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Something’s Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is: “Adolescence II”

This post, and this poem, is about puberty…

teenagerI chose Rita Dove’s poem “Adolescence-II” for this summer program in part because (like all of our poems this session, actually) I’ve taught it before at Rutgers and students really connected with it! I’m curious to hear what Summer Tales participants will have to say about it, but I wanted to reflect here briefly on why that poem might have connected so well.

Let’s look at the poem:


Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
“Can you feel it yet?” they whisper.
I don’t know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
“Well, maybe next time.” And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

The first thing that jumps out at you about the poem is probably the vivid sensory images, right? We actually have more or less all five senses here: sight (“glittering like pools of ink” and many others), sound (the seal men “chuckle” and “whisper”), smell (“the scent of licorice”), taste (“a ball of fur on my tongue”), and touch (“sweat prickles behind my knees”). Everyone will probably have at least one that grabs their attention and maybe disorients them a little. Why are the seal-men’s bodies “sleek”? Why are they seal-like in the first place? Why licorice? What does a ball of fur on the tongue feel like anyway?

That disorientation doesn’t just help the images stick in your mind, it’s also thematically appropriate. Adolescence is a disorienting time. There are bewildering new experiences and new sensations. Often it can feel like you’re supposed to understand something, that all your peers get it but you don’t––whether that’s dating, algebra, or musical taste. I remember often feeling like the narrator of the poem: wondering whether I could “feel it yet,” whether I was in fact experiencing some new adult feeling, and not being sure. In short, adolescence can be a lot like coming across a particularly striking poetic image: you’re feeling something, and you know it must mean something, but it’s hard to say exactly what.

To address the elephant (or the seal-man?) in the room: yes, there’s an erotic undertone in this poem! I don’t want to get too far into it here, but we should note how even the most explicitly erotic line in the poem doesn’t seem to know quite how it feels. “The baby-breasts are alert,” the narrator tells us––not “aroused,” but “alert,” as though experiencing some kind of heightened sensation but not sure whether or not this is what arousal is supposed to feel like. Note also that it’s “the” breasts, not “my” breasts; still new and strange. (The “ball of fur on my tongue” image also gets at the visceral discomfort of feeling your own body change.)

This poem seemed to be a hit with my students; many chose to write papers on it. I think part of the reason is that for many college students, those bewildering days of adolescence are over but still fresh in the memory. Maybe this poem also spoke to them because it gives voice to confusion; a lot of the poems we read in that class were pretty intimidating and bewildering, and it’s refreshing to find a poem that’s about being intimidated and bewildered, that gives you permission to feel that way and then uses that feeling as part of its overall atmosphere. Maybe it’s because college, like puberty, is a transformative period. You know that it will change you, but you don’t yet know how, and so there are late nights spent “waiting”: for everything to make sense, to be the different person you know you’ll become, or just to know exactly what it is that you’re feeling.

(The post title is a reference to a Bob Dylan song that, like this poem, is about the confusion it creates for the listener.)

Read all three poems: Adolescence I-II-III