Next Line, Please

Abecedarius in 26 Words

By David Lehman | December 5, 2017
(Cindee Snider Re/Flickr)
(Cindee Snider Re/Flickr)

The prompt called for variants and elaborations on “I’m going to break that marriage up” (spoken by Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives) or Norah Ephron’s “I’ll have what she’s having” (from When Harry Met Sally) or Woody Allen’s “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis, I don’t know how the can opener works” (from Hannah and Her Sisters). As usual there were many more fine submissions than I have room to quote.

In “The Breakup of the Ice,” Ravindra Rao wowed me, a fan of A. R. Ammons, with the way his staccato lines generate energy and advance an argument or narrative. In Ammons’s poems, the wind sometimes converses with a mountains or humans. Here, the sun is the wind’s confidant.

& the wind said
to the sun, in confidence,
I’m going to break
that marriage up
& flung
from its outer reach
gemstones, rough corundum
at the unsuspecting sheet
scattering it
into fat pearls of white
clearing a path
for the sailors who were
about to turn back
the wind then
kissed their cheeks
& lifted their sails
as the sun stared on
with unrequited love

Like many poems that I admired this week, this one is distinguished by its strong conclusion: “as the sun stared on / with unrequited love.” It is good to see the life left in that venerable poetic conceit, the anthropomorphic sun.

The title of Donald LaBranche’s “Breakup” implies the fulfillment of Teresa Wright’s declared intention in The Best Years of Our Lives, but the poem takes off not from one of the proffered quotes but from a well-known line from Shakespeare’s sonnets:

It is not the marriage of true minds
that is in grave danger, in much the same
way as when in July the back bay
swelled with a nor’easter that severed
streets, so that homes were split off
from each other and from markets
and cars and bicycles from points
north and south, and soon enough
the floods receded and though
other towns were lost in the churn,
ours held to its firmer ground.

The poem proceeds as if self-propelled: it is a “nor’easter” of words, with the surplus meaning of “easter” and all it connotes. The last line comes as a happy surprise but with a whiff of ambiguity—Robert Frost might have crafted it. It is as if the first and last lines of the poem were in a major key, the rest in a minor.

Angela Ball adopts Nora Ephron’s line from When Harry Met Sally, widening the scope. No longer a mere person, “she” is a river in rural Mississippi, a place with a history:

Changing my Order

I’ll have what the river’s having: the town
of Rodney, Mississippi, complete
with mercantile enchantment,
wrought-iron arabesques, memories
of unenthused Confederates, war’s lap dogs.

Give me a broken oxbow,
a bottomless lake, a talus; give me a battlefield
marked with a dead man’s drum; an apple tree
bent on becoming harp.

I love the last line, the unexpected and somewhat incongruous last word clinching the deal. From reading the comments I infer that at one point Angela’s poem had a middle stanza, which she sagely eliminated at the polite urging of Paul Michelsen with the result that I can join Emily Winakur in saying, “I didn’t read this until just now but I feel the place so evocatively; I can’t imagine a middle stanza in there.”

Speaking of Ms. Emily, here is her take on the line that pinned the exclamation point to the fake orgasm in the delicatessen scene of When Harry Met Sally:

I Won’t Have What She’s Having


I have forty minutes left to write a poem about envy. A wave of darkness comes over me. Wednesday is Sunday, I remind myself, approaching the pill-sorter. The dog settles into her kennel. My husband wraps up a documentary about fungi while brushing his teeth. I scroll through the day’s photos. My daughter, eating an apple. She remembered to say please when requesting it, before waving her finger at me and adding Chop, chop!

Chop, chop indeed. In another dimension, my sister curls up in a giant chair, grading papers that stretch from here to eternity. I don’t envy that. I don’t envy it in the way only envy can savor not envying something.

I confess to a prejudice in favor of a poem containing “Chop, chop,” a term imported from China via garrulous sailors as an emphatic way of saying “hurry.”  (The last time I heard it spoken was by Peggy in a late episode of Mad Men.)  I am also on the record saying that I like “from here to eternity” but would be tempted, if I were the author, to stretch the line further with a prepositional phrase along the lines of “Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster succumbing to their desires on the beach.” But it would be hard not to envy that.

A special award goes to Diana Ferraro, whose witty and inventive “Late Revenge” makes use of all three of the movie quotes in the prompt:

I’m going to break that marriage up,
and then, after I break mine,
I’ll have what she’s having,
her golden life made out of lies,
her husband with a changed surname,
her house built over ghastly ashes.

I’ll wait, not to be obvious,
and then I’ll make justice,
the stolen house on fire,
the man gassed and burnt.
Who will know it’s an eye for an eye?

I may not know how a can opener works
but I know where this Nazi came from,
dressed with an angel’s forsaken gown
and a single mistake, liking too much
the mild, not well-known, neighbor’s wife.

I don’t know how the last line of the first stanza originally read, because, with the gratefully acknowledged encouragement of Ricky Ray and Michael C. Rush, Diana fixed it before I got there.

Paul Michelsen’s “All That’s Left Behind Lies Ahead” is as clever as the title promises but perhaps longer than it needs to be. I’d consider keeping the first four stanzas and lopping off the rest except for the two-line tail. This is what you’d get:

“The best days are the first to flee.”

Roasting marshmallows with Prometheus
as Athena cries out, Horae for Anesidora.
Can I use her crown to open a can?

I’ll have what she’s having. A seizure. A salad.
A seizure salad. Sangria. Salud.
Some ’ludes. A little solitude.

Caesarian. A shortcut, a longshot, a backrub.
Colombian necktie. Lookin’ sharp.
Lookin’ good.

Failed painter with a toothbrush mustache.
Twinkle in the eye of a tyrant.
Adenoid Hynkel, aspiring to be divine.

I figured out how to use that can opener
but I can’t get the worms back in.

Terence Lennon’s “I’ll have what she is having” ends with a rhyme that would win the approval of the Metaphysical poets, “a union” with its opposite, “undone”:

Turns out she is having me
so i wrest myself
from a world
of random tendrils
and we enfold ourselves,
entwined so profoundly
that we make one,
a one that absorbs
all life’s moments into a union
that will not be undone.

My own efforts to write a tribute to John Ashbery beginning with “I tried every pillow out there, and none of them worked” have not, or not yet, borne fruit. But I did come up with “Antigone,” a 26-word abecedarius on the theme of a recent prompt:

Against brutal Creon,
doll establishes
fugitive greatness.
His internal
justice, knowledge
law mean nothing,
only piety.
Questing revenge,
she triumphs,
uttering virginal
wound extravagant,
yearning’s zenith.

This won the approval of such NLP regulars as Millicent Caliban, Emily Winakur, and Angela Ball, and so I am emboldened to ask whether the 26-word abecedarius holds charms for anyone? The trick is (1) to use active verbs and complete clauses and (2) to have a specific if large subject, a historical event or a fictional personage. I can provide a few options: a Schubert quintet, Citizen Kane, Emma Bovary, the fate of a revolution or last night’s date, modern art, Paris, a day in the life, a bad boss, a happy memory. I know it’s a challenge, but see what happens when you give it your best shot.

Thanks, everybody.

Deadline: Saturday, December 9, midnight any time zone.

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