Poetry Sunday: ‘Nursery Rhyme,’ by Meredith Bergmann


Nursery Rhyme

Some years a single sentence comes – a freak–
but I saved everything you ever said
from those few early years when you could speak.
Beneath each crystal lens they can be read
and understood. I was a careful clerk.
I am the reliquary of your words.
They would make statues weep, but cannot work
the necessary miracle.  Unheard,
unvoiced, untasted, charming phrases fade;
but copied out like prayers they gain the voice,
the lilt of poetry. And weren’t they made
in flashes of imaginative choice?
One snowy afternoon when talk was cheap,
you said to me, “It’s raining cats and sheep.”


“Nursery Rhyme” first appeared in an online journal, Mezzo Cammin Vol. 9, Issue 1 (Summer 2014) and is from A Special Education (EXOT BOOKS 2015). Published with permission of the author.



Listen to the author reading her poem here:



Meri Headshot retouchedMeredith Bergmann is a sculptor. Her public monuments can be seen in Boston and New York, and she is currently creating the FDR Hope Memorial for Roosevelt Island, NYC. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in Barrow Street, Contemporary Poetry Review, Hudson Review, The New CriterionRaintown Review, The Same, Tri Quarterly Review and the anthology Hot Sonnets, and numerous online journals. Her chapbook “A Special Education” was recently published by EXOT Books. She is poetry editor of American Arts Quarterly. Meredith lives in New York City with her husband, a writer and director, and their son. Her website is: meredithbergmann.com, and you can order A Special Education here.


Poet’s  Notes

I wrote this poem about my son’s autism during what he now terms “The Mute Period,” which lasted from age three, when he began to lose language, to age twelve, when he learned to communicate by spelling. I love medieval art and have sculpted reliquaries, and here I made a poetic one to preserve and display one of my son’s sentences. I continue to marvel at how statues and poems “work”.


Notes on “Nursery Rhyme”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

April is not just National Poetry Month, it is also National Autism Awareness Month. I saved “Nursery Rhyme” to run in April because it does double duty, not just exemplifying a powerful poem in my favorite (the sonnet) form, but also having deep resonance to me as the parent of someone on the autism spectrum. I first met Meredith Bergmann and her remarkable son at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2010. We connected immediately on the challenges of raising a young adult on the spectrum and also on the ways those challenges give rise to other challenges and opportunities in writing poetry, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her work over the years. What her bio modestly understates is that Bergmann is, besides a remarkable poet and editor, also a talented filmmaker and a sculptor of some renown. Be sure to visit her website at www.meredithbergmann.com to check out her impressive, multi-faceted accomplishments. By the way, if you are interested in formal or narrative poetry, the West Chester Poetry Conference is a wonderful way to meet others who share your interest. This year’s conference will be held June 8-11, 2016 at West Chester University near Philadelphia, PA. It will be my third time attending, this time as one of its four Resident Poets. For more information, visit the conference site.

Today’s poem is so well beautifully crafted that I think it would do for anyone (not just those whose lives have been touched by autism) what all great poems do: deeply move and make us see something in the world in a new way. The title, “Nursery Rhyme,” sets us up to expect something from the idealized world of childhood, but in the tradition of most nursery rhymes and fairy tales, what it delivers is something much more archetypal and dark. The poem is a sonnet whose rhyme scheme can be diagrammed ababcdcdefefgg; hence, it is what we interchangeably call an English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearian sonnet. This is the form used by Shakespeare and it, together with the Petrarchan form, whose rhyme scheme is abba abba cde cde, with variations, make up the bulk of formal sonnets in the English language. Like most Elizabethan sonnets, today’s is in regular iambic pentameter, a rising meter with 10 syllables and five beats per line, scanned like this: -/ -/ -/ -/ -/,  with the diagonal lines representing the stresses or beats and the dashes representing unstressed syllables.

“Nursery Rhyme” is not broken out into stanzas, but it’s worth noting that the rhyme scheme creates putative stanzas in the form of three quatrains followed by a couplet (abab  cdce  efef  gg), a structure whose top-heavy quality builds in a kind of instability that is released (topples) in the last two lines. One of the masteries and mysteries of this poem is the way it sustains suspense by talking about what the “you” (the speaker’s child) said for thirteen lines before revealing the content, using the time-honored tactic of seeding a question and then delaying its answer. The suspense is heightened by the speaker’s not just talking about what the child said but also building a case for how important, even sacred it has become to his mother, a “careful clerk” and “reliquary” of those words.

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