Sunday, March 29, 2020

Analysis of "Stranger by Night" by Edward Hirsch

Poem found here: "Stranger by Night" by Edward Hirsch


There's a lot going on in the title.  When I researched this poem, I this is also the title of collection coming out in February 11, 2020.  I've learned to queue up posts, so I'm writing this post on January 13, 2020 and this should come out in March 29, 2020.

In any case, there's a lot going on in the title because the poem plays with the idea of "stranger" and "night" throughout.  However, note the form of the poem: short lines and a bit long, but could be read.  This idea plays itself out in the first couple of lines, "After I lost / my peripheral vision / I stated getting side swiped by pedestrians cutting / in front of me [...]"

The form of the poem plays with this lack of peripheral vision, something narrow can only be seen.  The form mimics this experience and too the reader, like the speaker, can only see what in from of them.  The "night" being played with is the lack of vision -- this sort of white space (or dark space) where nothing registers.

This feeling of losing is further compounded with the simile, "almost randomly like memories / I couldn't see coming / as I left the building / at twilight."  The forgetting of the memory triggers the memories of how the speaker now has to live his life: or stepped gingerly / off the curb / or even just crossed / the wet pavement / to the stairs descending / precipitously / into the subway station."

Careful.  This is how the speaker is dealing with the loss of sight and memory -- careful remembering of small moments.  Like big moments are too complicated to remember or to wonder what is gone.

Careful of being a bother, "and I apologized / to every one / of those stranger / jostling me / in a world that had grown / stranger by night."  This is where the play of the "stranger" comes in.  Of course the strangers that jostle him are there, but the speaker feels like a obstacle in their way of where they need to go, back to being strangers with their own lives.

But this world that the speaker experiences now feels like he's trying to navigate around like he's a stranger in his own life now.  The world is strange, the people are strange, the situation is strange, the speaker has become strange when circumstances change.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Analysis of "One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII" by Pablo Neruda

Poem found here: "One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII" by Pablo Neruda


Love poems.  When do they become too cute and too saccharine, or when does one past the test of time and mean something more.  Does this matter?  Love poems are definitely a mood poem to me.  Not the type to return to when I'm not into love poems -- like after a fight with a loved one or missing the loved one after a long departure, but even then it can go back and forth emotionally.

For this poem, the images and thoughts are what brings me back to this poem.  This is not simply a declaration of love in verse, but something more deeper, maybe soulful.

"I don't love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz, / or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:"  No hyperbole or outward expanse of love.  At least that's what I take from these lines.  The images in the poem are in negation -- don't love, and I don't know if salt, topaz, or arrow of carnations have a bigger symbolic meaning.  It probably does, but that's not the the point.

The point comes with the next two lines, "I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul."  Deep and intimate.  Between conceptual darkness and light.  So inward hyperbole.  "Secretly" in this context seems romantic to me, but, again taste level.  This could be read as creepy if taken literally and there's no buy in for the initial metaphor.

So how does someone love obscurely, " I love you as that plant that doesn't bloom but carries / the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,"  The potential.  Because from potential there is something bright and blooming, something the speaker enjoys and would be the one to see the growth.

"And thanks to your love that tight aroma that rose /from the earth lives dimly in my body."  A kept secret as significant and insignificant as a smell.  "tight aroma" is an interesting adjective/noun combination...what is a tight smell?

"I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where, / I love you directly without problem or pride: I love you like this because I don't know any other way to love you,"  swept up in the language.  The anaphora of "I love you" like a chant, and the lack of reason and more to emotional conclusion -- the love is the only way that feels right that I can.

"except in this form in which I am not nor are you, / so close that your hand upon my chest is mine, / so close that your eyes close with my dreams."  The line having the other chest as the speakers is a nice line that represents a oneness created through love.  The last line is an expected end for me, but why not.  In reality, in dreams, in shadow, and soul -- the speaker loves this way.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Analysis of "I Didn't Go to Church Today" by Ogden Nash

Poem found here:  "I Didn't Go to Church Today" by Ogden Nash



I think this poem is pretty self explanatory.  Please Lord, forgive me for not going to church since we die anyways.  We'll be together forever.  

However, this poem can be read further and deeper than just the surface level forgiveness.  But should I?  Why not.

"I didn't go to church today, / I trust the Lord to understand," and why wouldn't the Lord understand.  Isn't forgiveness of sin part of the doctrine.  The speaker must have a good reason though: family emergency, personal crisis, maybe perhaps even something as plausible as his car breaking down.  

But no, the next few lines isn't an excuse, it's what actually happened,  "The surf was swirling blue and white, / The children swirling on the sand."  Yes, if I want to go deep enough I can say this is a biblical allusion to Moses trials of parting the sea and he and his children wandering the desert for 40 year before finding their place.              

But no, let's not go there, why?  This poem's tone is jovial, not to be over thought because, "He knows, He knows how brief my stay, / How brief this spell of summer weather,"

Up front, this is all forgiven anyways, so why hide it.    Why look deeper at reasoning or purpose when it's all planned out.  

And the speaker is genuine with this emotion, "He knows when I am said and done / We'll have plenty of time together."    So what's one day?  What's that one line to say you're a believer or not and who is to judge.  Not man.  The lord knows.                                                                                                                         

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Analysis of "Last Hill in a Vista" by Louise Bogan

Poem found here: "Last Hill in a Vista" by Louise Bogan

Collective poverty.  These sestets have very harsh and obvious rhyme schemes as well.  I think it's obvious to deflect the harsh reality with some humor.

"Come, let us tell the weeds in ditches / How we are poor, who once had riches,"  When I read this part, I questioned why the weeds.  "We" is already in a low place and the "weeds" parallel not only their circumstance but the place they are at.  This reads like it's from the Great Depression or some sort of economic downturn.

"And lie out in the sparse and sodden / Pastures that the cows have trodden,"  these lines reminds me of the Romantics and how a greater purpose could be found in the sublime through nature.  But with the rhyme scheme and the circumstance, this ideal seems to be jabbed at more so than idealized, but the lines are sincere with the mood still being light in the next two lines, "The while an autumn nigh seal down / the comforts of the wooden town."

The first sestet feels like an exposition.  The collective "we" is poor and find comforts in nature and small towns.  Me, as a reader, is trying to find cynicism in these lines, but the first stanza is has a genuine tone.  And what throws me off is the first two lines in the second stanza, "Come, let us counsel some cold stranger / How we sought safety, but loved danger." 

I want to find blame in outside sources in this poem, but it's not there with those two lines.  In fact, the reasons turn inward with "sought safety, but loved danger."  It's as though the collective speaker is turning inwards for the change in circumstance, "So, with stiff walls about us, we / Chose this more fragile boundary:"

So why choose this fragile boundary?  Maybe it's for the love of danger and taking responsibilities of loving danger -- lack of stability, lack of money, but not a lack of place, "Hills, where light poplars, the firm oak, / Loosen into a little smoke."  The first line goes back to this pastoral romanticism which makes sense in the context of the poem, but the last line has more of an ominous image of  "little smoke."  A part of me wants it to be a fire, but based on the poem, I'm not sure.  The smoke could be innocuous, can't we be poor, love danger and have nothing?



Sunday, March 1, 2020

Analysis of "Coming to This" by Mark Strand

Poem Found Here: "Coming to This" by Mark Strand


Dead bedroom.  Staying for the kids.  This is what the poem feels like do to he lines, images, and tone of the poem.  This poem does take a different approach to the middle-aged old problem.

"We have done what we wanted. / We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry / of each other [...]" With two lines there a build up of regret with the first line -- all that was wanted was already done.  But not done in the sense of beginning and finishing it, rather of letting go, "discarding dreams." and making a resolution to each other and that takes work like heavy industry.  Work, but not enjoyment.

"and we have welcomed grief / and called ruin the impossible habit to break."

Note the usage of "and" in the first stanza.  There's three instances of "and."  I feel this is on purpose to elongate the sentence to parallel this elongated relationship.  Furthermore, the "and" adds to a series of events just happening.  Grief happens and then ruin happen.  Like people becoming friends after surviving a traumatic incident.  It seems their relationship is quite traumatic.

"And now we are here."

I'll just let this sit there.  What is here isn't surprising, "The dinner is ready and we cannot eat. / The meat sits in the white lake of its dish. / the wine waits."   Ruin is thinking you want out of this same habit of grief, but no answer is there -- dinner is just dinner, meat is just mean, wine is just wine.  Images aren't answers.  These images serve as reminder of monotony.  I find the attempt to be metaphorical "meat sits in the white lake of its dish" as something the speaker attempts to do to give more meaning to the bland sentence which parallels my perceived notion of the relationships bland life.

But the last stanza has the turn, and an enjambment which is less definite than the end-stopped lines in the second stanza, "Coming to this / has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away."  Note here how dead bedrooms is limbo.  No promises that things will change, but also nothing is taken away.  This is classic sunk-cost fallacy thinking which is further indicated with the last two lines, "We have no heart or saving grace, / no place to go, no reason to remain." 

To me the last two lines are too on point, too on the nose.  Dead lines.  But I think this is the point of the lines.  Emphasizing having no heart or saving grace, no place to go, no reason to remain -- this constant stream of no, no, no, no.  No to change, don't think no further.  Stay just to remain.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Analysis of "That was the summer" by Ellen Doré Watson

More about the poet: Ellen Doré Watson
(Unfortunately, can't find poem on verse daily)



A personal time piece poem.  After rereading the poem and my notes, I think I was overthinking the poem.  This poem is specific, but vague.  There's no direct flow from one idea to the next, but there is a connection with all the events.  This is a poem where the speaker has to buy into this ride of untamed experience.

And that's where the title comes in, "That was the summer" which feels like a retelling of an event in a casual.  You know, "That was the summer when [...]"  but for the speaker, the summer started out where "real life go loud."

Oh okay, I get it.  Loud -- probably a metaphor of big life changing events.  But the poem continues with "peonies, squirrels, teapots screaming / in my ear."  The image contrasts sounds so innocuous on the outside, but personal loudness in the inside."  From here, I'm thinking to myself, "okay, small things are loud type of poem, sure."  But then the sentence ends with, "though I knew it was the work of trickster / brain." Now I don't know what's going to happen, but I trust the speakers to show me something which I can't predict.  The line drop between "trickster/ brain" differentiates outside influence or inside.  It's as though the speaker is looking back at the self through the self and acknowledges the past, present, outside, and inside self as separate entities.  Confused? So is the reader?  So is the speaker. 

"Next, bird-smack on the slider, slammed thing / plopped off-kilter, cat come running to the glass, blood-guttural in her throat."  This is actual, literal where a bird just slams into the glass door which becomes off-kilter, unaligned, and a cat coming to see.  The word choice of "blood-guttural" adds more violence to a small scene.

The violence continues in small ways, "And my uterus wildly trying to make / more if itself.  What were my cells murmuring? Ignore"  At first I thought this was an abortion, but the replication feels more cancer.  I do think it matters what the images refer to, but I'm more fascinated with the lead up of violence -- small and becoming personal that travels to the physical body to me wondering about the mental state of the speaker.  Ignore other voices, right?  But the line drop once again deflects the continuation of a thought, "Ignore / the parade."  The parade of cells and "keep to your quiet subtraction."  Concrete images and actions that make sense when thought about from a readers perspective, but from the speaker perspective seems terrifying to piece together.

"Knit, purl, clip, file, cry" this list of verbs feels quick as though time passes to try to accept what is going on.  A coping mechanism which leads to two clear sentences, "Unravel the scarf of what you think / remains to you.  A bit of good dumb human yarn."  Again the enjambment points to one meaning, the metaphor of a scarf unraveling the mess of a thought process, but this time adds to the next line rather than deflecting. 

The metaphor continues with "dumb human yarn" with the pun being "yarn" (line to create or story) as it seems like the speaker is trying to bring back normalcy, back to where the beginnings make sense. Even though something seems well put together isn't complete and for the speaker.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Analysis of "Long Finger Poem" by Jin Eun-Young

Poem found here: "Long Finger Poem" by Jin Eun-Young


Is this an Ars Poetica poem?  Most likely.  But first let's talk about what's actually happening, "I'm working on my poems and working with / my fingers not my head."  This is what the poem is all about.  Or rather this is the thesis statement in the Ars Poetica.  When writing poem, don't think to much and let the fingers do the writing.  The poem then continues to explain how the fingers work for poetry.

"Because my fingers / are the farthest stretching things from me."  Creating distance. "Look at the tree. / Like its longest branch / I touch the evening's quiet breathing."  What this distance creates is sensation, experience, something tactile.  If the work came to from the mind, would the speaker still experience the "evening's quiet breathing" or "Sounds of rain The crackling heat from other trees."

"The tree points everywhere. The branches can't / reach to their roots though."  Even when reaching for the experience, the originator of the branches, the tree is rooted to the ground.  But note that the branches are reaching for something it can't work with, can't experience -- being rooted and continuing to search with the branches leads to, "Growing longer they / grow weaker also. Can't make use of water."  But roots can make use of water -- practical versus the aesthetic ins some ways.

And even though physical growth comes, "Rain falls."  the metaphor continues to grow and gets "weaker," "But I'm working with these farthest stretching / things from me.  Along my fingertips bare shoots / of days then years unfurl in the cold air."

Regardless of growing weak, the speaker continues to branch further to experience sensations or explore somewhere out there for the sake of poetry.  Even if the branches have nothing, they can still unfurl and feel.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Analysis of "Green Tea" by Dale Ritterbusch

Poem found here: "Green Tea" by Dale Ritterbusch



Below is Pan Long Ying Hao, the green tea that this poem is about:


I feel this poem is straight forward in meaning.  The green tea being brewed is a metaphor for how "you" wake up in the morning.  Everything in this poem depends on the understanding of comparative physical imagery.

But first, exposition, "There is this tea / I have sometimes, / Pan Long Ying Hao,"  The tone of the poem is casual, very conversational.  It's like I'm talking to a friend over breakfast and I asked about the tea and the speaker has this magically knowledge to pass down.

"so tightly curled / it looks like tiny roots / gnarled, a greenish-gray" what I like about these lines that it's not a metaphor.  This is literally what Pan Long Ying Hao looks like.  This type of description continues this casual conversation until:

When it steeps, it opens
the way you woke this morning,
stretching, your hands behind
your head, back arched,
toes pointing, a smile steeped
in ceremony, a celebration,
the reaching of your arms.

The act of unfurling is you.  The you that I see as jubilant when waking up.  Simple, right?  However, this makes me think of the speaker and the one being spoke to.  This feels really intimate and personal.  What type of person is the speaker observing to tell the way how he/she wakes up.  And what type of situation.

Does it matter though?  This poem is warm.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Analysis of "In My Long Night" by Charles Simic

Poem Found Here: "In My Long Night" by Charles Simic



An outsider living in the same place.  This poem plays with the symbolism of images regarding fealty to the church, the same church, and not fitting in.  Note how each stanza is end-stopped as thought to encapsulate an idea or time.  After rereading this poem a couple of times, it's difficult to break up individual lines since the each stanza is powerful as a whole.

However, the poem starts with a small image that expands outward:

I have toiled like a spider at this web
In the dome of a church
Where only the upraised eyes of martyrs
In their torments could see me.

The initial simile compares the speaker to a spider in a web which is subsumed by "the dome of a church" and then moves to tormented, upraised eyes of a martyrs.   For me, the expanse of it all gets to me.  The church being such an overwhelming visual and emotional figure.  This sets up the speakers viewpoint.

Where one cold spring day,
With rumors of war in the air,
My young parents brought me
To be baptized by the priest

The reference to "spring" and "war" makes me think of "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot, but only as a reference to time.  What these lines mean to me is that the parents needed to bring their child to be baptized since "the rumors of war" can be actual war.  Everything lost but the soul being saved. This stanza contrasts with the next one based on age.

Where years after, my grandmother
Was to lie in an open coffin
Looking pleased to be done with
Having to bury other people.

So here's another perspective of the church.  Even though the people that the speaker's grandmother buried would, technically, find salvation along with the grandmother, the focus of the lines is the physical actuality of burying loved ones.  And from the speaker's perspective, the grandmother values the actual due to the "pleased" look.  In context though, wouldn't the grandmother be happier to meet her loved ones in the afterlife?

This is the struggle that comes forth as grave images in the final stanza.

Where I once saw a crow walk in,
Lured by the gold on the alter
And the light the candles cast,
While I dangled up there by a thread.

The struggle is between this image of the crow versus the speaker as a spider.  The crow image is "lured" by light, gold and candles.  But the crow is only lured to the physical aspects.  There's no genuflecting by the crow or awe reverence, the speaker doesn't place emotions on the crow -- only the crow interacting with the real;  Meanwhile, the speaker as a spider is playing with the idiom of "dangling by a thread,"  It's a pun that devalues the existential curiosity of the church and that's the struggle.  How serious is the afterlife if the real has so much more impact?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Analysis of "A Bewilderment" by Bianca Stone

Poem Found Here: "A Bewilderment" by Bianca Stone



This poem plays with images and memory, and the title of "A Bewilderment" fits the way on how the images are structured and shown.  But we start with a hyperbole first, "I have lost all luscious dreams / beyond all kingdoms of thought."  What's accomplished in the hyperbole is a set-up for the reader -- we're not in a narrative structure, but more of a lyrical one focusing on dreams and thoughts.

"But then I feel happy thinking of you / the way we invite our love to the table / to eat what's left"  I like these lines since these lines are trying to bring in the conceptual -- the love of the "you" figure and bring it to something more, something concrete as the images continue on with the you.

"I make a stream / connecting the baseball card in my wallet /  with the you in my mind."  I think these lines are essential in the poem.  Here is the display of the signifier "baseball card" with the signified "you in my mind."  There's something happily tragic about this concept of trying to bring the ideas to something more concrete. 

And even though the next rhetorical question seems innocuous, "See how the sun carries certain weight?"  To me, there's something desperate about the line.  Not in an obvious way, but it's a line trying to get on the same page, to see the same things.

But the follow-up deflates any sort of weight and seriousness of the line with the simile of, "It looks like a wild egg / from a prehistoric bird broken open / on a baffled hill."  The image taken to far when meaning isn't there.  And in that instant, the focus goes back to the I speaker.

"I want to go out / and ride the back of a parable"
"or walk up and down the city looking / for something that thrilled me back in the day"

The speaker is moving on.  Not with emotion, but with momentum to find that thrill.

"Back in the day I tore / jubilant Edwardian script / across a savannah."
"I wrote that there was no / stopping a forest / from taking what I wanted."

I'm not good with my memory of Edwardian scripts, but, to me it's the indication of wanting something written that sticks and nothing truly sticks if it's just words and an image.  Those wants and emotions long gone from the image.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Analysis of "Forty-Seven Minutes" by Nick Flynn

Poem Found Here: "Forty-Seven Minutes" by Nick Flynn



I've been here.  Many a times.  Teaching poetry to anyone is tough already.  Poetry is one of those forms of literature where there always as search for a bigger meaning in a short amount of words and time.  Yes, poetry has been used to teach critical thinking but not necessarily a love of literature.  Everything must mean something.

Well with this poem, the concept of everything is in question.

The poem starts out with a disorienting sense of time, "years later."  Maybe this poem is part of a collection or something is in conversation with this poem because the poem is not situated for me and  I don't think this poem is trying to do that in this way.

Anyway, the poem  takes place in a Texas high school classroom where the instructor is asking his students to "locate an image in a poem."  And it such a good class to have their heads bowed to the page.  A classroom of probably 30 odd teenagers apt and ready to explicate a poem, sure.

"After some back & forth about the grass & styrofoam cup, a girl raises her hand & asks, Does it matter?"  This question has such variable existential weight to it.  This question could only refer to this unit they're covering -- is this going to be on the test type of question.  However, the speaker elevates the question philosophically, "I smile--it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we've landed in the unanswerable."  The humor comes out with such hyperbole of the moment.

But this is how it feels like sometimes when teaching.  That's explained later on in the poem.

The speaker that no it doesn't matter if "rain" (perhaps an image in the poem they are reading) can be classified as an image, idea, or "sound in our heads."  I feel the lines is trying to explain these points as though to test prep.  Like the question on the test is "what does rain mean in this part of the poem a) image b) idea c) sound d) all of the above."  As though any and every meaning of the poem has a correct way to do it, and is all calculable, scored into competency.  

But I digress, a bit too personal.  

The last sentence is what I'm actually thinking when teaching a class that I don't know how to answer the existential question of "why" that is so common with students, "But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does."

The "might" here is really important.  Without it, the last line is a funny confirmation that, yes, both parties are playing the game that this information is useless busy work in high school.  The "might" shifts the game.  The speaker can or cannot pretend this matters and so can the student.  And the ambiguity, like meaning, is answered by the individual for whatever path to go to. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Analysis of "Here Dead We Lie" by A.E. Housman

Poem Found Here: "Here Dead We Lie" by A.E. Housman

The version I linked is from the poets.org website which is a quatrain;  However, I analyzed a different version which is in two quatrains.  I actually like this version better because there's more dramatic tension in the line breaks.

"Here dead we lie/ Because we did not choose" ends the line with a blame mentality.  We didn't choose to die, but something else caused us to die, "To live and shame the land / From which we sprung."  The first line of the two lines has more of a weird overall feel until we get to the specific in the next line of where they "sprung" or originated from.  This brings a sense of nationalism and patriotism in a simple form.

The first line of the first stanza is the outcome of a mixture of emotions: blame in the second line, then a bigger reason as the purpose in the third line, and the last line focusing on the specific, but unnamed place in which these people lived.

The litotes from, "Life, to be sure, / Is nothing much to lose," brings a sense of sarcasm to what is lost.  They are dead for the bigger cause.  However, if read as though the lines are sincere the last two lines wold turn back on the "place they sprung" their homeland.

But the last two lines go back to them.  These young men, "But young men think it is / And we were young."  The emphasis of youth, their youth, brings out the sarcasm more in the previous two lines.  The people, the youth mean more than just a shamed land.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Analysis of "Hair on Fire" by Jim Daniels

Poem found here: "Hair on Fire" by Jim Daniels


The adjusted lines foreshadows that things changing from one side to another.  On one side, the idealization of youth through very specific images; but on the other side, there is the, no so much the reality, but a shift on how the images differ with age and/or time.

The beginning there's arts and crafts that the all encompassing we does:

  • ironed fall leaves between wax-paper sheets
  • melted crayons into candles
  • Kool-aid into popsicles
For me, it's interesting to see that the images themselves transform into one state to another -- crayons to candle, liquid to solid.  There's a lot going on in the first few lines and images that work hard to convey a shift  I'm not sure what "cloves into oranges" mean but the next line of "We grew roots" brings attention to itself through the enjambment and directness which slips away with "on sweet potatoes tooth-picked in water.

At this point, the images are safe and maybe a bit saccharine, but this line, "We taped our broken glasses together / and shut up ."  Feels a bit sinister.  Like something's off -- like a repressed memory.  The rest of the images follow the pattern though:
  • making shoe-box dioramas with Play-Doh and modeling clay
  • make snowflakes from folded paper
  • making newspaper kites and "imagined they could fly"

The part of the poem with "imagined they could fly" follows along with this kind of idealization or a sense of youthful thinking.  But there's something off for me.  I don't know how to explain the offness of the line.  A part of me thinks there's something sinister comes from it -- like expecting the fall from idealization, but I might be reading too much into the line.

In either case, this makes me look for something wrong in the second stanza.  For example, the opening lines, "We shaped tin foil into fake coins / for our church envelopes."  Although dishonest, this seems like a continuation of a childish experience -- giving fake coins to a church.   And this feeling of something is off continues with, "We covered love bites with Kool-Aid" in which the image of the Kool-Aid conjured in the beginning transforms into something that hides love bites -- maybe something more "teen" oriented like filling liquor bottles with holy water or hiding the stash in bean bag chairs.

But the line "We drove to Ohio for drugs / and rolled back our father's odometer" is specific and changes things to something teen oriented of not getting caught when buying drugs.   Every "growing up" experience becomes specific and laid out like "We mounted our girlfriends / on basement pool tables, clacking balls together / for ears upstairs."  Doing something more adult oriented, but always trying to not get caught.  Although the next two lines are more abstract, "We drew lies with chalk / and the truth with tar" the meaning of the title of the poem comes into play, "We lit our hair on fire / to cover the smell."

The smell of truth and lies, and also of growing up and not getting caught doing so.