Next Line, Please

Addressing the Universe (or One Aspect of It)

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By David Lehman

December 6, 2016


 

 

The prompt this week was to write a poem entitled either “Thanksgiving with Vegetarians” or “Europe Without Telephone.” First prize goes to Ricky Ray for his take on the former:

Thanksgiving with Vegetarians

In a field, somewhere out west, where an eagle feather
refuses to land, and hunger is a constant occurrence,
and the thunder of bison can still be felt in the rumble

of the iron horse as it chugs down the line, out west
in a land of wheat and rust, the fear of late blight
hanging like a fog over Scandinavian dreams, dinner

is a brown paper bag, a sandwich and an apple within:
two slices of Wonder slathered in PB&J, grape,
the kind that has never known the shortening of days

on the vine—who knows what it really is, who knows
what wasteful state the mind was in when it conjured
disposable jars—and as they swallow the stale crust

they remember the ham they refused on principle
in Tompkins Square, then they turn to the main course,
a meal they have prepared in love a thousand times,

knowing each taste could be their last. They huddle
over the spoon and the flame, she cradles the solitary
needle like a line of communication between the flesh

and the divine, joy dances in the firelight reflected
in their eyes, the poppy seeds sing in the veins
of the downtrodden, their bodies slump to the ground,

the ass-cracks of passed out heroin addicts hold
court with the waxing moon, and the lips turn blue
as the waters of the tropics kiss the miles of coral

goodbye, and the Braeburn rots in the wrinkled brown
bag, and the grey wolves growl as the winter wind howls
and calls the vultures down to their Thanksgiving feast:

young, chilled, slightly spoiled vegetarian lovers
on the bone—bedded by blood, six feet of genocide,
scalped earth, lively with spirits and worms,

the tattoo of an eagle feather on her ankle
landing where the bridge that life built
beckons them into black rain.

The breath of this utterance—two sentences spread out over 33 lines—is remarkable, and Charise Hoge, one of our regulars, comments aptly that “This poem has the effect of a bulldozer—just knocks out any preconceived idea of Thanksgiving or of vegetarians. Wow.” In response, Ricky notes that his poem “owes its genesis” to comments made by Charise and Paul Michelsen on a previous entry—and that my prompt gave him “an opportunity for misdirection.”

Of the entries entitled “Europe without Telephone,” my favorite was Angela Ball’s:

An industrial demonstration—the towers
on vacation in Australia—the only place
big enough for them, fresh
from some techno-horror film bursting
with post-structural tristesse.
We in Europe are communicating
the old way: through pneumatic
poems–part mole, part hydrofoil.
Who says that speech only expresses
want? Not when it hitches a ride
with Apollo, home to Olympus,
where the hors oeuvres are almost
ready, the Champagne on ice.

I love the phrasemaking: “post-structural tristesse” and “pneumatic / poems,” which calls to mind the old pneumatic tubes that Parisians used to use for rapid delivery of mail. And who can resist a trip with Apollo to a place where Champagne awaits?

There were many other things to like. Elizabeth Solsburg’s taste in music, for example. Gathering for the holiday, a “disparate/ group” of eight may agree on little else, but a consensus forms around “Sinatra, /background music for giving thanks.” Millicent Caliban’s “Thanksgiving Conundrum: Which Sides?”features rhyme and wordplay that carry the day: If we do away with bird and “the sides become the main, do any sides remain?” When the turkey is pardoned, “traditonalists are bereft; / Vegans cry, ‘Foul fowl!’ to accuse the rest of theft.” Charise Hoge’s prose poem puns on “foul” (“fowl”) and has, in its opening line, the wonderful image of “a curtain of belief” parting with the result that carnivores “were pardoned.”


For next week, why don’t we write an apostrophe or two—a direct address, though not to an individual but to something inanimate that we treat as if it were a conscious being. I am thinking of Kenneth Koch’s “New Addresses” (2000) in which he addresses psychoanalysis, piano lessons, stammering, “my twenties,” fame, insults, high spirits, and World War II, which ends: “All you cared about was existing and being won. / You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.”

I am wondering what I would choose to animate: illness, perhaps, or the apartment in Washington Heights where I lived with my parents until I went to college, or Fort Tryon Park, with its hilly paths and gardens and the Cloisters museum, or summer camp.

Deadline: Sunday, December 11, midnight any time zone.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

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