The Poet's Perspective: 'Late Words' takes on shameful family secret

March 28, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Late Words for My Sister," Becker addresses an old, shameful family secret.

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Writing about violence in families requires the courage to move beyond silencing taboos. Shame and fear of retribution create powerful deterrents to speech. In this poem, the speaker addresses her deceased sister, telling her about the "old man" she would not recognize now that time and age have diminished him. I chose the "stepped" three-line stanza with many enjambed lines to suggest movement and instability.

Question to consider: What experiences have you shared with siblings that remain difficult to discuss or explore?

Late Words for My Sister

You did not want to remember
     with me how he raged up the stairs
          unbuckling the black leather

strap we called the belt.
     How our four thin legs danced
          up and down on the bed like

the jointed limbs of marionettes
     while the burning lariat of his anger
          seared our legs; how his face blazed and his eyes

glowed as he took the whip back in a tight
     circle to strike again. And again. We begged him to stop.
          Remember? And when he relented, panting like an animal

that has run a great distance, he paused, and we could see
     the sweat on his lip and under his arms. He hung there,
          his bulk suspended from his shoulders

by a power greater than he, and as we crept past him
     he slapped me, hard across the face, sparing you
          that humiliation

because you were weak and the youngest
     and had only followed my example into evildoing.
          I tried to make myself small, to pass him, or no,

I'm remembering wrong. Maybe I sneered. Maybe
     I had not yet learned to cower before the bully,
          to bare my neck, to admit when I had lost.

How surprised you would be to see him now,
     an old man checking the price
          of milk at the supermarket against

the price in his head. The difference
     is a conundrum, a fracture in continuity,
          the way his daughters broke from his plan.

"Late Words for my Sister" is from The Horse Fair: Poems, by Robin Becker, © 2000. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Late Words for My Sister,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated April 01, 2011