Tina Kelley’s “The Kids Play at the Shelter, Two Friday Nights After Little G Shot Himself Under the Boardwalk”

Guest Column written by Susan Cohen

Tina Kelley’s poetry tends towards playfulness, lyricism, and praise, often addressing family or the natural world. That’s one of the reasons this poem leaped out at me from her third collection, Abloom & Awry. It’s different both from what I expected and from the inward-looking poetry prevalent in so many journals. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way it thrusts itself at you and never lets up, like an adolescent who demands to be seen and heard. This poem is meant to disturb, and it does—spectacularly.

Kelley came to poetry as a journalist, as I did. We met at an annual writer’s conference and she later asked me to join others on a panel she called “Poets with a Press Pass,” where we talked about some good habits journalism fostered in our writing, habits on display here. She’s an observer first and foremost, succinctly capturing life stories, and never asserting herself in any obvious way in these lines. There’s no “I,” no visible speaker who tells us how this scene makes her feel or what it makes her think. As in much of the best journalism and poetry, the story emerges from precisely chosen details. Or, as another poet known for observation, William Carlos Williams, put it: “no ideas but in things.”

As a poet, Kelley brings an additional bag of tricks. The child’s game “Simon Says” functions in some ways as a traditional poetic form like a villanelle might: providing a familiar framework and an expectation of repetition. More importantly, the game works as an extended metaphor that accumulates meaning, starting with the realization that we know its elementary rules but the adolescents at the shelter do not—because “No one ever said” how to play.

These young people haven’t been allowed to be children, yet the first stanza shows us the potential child inside and ready to giggle. One of the teenagers seems to assume the role of Simon, issuing silly orders like “doing the robot while whistling Happy Birthday.”

All games have rules, but “Simon Says” is a game that’s about rules, and so quickly becomes a metaphor for power as well as play. We learn what else we take for granted that these children were never taught. Kelley makes Simon’s orders take on a more authoritative voice, voices of a system of social workers or teachers or other well-intentioned adults who tell the teenagers to “take off your doo-rag” and “get your birth certificate and social.” In the context of the game, these adult rules begin to sound just as arbitrary as “doing the robot.”

The larger game, of course, is life. Gary forced sex from Tanika (“Gary never said Simon says”) and Tanika felt her ultimate powerlessness.  The poem’s superficial play highlights rather than disguises cruel realities. Decisions about life and death hang in the balance.

The second section of the poem bears in on Lamarr, who appears most haunted by Little G’s suicide, and who witnessed his mother take her own life. Unlike journalism, poetry doesn’t demand that all the facts ascribed to his life be true in a literal sense. We believe them, whether they represent an individual or a composite, because they’re part of the truth of this poem about youth with little or no control over what happens to them.

Kelley establishes the authority of the poem, in part, by capturing the contrast in diction between those issuing the orders and the kids when talking to each other. These are two sides of the same language, as spoken from above or between those who share experience. Even when Simon offers encouragement, the distance seems to grow between the adult voice and the teenagers who hear its commands, especially when we get to: “Little G said I’m going to the Underwood Hotel. / Lamarr said that’s just the sand under the boardwalk, yo. / Little G said, I don’t care it’s home.”

We know from the title that Little G shot himself under the boardwalk. The Underwood Hotel is both a joke and figurative language. A hotel represents the most transient of abodes. Weight falls on Little G’s use of “home,” just like the word “shelter” in the title. What true shelter have these children been given by their families or society? Children hear what we don’t say along with what we do.

We might expect a conclusion in the final stanza. The poem, however, leaves open the possibility that Lamarr also might commit suicide. Notice the subtle change Kelley makes from Simon doesn’t say to “Simon couldn’t say.” In the game, Simon always knows what to do or not. Adults and the child protection system, though well-meaning, either could not stop Little G or just didn’t know what to do, and no one can predict Lamarr’s future. The final line feels both true and tragically uncertain.

This poem reminds me of the valuable, varied experiences working poets bring to the page. Kelley, no longer a journalist, works for Covenant House, an organization helping homeless, trafficked, and runaway youth. How fortunate that she took both her journalistic habits and poetic skills to the job and produced a poem that’s in-your-face on behalf of people many of us never see or hear.


Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered here from  Red Dragonfly Press, or from Small Press Distribution or Amazon. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. susancohen-writer.com


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