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Poetry Moment: Karen Weyant and 'The Girl Who Turned Cartwheels'

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.

This episode’s poem is “The Girl Who Turned Cartwheels” by Karen Weyant.

Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Karen Weyant is the author of Wearing Heels in the Rustbelt and Stealing Dust. Her writing often focuses on working class people and their concerns and has been published widely in such literary magazines as Chautauqua, Crab Orchard Review, Copper Nickel, Lake Effect, Poetry East, and Rattle. Her work has also been featured by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in the syndicated column, American Life in Poetry. Weyant lives in Warren, Pennsylvania, near the state line and teaches at Jamestown Community College, just over the border in Jamestown, New York.

Looking back at our childhoods, we might remember those first moments when innocence began to slip away or was simply lost. For some of us, it’s cataclysmic, horrific and tragic. For the luckiest, it happens slowly, on the edges of our consciousness. The euphemisms our parents or other adults use to shroud the violence or the sorrow: some kids gone missing, a murder across town. Yet the anxiety has a way of drifting down to us: through whispered conversations, garbled words through a half-closed door. Because we are children there’s still play, still our attempts to learn to do a cartwheel or shoot a basketball, a way to pass the time before the grownup world is all ours.


The Girl Who Turned Cartwheels

It’s dusk. And dry. Boys in the neighborhood
ride their bikes, back tires kicking up dust,
spokes spinning like the cartwheels I turned
that summer those kids disappeared. For hours
every day, I too, vanished without explanation.
The rails are better than school balance beams,
I explained, coming home with blood
on my elbows, cinders in my knees.
My aunt clutched her rosary beads, prayed
to Saint Nicholas. My mother
hugged me. And then had nightmares.
I felt trapped in a car trunk, she said
to my father, sure I wasn’t listening.
I didn’t understand the crime done
so far away, the local girl and her kids
now gone. I just practiced more —
until my back was straight, until my arms
locked tight, until I no longer fell.
When my fingers burned on the August steel,
I moved to the shade. Only the sumac noticed,
bowing to my dismounts, applauding
through the rustle of leaves. I didn’t stop
until the rails shook. I was sure
ghosts were there, somewhere,
making the metal beneath my fingers,
my hands, my toes, tremble.


That was “The Girl Who Turned Cartwheels” by Karen Weyant.

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Todd Davis is the 2022-23 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.