Colleen J. McElroy 1990
“A Pièd,” from the French phrase “to travel by foot,” is one of a series of “shoe” poems Colleen McElroy published in 1990 in her collection What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1988. Because of her self-described “triangular, three-quarter feet.…a B width at the front and AA at the back,” the poet explains, her feet “won’t fit the forms of a factory-built last, and shoe manufacturers are not interested in nonstandard feet.” Therefore, “shoes were, for me, quite political.” McElroy writes in her essay “When the Shoe Fits: Myth in the Modern Mode” that “it is only natural that my poems, usually addressing subjects outside of the mainstream anyway, should take on shoes.” “A Pièd” begins when the poet spots a single shoe “on a highway in northern California, a lone shoe in six lanes of traffic with cars veering way from it.” This curious and disturbing sight causes the poet explore a series of questions throughout the poem, wondering how the shoe got there: Was it through horrifying accident? Was it simple abandonment? In a series of loosely related images and similes, McElroy takes the reader on a journey from the simple object found in a road to larger questions of loneliness, uncertainty, and relationships.
McElroy was born on October 30, 1935, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Jesse and Ruth Long Johnson.
She attended Kansas State University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1958 and a master’s in 1968. In the interim between working on her degrees she worked with the speech impaired at the Rehabilitation Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. She married David F. McElroy on November 28, 1968, and the couple eventually had two children. From 1966 to 1973 McElroy was an assistant professor of English at Western Washington State College. McElroy continued with her education and was awarded a doctorate from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1973. She became an assistant professor at the University of Washington at Seattle in 1973 and currently holds the position of professor of English.
McElroy published her first collection of poems in 1973 and has produced several volumes since then. Among her numerous awards are creative writing residencies in 1984 and 1986; the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985; a creative writing residency in Yugoslavia on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1988; the Washington State Governor’s Award for Fiction and Poetry in 1988; an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction in 1991; and a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Madagascar in 1993.
one shoe on the roadway presents
its own riddle of so much left
unsaid regardless of the condition:
scoured, unpolished and crumpled
like a drunk forever missing the next step
the tongue bent inward like some church
gossip who has said finally too much
and snapped that last accusation in public
the absence of laces or any restraints
and how everyone passing lurches away
from any entanglement
all roads at some time or other
have held a single shoe—the forlorn
reminder of someone careless enough to be trapped
like a teenager in the wash of fast travel
the incongruous one shoe out of step
without foot or wheels or movement
yet so commonplace as to almost
be forgotten by what is missing:
the left leg dangling bare
the child crying to be forgiven or the family
car careening on its mission of terror
one shoe on the road leaves it all
unsaid—the something that lies
without comment or recognition
in the heaviest of traffic or mid-lane
and turned sideways near the center
strip as if waiting for someone
to answer its description
if, as my father would say, the shoe fits
but this thing, so ordinary, cannot be
explained so easily like those strips
of rubber from burst tires
we’d soon as not remember how anyone
like a shoe may be lost in a crowd
or how part of what we know to be our lives
can become a stray digit or decimal point
an unrelated member of a set
yet any child from a divorce can tell
you how it feels to be abandoned
while the family makes a fast break
for the nearest off-ramp—and we’ve all
heard of the countless armies
scattered like shoes in the traffic of war
along roads where city families once
took their Sunday country outings
but one shoe without ballroom or battleground
can never question the hurry of passing:
it bends finally into its own loneliness
and unanswered questions of what might have
to its owner or what horror has befallen the other
In these first lines of “A Pièd,” the poet introduces the image that triggers the rest of the poem: she glimpses a single shoe in the middle of a busy highway. Of course, this odd scene raises the question of how, under what circumstances, it got there and where the other shoe might be. By calling the shoe a “riddle” and stating there is “so much left / unsaid,” the poet is helping set up the purpose of rest of the poem, which, through a series of loosely associated images, attempts to explore the possible reasons why a shoe, “regardless of the condition” it’s in, would be abandoned in the road. This attempt to answer the riddle, as we will see, only leads her to more questions.
Here the poet describes the condition of the single shoe, battered and probably run over many times by speeding cars. Moving into a series of similes to help us imagine the scene more vividly, the poet first compares the single shoe to the awkward stumbling of a drunk, giving the otherwise inanimate object a sense of movement.
The poet continues to invent comparisons in an attempt to explain the riddle of the shoe in the road; she plays with the pun “tongue bent inward,” which literally describes the tattered inner flap of the shoe while at the same time, perhaps, figuratively suggests a gossiping old lady in church who can’t keep a secret.
Noting the shoe is missing its laces, here McElroy closes the list of comparisons by suggesting people are afraid of getting too close to the shoe for fear of becoming entangled. “Everyone passing lurches away” perhaps describes the drivers in their cars trying to avoid the minor road obstruction.
Widening the scene from the specific to a more mythic sense, these lines suggest this odd shoe is really more common than we’d expect. Every road has held a single shoe “at some time or nother”; literally, the poet reminds us that perhaps every road has been the scene of a horrible accident where some pedestrian was unfortunate and “careless enough to be trapped,” injured or killed. Perhaps all poetry attempts to describe experience in a way that is both personal and public at once, and here the poet relates this experience to us by figuratively suggesting the shoe is like an abandoned reminder of those fast paced and turbulent adolescent years we all have experienced, our lives trapped “in the fast lane.”
Calling the shoe “incongruous,” which means “incompatible,” in these lines the poet returns to the central riddle: how did this single shoe end up here? It seems so illogical—there’s no trace of its owner. She also uses these lines to restate the two sides of the poem’s central paradox: this abandoned shoe is both strange and “commonplace,” odd enough to stir her curiosity, yet common enough to be “forgotten by what is missing.”
Because the poet is free-associating so quickly in these lines, images passing in fragments, it might be more helpful to note what mood or emotion is being expressed here rather than to try to understand exactly what is happening at the dramatic level. The images we’re given—a single leg, crying child, a careening car “on its mission of terror”—perhaps accumulate a sense of fear, horror, something terribly wrong. On a literal level, these images point toward the most disturbing explanation of how the shoe ended up in the middle of the road: the possibility of a child thrown from a car into the middle of careening traffic; or perhaps a child wandered out into the road and was struck.
Here the poet returns again to the poem’s central question, describing the shoe alone in the middle of the road, rephrasing herself in the repetitive fashion of someone obsessed with a topic. By using generalizing words like “all” and “something,” here again the poet is helping relate this specific event to a larger sense of myth and anything that might remain unsaid “without comment or recognition.”
Beginning another string of associations, these lines introduce the possibility of someone perhaps looking for the shoe, similar to the way a missing person is located and identified by “fitting the description.” In a humorous turn, this also reminds the poet of how her father would use the common expression “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
Here again, McElroy points out the simultaneity of something both “ordinary” yet mysterious and enigmatic, unlike burst tires, which are also commonly found along highways but much more easily explained.
As her series of associations move further and further away from the triggering event, exploring and widening outward to different topics, the poet compares the shoe to a person “lost in the crowd.” Note how she begins this simile. It suggests “we’d soon as not remember” the idea of how isolated a person can be in the world perhaps because it is too painful to think about.
Continuing the theme of personal isolation from the previous lines, these lines remind us how easily we can “become a number” and lose our individuality in our crowded world—an “unrelated member of a set.” In our fast-paced and increasingly impersonal world, the poet is perhaps suggesting how easy it is for us to “become a statistic.”
Here the poet moves from a general idea of how easily we can “become a statistic” to the specific example of children of divorce, which is such a common trend in America recently because studies show more than half of all marriages fail. McElroy uses the highway as a metaphor for the commonly used “road of life,” comparing the break-up of a family to a car making “a fast break for the nearest off-ramp” while the child, like the shoe, is left abandoned and alone.
These lines compare the lost shoe to the disturbing images of modern warfare, corpses “scattered like shoes” along roads where residents once lived undisturbed and peacefully, going on “country Sunday outings.” Just as the rest of the poem thus far asks why no one stops to question how the shoe got there in the road, perhaps the poet is also asking how come so many people can be killed during war without a similar questioning.
After widening out to questions of individuality vs. impersonality, the break-up of family and modern warfare, here the poet returns again to where she began, the single shoe alone in the road, restating for perhaps the fourth time the poem’s central question.
Working much like a frame around a painting, these closing lines describe the battered shoe still in the road, same as it was in the beginning of the poem, all the “questions of what might have happened to its owner” still unanswered. By not answering the question herself at the end, McElroy is perhaps turning the riddle over to the reader, forcing us to continue thinking about it long after we finish reading.
The reason that the speaker of this poem finds one shoe in the road so mysterious is precisely because it is a shoe, and not some other item or article of clothing, such as a shirt or a hat, that would not look strange if seen alone. Shoes come in pairs. One shoe by itself is obviously missing something, as glaringly incomplete as anything that is only half present. Seen by itself, any object can evoke a sense of loneliness, but one shoe alone is particularly isolated and unnatural. Once the poem has conjured up this uncomfortable idea, it goes about transferring what we feel about the lone shoe to circumstances that are more human, such as people in violent domestic situations, or soldiers in war, or even to moods that are less distinct, where the feeling of strangeness descends for no good reason upon one’s life or “part of what we know to be our lives” (line 36). The poem tells us that there is something about the lone shoe that implies a violent separation, but even if we disregard how the shoe came to be alone, we all can still recognize the feeling of being set apart from any group we belong to. Alienation has been called the problem of the twentieth century. As the population of the world has multiplied (from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 5.9 billion in 1998) we are physically closer to each other, but paradoxically people feel less connected to each other than they did when the nearest neighbor was a mile or more away. To illustrate how one can feel alone in a crowd, this poem uses the lone shoe on the highway, contrasting the bustle of the cars racing in each direction with the shoe’s lack of purpose, now that it is alone.
Meaning of Life
“A Pièd” does not pretend that it can explain the meaning of life to its readers, but it does help us search for meaning by showing us a life that is meaningless. Throughout the poem, the speaker establishes the similarity between a lone shoe on the highway and modern life, sometimes pointing out the relationship directly with a simile and sometimes implying it metaphorically. We can logically explain how a line such as “like a drunk forever missing the next step” draws the connection between people and lost shoes, or how “anyone / like a shoe may be lost in a crowd” is using the shoe’s situation to point out something that happens to us, but then there are times that the speaker does not claim to be drawing a connection. In these cases the poem just describes the shoe’s mystery clearly, such as the fact that it “leaves it all unsaid—the something that lives without comment or recognition in the heaviest of traffic …” (lines 23-25). When the poem does not tell us directly that the shoe’s predicament parallels our own, we still know that it does, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that life is a riddle like the shoe is, and that it remains a riddle to the poem’s speaker. Life is given no explicit meaning here, but we are told things to avoid: most notably, the powerful words “terror” and “horror” are used to describe the car and the shoe that have left this shoe behind. Life is worse when we are separated from those we are close to, this poem implies. That observation may not give life meaning, but it does give life some sense of direction, and, given this poem’s willingness to accept some amount of uncertainty, that may be the best that it can offer us.
Although it is not the first or the most striking image that the poem compares to an abandoned shoe, war is possibly the most significant. One reason for this is its strangeness, appearing as it does in the last line of the fourth stanza, just when it looks as if all of the points to be made about the shoe have already been made and the poem is winding down to its conclusion. Also, the stanza break that comes in the middle of the thought, between “armies” and “scattered,” is more abrupt than any technique used earlier in the poem, which lends more importance to the comparison to war than it otherwise would receive. Finally, there is the huge nature of war itself and how it touches all ages of humanity, a universal significance that we would not have thought possible of a beaten, discarded shoe until the poem pointed it out. The emphasis in this poem is not on
Topics for Further Study
- Write a long poem in free verse explaining some phenomenon, like one shoe on the road, that is common but that you have never heard talked about or seen written about. Keep writing until you have explored all the meanings of your subject.
- Some people might say that something as commonplace as a discarded shoe is not an appropriate subject for a poem. Do you think that the job of poetry is to describe ordinary things, or should it concentrate on beautiful things? Write an essay defending your position.
- What do you think is worse for an abandoned shoe: the loss of the person who wore it, or the loss of the matching shoe? How is the author using this situation to express her ideas about life?
the glory of war, its violence, or its role in the balance of nations, but only on the wastefulness of it. The poet could have shocked us with vivid descriptions of dead soldiers left to decay on the battlefields, but instead refers to the corpses with the abstract word “armies”: still, the detail of the battlefields being “where city families once / took their Sunday country outings” highlights the ironic contrast between the violence of war and a picnic. The parallel between dead bodies and discarded shoes is doubled by the mention of “the traffic of war,” showing the reader how each case has passivity within activity, reminding us how easy it is to forget about anything that is left behind if there is a lot of distracting commotion. War is not the first metaphor we think of when contemplating a shoe on the highway, but it may be the most fitting way to emphasize the poet’s sense of pity.
“A Pièd” is written in free verse, which means the form is not determined by a preset rhyme scheme or certain number of syllables and metric feet per line, as in formal verse. Instead, this poem’s form grows from its content, much in the same way a river shapes its own banks. Reflecting the fast pace and rushed feeling of the images—the poet free-associates, trying to understand how this shoe could have ended up in the middle of the highway—McElroy uses very little punctuation throughout, which would slow down the reader’s eye. Similarly, every line is enjambed, which literally means “to run over”; the lines flow together without pause from a comma or a period at the end. Lines that do end with a punctuation mark are called end-stopped lines. In addition, the poet uses fairly long lines and lengthy stanzas (8-11 lines each); perhaps to reinforce the overall “rushed” and “breathless” feel of the subject-matter, the images are arranged closely together rather than separated by shorter lines and stanzas.
This poem’s subject is eternal, equally applicable to all cultures throughout the centuries: it is easy to imagine that some poetically minded individual stood on the road to Damascus hundreds of years before the rise of the Roman Empire and wondered about a stray sandal in the dust. Most readers have a good sense of what everyday life was like in 1990, recent as it was, but it is interesting, given the poem’s theme of separation, that many of that year’s most significant world events had to do with political reorganizations that separated or reunited entire countries. Early in the year, in February, the Supreme Soviet, which was the body that ruled the Soviet Union, agreed to give up its absolute control and to allow other political parties oppose it in elections. The Soviet Union had been in existence since 1917, when the Russian Revolution led to the government’s replacement by the Congress of Soviets. In 1939, the Soviet Army joined with the German Army in the invasion of Poland, the event that started World War II (the Soviets switched sides later in the war when Germany abruptly attacked Russia). The invasion of Poland started a new expansionist phase for the Soviet Union. In Europe, it took the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by force, and when the war ended in 1945, Germany was divided into two parts, East and West, and the Eastern part became another satellite of the Soviet Union. When years of mounting protests forced the Supreme Soviet to accept democratic reforms in 1990, though, the alliances that had been forced upon the smaller countries were quick to fall apart. In March, Lithuania’s Parliament voted the country’s independence from the Soviet Union: Soviet tanks were moved into the Lithuanian capitol of Vilnius to intimidate the citizens, but Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the troops should not fight with the demonstrators. Independence was granted the following year. In October of 1990, East Germany and West Germany were reunited as one country, the Federal Republic of Germany. The most significant symbol of this reunification, and of the Soviets’ new open policies in general, was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had been erected in 1949 to keep people from leaving the communist East part of the city for the democratic West. In December, Poland held its first free elections since being invaded before World War II, and Lech Walesa, the leader of the labor union that had brought the world’s attention to the struggle of all Communist countries for freedom, was elected President.
Other countries changing their political allegiances in 1990 include Namibia, which in March gained independence after being under the rule of South Africa since 1915 and under German rule before that since 1884; Yemen, where the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic, which had been separate countries since 1849, reunited in May; and Haiti, where the military government was forced to resign in December and allow the elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to return from exile and take up his duly elected position.
In August, Iran made a momentous move in the opposite direction of the democracy that was breaking out around the world by attempting to annex the neighboring country, Kuwait. The administration of President George Bush had promised the Iraqi government that it would not act to protect Kuwait, but after the invasion Kuwaiti officials who had been driven into exile became very vocal in the world media, drawing public outcry against the sort of colonial expansionism that Iraq was attempting. The United States led an international military in Operation Desert Shield, designed to stop Iraq from advancing any further. In January of 1991, with United Nations approval, the alliance went to war in Operation Desert Storm, to drive Iraq from Kuwait. The attack began on February 22 and lasted 100 hours until the Iraqi forces were defeated.
Compare & Contrast
- 1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President Bush
Today: Many public facilities and employers’ hiring practices have been changed in the past few years to include disabled Americans. Despite warnings from opponents of the act that the changes would create economic catastrophe, negative impact has been minimal.
- 1990: The National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) was 55 miles per hour, or 65 on rural highways.
Today: States are allowed to set their own maximum speed limits. The highest limit that has been set is 75 miles per hour, although in some places there is no speed limit, and motorists are responsible for driving at “reasonable and prudent” speeds.
- 1990: Inflation on the United States was 5.5 percent.
Today: U.S. inflation has been kept relatively low in recent years, with the inflation rate currently hovering around 2.5 to 3 percent.
Although not much has been written specifically about “A Pièd,” many critics praise the collection it was published in, drawing attention to McElroy’s often “breathless” voice; her ability to balance the serious with the humorous. A Publisher’s Weekly commentator characterizes McElroy’s poetry as emphasizing “stream-of-consciousness and rifts in association.” Referring to the series of “shoe poems,” the Virginia Quarterly Review notes, “Feet … are important to the selection of new poems” which range “from witty to downright funny; from playful to thoughtful to sensual.” Jewelle Gomez writing for The Kenyon Review, cites the “energy, sensuality, and excitement” in McElroy’s works, pointing out that in this collection, “one can see the seeds of many of her stories and taste the flavor of her mythology.”
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County, as well as the faculty advisor and co-founder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College. In the following essay, Kelly describes how McElroy is able to make a “shoe an appropriate symbol of human vulnerability.”
Of all of the products that roll off of assembly lines and exchange hands through stores each year, clearly those that are most entwined with human identity can be found in the category of clothing. Artistic works can outwardly express the thoughts and emotions of their creators, and thoughtful cooking combines outward expression with inwardly directed consumption; cars are said to tell us about their owners, but many consider them to be nothing but tools; even the furniture in a home, although it conforms to the shape of its owner after years of contact, is also used to host visitors when they stop by. Clothes are personal and intimate, touching the skin more and more often than any other product affects any other sense. In modern society, with temperature controls to protect all but the most unfortunate from dangerous exposure, most of the clothes we wear are primarily chosen as ways to decorate our bodies with a fair balance of comfort, but shoes add to the balance of fashion and comfort a responsibility for protection as well. Attribute it to gravity: one can actually avoid physical contact with almost anything by using ingenuity and patience, but shoes always touch the ground, and when they do the whole weight of the body is borne upon each shoe, with each step.
What Do I Read Next?
- Much of Colleen McElroy’s best work can be found in her collection What Madness Brought Me Here: Selected Poems, 1968-1989.
- One of McElroy’s contemporaries is Nikki Giovanni, who came to national attention in the early 1970s and whose works are sometimes the matically similar. A 1996 collection of her works, The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, gives an overview of the poet’s career up to now.
- Colleen McElroy is also active in other forms of writing, in addition to poetry. In 1997 she published a collection of travel memoirs called A Long Way from St. Louis, combining her unique imaginative powers with actual sights from the American landscape.
- Although the subject matter of this poem does not reflect the gender of its author, it still is interesting to compare McElroy’s view of the world shown here with that of other female poets throughout history. A good source for this is Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone’s 1992 compilation A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now.
McElroy’s “A Pièd” takes humans’ dependency upon shoes for granted, giving it no specific mention and yet using that crucial unmentioned relationship to give additional poignancy to the poem’s central situation. Because it is functional and not just decorative, a shoe is a pathetic thing—the body’s workhorse, its slave—, but for this very reason we are reminded of our own frailty to see the shoe exposed and vulnerable. It is a traditional maneuver for art to show us the strength in those normally considered weak and to show the vulnerability of those whose strength we take for granted. A shoe abandoned in a road touches readers in somewhat the same way as a story about a king or president brought down, reaching the deep-seated fear that anything we do to assure our protection might just easily crumble. Once the poem has stirred this discomfort in its readers, it goes about transferring that feeling onto different human situations, approaching the plights of others indirectly, by way of how their circumstances resemble those of this most familiar article of clothing. This poem may or may not have been inspired by the bizarre but all-too-frequent event of a shoe in a road, but McElroy’s gift is that she is has been able to go beyond the physical occasion and find human conditions that an event can be made to illuminate.
One other key factor in making this shoe an appropriate symbol of human vulnerability is the metaphoric coupling of one shoe to another, similar both to the way that humans join together in pairs and also to the way we conceptually divide the world into halves. The dichotomies, or divisions into two, that we use to understand the world are countless, including good and bad, male and female, heaven and earth, static and kinetic, and, of course, left and right, which are the names that we usually use to identify the members of a pair of shoes. The adjective “pièd” used in the title actually means a patchy color design, but usually refers to a combination of two colors, emphasizing from the very start of the poem the duality that is at stake here. In this case, the coupling itself is doubled into a square of relationships, since each shoe not only sees its identity reflected in the other shoe, but also in the foot that is matched to it, that it shields, and that it cradles and serves. With such strong, close connections involved, the shoe’s sudden appearance alone in the roadway becomes even more mysterious than it seemed at first, which was itself quite a mystery. The poem takes several different approaches to this strange aloneness, but nowhere does it combine the shoe’s situation with human loneliness and the deep-running human fear of abandonment as powerfully or directly as it does in the last lines of stanza 2: “the left leg dangled bare” implies vulnerability, “the child crying to be forgiven” raises this state to fear, and “the family car careening on its mission of terror” intensifies the feeling further still.
Because the condition of the shoe in the roadway is being used here as a metaphor for the human condition at its extreme, it might be fair to consider a religious aspect to “A Pièd.” Religious themes are not mentioned overtly, but the philosophical issue of how a person can relate to the surrounding world, which is at heart a religious question, is metaphorically examined in detail here. It is likely that the poem’s title is a reference to Gerard Manly Hopkins’ 1877 poem “Pied Beauty,” which begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” and ends with the line, “Praise Him”. Hopkins’s piece examined the godliness of “all things counter, original, spare and strange,” while McElroy’s thrusts an everyday mystery at us. “Pied Beauty” celebrates the diversity of God for making things with two colors, pied, while “A Pied” mourns the separation of two shoes and what it tells us about our lives together.
“A Pièd” certainly does not look like a religious poem, if superficial first impressions are to be used in judging. Taking us beyond superficiality, however, is one of the main reasons that poetry sits so isolated on the page—floating far from the margins, energizing readers’ minds as they wonder simultaneously about both form and content. The lost shoe is strange, of course, but most people who encounter one (and most people actually have) can explain its existence to their own satisfaction with something simple and dismissive, such as, “someone probably dropped it.” Our culture finds it hard enough to think through things that were done intentionally and scarcely encourages curiosity about the broader significance of things that probably happened by chance. Newspapers might mention “senseless” deaths, but then they will go on to explain the circumstances and issues that led to the event, giving it “sense.” Likewise, much that happens is dismissed by people who walk away shaking their heads, “tsk-tsk”-ing, declaring what they have seen a waste, but a poet cannot allow her- or himself to use such a vague word as “waste,” because that word implies that the end results do not follow logically from what came before them. Instead, the poet has to force a sense of understanding and try to put things into a perspective as if they interrelate with one another.
In coping with daily life, we accept seeing a lost article such as a shoe in the road because it stands to reason that the shoe’s owner has learned to accept this loss. Different circumstances promote different levels of acceptability when it comes to loss. The loss of any physical object is more acceptable than estrangement from one’s loved ones, such as the loss suffered by the child of divorce who in this poem feels “abandoned midstream,” or the forlornness of the shoe, personified in the poem as “waiting for someone to answer its description.” Beyond personal separation, when the issue becomes loss of articles, the different levels of acceptability become harder to measure. A shoe sighted in the trash does not move one to pity because it is most likely there on purpose (although an extremely sensitive observer might make up the story of a wasteful person who would throw away a useable shoe and pity them for lacking economy). A pair of shoes in the trash together leads to the even more certain conclusion that they were not ripped from someone’s life too early, but that their loss was entirely acceptable; their time had come. In the physical world, we have garbage removal for practical, hygienic purposes, but there is also a metaphoric understanding of garbage as well: made of the items that have been cast off once they have served their functions, garbage represents not just uselessness and decay, but also a cleansing process, or the physical remains that humans leave behind their day-to-day travails the way a snake sheds its skin when it starts anew. “A Pièd” merely approaches this sense of the discarded shoe as an acceptable loss when it describes the shoe in detail as “scoured, unpolished and crumpled.” It is then, for a fleeting moment early in the poem, that readers see the shoe only as a used-up object and not as a symbol of what might become of us all.
In choosing to write about this particular phenomenon in “A Pièd,” a mystery that is unusual and yet happens all the time, paradoxically weird every day, McElroy has grasped a potent symbol of what it is to be human and of one of the most human of experiences: being lost. If her imagery inclines toward violence, abuse, and war, it serves the purpose of glossing over the chasm that separates the inanimate shoe from the motion of ordinary life. This poem is actually quite reverent and religious in a sense, raising grand questions about what solitary humans might mean in a world that speeds by as quickly as cars on a highway.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students. Gale, 1998.
In the following essay, McElroy relates the myriad experiences that contributed to her emergence as a poet confident in her feminine, African-American voice.
It is almost too simplistic to begin this essay with a line I’ve used so frequently in the past to describe my first contacts with poetry, but here goes: I was educated in a school system that led me to believe all writers were male, white, and dead,—three conditions I had no wish to assume. There. I’ve said it. What I consider tradition does not fall within that formula. Those literature courses I could endure presented poems as exacting, technical little snippets of obscurity and abstraction. Those courses neglected my world and the people in it, all the women in my family—my grandmother, my mother and her sisters—women who wove wonderful tales of truth and love, life and death. Yet it is because of those women that I have become a poet, or more precisely, a storyteller.
I grew up with women who were storytellers. They talked in parables and never answered a question with a simple “yes” or “no.” All my mother needed was a key word to begin a quote from Shakespeare: Can I go out? What is that? Where are you going? Any of those brought forth passages from the bard as my mother answered: “Out, out brief candle,” “What is this I see before me,” “Where upon I take my leave.…” And her sisters, sitting around my grandmother’s oak table almost every weekend, viewed all subjects as fair game for a story: the way rice was meant to be cooked, why so many flies hung around a certain neighbor’s door, my grandfather’s job at the Anheueser Brewery, a cousin’s surprise pregnancy, or the secrets of Farrow, the neighborhood grocer. Their stories were full of secrets, at least where I was concerned. If she thought I was listening too intently, my mother would say, “The walls have ears,” and the women would start talking in metaphors.
Under the guise of offering a recipe for some dish they knew I wouldn’t like, they’d abandon old man Farrow in a sea of okra—“Slimy as all get out,” they’d mutter. On other days, they’d condemn a wayward cousin to a lifetime of tripe and pigtails. “Some folks just cozy up to any old thing,” one would say. “Un-hun, I hear that,” another would answer.
Then they’d look for me, squatting under the table, its legs as brown and thick as theirs, a box of crayons and a coloring book in my lap as I pretended to be busy. I’d look up, big-eyed, feigning innocence, then go back to filling in the lines. Later, with my paperdolls, I’d imitate the entire conversation, complete with its nuances and cadences, intonations and inflections. In fact, when I couldn’t remember the exact words, I relied on the rise and fall of syllables, making up words but letting the rhythms carry the meaning of all those adult secrets. With their sweet fondness for metaphor and storytelling, how could I not have become a poet?
Wait. All of that seems too clean, told as if there were a one-to-one connection between what went on in my grandmother’s parlor and how I came to write poetry. Think again. There was still school to be reckoned with, and the women in my family believed in education—with a vengeance. They coached me in the manner in which they had been trained at Normal School—if there was anything normal about a system that set as its goals turning girls into proper young women who were “fit” for teaching. Along with my lessons on manners, I was taught to memorize, memorize, memorize. If those women had had their way, I would have memorized whole books. But I was a stubborn child, and to this day I resist memorizing anything. Was it the ritual, or the material? Perhaps it was simply being pulled away from my friends and into the house, my legs covered with scabs and the hem of my dress unravelling from spills I’d taken on my bike racing down the gravel path of the all-white cemetery. Yes, I knew I had a recitation in class the next day, but how could some old dead poet compete with the thrill of racing down Ash Hill? And how many times could anyone recite yet another tedious verse? I wanted excitement, like those stories I heard on the radio, with mystery and love, good guys and bad guys. Maybe that’s why I took it upon myself to learn whole passages from Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”: …
“I want you to imagine England,” the teacher said. “Imagine the gardens alive with spring blooms. The profusion of blossoms redolent with the smells of peonies and sweet william. Roses and lilacs. The full blush of calla lilies and violets. I want you to think of those English gardens, the country smells of hay and foxglove. Then I want you to imagine a poet walking past those gardens into the churchyard where tombstones stand in quiet repose. And imagine the poet’s thoughts. What do you think he was thinking?”
Poet? Garden? Churchyard? Tombstones? The only graves I’d ever seen were in the cemetery at the end of the block. And we entered only when my friend, Bumpsy, dared the rest of us to slide down the gravel of Ash Hill and streak past the main gate in a hail of pebbles and out again before the gatekeeper yelled: “Get out! Get out! No coloreds. No Jews.”
Maybe that white man in England was writing poems about how to keep colored folks out of his cemetery. That answer got me sent to the counselor’s office, where I was told, once again, to remember the values of a good education.
In English classes, poetry and grammar were coupled like naughty children who had to be put in their proper place or else they might break the rules and run on, run loose, run wild. Sentences were tamed with diagrams, and any poem worth its salt could be scanned. I couldn’t scan, but I could versify and signify, and on summer evenings when fireflies danced in and out of hedgerows, the boys waited to see how sassy the girls could be.
Once a year, we had Negro History Day. The world hadn’t moved as far as Negro History Week or Month, and no one yet had thought to include our African roots in that celebration. We heard about Phillis Wheatley, and we memorized Paul Lawrence Dunbar and, when I was older, Langston Hughes. But when the holiday had passed, they were replaced by Coleridge and Wordsworth and Keats. Under Miss Crutcher’s rule, we intoned every line without missing a beat. Miss Crutcher was tight-lipped and dyed her hair purple. Miss Crutcher believed in elocution. I swore she had a metronome buried inside her. How else could she recite all those poems—tick tock, tick tock—with idiot precision? Under her practice, I learned to hate iambic pentameter and all those forms that fixed words to the page so tightly, they seemed forever out of my reach. I swore off meter and rhyme and lines that hit on the measure. “When this class is over, I’m never gonna look at another poem,” I said. But nothing is as easy as a promise.…
My mother tells me I learned to read when I was three. She says she didn’t know how well I could read until one day when we were on the trolley. In those days, preschool children could ride the trolleys for free, and my mother had announced when we climbed aboard, “My daughter’s only three.” The trolley was full, so we’d had to stand in the aisle. There were placards above the windows advertising all manner of things: Ipana toothpaste, Trushay (the before-hand lotion), Old Dutch Cleanser, Lux Radio Theater. I started at one end, reading just the big words because I was too nearsighted to see the others. But that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I read aloud, proud of my ability to pronounce every word correctly.
“That’ll be a nickel,” the driver told my mother. “If she’s reading, she’s paying.”
I don’t think I remember a time when I didn’t know how to read. I read everything. I read voraciously and indiscriminately: Nancy Drew novels, romance and detective magazines, and comic books. After I was too old to crawl under the dining room table when the women came to visit, they’d find me hiding somewhere in the house—“Nose in a book,” as my mother would say. One day my Aunt Jennie found me, once again, huddled over a comic book, a pile of them at my side. She snatched the book from me. “Girl, what’re you reading?” she asked. But even she had to admit I’d shown good taste. Most of the books were “classic” comics, with a few, like Wonder Woman, thrown in to satisfy my need to find a heroine who, if not dark-skinned, at least had dark hair.
“Go in the front room and read some of those good books I got in there,” my aunt said. And so I discovered Boccaccio and Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Zane Gray. Under the topsoil of literary language, those stories were every bit as daring as the talk I’d heard at my grandmother’s. I rooted for heroines cast in the shadowy realms of those risque tales. And I cried when, typically, they lost the battle. At least Wonder Woman had the powers of Hera.
Sprinkled among the novels were a few anthologies of poems—Best Loved and Greatest the titles declared—all of them resplendent with elegies and odes from the likes of Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth. I tried imagining those poets walking through the black section of town, thee-ing and thou-ing their way past the rows of brownstones and whitewashed stoops, past Bumpsy and that gang of boys who hung around old man Farrow’s grocery store and the cemetery, past the vacant lots and poolhalls, past Miss Crutcher and Charles Sumner High. But I couldn’t imagine those men grabbing their poems and coming down to earth anywhere near that spot I called home. The step from page to real life seemed too great. So while my teachers threatened me with failure if I did not live up to my potential, and my family warned me to get a “good education, something you can fall back on,” I looked for books that competed with the world I saw around me—or, at least, with the world depicted in Saturday movie matinees, where the good guys and bad guys were easily identified and women were swept off their feet in heart-stopping romances. Those were the kinds of adventures that made the bawdy Tales of the Decameron all the more exciting. Even after I found Phillis Wheatley, almost hidden among the leather-bound books way down at the end of the bookshelf, I was too engrossed in Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Pushkin’s poems to fight my way through the stilted language of Wheatley’s plaintive verse. Still, it was the excitement, not racial identity, that drew me to those adventures. It would be years before I discovered that Dumas, like Pushkin, had African ancestors.
Weekends, my mother’s sisters gathered at my grandmother’s house to sort out the world according to the stories they held. They sat around the oak table, the one my grandfather had ferried upriver on a flatboat, and talked about women who had defied tradition. In English classes, what few women we read seemed, somehow, variations of the same woman. After all, how far was Dickinson in her cultivated seclusion from the fragile Wheatley, who in privileged slavery was bound in servitude to the same class system? And the Millay I was offered served up dainty prophecies like elegant cups of tea. Their poems were whispers among the loud voices of male poets.
And how could “The Highwayman” ever have been the favorite poem of a black girl growing up in St. Louis? What seems clear is that in those years I had been so hungry for images of dark women that I had settled for Bess, the landlord’s daughter, death braided into her black hair. And why not? Most romantic stories I’d read, from magazines to classics, wove true love and death as if they marched hand in hand, like Romeo and Juliet, Frankie and Johnnie. Like Bessie Smith’s blues. Or Billie Holiday’s sweet melancholy.
Between high school and my graduate years in college, my world erupted in sit-ins and demonstrations staged by coalitions of Black Power, SNCC, and women’s liberation. Even Miss Crutcher, who had had a poem for every holiday, could not have found suitable verse in the old texts for these turns of events. Where could I have placed Phillis Wheatley, with her genteel rebuke of General Washington? Somewhere during that time I put aside the voice of Miss Crutcher and searched for other, more assertive voices: …
By the time I stumbled on women poets other than Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley, twenty years had passed since my aunt had chased me out of comic books and into the leather-bound volumes lining her living room shelves. By then, I had fallen in love with a poet, and had taken it upon myself to please him by finding a poem to add to the wedding vows we were writing. I searched the old volumes, the Best Loved and The Greatest, for suitable verse. I’d settle for no more dark-haired women for want of seeing some part of myself on the printed page. I wanted women who took no stuff, like the ones my family had chewed on while I was growing up. But weeks later, I would have settled for a line, or even a phrase that would have brought me closer to home. Finally I came upon Georgia Douglass Johnson’s “I Want to Die While You Love Me.” It was the first time I’d read a love poem written by a black woman. Something, I thought, something for me. A black woman who wrote about matters close to the heart. A sister whose language sang with all the elegance of any poet I’d ever read. A sister who saw herself in love and on fire with the joy of it all. But die? I swear I heard my grandmother’s daughters sucking their teeth over yet another woman who had fallen victim to her own heart.…
In the sixties I moved from the midwest to the west coast, from a landscape flat as an ironing board to mountainous country where fog hovered at the beeline like lace curtains, and the smell of the ocean engulfed the room where I sat, facing the window and an endless sky, while my poet husband read poems aloud. Romantic? Yes, but the poems were no romantic contemplations of nature, no poets on sublime walks through gardens. The language of these poems was direct, jazzy, and sometimes brutal, a world where beauty was as delicate and dangerous as walking a tightrope without a net. At first, the idea of a poet who still breathed the air of this planet was as unimaginable as the notion that I too would begin to write poems. At first I feigned interest, more entranced by the sound of my husband’s voice, by the music of language, than by the poems themselves. Though I did not know it, my attention to the music and language was a first step toward becoming a poet. I was much more aware of the second step.
At least twice a month I attended poetry readings, some no more than coffee-shop gatherings of students and artists, some an overflow crowd paying homage to a celebrated poet passing through town on a reading tour. Caught up in the excitement of seeing poets whose publicity, like that of movie stars, preceded their appearance, I joined the groups of habitues for intense discussion over cups of coffee, and reviews of anthologies with titles like Making It New and New Naked Poets.
Indeed, everything seemed new, but for me something was wrong, and one evening as I listened to yet another white poet claim to be speaking for all people—“white, black, green, or in between” is the phrase I remember—I realized I had not moved very far from most of the poets I’d read in Miss Crutcher’s class. Despite the down-to-earth language, the black people who occupied the poems—from Negro gardeners and cooks to black boys running in gangs or hunted by angry mobs—were included with the same degree of significance as the scenery. They were cardboard figures with vaudeville dialects full of apostrophes to indicate missing sounds. They existed only for the immediacy of the poem and color of their skin, their inclusion no more than a cosmetic attempt to shift perspective from white to black. But where were the families? Where were the neighborhoods? Where were the heroes, the foolhardy explorers, the women like my grandmother’s daughters? “Those are the stories I want to hear,” I complained. And my complaints grew so strident, I was told to either shut up or write.
Perhaps I am fortunate. Aside from Miss Crutcher, I have had no classroom teachers to indoctrinate me into the art of poetry. My habits and traditions, good or bad, are those I’ve pulled off the path of self-discovery rather than the result of years of male-centered training. True, the poets I studied in college were almost always white, and most often male, their poems as predictable as a three-piece suit. And true, some black poets rightfully claimed their place in this enclave, pushing against their white counterparts by turning the language of white poets to the advantage of the black experience, as Sterling Brown did in transforming Carl Sandburg’s line: “The young men keep coming on” into “Strong men keep a’comin’ on / The strong men git stronger” [in his Negro Caravan, 1973]. But even while Carl Van Vechten sang Countee Cullen’s praises, and Winston Churchill quoted Claude McKay[’s poem “If We Must Die”] in a speech rallying Britain to war—“Pressed against the wall, dying, but fighting back!”—the works of Cullen and McKay never received the attention in this country that their writing warranted. Historically, black male poets have been set aside as examples of racial differences, lauded for their use of dialect or polysyllabic rhythms, but ignored in discussions of verse that was destined for the white male canon.
Black women writers have fared even worse. Like all women, they have been subsumed under the heading: Mankind. Furthermore, they are expected to confine themselves within a referential sphere where the black woman is depicted as mammy—namely, home and children—or whore—the hipswinging, fast-talking, sassy heifer. The more “universal” subjects of politics, culture, and religion are reserved for men. Thus, genderless, women shoulder the added weight of racism, “de mules of de world,” as Zora Neale Hurston has written. It is a wonder that black women writers have continued to work at all under this double yoke, some plodding forward like Wheatley, some taking the bit in their teeth and shaking off that yoke as they walk toward a collective consciousness. None of this is without reciprocity, for just as Wheatley has been dismissed for not speaking in the voice of her people, writers like Sonia Sanchez have been criticized for having a voice too close to that of her people (and thus, not seriously literary). At a recent conference on African-American expatriates and Europe, the major premise of a male scholar’s paper on Rita Dove was her so-called literary schizophrenia, brought about, he said, by her insistence on using “standard English” in poems about family and racial identity—as if language and the use of poetic forms were genetically determined. This same charge of literary schizophrenia has been leveled against such writers as Anne Spencer, Angelina Grimke, and Margaret Walker. Get back in that kitchen, girl.
Once, at a reading in Portland, Oregon, when I was one of the two women slated to appear, several well-known black male poets held forth during a dinner party prior to the reading. If the women offered a comment, the men waited until they had finished, then resumed the conversation as if there had not been an interruption. We were not asked to bring in the coffee, proudly served by the host, who pointed out how well he had taken over a woman’s role, but we were not expected to contribute to the discussion either. After the reading, we were told our poems were “interesting.” No further explanation seemed necessary. I still say that word with the bitter aftertaste of rudeness and burnt coffee.…
When I began writing in the sixties, I genuinely believed I had set out on a lonely road. I was writing poems, but I did not fit the fraternity of poets present at readings I had attended. Even when the reader was a woman, she was not a woman of color, and no matter how passionately she attempted to speak of slavery or the drudgery of day work, it was from the privileged position of an observer. For want of living examples, I turned to the library to find poems written by black women. I believe I devoured every anthology of Negro Poetry I could find, and as soon as the anthologies of Black Poets began to appear, I devoured them as well. The works of Anne Spencer, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and a host of others began to nourish me. And when I read poems by young black women in newly published anthologies, it was as if I had uncovered some extraordinary rarae ayes. Those poems seemed to leap from the page and take flight in words that spoke directly to me. I wanted to celebrate. I wanted those women to take me away and teach me their language, words that were brave and water clean. I wanted to shout: The wonder is that you are here! But I was too busy. There was too much to read, too much catching up to do after years of elevated verse filled with the
“The trick for me is to stay true to my own style while I stroll through the mess of assumptions about how women write.”
concerns of Mankind, or poems in which pale women were drawn as some “quivering female thing.”
Now I began to discover more and more women poets: Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, Erica Jong, Denise Levertov, May Sarton. And, wonder of wonders, they wrote about taboo and female subjects: Sexton’s “Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” Millay’s “Menses,” Kizer’s “Pro Femina.” In the course of these discoveries, I also began to uncover African American women who seemed to step out of my past, as in: Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat,” Lucille Clifton’s “To My Last Period,” Mari Evans’ “A Good Assassination Should Be Quiet,” Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki Rose.” Had I come home at last?
I grew up in a world where images of African Americans were fraught with stereotypes. I began writing, late in life, because I wanted to break through those stereotypes, to show how varied and complicated the black experiences (yes, plural) are in this country, on this continent, on this planet. Over the years, I have learned to understand what was said between words, with body language and inflection, and most of all, with the music of language. Sometimes, when I labor over the rhythms of a poem, I still see Miss Crutcher, her brown face crowned in a halo of pale purple hair.
Lately, I have taken to reading mostly women writers. I do not avoid male writers. How could I? Indeed, why should I? We have a shared history. When Melvin Tolson [in his poem “Mu”] evokes the images of “Hideho Heights … / Frog Legs Lux …”, and “A willow of a woman, / bronze as knife money …,” I truly believe his poem becomes, as he says,“… dangerous to / the Great White World.” I know the urban chaos found in Ishmael Reed’s poems, and when Al Young baits the reader with the up-in-your-face philosophy of O. O. Gaboogah, I am once again reminded of the biting sarcasm rising out of the stories my aunts told about the white women they worked for. Those stories armed me with a sense of language that I could not have gleaned solely from books.
I don’t remember how old I was when I saw Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, but it was the year the film was released, and I do remember sitting in a segregated theater, time and the bigotry of the outside world held in check while I watched Dietrich stroll across the screen in a man’s suit, her fedora pulled low over one eye. The scene left me breathless. There was a woman breaking the rules, and I sat there in the dark imagining my own rebellion, right down to snitching my grandfather’s fedora from the top shelf of the chifferobe. Writing has much the same effect on me, but whatever I do requires more than imitating someone else’s style.
In writing, I hold time at arm’s length and move into an imaginative world equipped with cadences and metaphors that are particular and peculiar to the life I know. But I am also aware of the temptation to imitate what I admire in others, or succumb to the conventions and expectations of some style that is deemed popular and acceptable. The trick for me is to stay true to my own style while I stroll through the mess of assumptions about how women write. Breaking the barriers of the canon is more than tailoring a man’s perspective for female views. More importantly, as a black woman writer, I must resist attempts to define the writings of African American women only from the perspective of white women writers. The black writers who help shape my sense of tradition are not always found in the literary canon, but they are everywhere. As Ntozake Shange says in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, they are outside Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Manhattan, and St. Louis. St. Louis, my hometown, where my writing began, not formally but spurred by echoes of stories I heard when I was young.
When I write about the women in my family, I am all too aware of the world that waited for them when they left the safety of my grandmother’s house. How could I not be? As a black child growing up during wartime segregation, a daughter in a family hungry for sons, I knew my world was held together by women. I may not have found black writers and African American experience in the books I read then, but I had my mother’s sisters, my cousins and neighbors, an extended family of storytellers: shouldering, blaming, shining, falling, feisty, and good—and all of them feeding me tales full of identifiable heroes. That is also my tradition.
There are many of us now, black women bound to the sisterhood of poetry. The work of these women renews my insight and beckons me to share their sense of place and purpose. Our literary history, despite censorship and lack of recognition by those who espouse a canon, is strong and deeply rooted. But laying claim to a literary sisterhood is not an easy task. We must fight against both racist and sexist assumptions. We must cultivate our gardens, as Anne Spencer and Alice Walker urge, and we must also preserve our histories, oral and written, as Margaret Walker and Rita Dove have shown us. And like our sisters of spirit—Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, Nellie Wong—we must recall our ancestors. Our poems must stride across the page, like Lucille Clifton’s and Maya Angelou’s, proud of their womanness, aiming to be warriors in the manner of Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, and Jayne Cortez. And if I have not mentioned some of my other literary sisters, it is not because I have fallen, once again, under the spell of canon-makers. I know you are there, rising on ribbons of moonlight, laughing, water-clean and strong.
Source: “If We Look for Them by Moonlight” in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited and with an introduction by Sharon Bryan, Norton, 1993, pp. 125-37.
Gomez, Jewelle, “Homeward Bound,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 226-31.
McElroy, Colleen J., “When the Shoe Fits: Myth in the Modern Mode,” in Poets’ Perspectives: Reading Writing and Teaching Poetry, edited by Charles R. Duke and Sally A. Jacobsen, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1992, pp. 37-45.
“Notes On Current Books,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 100.
Publisher’s Weekly, December 14, 1990, p. 62.
Meyer, Marvin W., ed., The Ancient Mysteries: A Source book, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
“A Pièd” raises philosophical questions by studying a modern mysterious phenomenon. This book, which reveals similar questions that ancient cultures posed to the world in which they lived, can provide students much to think about.
Ackerman, Diane, A Natural History of the Senses, New York: Random House, 1990.
Ackerman is a poet and a naturalist, and this book, published the same year as “A Pièd,” takes a similarly inquisitive approach to the ways that we perceive the world around us that McElroy takes to the inexplicable shoe.