By David Lehman
January 30, 2018
If I write not out of duty but with joy, it is because my Hamlet-centric prompt—in which you were challenged to weave in certain phrases from the play (and if possible to work in a zeugma)—elicited entries of high quality, including “Elsinore,” a sonnet from Justin Knapp:
Hamlet’s spirit haunts me seeking answers.
He walks the chilly battlements at night,
And speaks of our father’s spectral cancer.
Both poisoned: one ear, one past made unright.
He poses all the questions without key,
Of the play, outside the play, in the play.
Tell me: madness or just pretense to be?
Was it doubt or revenge’s hand at bay?
Heart clenched, more in sorrow than in anger,
He asks about Ophelia’s mermaid death.
Tell me: fate or free will, lithe or languor?
Was it mishap or madness’s last breath?
His essence always fades when I observe:
If all was known, what purpose would life serve?
I agree with Millicent Caliban’s verdict: “A masterful sonnet and excellent critique of Hamlet at the same time. A tour de force.” The sonnet fulfills the requirement of the prompt, which serves as the point of departure for a return to Shakespeare’s most enduringly fascinating character. The five questions raised in the sonnet are germane, rendered in beautifully balanced phrases (e.g. “fate or free will, lithe or languor?”), and rise to eloquence with the last line. The antitheses are perfectly continuous with the dilemmas with which Hamlet tangles in the play.
With its arresting images (“the falconer’s / falling glove”) and epigrams (“the reach / knows its risk”), “A hawk from a handsaw” by Morgan Frank swept me off my feet:
The truth is that either one can
cut the flesh and rip in jagged
precision. Each one can depend
on a hand extended: the falconer’s
falling glove, the worker’s callous.
The truth is in the job, not the wound.
For to the manner born, the reach
knows its risk. You can keep
them both in the shed behind the house,
feed one and oil the other.
That which in you that was cut
from flight, that which severed.
In “The Sands,” Jane Keats combines cunning rhymes (“retinue” and “get in you”) with exemplary zeugmas in lines one and three:
We were in love and a Las Vegas casino.
In walked a Bolivian general and his retinue.
I won the bet and your hand. “I want to get in you,”
you whispered. Just then an Ida Lupino
lookalike strolled by bearing a tray of Beluga caviar
for the general and a magnum of champagne.
The band played “Murder Most Foul.” Insane
went the place and the crooked old man at the bar.
To this seemingly lighthearted but subtly subversive poem, I’d like to commend Clay Sparkman for his astute and sympathetic response:
Jane, this is great fun. I read it three times. The juxtaposition of a phony city (Vegas) over a scene that might come straight out of García Márquez, A General in His Labyrinth, and be a reference to Simon Bolivar. And juxtapose the intensity of a burning romance in its deepest throes, and then finally work back to the recurrent reminder that nothing should be trusted (and there are many such reminders here), with “the crooked old man at the bar.” I love it! … For me it is a reminder to sleep with one eye open with the progression of one’s romance, not as a defense against one another, but as a defense against the many forces that would render it false.
In “Final Arrangements,” Donald LaBranche sneaks in his choice of phrases from Hamlet in the course of a mournful rustic tale. Sharpness of technique always catches my eye, and I was taken with the monosyllabic end-words here—all but three of the 12 lines snap to a close:
In the days before my friend died, we set about
cleaning up his barn of the unruly mess
it had become since summer. About barns
I didn’t know a hawk from a handsaw but soon
became handy with a whisk broom and took
his lead finding a place for each rootless tool.
It took three trips to the town dump to recycle
the empties we gathered. This was how we dealt
with it. All the oak 2×10’s laid aside for the sale.
Forty-seven cardboard boxes broken down
and stacked into manageable bunches. We split
a PBR in the cupola, more in sorrow than in anger.
The Edgar Award for best mystery poem goes to Millicent Caliban’s “Private Eye Smells Something Rotten” in which a hard-boiled gumshoe has a “classy dame” for a client. In the third to last line, Millicent pulls off a zeugma—“taking” governs both “a walk” and “some caviar to the general”—while getting in the required Shakespeare phrase:
She told me her fiancé had disappeared.
“I can’t believe he’d just dump me,” she said,
more in sorrow than in anger, “I think it was
murder most foul. Can you find out what happened?”
She was a classy dame, to the manner born.
I took the case and a hefty retainer fee.
I’m no slouch at detection and I can tell
a hawk from a handsaw, if you know what I mean.
“When did you last see him?” I asked her.
“He went out after dinner, said he was taking
a walk and some caviar to the general.”
Never trust those military types. It sounded fishy.
Four worthy candidates press their suit but I have room for only two more poems in this post. How can I ignore Diana Ferraro’s “What’s in a Name,” which is, I am happy to acknowledge, dedicated to me? I urged Diana to write it when I realized that she has given a lot of thought to her name and to permutations thereof. Charles Baudelaire, with his injunction to “get drunk,” puts in a very welcome appearance, as do Bills Shakespeare and Apollinaire:
You could at first sight read the slight ripples
hiding the long-due storm brewing beneath
the fragile sound of a nobody’s name.
Labours lost, undone, quiet ghost scrambling
amid the general at the bottom
of the ladder, but posing as caviar.
Rank matters. When not to the manner born,
art becomes a step, and the name, the mark.
More in sorrow than in anger, you point out
William, Guillermo, Guillaume. The name is
not the core, rather the soul in tatters
spared of murder most foul, reborn in sound.
Enivrez-vous, said a certain Charles, and
so we did, neither on virtue nor wine.
Patricia Wallace’s poem puts the Shakespeare lines at the service of a moving elegy:
You come, first, in your pale slippers and gown. Later
you appear as a cardinal (you were always crazy about
that bird). Poor ghost, after the aneurysm, after the stents,
the organ failures, do you now return more in sorrow
than anger? Harrowed with wonder, I await your next visitation,
watch the antic evening grosbeaks veer to the feeder,
see flicker, towhee, finch, until the low-slanted sun
so bedazzles me and them, near blind, I can’t tell the difference
between a magpie, a hawk or a handsaw, between a ghost
and your indisputable presence. Don’t disappear. I need you
to speak. Ever the princess from the manner born, you demand
I hear instead your bird spirit song: the cardinal’s “cheer, cheer, cheer.”
Thank you, all.
I recently re-read Richard Wilbur’s poem “Thyme Flowering among Rocks” and his comments on it in the anthology Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms. It occurred to me that we could lift his idea—and write a poem in five stanzas, each stanza a rhyming haiku that advances a story or argument.
you more precise, the stakes go
up with each word, so
pick a subject you
can bring to life in a few.
You know what to do.
Deadline: Saturday, February 3, 2018, midnight East Coast time.
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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