know that’s what you have to do,
but that doesn’t stop the walls closing in, isolating you, trapping you in a box.
You scream and kick and beg for help, but no one can understand you.

There is no shame in getting help,
but that does not stop the stares of my classmates as I leave early,
the stigma of speech therapy tattooed on my forehead.

Be like the King.
Watch the King of England struggle to be heard.
Then watch the king bloom behind the microphone,
his voice blossoming under the pressure of war
as his voice shelters a country.
Watch with soaking cheeks so that you know you are not alone.

Say every syllable of every word.
My first real rule. A crack in the wall.
Make your tongue a steady metronome for your mind,
ticking with every consonant.

Slow down by using pauses.
Another crack.
Breathe in the frustration, resentment, tears.
Breathe out a smile while you repeat yourself again.
And again. Again.
Ignore their confusion, their impatience, their resignation.
Never wave your white flag.

Don’t jam your words.
Speak every word like a music note, every word breathing life into your symphony of a sentence.
And even though you sound like a robot,
for once people can hear a voice behind the cluttering.

Remember the gentle therapist.
Before speeches, presentations, conversations.
Practicing with Peter Piper and his pickled pepper.
Sing each staccato of a word, breathe in the rests, be clear in your sound.
But most importantly,
never forget you have a voice.

Kathryn Blessington

St. Mary’s Academy, Portland: Twelfth Grade
Sara Salvi, Teacher

The Only Time I Saw My Grandmother Naked

I saw my grandmother take off her breasts
She did it casually
as one strips a pair of socks
Help me Lena she said
as her arms flailed behind her
struggling to grasp the clasp

I had never seen someone so naked.

Come on now, be quick about it

Then they were gone
Ginormous molded silicone breasts
with a pilling band, draped over the bed post.
My grandmother rubbed the twisted skin where her breasts used to hang
(a crooked break
a dark mark
–What did we do to earn this punishment?)
and sighed

Jesús Cristo
Lena this is what happens to you when you get old

I wonder if I could as easily take off an arm
a knee
a foot

Lena are you listening?

I nod and stare at her breasts on the bed post.

Lena Breda

St. Mary’s Academy, Portland: Twelfth Grade
Sara Salvi, Teacher

Garden of Remembrance

I stand stooped before the newly turned plot of earth
Dappled with warmth and shade.
I am not alone.
I am so alone.
Saying goodbye in a half familiar language.
Today every image is a photograph
Stamped gently, firmly on my transparent lids.
I turn, the eye opens and closes
Camera-shutter quick.
And the imprint remains.
The unending film reel of the day has been reduced to snapshots.
The jade and cream frog, sitting inexplicably on a glossy granite headstone,
Its topaz eyes full of shimmering surprise;
From a distance, my family, dressed in black, looks like a swarm of affectionate birds.
My thoughts go back to my grandfather and our park,
The cold metal promise of the chains on a swing set
Of toes skimming rusted-gold oak leaves of the nearby tree,
And then ovine clouds,
Both infinitely closer and immeasurably farther,
When viewed within the refracting prism of childhood.

The moment of sunlit silence incongruous with a sudden lurch of sadness.
Read in the peculiar tongue of my tired spirit.
The curious, bittersweet currency of a lifetime
To be tucked away,
Perhaps coveted,
Perhaps memorialized,
Perhaps visited rarely,
Allowed to grow as blurry as the dust-blinded photographs
In the box sitting atop the bookshelf
What a wealth of recollections…
Enough to spend frivolously,
Discard quickly,
And still have memories left
For another day

Gabrielle Cohn

Wilson High School, Portland: Eleventh Grade
Jamie Suehiro, Teacher


I was born an empty jar
Like the kind we used that one summer to fill with jam we made
Out of the abundance of backyard strawberries that year
We boiled them down
Barely needed any sugar they were so sweet

I was born a jar
Waiting to be filled up
A jar whose little glass ears get too caught up
With the whispering voices of my untold future
Who say “you’re falling behind”

To live is not to chase the ending

My eyes are not blind
But they need to learn to see
Through my own glass walls
Taste the mixture of my days
Even the bitter ones

Everyone needs the occasional reminder
That this bitterness is temporary
Reborn in retrospect
As the humble soil
In which what is next to come
Will take root

Grace M. Hermes

St. Mary’s Academy, Portland: Eleventh Grade
Sara Salvi, Teacher


There are numbers on my grandfather’s arm
Crudely tattooed
He says they are to help us remember
So that tragedies won’t ever happen again
When I was little I didn’t understand why those numbers were there
Lots of people had tattoos
So why was grandpa’s boring?
As I grew older I would ask grandpa questions
Sometimes they were hard
Why are there those numbers on your arm?
What do they mean?
Sometimes he would answer
But other times he would go off into memory lane
And mama would tell me not to bother him
I found out later
That it was from a prison camp
Where he was kept for being Jewish
And where he watched his family killed
I ask a question
But that could never happen now, right?
I need reassurance that these horrors are gone
But he is silent

As he grows older his stories become more like ramblings
Crazy facts come out
Like when he watched soldiers throw babies into the air
And shoot them
When I am 18 I get a tattoo
The only one I will have
But this one is special
Because even when my grandfather starts to forget
I don’t want to

Kate LeBlanc

Lincoln High School, Portland: Eleventh Grade
Kara Wendel, Teacher

Something About the Way Buses Reek of Civilization

if the smell of cigarettes were any stronger
I might believe I smoked them myself (if only to forget I’m human).
something about this musty orange glow makes me think of home, where strangers sit in rows,
disconnected from the world by the swirling void
with its addictive neurotic colors flashing like neon signs.
I too, am victim of the bitten silver apple,
and my poems are not parchment.
it’s a different world, here, and
I know nothing of the man in a charcoal raincoat
or the woman with wine-stained corduroys except
that they are on either side of me and when the bus shudders we
touch shoulders briefly.
imagination lurches on unsteady feet, yelling
something about pale green dishes and broken
promises & that is my cue to take my hands
and curl them into fists beneath this traffic-cone jacket
and exhale something of my own into an unknowing atmosphere
of silent contentment where just for a moment
I have something in common with people I’ve never met

Marika Meijer
Manningham Contest First Place Winner

St. Mary’s Academy, Portland: Eleventh Grade
Sara Salvi, Teacher


I wake to the sound of Russian
that rills over honest men.
this one grows dishonest,
so Stalin’s silver tarnishes
in the crystal canals of Leningrad
in the carmine, moonlit night

I was once the moon over St. Petersburg
alone and amber
I divined a numinous night,
illumined enigma in the dusk

Now I vanish into pale shadows
into vermeil visages
that cavort amongst the stars
in a smoldering St. Petersburg sky

That silence in the marketplace in Chernovtsy
permeating trigonal and boat-shaped
Viennese villas with fragrant colonnaded facades
that silence indulged with hushed breaths
of crimson, carnelian cherry jam
replaced by the voices of louche
Russian humorists and faceless women
from Eastern Europe and Ukraine

So Lenin’s mammoth, bronze head
gazes upon the flames from afar,
the prayers of the lost
that rise to ravage
the moon over St. Petersburg

I close my eyes.
Well have I lived my life.

Seth Talyansky

Catlin Gabel School, Portland: Ninth Grade
Virginia King, Teacher