Next Line, Please

Complete with “Compline”

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By David Lehman

March 17, 2015


 

 

The title that strikes me as the most elegant, succinct, and pertinent is “Compline,” as proposed by Paul Michelsen. Compline is the Latin name for the night prayer, the final canonical prayer in the Catholic day, following Vespers. Our sestina is a prayer of sorts; it is endowed with religion and the spirit of divine immortality leavened by the occasional jest; and if readers don’t recognize the title, all the better if they hunt it down in the dictionary or are moved to visit W. H. Auden’s vastly underrated sequence of poems “Horae Canonicae.” And if there are traces of “complete” and “complaint” in our title, so be it.

It was not an easy choice—I also liked “Her Hourglass a Prism” (Charise Hoge), “Mary, Singing” (Christine Rhein), “Uncertainty” (Patricia Smith), and LaWanda Walter’s whimsical “How to Dress for Anything.”

To all my thanks, not only for the spirited effort resulting in a truly collaborative endeavor that can, I believe, stand on its own as an anthology piece of the future, but for the contagious enjoyment of the process. I am immensely gratified, too, by the compliments in my direction. If we are a team and I am the coach, well, that metaphor goes right to my head like a perfectly chilled, light-yellow drink consisting of top-shelf bourbon, lemon juice, and honey in equal measures, shaken and served in a rocks glass.

I shall do my best to contrive another contest that will spur the team to heights. But that may take me some time. Meanwhile, I have thought of prompts for the next couple of weeks, and I hope they will prove inspiring.

Here, then, is our complete sestina, written and titled over the past two months:

 

Compline (Paul Michelsen)

Finally the veins give out and they stick in a port
for the blood draws. Veins cave before the spirit.
Spirit caves before the voice stops the sing-song
of moan and groan that tolls all night like a book
of hymns without words. After a while even fear
caves, like a dress without a body or an address. (Diane Seuss)

For life off-trend, beyond fashion, Mary K. wore no day dress,
only “gowns.” She larked about chemo: “Any port
in a storm.” When the doctor said, “Bad news,” fear
was a vanity she dismissed: “Anodynes will keep my spirits
lit.” She read scripture, began a memoir, a prose-poem book—
“not illness stuff”—but original woods, night-born foals, evensong. (Angela Ball)

Visitors spark with lyrics of ballads, of songs,
a lamentation for the lack of redress
to tip the scale of slippery life. She jests, “Book
me a room with a courtyard and easy transport.”
A smile dawns on her lips this cup won’t pass; her spirit
a salve on tarnished will, her winsome style to balk at fear. (Charise Hoge)

To speak of bravery is to speak of fear.
To lose oneself in singing is not to hear the song.
Awake in the night-dark, damp, she separated spirit
from Spirit, considered sightlines of corpse-dress.
Sometimes she laughed till tears came at the Colbert Report:
the good book is a good book, yes, but just a book. (James Lesser)

She thinks of her laden shelves, the thick textbooks
she trudged through, the boy she didn’t marry, how fear
can squander a life. Above her heart, the pumping port
is silent. Again, she’s free to hum any old song.
Again: Sum-mer-time and … This season’s dress—
hospital green. But her veil—a fuchsia spirit. (Christine Rhein)

Mary’s tip: Don’t say we died “fighting a courageous battle,” spirit
unbowed. Don’t sport pins signaling “awareness,” don’t book
tickets for charity-auction-banquet noblesse oblige. Don’t dress
incredulous linebackers in pink cleats; claim envy for our fear-
lessness, admiration for our grace; de-compose us in a drippy song
of Spirit’s brave skiff aimed shoreward. A slab is no damn port. (Angela Ball)

Was she adrift … her port … somehow spirited
away? Melodious song … number 342, maroon book …
“Be not afraid” … banish fear … select a dress … (Patricia Smith)

 


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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