"Tongue" by Conrad Hilberry
The beginning of June is an odd time for so wintery a poem. But I have been thinking about my first poetry teacher, Conrad Hilberry, a lot lately, and that sent me back to his books. I don’t know why, of the many beautiful poems of his I might have chosen, this is the one I settled on. And I realize that in my own mind this poem conflates with a scene from “A Christmas Story” when the same event—a tongue stuck to cold metal—occurs. And yet in Hilberry’s poem, the event is not related for humor but for the shame it evokes in the boy.
The poem is straightforward. A boy absent-mindedly puts his tongue to the cold metal fence out of some childish habit, like sucking on his thumb. He is lonely on the playground, not one of the boys who is roughhousing in the snow. Once it’s there, stuck, his shame is such that he won’t cry for help. Instead, he simply tears his tongue from the cold post. Back in the warm classroom, he refuses to let anyone know what has happened and sits by himself, swallowing his own blood.
The poem’s power comes from its precision—it begins in iambic tetrameter and sticks fairly closely to an eight syllable line throughout. The notion that the boy “did not mean to test the cold” suggests that he would not take on a powerful force (cold, the other boys who play roughly) intentionally; he is a timid kid, who “might suck/a little solace from his thumb.” That last line of the stanza returns to perfect iambic tetrameter and sounds soothing, too, with the repeated “s” sounds, those slow l’s, the internal rhyme of from and thumb.
The second stanza ends brilliantly with the line “The cold clanged shut.” The four stressed syllables in a row lock down that tongue. But they also create a feeling in their hard “c” “d” and “t” sounds. The line sounds painful, and it is. The kid is trapped, tongue to cold metal. In his panic, (note the interesting simile—he pulls at his tongue “as if it were a leech”—something horrible, not of his own body) he rips his tongue away and injures himself.
But because of his shame at his actions (which are really fairly typical of small children) he won’t tell anyone what has happened. He returns to the classroom and sits silently. The poem ends with the repeated two-word sentence “He swallowed. He swallowed.” which leaves a feeling in the reader’s mouth and a taste of blood, a taste that becomes a metaphor for his enormous shame. The small boy seems so terribly alone at the poem's end, and we are reminded of shame's terrible isolating power.
I am not sure why I choose this poem right now. But whenever I read Hilberry’s work I’m struck by the precision of his images and the careful, but not fussy, music and rhythmic structure of his poems. And I am struck by my fond memories of our creative writing classes, by the warmth and encouragement with which he taught. In addition to being a wonderful poet, he was a fabulous teacher—generous and open to young writers. He treated us as if we had a right (maybe even a responsibility) to write poems. I can’t imagine a better teacher for a young writer. Thanks, Con.
by Conrad Hilberry
He did not mean to test the cold
or his own daring. He did it idly,
not thinking, as he might suck
a little solace from his thumb.
Alone at recess, watching three boys
his tongue to the cyclone fence
and it froze. The cold clanged shut.
With his fingers, he pulled at the tongue
as if it were a leech, sucking
the blood of his leg. But the ice held.
In panic, he tore away his mistake,
tore loose his tongue, leaving skin
like patches of rust on the metal.
What could he do with the torn and swollen
tongue, with shame that tasted like blood?
In school, he hid his mouth behind
his hands. He swallowed. He swallowed.
Here is a wonderful interview with Con:
A few more of his poems and some biographical information: