Next Line, Please

But There’s No Knot for Me

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By David Lehman

October 11, 2016


 

This week’s prompt—a poem beginning with a variation on T. S. Eliot’s line “No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” puts me in mind of the Gershwins’ song “But Not For Me.” The song begins, “They’re writing songs of love but not for me,” and the title is repeated in the lyric, which concludes with a masterly pun. The subject is marriage, but (the singer laments) “there’s no knot for me.”

Michael C. Rush, who shares top honors with Nin Andrews this week, may have arrived independently at the same pun, which supercharges his entry:

Knot

Know I am knot. Not
rope but hope. Neither
string nor the thing
it ties. Not lace but
the spaces it replaces.
Not cord, smooth and
taut, but the gourd
that grew into the fence,
through and around the
loose wire. A procedural
tangle, I lie low, turn, splice
and wrangle a symmetry
at the expense of utility,
holding still to climb higher

There’s a lot to admire here beyond the clever homonyms in the first line—the transformation of “no” to “know” and of “not” to “knot.” The writing is self-assured, the lining contributes to the poem’s effect, and the internal rhymes and final paradox are bonus gifts for the reader.

Nin Andrews offers an erotic prose poem:

Ode to Helga

No, I am not one of those men who falls in love with another man’s wife, not even your lovely wife, Helga, and all the lovely parts of Helga, and I don’t just mean her flame red hair, her perfect breasts, exposed so nicely in that transparent silk blouse, or her full legs in black pantyhose, or her buttocks as round as two sugar-melons side by side, or that little mole at the base of her spine and the other one on the inside of her left thigh

or that little gap between her teeth I see when she opens her mouth, or those words that fly off her tongue like birds, and the ones she swallows back and does not speak, and those tiny words, those ah’s and oh’s, and the pauses and the soft no’s. So many no’s

she sighs, pretending to resist, the I’m so tired’s, and, not tonight, when she turns her back before stretching out like a cat and saying Yes, oh yes! as she clings as if she’s drowning, as she gasps for air and calls out, Oh God! God! God!! And He answers. He answers as only a god can.

Nin’s similes (“her buttocks as round as two sugar-melons side by side”) and attention to detail (“that little mole at the base of her spine and the other one on the inside of her left thigh”) contribute to the erotic intensity of the writing. In a final flourish, an ecstatic exclamation—“Oh God! God! God!!”—seems to bring the god to life. By poem’s end we may have forgotten that the speaker is a man talking to another man.

Of the many other worthy contenders, I chose Angela Ball’s “You” for runner-up laurels. Opening with a line lifted from a popular song, the poem situates itself in a cemetery, rises to a remarkable epiphany (“Happenstance my master, Ain’t / my compatriot”), and evolves into the unexpected metaphor of the elephant:

You

“Is you is or is you ain’t
my baby?”

In cemetery lawns, I find your grave
and run away.

Happenstance my master, Ain’t
my compatriot.

I am observational, vagrant.

I am not a molecular shadow,
accepting.

Coffee arrives—
with it a porous cube,
biscuit in its fragile sleeve.

I am reading a book of the circus.
The elephant suffers; it is too much.

Finally she is praised;
presented with a silver headdress.
Both of us glow.

Honorable mention: Ricky Ray for his admirable “Flutes on the Bluff,” with its acknowledged debt to Federico García Lorca’s “The Guitar.” The opening is particularly lovely: “No fingers on its keys, / and yet the voices / in the flute / send up / their gauzy chorus.” Millicent Caliban confesses she is not happy with the three poems she submitted, but I agree with Paul Michelsen that they are better than she supposes. Nor does it surprise me overmuch that both Millicent and Paul are attracted to the idea of applying the “no, I am not” prompt to J. Alfred Prufrock, in whose “love song” it originated. I liked other poems, too, and the exchanges among contributors, which create and perpetuate the feeling of community. Thanks, everyone.


For next week, I wonder what will happen when we take a famous last line and make it the first line of a new poem. I am thinking of the ending of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The absence of a period at line’s end suggests continuity rather than closure:

“I stop somewhere waiting for you”

Make this the first line of a short poem (12 lines or less) in which “I,” “somewhere,” and “you” are identified.

Deadline: Sunday, October 16, Midnight in 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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