Four Poems on Sally, Dick, and Jane

Four Poems on Sally, Dick, and Jane


See me in first grade.
All around the classroom are pictures:
the thirty-six presidents,
the twenty-six letters in the alphabet,
the forty-four sounds the letters in the alphabet make.

I am six. I can count. I can read.

My teacher, Mrs. W, asks each pupil
to read two pages
from Sally, Dick, and Jane out loud.
She asks me to go first.

I read:

Go, Go, Go.

Go, Dick, Go.

Mrs. W tells me to slow down
and sound out the words.
Start again, she says.

Gœ, gœ, gœ.

Gœ, D-i-k, gœ.

The words do not sound
like the words.


Sometimes a wave knocks down a sandcastle
I have built at the shore.
Sometimes my big brother knocks down a tower
I have built with blocks.
Sounding out words knocks them down
like a wave or a big brother’s hand.


I tell Dad I am learning to un-read at school.
Dad tells me a story.
He says Grandpa Ben came to America
from Russia on a big boat,
that our Russian name was swept overboard,
that our name is at the bottom of the sea.
Dad says many people have lost
their names and their words
when they crossed the sea.
I learn that some people had tickets and took boats.
I learn that some people were taken and put on boats.


I can speak and read.
I am human because I have words.
O it is sad to learn what humans say and do.


O Grandpa,                  О Дедушка,
tell me a story              расскажи мне сказку
in Russian                    на русском языке
about the sea.              о море.
I want to hear              Я хочу услышать
the taken sounds.       взятые звуки.


See the beach resort town
where I live.
See the people in town
wait all year for summer
so they can play at the shore.
Tourists visit and play, too.
See the people in our town
go to the boardwalk
on the Fourth of July
to watch the fireworks.

I learn fireworks are pictures of war.
I learn the booms the fireworks make is war sounded out.

See America explode.
See the bursts color
the Atlantic below.
See them turn to smoke above.
Hear the people on the boardwalk cheer.
Between explosions, I listen
to the lungs of waves take breaths,
wash up and foam the mouth of shoreline.

The rockets launch from a big boat
floating along the line
between water and sky,
a line my oldest brother Benjie says
you can never
swim to or go past
because the Earth is round,
that the line is not a line.

At the bottom of the ocean are shells.
Sea shells.
Artillery shells.
Shells of languages.
Human shells.


My family and I
watch the war
on the Six O’Clock News
during dinner.
Mom is worried my three brothers
will be drafted and go to war.
Dad was a Marine and worries, too.


See Dad take his World War II
Marine uniform out of the attic
to show me and my brothers.
Three stripes for sergeant!
Dad gives my youngest brother
the jacket when he asks for it
so he can wear it to anti-war protests.

Hear Dad teach me the Marine Corps Hymn
on the recorder.
He sings the words:
From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles,
In the air, on land, and sea…

Hear the sounds I play on the recorder
as Dad sings every line.


Mom and Dad bring my brother Benjie
to his physical for the draft.
At the supermarket, I overhear Mom tell her friend
Dad cried when they dropped Benjie off at the draft.
This is was the first time she had seen him cry.


Dick is the only boy in Sally, Dick, and Jane.
Dick gives his little sister Sally a horsey ride.
My big brothers give me horsey rides, too.
I think of Dick.
Dick is 1A.
See Dick drafted.
See Dick go to Vietnam.
Go, Dick, Go.
Come back! Come back!



See Sally outside with her cat Puff and dog Spot.
There are two cardboard boxes on the grass!
The boxes have scary faces
with sharp teeth painted on them.
Sally points. Her mouth is open
like it has a ? at the end of it.

Now see the boxes move
like cardboard monsters!
See Sally, Puff, and Spot run.


See the cardboard boxes pop up.
Dick and Jane pop up, too.
They were under the boxes
the whole time!

See Dick and Jane smile.
I think they were playing.
I think their play was mean.
I do not understand play that is mean.
I do not think it is play:
it is unplay.


There are no friends
in Sally, Dick, and Jane.
Sally and Jane are sisters,
Dick is their brother.
They play together.

At school, the pupils play
on the playground during recess.
After lunch, Mrs. W ties a kerchief
under her chin and we go outside.

Mrs. W is with us on the playground
during recess,
but I do not see her, not really.
I am too busy playing to see her.


During recess, I climb the jungle gym.
I am wearing a dress.
The metal bars are cold against my legs.
I watch the other pupils play a game.
They make two lines with their bodies.
One line links arms and makes a daisy chain.

Each pupil on the other line takes a turn
and tries to run into the daisy chain
and break it.
The ones who run fast or are big
break the chain most.
The pupils in the chain fight hard not to break.
Some of their faces are wet, some are red, or both.
Some say, Ow!

I think it hurts to be broken.
I think it hurts to break.

This game is mean. It is unplay.

I think the pupils have a secret like a swear
to play to be mean to unplay.

O I do not want to learn
to unplay.


In the summer, on the beach,
I play alone.

Summer is for play,
a time of salt.

I have tools:
a red metal shovel
and a tin bucket
with a picture of a cow
jumping over the moon.
The moon is half-eaten
by salt in the air and ocean.
Now it is a half-moon.
The cow is jumping over a half-moon.

I fill the bucket with wet sand,
bits of shell, pieces of seaweed.
I build a castle!
Then I dig until ocean seeps up.
I build a moat!

I think my play is like sleep,
a box I go inside.

When I am inside the box
there is no outside.
Not really.


Salt eats, sun fades:
this is why the days get shorter.
When days are short,
I must go to school and work.
I only play during recess.


See Dad pray
when Mom is in hospital.
He prays in the garden with his roses.
He squats near the red petals and thorns,
moves his lips and says his words inside.
I am there, too, with my watering can.
But I do not think he sees me, not really.

I think pray is like play is like sleep,
a box you go inside.

I think we each have a box.

It is scary when Dad is in his box;
he has no outside, not really.
I am on the outside.

Sometimes Dad naps on the sofa.
Pray is like play is like sleep.
I want to play, but I am on the outside.
This is how I learn to pray.



The book Sally, Dick, and Jane
has no beginning, middle, end.
It is in between
in bits and pieces.

Bits and pieces
is the story of my family, too.
When I ask Mom or Dad
for a story about my family,
about the ones I never met,
they say,
I only know bits and pieces.


In first grade, we read
Sally, Dick, and Jane
to learn to read. I read already.
I know English.

Dad knows bits and pieces of Russian.
Mom knows bits and pieces of Yiddish.
This is what is left of the ABCs of our family.

Our names are bits and pieces, too.
Our last names were changed
when our families came to America.
The Americans who let our family
live here changed our names
to make them American.

In my family, we are each named
after one person:
the first letter of a first name—
as if we come from only part
of the person we are named after.
Which I guess is true.
I do not know why the first
letter is so important.
I think it is like the A of the ABCs.

I am named for my Grandpa, Mom’s dad.
The first letter of my name
is the first letter of his.
Grandpa died before I was born.
The first letter of his first name
is the only part of him I know.

Mom says I have his mouth.


I think of my family taking
bits and pieces of their lives
on boats from Russia,
of the boats themselves
taking bits and pieces
of lives across an ocean
over a bed of sand,
which is bits and pieces of Earth
where the dinosaurs once roamed.

I have a book about dinosaurs.
I think I know more about dinosaurs
than I know about my family.
Ask me a question.


Mom’s grandparents lived on a farm
on Long Island, near the Sound.
Mom says that my great-grandma used
every part of the chicken when she cooked.

Even the feathers? I ask.

No. Grandma used the feathers
to make pillows and blankets.

Maybe not every part, after all, I say.


Dad has a cousin. Her name is Eida.
Eida lives in New York City.
We drive there to visit.
Eida has numbers on her arm.
When I see the numbers
my mouth opens
like there is a ? at the end of it.
Eida sees me seeing.

Camps, she says.
But here I am, kindelah;
some not so lucky—they ended
in bitn aun breklekh.


See Sally wear a Halloween mask
It has long pink ears and whiskers like a rabbit!
Sally’s dog Spot looks at the rabbit mask
with his mouth open
like there is a ? at the end of it.

Sally is holding her cat Puff.
Puff looks like she wants to run!
[Puff always looks like she wants to run.]
It is funny to see a picture and know
Puff wants to run like she is a real cat.
[Sally, Dick, and Jane look real, too.]

Sally has a stuffed bear named Tim.
She plays with Tim and makes stories.
Tim’s eyes do not move.
Tim is in stories; he does not make stories.
He is like the rabbit mask: not real.


See my family picture album
with black, white, and gray photos.
The people in the photos sit still
and look at me.
They are like Sally’s rabbit mask and stuffed bear.
It makes me feel funny
that my family in the photos
do not have stories in their faces,
that there are no bits and pieces of them.
The photos are their bits and pieces.



See Dick give Sally a horsey ride,
help Jane do a handstand,
look for Puff hiding under the sofa,
bring Spot a bowl of dog food,
make a swing for Sally’s stuffed bear.
See Dick kick a football
then play dress-up with Jane.
Dick is a good sport.


In first grade, Mrs. W says,
Class, be a good sport—
hang your coats in the cubbies;
fold your hands on your desks;
stand and pledge;
open the book, read;
count the numbers;
eat your lunch;
go out for recess;
gets your things, pack them up.

The class says, Yes, Mrs. W.

I think Mrs. W’s first grade class
has a secret like a swear
that the pupils will not say No.

I think—what if Mrs. W said,


and the pupils said No.


I think if Dick was a bad sport
he would be punished,
made to stand in a corner:

See Jane cover her smile.
See Sally point.

Look, Jane, look.
Look, Sally, look.
Dick said No!
No, Dick, no, No!


I think — what if the American who changed
my family’s names said, I am changing your names

and my family said No.

Would they be put on a boat
and taken back to Russia?

I think there is always a boat to carry,

that there are things
you are not allowed to say no to:

a. America
b. school
c. teacher
d. night
e. ocean
f. moms and dads


I am a good sport.


In the first grade I learn
no is a word to say
on the inside.

The hardest word
to learn.

I think to say no
is an ocean.


H.E. Fisher’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in Whale Road Review, Novus, Unearthed, Indianapolis Review, Miracle Monocle, SWWIM, and Canary, among other publications. H.E. is the editor of (Re) An Ideas Journal. Her first collection, Sterile Field (Free Lines Press), and her chapbook, Jane Almost Always Smiles, are forthcoming in 2022.


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