“Emotional Self-Regulation, with Birds and Gifted Child” by Sean Kelbley

Ekphrastic Challenge, January 2022: Artist’s Choice


Dark Figures by Matthew King, photograph of a figure surrounded by gulls

Image: “Dark Figures” by Matthew King. “Emotional Self-Regulation, with Birds and Gifted Child” was written by Sean Kelbley for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, January 2022, and selected as the Artist’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)


Sean Kelbley


It’s called Vacation in Your Head,
but first the teacher makes him visit

hers. “Give me a big thumbs-up
when you have figured where I am”

she sing-songs, and the boy knows
it will be mundane, someplace

pedestrian. “Oh! I feel sunshine
on my face, and water licking

at my feet.” The boy cannot believe
how long it takes his class to realize

they’re at the beach. “I hear seagulls!
I smell hotdogs grilling: yum!” And

since he has to wait, inside his head
the boy becomes a seagull—no,

a Steller’s Eagle—swooping,
shitting on the teacher’s cookout buns

and every kid that ever laughed
at his vocabulary. “That’s correct,”

the teacher says. “I’m at the beach!
Where would you go, if your body

had Big Feelings?” The eagle wheels

and shits especially on Braxton Griggs,
then wings to Maine, feathers lofting

like the pages of a dictionary. It’s nice
to be the biggest bird. He synchs his

breathing with the ocean’s waves.
From far away, a voice asks

“Where are you vacationing?”
“The beach,” a seagull cries, and then

another seagull cries “the beach,”
and all the seagulls cry “the beach!”

The beach,” the boy says, opening
his eyes to brown Nebraska. But

in his head it’s snowing, hard.
Against the rules he pulls his hood up,

ducks and turns, so no one notices
his sharp resplendent beak.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
January 2022, Artist’s Choice


Comment from the artist, Matthew King: “It was a pleasure and a privilege to read these variously wonderful poems and many were hard to pass up, but ‘Emotional Self-Regulation, with Birds and Gifted Child’ hooked me with its Steller’s Eagle, reeled me in with its comic chorus of chanting seagulls (although, to be fair, I feel like the gulls must think the geese are unbearably dumb; these things are all relative!), and won’t let me go. I had a very different experience as a ‘gifted kid’—from an early age I was in a ‘gifted program’ (one of my old friends from which was the first to inform me of the enormous lost Asian eagle that had made its way to Maine) and always felt like I was surrounded by bigger fish. As an unsheltered adult my fish-out-of-water frustrations are complicated by concerns about elitism to which the kid in the poem is forgivably, gloriously oblivious, but boy does that biggest bird take me with it on its oceanic voyage, and oh how I love the birds that turn up their beaks at winter vacations to warmer climes. It’s hard to relax when it’s snowing in your head, but who wants to relax, anyway? ‘Big Feelings’—if indeed!”

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