Next Line, Please

Cento, Stanza Two

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The Experience of Repetition

By David Lehman

April 21, 2015


 

 

For the second stanza of our organic cento, I pick Berwyn Moore’s candidate:

He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards,
the experience of repetition as death.
Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end.
Who made a ceremony of ash?

(Sources: Elizabeth Bishop, “The Man-Moth”; Adrienne Rich, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”; Mark Strand, “The End”; Pablo Neruda, “Sonata and Destructions”)

The lines are singular, the phrases memorable–“repetition as death,” “a ceremony of ash”—and they combine with the initial stanza in a way that stimulates and challenges the imagination.

Runner-up honors go to Charise Hoge, who starts by giving direction as to a tourist but widens the scope cinematically to the point where “horizontal” sounds as wide as the horizon:

You go straight ahead for about ten blocks
into cold, blue-black space,
alarming realm of the horizontal into
the resurrection of the morning.

(Sources: Mark Halliday, “Quartier”; Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room”; Amy Clampitt, “The Cove”; Mary Oliver, “Hum, Hum”)

Angela Ball divides the bronze medal with Poem Today. Here is Angela’s effort, in which “night”—as fine as velvet, as claustrophobic as a “room in the earth”—claims our attention:

The night sits wherever you are. Your night
Sigh—the mocking just a stranger without humor
Night tumbles in velvet directions
Someone is digging a room in the earth

(Sources: “Your Night is of Lilac,” Mahmoud Darwish; “Alhandal y las Murallas de Córdoba,” Nathalie Handal; “Night Luck,” Heidi Mordhorst; “[năng],” Quan Barry)

The stanza proposed by Poem Today has the virtue of elaborating on the “pain” we had missed in the darkness. It also rhymes and adds another vote for Rimbaud among “sponsoring” poets. (Note: The Rimbaud poem “Roman” I have myself translated; I give the title as “Romance” and the line in question as “You’re not too serious when you’re seventeen years old,” but I do not think these facts prejudiced me against Wallace Fowlie’s perfectly acceptable rendering.)

Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom—
Oh woe is me, t’have seen what I have seen—
Pain has an element of blank.
We aren’t serious when we’re seventeen.

(Sources: Randall Jarrell (90 Degrees North); William Shakespeare, Hamlet; Emily Dickinson; Arthur Rimbaud, “Novel” trans. Wallace Fowlie)

Here, then, is our whole poem to date:

The wheels of a darkness without pain
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares
And in the silence, drips and cackles—taciturn, luxurious.

He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards,
the experience of repetition as death.
Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end.
Who made a ceremony of ash?

For next week, how about stanza three? Four lines, and they can end the poem or set us up for a concluding quatrain or couplet.

Deadline: midnight, Saturday, April 25


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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