MISSOULA – A University of Montana faculty member’s poem rose to the top of more than 50 submissions from across the country in the 2016 Phi Beta Kappa Arts & Sciences Poetry Contest.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest academic honor society, asked for poems to reflect a favorite discipline in the liberal arts and sciences. Amy Ratto Parks, UM’s assistant director of composition in the English department, chose a middle school Latin lesson for the backdrop of her poem “Verb of Being,” and the society members selected it as the winner.
“This made my day,” Parks said. “During my daily job I don’t work with poetry at all, but I spend most of my recreational time with creative writing groups.”
Parks said she began the poem earlier, while working on her doctoral dissertation, which required extensive data analysis in spreadsheets.
“I kept writing in sums,” she said. “Then I began thinking of ‘sum’ in the Latin sense – ‘to be’ – and started writing this poem.”
“Verb of Being” begins with her experience as a seventh-grade student. “I could look from my Latin classroom windows across the valley to the hospital where my dad was,” she said. “It was a complicated way to spend a last year with a parent.”
Poet and Phi Beta Kappa Society member Caki Wilkinson said all the poems submitted were great, but Parks’ poem stood out.
“‘Verb of Being’ struck me particularly because of the way the poet used the refrain – the conceit of conjugating the Latin verb ‘to be’ to circle outward from the classroom to the larger memory of the speaker’s father,” Wilkinson said. “It can be hard to write about academic subjects, but often it’s the things you didn’t expect to see that make a poem interesting.”
The poem follows.
Verb of Being
In 7th period Latin we learned the verb to be by chanting
sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt over and over.
I am, you are, he is. Beautiful William sat next to me
and forward one, and his blond hair fell into his eyes
while he drew busty, corseted women in black ink. Sum, es, est:
I am, you are, she is. Sumus, we are chanting the verb
of being over and over while our teacher, the old man, marched
the aisles. And I chanted too, I am, you are, he is –
in that big, old school building without knowing that across
the valley, my father was marching through the rituals
of diagnosis: the MRI machine, the blood draw, listening
while all the doctors talked. I chanted he is, we are, they are
while he learned about his blood, boiling with virus. I watched
beautiful William toss his blond hair in the sun, and I absentmindedly
traced the outlines of the graffiti on my desk. Sum, es, est,
sumus, estis, sunt – the marching song. I am, we are, he is
beautiful William. Est, he is an old man with a stick. Sum, I am twelve.
I am a daughter, still, of a father for eleven months more.
Sunt, they are misdiagnosing. Est, he is trusting. Est, he is afraid.
Sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt, the old man marches in my dreams,
marches his language song from room 317, from September of 1988
forward through the dusty tables of the kitchens and bedrooms,
offices and libraries of my life. Through all those years teaching us
in the present tense, our first lesson: to be, to be, to be.
– Amy Ratto Parks
For more information visit https://www.pbk.org/web/PBK_Member/Pressroom/Features/Winning_Poem.aspx.