And Be Careful, Darling

(Luc Blain/Flickr)
(Luc Blain/Flickr)

Nervously I wondered whether the 26-word abecedarius would prove to be an off-putting prompt. I needn’t have worried. All NLP regulars—and some valued newcomers—are up to such a challenge, and the practice proves to be addictive. Some 242 comments, either submissions or reactions to submissions, were tallied by 2 PM on Sunday the 10th.

Michael C. Rush’s “She Writes Him on the Eve of the Revolution” struck many of us as a tour de force:

… and be careful, darling,
entering frivolous gardens
heroically. I just keep loving
my next ordeal, properly quarantined,
rousing schmucks to utter venal words
extirpating your zeal, although
by certain demands enveloped,
from gross hope impeached,
justice keeps litigating many new
obscenely-proposed quotas, reacting
slowly to undermining vandals
whose Xmas yawps zing …
Alerted by certain directions,
everyone finds great hope in
justice, kindness, love.
Many now-obsolete promises
quelled reasonable suspicions that
underlying verities were
xylophonic yin-yang zephyrs …
Attack beautifully,
Don’t ever fear going home
if joining kills laughter. My note
openly permits quitting rather
suddenly to uphold victory
without extinguishing your zest …

Millicent Caliban called the poem an “elegant” response to the challenge, and Diana Ferraro concurred, adding that “this bounty of resources … absolutely, for a sincere note to someone.” Diana confessed that, “carried away [from] the first gossipy line,” she didn’t realize she was reading an “abecedarius in a loop” until halfway into the poem.

Christine Rhine’s “Alphabetical Order” brilliantly reverses itself:

Assertion by committee:
double-dare ethos.
Fibbed goodwill,
handshakes. Insider
justice. Know-how
laughter. Mere near
onus, pious quid-pro-
quo-ing. Redeployed
underdogs. Votes
warped, x’d, yea-yea-
yea’d. Zoopathology.

Zoopathology, yea-yea-
yea’d. X’d warped
votes. Underdogs
taxing stereotypes.
Redeployed quid-pro-
quo-ing. Pious onus
near. Mere laughter—
know-how justice insider
handshakes. Goodwill
fibbed ethos. Double-
dare committee
by assertion

“The abecedarian palindrome is jaw-dropping,” wrote Eric Fretz. Seconding the motion, Paul Michelsen observed that if luck played a part, that’s because “Luck is always kind of hanging out around the periphery, but it takes wisdom to spot these things and to make such brilliant use of what is found.”

Describing herself as “in thrall to the mania,” Millicent Caliban devoted one of her inspired efforts to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

A Critique of Coleridge

Albatross bird’s curse dominates entire fellowship,
generating hallucinatory ideation.
“Just kill lousy mariner now!”
Oddly perverse questions rise suddenly.
Tendentiously understand vagrant wayfarer’s x-rated yarn

Virginia Valenzuela’s “Abecedarius in 26 Words (& Change)” makes brilliant use of parentheses, Spanish words, and an extravagantly unusual “ex” adjective:

Alabastrine, beauteous,
careful daylight, ebbing.
For gallant headwinds
include juridical knowledge,
lyrical mastery, & no place
(for) quivering, reticent
shadows. Tu último viento:
(a) wayward, xerophytic
young zephyr—

With an eye on Toulouse-Lautrec perhaps, Angela Ball sums up “Paris in 26 Words”:

A bored courtesan damns
Evening’s façade, goes hunting
In jewels, KOs
Love’s menace,
Not only parturition.

Quizzes retrograde symbols,
Tells us visions—
Wild xylophones, yuletide

Eric Fretz’s poem is his “stuttering abecedarium using [Allen Ginsberg’s] ‘Howl’ as a dictionary” (except that Ginsberg “didn’t use any x-words, so I had to make up my own)”:

Angry angelheaded barefoot boys cried, committing drunken Dadaist epiphanies.
Ecstatic fairies fingered ghostly genitals.
Hallucinating hipsters’ incomprehensible incantations juxtaposed jazz-kabbalah-kicks, leaden leaflets, mad manuscripts’ naked nightmare oblivion. Obscene prison psychotherapy reincarnates religion.
Sodomite seraphim threw themselves under unshaven vibrating voids, when whispering “xeric,” x-ratedly yanking your Zen zipper.

When I complimented Emily Winakur on the title of her poem, the author of “Bad Boss” replied that it was a title I suggested:

Ankle bitch cancer.
Don’t ever forget
How I jilted karma,
Laughed my no-neck
Ogre (piratous, queening,
Rancid self) to undead
Victory. Wealth
Excels. You—zip it.

“Bad Boss” stimulated a lively exchange. Stephanie Cohen: “The first three words are PERFECT!” Emily: They “emanated straight from my id when I thought of my worst-ever boss.” Clay Sparkman:

I have decided that the world likes cheats. Not big ones. Not bullies. Clever cheats. In basketball, a well acted flop must be admired, and an elbow to the chin, so quick and hard to see, when the rebounder swings his elbows as if to protect the ball, is dangerous, but excruciatingly impressive. ‘Ex’ for ‘X’ would hardly be considered a cheat any more, but there is something so breathtakingly beautiful about your little ‘it’ tail, wagging at the final position in the parade, as if to say, ‘What are you going to do about it now? Huh? What are you going to do? It’s over.’

To which Emily replied that “a bad boss never follows the rules!”

Stephanie Cohen’s “Bad Colleague” is a variation on the theme:

Aggrieved blunderbuss crows droningly
Edicts foam gross hyperbole.

I jest knot. Let me never
Offer provisions quixotically.

Ripped sutures tug upset vitriol
Wrecked xenia yokes zilch.

“I jest knot” hits the spot.

Noteworthy, too, are Clay Sparkman’s “The Hero’s Journey” (though I would suggest “quisling” instead of “quibbling”):

After being catlike during every fucking godless hinterland inner journey,
killing little mice not only pleased quibling random seekers.
They understood vexation while Xanax yielded zero.

and “All Falls to Beauty” from Charise Hoge:

All. Beauty can deem every
flaw gnostic. Her invincible jewelry
kaleidoscopes limbic memory.
Not only peripatetic, quixotic, restless,
She triumphs unequivocally.
Voyage with. Exile yields

and three more abecedarian adventures from Michael C. Rush, the first entitled “Speciation,” the other two untitled:

Aphrodite, Bast, Ceres, Diana, Enki, Flora, Ganesha,
Huitzilopochtli, Inari, Jupiter, Kothar-wa-Khasis,
Loki, Mercury, Nabu, Osiris, Phebele, Qailertetang,
Raijin, Shiva, Thor, Ülgen, Vishnu, Wotan, Xipetotec,
Yahweh, Zeus

Always bring convincing documentation.
Every foreign government has immigration
jive keeping longsuffering men neutralized
outside perimeters. Quarantined, refugees
seek to undo vagrancy while experiencing
yokelish zealotry.

“Amorous bouncing” could describe
everyone’s favorite game.
Hence is jiggery-pokery kept,
like most natural operations,
private, quiet, rather surreptitious,
though universally vilified when
expressing yourself zoophilically.

It’s a pity that, unlike intellectual agility, which knows no bounds, space is finite. So many of our poets came through, with multiple entries even, that the best response may be

Awesome! Bravo! Chapeau!
Dreamy extravagances for general happiness!
I jump kangaroo-like!
May nobody object (or project)
Queasy reservations
United (very) we
Excel. Yippee! Zwounds!

Next week I will have a new challenge for us. For now, let me say that Angela Ball and I have agreed to give a joint reading at Poisson Rouge, the New York City nightspot, on Monday, February 12, 2018, Lincoln’s Birthday. We will read some “Next Line, Please” poems. And Cornell University Press tells me that all systems are go with Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers, which will be published in March 2018.

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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