“Conscience versus Consequence”


To say I am impressed with the ingenuity on display in this week’s entries is to risk understatement. I’ll just say that the decision to pick a winner gets more difficult each week—and that the association of poetry and secrecy remains a fruitful one.

I opted for a tie this time between two acrostic poems that could not be less alike: Christine Rhein’s clandestine investigation of secrets and Millicent Caliban’s high-spirited tip of the cap to the nation that was born on the 4th of July.

Here is Christine’s poem, with its fine pugilistic metaphor (“a boxing match: / Conscience versus Consequence”), its blending of innuendo and implication, the way the lines themselves seem to “sneak and slither”:

Keeping it to Yourself

Taste it each morning—tar in your teacup, dust on the milk—
How thick it grows, how brash. Hear it sneak and slither,
Edging its way across the floor, the walls, your back.

See it land atop your windshield, belly pinned against
Every turn, your signal’s tick, tick, tick. It’s a boxing match:
Conscience versus Consequence, your referee heart
Running in circles. Racing. How long can you hide it,
Easing it onto your half of the bed, its crashing weight at
Two a.m., at four. How long can it sing you back to sleep?

And here is Millicent’s satirical, critical, yet finally affirmative “Poem for the 4th of July”:

All you can eat, buffet or drive thru.
Made here (or make it anywhere?)
Equal all men are created and women, who may or may not be LGBT.
Rights unalienable,
Indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
Can do? Yes we can. Still.
Aspirational we remain.

But I cannot leave unmentioned Charise Hoge’s mysterious poem with its anagrams (“trial” and “trail”), its framing rhyme (“Undone” and “all one”), its smart use of prefixes (“Underfoot” and “Understand”), the way the words rearrange themselves, so that “tread” gives birth to “red.” The mysteries of this brilliant five-line effort are not to be quickly solved:

Undone by trial of trail cresting full sun.
Letters approach incantation chasm imaginative.
Underfoot red dirt decorates hem, cakes tread of soles.
Rim of rock, circling the ancestors’ wholly baked faith:
Understand your walk alone, al-one, is all one.

Then there is this tour de force from Paul Michelsen, which gives you the same message if you read the initial words of the lines or the end-words (though the latter must be read from bottom to top).

From Sandface to a Kicker of Sand

From sounding out letters to fancying oneself a reader
one has a summer reading list ready, a
who’s who and what’s what of what’s hot and what’s not—
not luke warm, not ice cold, but blisters on bare feet—One whose who’s
a blazing hot coal, an out-of-control inferno, but there’s not one
poet on this list, there will be no poems to—
to keep the fire lit as you sit before the shore, even though just one poet,
one poem, can make a much better what’s what, a
who’s who with which you cannot lose, a win-win, a not-
not lose-lose to make the reader one whose who’s who’s
a better thing for having been charged with poetry—There must be one
reader—one reader who gets where I’m coming from.

Brandon Crist’s brilliant submission is, in his words, a “tiered acrostic, which encodes a nested message horizontally as well as vertically.” It is entitled “F-Minus,” but Charise Hoge is right to give it the grade of A-plus:

Fresh embers ebb, lofting
toward inward depletion; erupting
ingots now subdue infinite depressions; earthen
grins reveal overflowing wonders in naive guise;
usurped power
evaporates as sentries yawn

Nor can I leave unmentioned Patricia Smith’s one-word-per-line celebrations of “prayer” and “thesaurus” and LaWanda Walter’s poem “The Christian Woman Who Bought Our House.” LaWanda, with whom I share a birthday (June 11), repeats words to admirable effect—punning on them (“that woman who prayed, or preyed, / for it’s all the same thing”) or subtracting a suffix to good advantage (as “fixtures” turns into “fix”).

Your quizmaster is going on a brief hiatus but will return refreshed, God willing, and armed with new prompts and challenges by Labor Day. In the meantime, Angela Ball will run the show in my absence. Regular participants know Angela’s work; she was instrumental, for example, when we built our sestina. In addition to being a talented poet and distinguished professor, much loved by her students at the University of Southern Mississippi, Angela is an imaginative editor, who has assembled special issues of Mississippi Review and Valley Voices. I am looking forward to her prompts, and I am confident that “Next Line, Please” will be in the best possible hands. Please give her your support.

Thank you, all, for making these competitions so exemplary in every sense!

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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