Poetry Sunday: ‘Privilege,’ by Barbara Berman



Toward the end of a crisp day
a sheltie bursts with exuberance,
chases and fetches
an acid orange tennis ball
tossed by a lean young woman
with auburn dreadlocks
beyond the diamond
west of Kezar Stadium
near the Panhandle
of Golden Gate Park.                                           

Flat on my back in the shade
of Monterey pines
I read McPhee and learn
that automobile tires are
“one per cent of all
municipal solid waste and
symbol of the other ninety-nine.” 

A pale man with abundant
bronze chest hair sits and drums
on a grubby pink blanket as a teenager,
short black curls bright,
bikes bumpily across the turf.  

It is a privilege,
this clean chill
in my bare toes.

The dreadlocks
could be wind chimes
as sparrows swoop close.


Reprinted with permission of Finishing Line Press. First published in the Haight-Ashbury Literary Review and from The Generosity of Stars (Finishing Line Press 2008), which can be ordered here.




Barbara Berman is the Senior Poetry reviewer at Rumpus Daily. For more than thirty years her poetry and prose have appeared in literary journals and in national newspapers. She is the author of The Generosity of Stars, a chapbook published by Finishing Line Press in 2008.


Notes on “Privilege”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Cinematic direction and film editing can provide a useful vocabulary for analyzing the poems of others and also for building your own. When I was in grad school, one professor taught that the “Standard Sequence” conventional in films works in the same way as poetic form, setting the standard for a pattern that the camerawork subsequently either deviates from or follows. In Standard Sequence, the camera begins wide with an “Establishment Shot” (often aerial) that provides context, orienting viewers visually as to place and time. The narrower “Master Shot” reveals the central characters and their spatial relationships with each other for that scene. “One Shots” and “Two Shots” zero in even further on one or more characters. See A. Van Jordan, “Synchronicity of Scenes:  A Consideration of Poetry from the Perspective of Cinematography,” The Cortland Review, Winter 2007.

Applying cinematic analysis to “Privilege,” stanza one provides the Establishment Shot, with lines that orient us as to time and place: fall (“crisp day”) in the modern era (“orange tennis ball”) in a very specific area of Golden Gate Park where, in the background, a “lean young woman” plays with a dog.

Stanza two’s Master Shot presents the poem’s central character—the speaker narrating from the first person point of view—and spatially orients her in the scene. Lying on her back, reading, beneath a tree, a one shot shows us what she is reading: something that establishes the tension between the one percent versus the rest of modern American society. In Stanza three the camera pans out again, showing us people we now see through the speaker’s eyes and with the new, darker perspective bestowed by her reading; the people in stanza three—a man sitting on a “grubby” blanket and a teenager biking “bumpily” on the grass—are not quite the carefree frolickers we assumed the woman and the dog to be at the outset of the poem. In fact, we begin to wonder why that young woman is “lean” and perhaps notice that “panhandle” has another meaning besides being the name of an area of Golden Gate Park.

Stanza three renews the Standard Sequence by focusing in from a wider (man and teenager) to a narrower camera angle (the speaker looking at her own toes and observing that for her, going barefoot “is a privilege”). The pattern of narrowing focus repeats one more time in the last stanza when, pulling back from the speaker’s toes, the camera notices the lean young woman’s “dreadlocks” then suddenly pulls in again with, “as sparrows swoop close.”

Since “dreadlocks” is the only word repeated in the poem, we are prompted to look more closely at “The dreadlocks could be wind chimes.” Use of the conditional verb tense (“could be”) perhaps suggests that dreadlocks look cylindrical, like wind chimes. But “could be” might also mean that dreadlocks are not in fact wind chimes and that the speaker, enlightened to her privilege, is not going to indulge herself in the fantasy that they are. In fact, dreadlocks might be something considerably less delightful, like the consequence of not having access to luxuries like hair conditioners and combs.

Some people think that politics has no place in poems but others vehemently disagree, and indeed, some believe that all poetry is political whether it intends to be or not. Some Language Poets hold that language itself, inevitably the product of the (white, male, privileged) power base, is political. Whatever position we take, I think we can agree that this poem’s reference to the loaded words “privilege” and “the one percent” reveal this writer’s intent to express a political point of view.

What makes a political poem effective? In a lecture I heard once at Bread Loaf, Irish poet Eavan Boland made the point that the best political poems are the ones that do NOT bash us over the head with their message but instead lay the ground work for thinking that the readers undertake for themselves, allowing them in effect to “discover” in their own hearts and minds the idea the poet is trying to promote.  Poems that rant and harangue (or in their milder forms lecture and preach) can alienate readers and make them stop listening. A holier-than-thou speaker ranting against a perceived wrong can be annoying, but worse, can provide a safe resting place that enables a reader to avoid their own complicity or responsibility. The most effective of all political poems, according to Boland, are those which implicate the speaker.

The way the camera tightens and loosens its focus is crucial to the success of “Privilege” as a political poem. We first see the park—and the people in it—from a safe distance. Next, we are brought closer, but still not close enough to see anything but a bucolic scene of a woman playing with a dog and the speaker snoozing under a tree. However, when the camera drills in on what the speaker is reading, the idea of unequal resource distribution comes to the foreground and then filters everything that follows. When the camera pulls in again, we enter the speaker’s body and feel the chill of grass on our own toes. The speaker implicates herself—and us—when she voices the recognition that going barefoot is a privilege. Her acknowledgement of complicity and her restraint, for example in avoiding use of the over-exposed word “homeless” even while homelessness is everywhere suggested in the poem, are strategies that keep readers from turning away.

It’s a stretch to say that the writer intended the allusion I am about to make, but I still want to say that the reference in “Privilege” to the speaker’s bare feet reminded me immediately of one of my favorite contemporary political poems, “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland, which you can read and listen to here.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 15, 2015 at 9:40 am

    My church pew for one at womensvoicesforchange.org is filled every Sunday, Rebecca. You take verses from the Old Testament and the Gospel then give a homily that takes me through the week.