A New Genre

Regan Vercruysse/Flickr
Regan Vercruysse/Flickr

The “trilogy” is not or at least, not yet, a legitimate verse genre, but it could become one that accommodates a variety of formal approaches, as this week’s entries demonstrate. I have space enough to quote seven of them.

Eric Fretz’s “Fretz Trilogy, a Cento” is divided into three two-line stanzas that play on his last name:

“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,”
An ex-army officer turned critic frets.

Can you not hate me, as I know you? Do
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
While far beneath us frets the troubled purple of the sea.

In a cento, all the lines are lifted from other poems, and Fretz acknowledges his sources as follows:

line 1 is from Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room”; line 2 (“An ex-army officer turned critic frets”), from Arthur Sze, “Chrysalis”; line 3 (“Can you not hate me, as I know you do,”), from Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Act III, scene II; line 4 (“Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”) from Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra’”; line 5 (“In one another’s arms, birds in the trees”) from W. B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium; line 6 (“While far beneath us frets the troubled purple of the sea”) from Oscar Wilde, The Burden of Itys.

The juxtaposition of lines is witty, and the poem establishes its unity by the repetition of the one word. Robert Browning’s line knocked me out.

Elizabeth Solsburg divides her effort, “The Elizabeth Trilogy,” into three five-line stanzas, ending in an unrhymed couplet that succinctly resolves the conflict between “Little Women” and “The Church,” as mediated ambiguously by “My mother.”

My mother wanted my name to be Beth—
just that: plain, simple and sweet,
like her favorite of the Little Women,
who is always obedient and perfectly meek,
a good daughter for eternity.

The Church had a different idea—
said I needed the name of a saint,
long dead, and of virtue they’d approved.
My mother, more obedient than I’d ever be,
added the syllables to fit their rule.

She called me Beth the whole of her life—
and for a while I tried to live up to the name,
but those syllables finally caught up with me:
maker of rules instead of blindly obeying,
the chosen of God, the warrior queen

The time for diminutives has long ended
I am the Elizabeth I’ve chosen to be.

The poet is conscious throughout of how her own lines may mirror their content in their form. The first stanza is suitably “plain, simple and sweet,” and note the extra syllables in stanza two. That the first two stanzas begin with “My mother” and “The Church,” respectively, is a fine stroke.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz’s “La Trilogía de Ramos,” which integrates Spanish phrases into the text to excellent effect, could serve as a model for another genre of some potential, the bilingual poem:

(In memory of my father: Juan V. Ramos)

I was named Juan—el nombre de mi padre,
who died before my birth. It’s said
he frequented the tavern La Paloma Azul,
played the accordion and loved
un trago de vino more than his wife.

I was nicknamed “Juan without fear”
by my wife because I carry myself sin miedo.
In fact, I took the pitchfork away from the devil.
I am the undiscovered composer of corridos
who seeks no fame, only perfect end rhymes.

I named my first-born son Juan—
como su abuelo, el primero.
Juanito plays the guitar, composes, and loves
singing more than un trago de vino.
I fear he’ll find a wife, so I pray for no strife.

As a proponent of the prose poem, I know how demanding the form can be, and I applaud Emily Winakur’s vigorous use of it in “The Black-Thumb Trilogy.”

Heart-shaped philodendron can survive a minor depressive episode, but not the kind where you leave Seattle for Bethlehem, PA, at the height of summer, and you cry all through the Cascades, over the Columbia River, into Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the poor plant baking in the back seat; you’re still crying when you run out of gas in Wyoming and you can’t find a motel room within 200 miles of Sturgis, South Dakota; the only thing that stops it is the naked lady on the back of a Harley in the Badlands.

A peace lily is not peaceful in the cold.
Even if you keep it on the side of the apartment away from the windows, where it will thin and drop yellow leaves, it can feel the cold in the snow you stamp off your boots, on the stacks of papers to grade that you’ve carried in from the car, in the gusts that shake the hawks who cling to the tops of bare trees.
If you take the bus to the city for a weekend, your peace lily will get lonely.

Until I had a baby, I was not about to fuss around my fiddle-leaf fig, sticking my fingers into its soil to test for dryness, turning it this way and that before this window or that. But after the baby, after I had given her a bath and combed her and nuzzled her and swaddled her,
it just made sense to turn to the ficus next. To check its dish for drainage, to soak cotton balls in baby oil and clean its ear-like leaves, to talk to it, occasionally, in my baby-talk voice, asking which position it preferred, which kind of light.

Part I is particularly strong, thanks to the second-person point of view, plentiful place names, and the climactic image of “the naked lady on the back of a Harley in the Badlands.”

Donald LaBranche divides “The LaBranche Trilogy” into three “books,” with well-chosen titles that themselves tell a story:

Book I
A La Douce Memoire

Lucias bore their children by the dozen
Thare made la fromage by the pound.
Behind them, Quebec vanishes by the mile
as the irresistible mills of New England beckon
like Sirens down by the Androscoggin’s rocks.

Book II
Dominus Vobiscum

Paul Emile’s wavy hair in the patriotic breeze.
Blue jacket, white shoes, Sinatra in his step.
His rosary in a glass bowl by the bedside.
Norma Thea, tall and lithe, and on his mind.
She is irresistible, herself a Siren.

Book III
I can’t get no satisfaction

And they marry and have two sons.
Not Jacob and Esau, but close enough
to drive the narrative by the murky Blackstone
to feats of willfulness, to an unfurling of a
familial, and familiar urge to leave.

The title of Pamela Joyce S’s poem describes itself perfectly as “The Epitaph Trilogy.”

1. my father

It was summer, just twenty-five days shy
of your fifty-seventh birthday in July,
thirteen years since cancer spoiled your blood
and fear unleashed her rage in the name of love.

2. the son

January, the blizzard of ninety-six,
thirteen days till your birthday on the twenty-fifth.
Ground frozen solid, the shovel shattered earth,
her heart expelling shards like afterbirth.

3. the ghost

Born in November, she fell in the fall,
a frightened small bird in this frail woman’s shell.
My father’s blood cursing mine, I thought she might
outlive us all, but twice before she’d already died.

Finally, I admired Diana Ferraro’s crafty use of myth in “The Diana Trilogy,” which reminds us that Diana, goddess of the hunt, is the Roman name for the Greek Artemis:

In a wandering rock among the waves
Fixed in haste to the bottom of the sea
Artemis started the lineage. Daughter of
Zeus, the boss, and Leto, the latte mom,
She fairly told you how your life would be.

Her Roman sequel Diana inscribed
the lasting Latin name. A sculpture
In your French book of third grade, the huntress
With a deer, forever chaste and moony,
Entered popular fame as a princess.

He says: “We had a fine dog with your name.”
In the hazed bow of autumn distress,
You hunt for words in the woods of the mind
Deft, you pull one of your heavy heart strings.
The arrow, a silvery pen. You miss.

Please allow me a moment to gloat: Today (April 2, 2019) is the official pub date of my new book, Playlist. It is one long poem consisting of daily verse entries from November 20, 2017, to January 15, 2018. I hope you, or your favorite library, can get the book, as I have high hopes for a prompt I’m planning that involves some of the tactics used in writing Playlist.

Next Tuesday, I will propose a new challenge. In the meantime, my thanks to all who took part with worthy poems and very useful practical criticism.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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