Poetry Sunday: Peter Gnashes His Pretty White Teeth with Joy

If there’s one thing I enjoyed doing in the years 2006 and 2007, it was starting poem sequences and never finishing them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting pieces from one of these sequences, called the “Neverwood poems.”

Peter Gnashes His Pretty White Teeth with Joy

He was solitude, squatting on the red
enamel tricycle, squinting into

the searing morning sun. A tow-headed
boy. The only living creature. Digging

swollen boy-hands into clay soil. Building
trenches with a blue plastic spade. Black flies

were drawn to him. And white stars. As
he orbited the bright galaxy of

dandelion stalks, saw grass, bound only
by a forcefield of honeysuckle vines

tangled into a chain link fence. Precious,
he was the jewel-toned beetle that pushed the

sun and even the ball of burning dung,
scorching the pink heels of his own fat hands.

Exegesis

This poem was written during my first year of graduate school, and it began a sequence of several poems inspired by JM Barrie’s work. I grew up watching the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan and had, several years before, read some interesting (and somewhat shocking) biographies of Barrie himself. In my first semester of graduate school, I took a course on the golden age of children’s literature, and we started with Peter.

The boy in the poem is not named Peter, though the title is taken directly from Barrie’s text–as were many of the titles in this sequence. This is most simply a poem about a charismatic child. Later poems in the sequence, as you’ll see over the next few weeks, go in a radically different direction. Think Steven Stayner meets Pan’s Labyrinth.

This poem also contains a Pelevin reference. If you catch it, hugs to you. I really loved The Life of Insects when I was eighteen, and it would continue to echo through my work for the better part of a decade.

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