Next Line, Please

“For Years You’ve Kept Me Hanging …”

By David Lehman | October 10, 2018
Flickr/Barbara Eckstein

When he was 23, Lionel Trilling wrote to a friend, “There are two ways, I have discovered, of wearing despair. One is over all your clothes, a great vestment hanging well over your shoes and liable to trip you; the other is to tie it about your middle like a Cordelier’s rope—only under your pants—to make you keep your belly in.”

When I encountered this passage in the new volume of Trilling’s letters, I wondered for an instant if this week’s sartorial prompt might have a retroactive effect, “prompting” us to discover utterances we might otherwise overlook.

Sure enough, I picked up a 2012 issue of 32 Poems magazine and stumbled upon Renee Emerson’s “What to Wear,” two sentences stretched out over 13 lines, concluding “Raven-colored, ink-permanent, / jet-fast, obsidian lace and pinked seams. Church-length, / with a row of covered buttons, hidden closure.” If anyone knows Ms. Emerson, please convey my admiration and request her permission for us to post the whole poem.

I mentioned a René Magritte painting last week, and Patricia Wallace took the tip and rode with it in this prize-winning entry:

“We must think about objects at the very moment when all their meaning is abandoning them” (Magritte)

Closeted, floating on a wire wingspan
all unbuttoned, I no longer conceal
anything, not even the shadowed silk

of my lining. The very moment memory
evaporates like the scent of lavender
warding off moths, I become an angel

released from the earthly weight of meaning,
my fluttering empty sleeves rising and falling,
their gesture-less syllables unintelligible,

my folds collapsing the space where a mantled heart
once hid. The old, stale secrets—
ticket stubs, wrappers, crumpled notes now illegible—

spill from my pockets, light as the drift of leaves

Christine Rhein shares top honors with “Sequin Dress,” an extraordinary act of ventriloquy. The speaker is a great character in her own right as well as an astute observer:

I’m so blue, even in the dark, stuck
in the back of your closet, your mind.
For years you’ve kept me hanging,
layers of dust graying my shimmer
and the sparkling way we once danced
in that dressing room, how you smiled
driving me home, how you worried
I could wrinkle. What are you doing
out there, wearing a T-shirt, jeans?
Are you waiting to find the perfect
stilettos before you think of slipping
me on? Or is it some stage you await,
spotlights on me, you—in your next
life—when you’ll sing Night and Day.

A third award goes to Angela Ball for taking up on the challenge of informing me and the NLP public about the “New Look” in women’s fashion in the late 1940s. “Talking Couture Pantoum” effortlessly displays Angela’s formal virtuosity.

I’m Rita Hayworth’s black evening gown in Gilda
My straplessness anticipates Christian Dior—his New Look, 1947,
My opera gloves pay homage to Gypsy Rose Lee.
My swirl of fabric at the hip is magic.

My straplessness anticipates Christian Dior.
Rita wore me to the hilt, singing, swiveling her shoulders.
My swirl of fabric at the hip is magic.
I’m Rita Hayworth’s evening gown in Gilda.

To which I said, after brava, two things: (1) “Put the blame on Mame, boys,” and (2) why not extend the poem, even if that means deviating from standard pantoum policy? I would also call it “The New Look.” Angela took the suggestion, tripled the length of “The New Look,” and gave credit to Anita Ellis whose voice comes out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth in Gilda. I particularly like these lines: “Designer Jean Louis stole my shape from the dress / Worn by John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.”

Pamela Joyce S submitted more than one fine effort, and “Loss” cops this week’s brevity award:

My friend, I wore your comfort
so close to me—intimate as a robe.

Pamela’s “Powder Blue Brushed Denim Bell Bottoms (1969)” would win for best title if we had such a category. Maybe we should.

It’s difficult to write a convincing poem in mainly monosyllabic-couplet rhymes, but “Love Affair” by Koahakumele does the trick:

I cheat, my wife guesses,
with my wardrobe of excesses:
Fifty Hawaiian shirts for Fridays,
Twenty pressed white shirts for Sundays,

(“who needs 100 neckties??”) I give her a smirk,
then count 25 button-ups and polos for work,
At one per credit, I have a master’s degree
in college t-shirts, from what I can see.

“Wear me,” beg my pants, dapper blue.
“Walk all over me,” wails my latest shoe.
“It’s been a while,” the pink cravat cries,
as I loop it silky about my neck, for size.

My overcoat whispers, wool, quiet and still
“They don’t understand us, and they never will.”
Agreeing, I pull her close, warm and tight,
As she shields icy breeze and against dark night.

I love the whole conceit that the phrase “a master’s degree / in college t-shirts” implies, and the way “wardrobe of excesses” replaces W. H. Auden’s “wardrobe of excuses.”

The phrases that stood out to me in J. Randall Brett’s “Clothing Optional” occur in lines two and six. Either “birthday suits” or “sans culottes” would make an excellent title for a poem not yet written:

Facts: we were nudists, a skinny crowd
in our birthday suits
all summer up in the Rockies.

We played a lot of volleyball
so lively to imagine
sans culottes.

Our clothes all left behind, bereft of us, empty
of us, hanging in the closet
like suicides.

The last line packs a wallop, doesn’t it?

For the arresting rhyme of the week, I salute Millicent Caliban:

I know I am not necessary.
As an accessory,
my role is to enhance.

The Gertrude Stein Memorial Prize goes to Grant Dowling. I’ll quote a characteristic sentence from his prose poem: “Seams embedded cylinder, tight cylinder seams … Counter-clockwise seams embedded cylinder, tight, dress squeezed counter-clockwise seams.”

Eric Fretz wins the parody award for this clever rewriting of William Carlos Williams’s signature poem:

so much depends
upon

me, red wove
tie

silk with matte
weft,

astride the white
shirt

With its strong opening and the nice repetition of “a Catholic girl,” Diana Ferraro’s “The Green Parrot Carré” wins honorable mention:

The sixties and a fifties knot under my chin.
Orange and turquoise triangles and lozenges
On a green parrot silk square cover my head.
“You look like a Catholic girl,”
complains my new-mint Jewish husband.
“I am a Catholic girl,” I apologize.
In heat, we climb the stone stairs
Up the baroque church in Bahia, Brazil.
Grace Kelly’s efforts, no Cary Grant.
Above, the azure. The matching blue sea below.
It could have been Monaco, but was not.

Honorable mention also for Donald LaBranche’s “Iconography,” which directs our attention to Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Andrei Rublev:

On screen, a holy fool sits and braids an old woman’s hair
for the funeral, like she had been taught as a girl. Close by
Andrei Rublev kneels and weeps softly for his shattered icons.

His grief is concealed under cover of a shapeless, billowy robe
that hides his calloused feet, as if in imitation of the divine beings
in his “Trinity.” What would I have worn in the sixties, to go and see

“Andrei Rublev”? How might I have dressed to witness the end of days?
I had a leather jacket then that hung limp on my shoulders. I liked
to raise the collar against my neck and pretend I had something to say.

Donald informs us that the image depicted can be seen if use our search engine to take you to “Andrei Rublev restoration trailer.”

Next Tuesday, a new prompt comes your way. Thank you everyone for your efforts which, whether mentioned here or not, have stimulated my imagination and given me much pleasure.

Patricia, Christine, Angela, Pamela, Grant, and Eric—please email kdaniels@theamericanscholar.org to collect your prize.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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