We opened with 28 participants from New York, California, Dallas, Philadelphia, central
Massachusetts, Montreal, Hamilton, Bahrain, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
The text was Ron Padgett’s poem “Hello Central,” and the opening question was “Who
is this poem’s narrator?” Who is telling the story? The first respondent thought this
speaker could be any one of us. Someone else offered that the positioning of the
speaker outside of “central” suggested that she or he is part of a marginalized group.
Several people mentioned that they weren’t sure the gender of the speaker, though
some thought the speaker may be female given the pointed reference to “illustrious
men” and the speaker’s position outside of the majority group. Still another person
thought the speaker might be the poet himself. We spoke about the poet’s move from
the general to the particular or, as one responder put it, from the community view to the
individual view, from the communal history to the experience of one individual. Nostalgia
was another theme of our discussion. Participants found that the rather mundane
descriptions of the first stanza took on a warmth and even a romanticism in the
nostalgic recollection of the second stanza. Another noted the direct address in the title
“Hello Central,” pointing out that such an address posits a speaker and a listener. The
decentralizing of the school also reflects the decentralizing of the poem’s speaker. But
by the last stanza, the remembered teacher calls for response, thus restoring the
student and speaker of the poem back to the center. Another mentioned that the
student even sits in the “center” row. Another question we wrestled with was “What
does the phrase ‘useful as a brick’ bring up for us?” One reader saw the poem’s very
form (two stacked stanzas) as brick like. Others mentioned the deceptively plain
language of the poem, a blandness that reflects the poet’s view of “Central” as
colorless and odorless. Another said that by the end of the poem we’ve lost the bricks
and mortar of the school, but there’s still the brick and mortar of its existence in
We wrote to the prompt, “Write a place you returned to.” Our first reader turned this idea
around. Beginning with the idea that “there’s no going back,” she explored what the
alternatives might be. We noticed that how this response highlighted something
embedded in the prompt’s call to think about returning to a place: that the place,
wherever and whatever it is, holds importance to us. Our second reader used poetic
devices like alliteration of s-words to whisper to us about an outdoor space, quite in
contrast to the plain prose about a very plainly named building that was featured in the
prose poem where we started our session. We also remarked that when we return to a
place, we often also return to the age we were when we were there before, as the
poem’s narrator imagines being back in a classroom with Miss Quesenbery. Our fourth
reader used metaphors of traveling in circles to describe her thoughts. And, curiously,
those thoughts were pulled forward by the tracks in the dirt, rather than making the
tracks. Her idea of things she couldn’t help returning to added yet another interpretation
of the prompt. In the day’s final piece, we heard about a narrator who saw the “same
lush trees of June” but found them distorted because she was not the same and never
could be. We thought about how the passage of time means we can never return to the
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Please join us for our next session Monday, August 17th at 6pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
Hello Central by Ron Padgett
I attended a high school whose name was colorless and odorless: Central
High School. It was called that because it was built in the middle of town,
so that students could converge on it equidistantly. Then the city added
other high schools, all named after illustrious men. The students there
could associate their schools with these figures, but we at Central could
no longer even associate our school with centrality, since by then the
city had expanded and become lopsided. The name Central had become
totally abstract. After sixty years the structure was deemed inadequate,
and a new Central was built—in the northwest corner of town—discon-
necting the school’s name from its last vestige of meaning.
In the many times I have returned to my hometown I have never once
driven out to see the new Central. Instead I cruise past the renovated old
structure that now is used as an office building. In my mind’s eye I dash
up the steps and into the hallways crowded with students who only an
hour ago were lost in sleep. I enter room 212 and take my seat at the back
of the center row and feel the day click into place when the bell rings and
Miss Quesenbery looks at her roll book, brushes back an errant strand of
hair, and starts down the alphabet. A rush of anticipation rises in me as
she approaches my name, and when she says it, I answer “Here” in a voice
that makes me feel useful, like a brick.
“Hello Central” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013.