Next Line, Please

As You Like It

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By David Lehman

June 27, 2017


 

Sometimes the first horse out of the gate stays the course and wins; sometimes it’s the come-from-behind colt that finishes ahead of the pack. Is it that writers fall into two categories, those who are quick to the draw and those who nurse their ideas, produce multiple drafts, and file at the last possible moment? And is this another instance of the dialectic between rival models of composition—“first thought, best thought” versus “recollected in tranquility” (also known as “raw” versus “cooked”)? Judging from my own experience, you can’t generalize. Some poems come out right on first try; others take years to complete.

This week I was bowled over by the very first and very last poems to be submitted on the theme of the legendary six-word quotation—“Home in three days. Don’t bathe”—from one of the hot love letters Napoleon sent from the battlefield to Josephine, his paramour in Paris.

First out of the gate was Ricky Ray with this excellent poem to which I would award first-place honors:

Be Home in Three, Don’t Bathe

By which she knew to bathe quick,
kick out her lover, work up a sweat
to quicken her own musk. His nose
was always slow from blowing smoke.

By which he meant: eat day one,
fast for two, that he might feed
his milk to her. She ate for two,
hid mints and violets in her pillow.

By which he restless charged to her,
by which she restless charged
herself to play the tiger bound
to turn and bite him till he bled

Stephanie Cohen praised Ricky’s line about working up “a sweat / to quicken her own musk.” I second the motion.

Stephanie’s “Dear B,” a second day-one entry that wowed me, consists of a plausible rejoinder for Josephine to send to Napoleon, who signed his letters to her “B” for Bonaparte:

You want to take me down,
Cross all lines,
Forget the appalling fallen and
Resurrect a tumid aegis.
I will be here this time.
Adoration-ready,
To bare your
trailhead home.
Bludgeon my
little black forest,
I won’t bathe.

—Josephine

Stephanie indicated that the source of “little black forest” is one of Napoleon’s
passionate letters to Josephine (11/21/1796). I asked Stephanie whether there are other lines in the letters that might be suitable for a future challenge, and she replied, “There were several, but one that stood out to me that I try to refer to in my first line (with, hopefully, double meaning evident): “A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower!” (April 1796).

Possibly the most sensual entry was the one that came in just under the wire: Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Dirty Love”:

I’ll be home in three days.
I beg you—do not bathe
unless it is in wild honey
that I will
cleanse with my tongue—
and you should weave lilies
into the valley of your thighs
and cluster wild strawberries
between your breasts,
so that my senses will fill with nothing except sweetness
when I plunder you, my beloved, my salve
for the wounds inflicted
by this interminable war.

Angela Ball contributed this remarkable prose poem, which opens with another apposite French phrase:

Old Spice

Nostalgie de la boue—the longing for mud, for regression to a cruder state—can mean the desire to revel in an inamorata’s natural scent. Napoleon to Josephine: Home in three days. Don’t Bathe. It can also mean the desire to reunite with the soil of one’s youth. As we know from studies of wine, every terroir has its own signature, molecular nursery, bio-identity, olfactory stamp. So that the exhausted traveler, reaching the home airport and descending the plane’s metal steps, breathes the astonishment of belonging and is overcome. It’s hard to hug tarmac, so she kisses it. Something in us is homesick for experience we didn’t fathom at the time—the way if your first love is a smoker, taking an elevator with any smoker is forever strangely compelling. The way—if a red-and-white deodorant tube was among your last love’s effects—the words “Old Spice” unearth muddiest longings.

Honorable mention goes to Emily Winakur’s OCD Love,”

                                         —Home in three days. Don’t bathe.”

Implored Napoleon of his paramour.
My missive would read Home in three days.
Do bathe, do shave, do rinse the little hairs away,
and there we’d be again, occupying two continents
on either side of the clean/not clean chasm.
Is it enough that I wish I loved what you track
in, the slough of your skin, the crumbs that fall
from your lips? There’s more. I wish I saw the dog’s
daily muddy prints as a path to follow, not erase,
a path ending in your bed, the tangle of your legs
and her tail, the warmth of under covers,
the thumping of hearts

Along similar lines, Millicent Caliban’s entry ends with this couplet:  “He revels in a girl who stinks, / as I adore how this man thinks.”

Sometimes we write a fine poem almost as an afterthought. Paul Michelsen wrote the following as a comment, but I join Angela Ball in believing that it stands on its merits as a prose poem.

My late Uncle Paul (and he truly was late, always missing trains at Penn Station, but never failing to make it on time for the cutting of the birthday cake) contributed to several parts of The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, including “15 Famous Events that Happened in the Bathtub.” One event was the confrontation of Napoleon by his brothers while he was taking a bath. They were pissed at him because brother Lucien had worked hard to get Louisiana back from Spain, only to hear that Napoleon was planning to sell it to the Americans. Brother Joseph warned that he would end up being exiled if he decided to go through with it. I wonder if he had just received a message from Josephine: “Home in three days. Please bathe.”

Justin Knapp’s “Spoils of War” is noteworthy not only for its military details but also for the air of triumph that Justin conveys and the lingering suspicion that war and sex are as intimately related as Mars and Venus (or Ares and Aphrodite), adulterous lovers in classic mythology.

I have galloped the artillery line,
legs strained against horse-flank, musky and foaming.

And surveyed the anxious 12 lb. Gribeauval:
readied, pointed aloft, filled with shot.

I have mastered my enemies: outmaneuvered, overmatched, pinned them down.

And performed my “Manoeuvre De Derrière,” leaving them helpless, lacking, cut off.

I have basked in the bayoneted musket thrusts of Grenadiers breaking lines, and spirits, and bones.

And wear the victory that hangs in the air like spent powder from .69 caliber guns.

Home in three days; don’t bathe.

Considering these and other results, too many to fit into one post, I must say I love this prompt. I tried it myself, four separate times last week. It may be a hard act to follow, which is why my prompt for next week is an invitation to you, dear players, to contrive a terrific prompt designed to provoke great poems.  Unsolicited advice: keep it simple and think of something you yourself would enjoy doing. I’ll pick the prompt that excites me most, and I promise to submit some possibilities during the week.

Deadline: Saturday evening, July 1.


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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