Starlings (a poem by Jennifer Semple Siegel) and some background

The webmaster in 1957
With her toy accordion

“Starlings have diverse and complex vocalizations, and have been known to embed sounds from their surroundings into their own calls, including car alarms, and human speech patterns.”


I have a very complicated relationship with my mother – at least with her memory; she died in 1979, at age 48, as a result of alcohol poisoning.
Her liver just crapped out.
Mother had issues with alcohol, which kind of branched out into other kinds of behavior, such as working as a stripper and posing for cheesecake magazine and book covers – another story.
I actually spent very little time living with her; she was just too dysfunctional to raise children, so my grandparents filed court papers to take me from California to Iowa. If you are so inclined, you can read my story here.
But what I do remember of that time: being left to my own devices at a tender age (six and seven). I pretty much had run of the neighborhood, and this freedom was granted (by default) to me while we lived in Los Angeles; as a consequence, I became street savvy at a young age.
True story: when I was six (circa 1957), a 12-year-old boy was consistently bullying me:  he pushed me around and threatened to take my pants off and doing what, I didn’t know (I can only guess now).
After weeks of this scary treatment, I had had it with this asshat, so one day, I went home and armed myself with the largest and meanest-looking butcher knife I could find, complete with serrated edges.
Sure enough, this junior bully was laying in wait for me.   
I pointed that knife right at his stomach, and said, “If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to stab you in the gut with this knife and twist it.” (I even mimed twisting it.)
I was serious, too; one move toward me, I would have followed through. My filter was too immature to realize the seriousness of stabbing someone and possibly killing him, and I really had little moral modeling. It’s a good thing he turned tail and ran away. Had he rushed toward me, my story might have been very different – funny how life often turns on a dime – my sorry posterior probably ending up in foster care or juvie.
That kid never bothered me again, though.
During this time in my life, I was also run over by a truck, along with my 17-month-old sister. We were sitting in an alley, rolling stones, when a large orange truck rolled over us (I am happy to report that neither of us were seriously hurt).
I wrote “Starlings,” a poem about that experience, and would like to share it here.

Photo by Russavia

The day I was run over by the truck
Mother was in bed
in a haze of
purple plums

The starlings played in pine needles
scolding me
for running the street
like a wildcat

I hated
when they played so free
while Mother sank
into a tangle of
ties – and me

The truck rolled over me
and rested
at the crest of my

The starlings played
Mother stayed


I believe that there more polished versions are floating around, but this is the version that won first place in a regional poetry contest: Keysner Poets Dale Guhl Memorial Awards (May 24, 1987 – yes, a long time ago).
I love that Mary Riley, the judge, loved the poem, despite its obvious faults. Her judge’s notes were presented in poetic lines:

I think this poem is remarkably successful.
The reason it works is like “Mother” embedded
in it so far, I can’t quite lay my critical eye or
hand on it, which is the way it’s supposed to be.
I may have a little problem with “rested at the
crest of my chest.” In fact, that really sticks out
of the poem for me as a real sudden fall off the
excellence wagon. The rest of the poem is near
perfect. I’d separate wild and cat, if it were my
poem just to keep the mood of a child playing in the
street where an alley cat comes to mind, not a wildcat,
a wild cat. But it’s not my poem and
I don’t know why it works, it just does, and that’s the way
I want it. I love “Mother sank into a tangle of ties – and me.”
Maybe I don’t need the tiny
abstract moment of “pursuing sustenance”
or even just “sustenance.” I think I’d like to see what’s
being pursued here in this vivid picture.
Though a problem for me, it may be all right.

A very nice poem.

Mary Riley is absolutely correct about the flaws but doesn’t seem to hold them against my little poem.
I don’t remember if I ever thanked Ms. Riley for her insightful comments, so I’ll do it now:

Thank you, Mary Riley! You are one of the best literary judges around!


“Starlings,” copyright 1987 – present Jennifer Semple Siegel, may not be reprinted or reposted without permission of the poet.


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