Next Line, Please

Dirty Love


By David Lehman

June 20, 2017



From assorted battlefields, Napoleon would send passionate letters, written in the style of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, to his beloved Josephine in Paris. “He does not love me, he worships me,” Josephine said. “I think he will go mad.”

Toward the end of one successful military campaign, Napoleon sent an excited message to Josephine. He wrote: “Home in three days. Don’t bathe.” The line (or variants) became justly famous because of who said it to whom and because of the frank sexuality beautifully conveyed in very few words.

“Home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Seldom has intense romantic desire been expressed more succinctly and with such attention to the choice of words. Note the superiority of “bathe” to “wash” in the Napoleonic memo.

I believe that this phrase could serve either as the subject of a poem, the epigraph for a poem, the peg for a Hollywood movie summarized in a poem, or the point of departure for a brief excursus on Napoleon, Josephine, or l’amour. A possible title: “French Kiss.” A possible first line, if the title is the six-word quote: “How French.”

If compression is the virtue that I think it is, can we limit entries to 12 power-packed lines or fewer?

Deadline: Saturday, June 24, midnight 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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