From Beethoven to the Abyss, With Love and an Unpacked Suitcase

Drew Coffman/Flickr
Drew Coffman/Flickr

This poetry free-for-all began as a competition. Each week, the line I judged best became the next line in our sonnet-in-motion. I don’t remember when the element of contest gave way to the impulse to collaborate, but at a certain point my columns began to resemble little anthologies rather than Olympiad rankings with the awarding of gold, silver, and bronze medals. This development reflects a number of things, chief among them the fact that we have formed a community, where the accent is on civility and respect for each other and for the art we practice. But the high quality of the entries justifies the impulse to offer as many examples of excellence as the space allows—and even then, there are worthy works that must go unmentioned.

Last week I quoted six lines from poems that participants submitted in the previous week:

“He’d rather be listening to Beethoven”—Patricia Wallace
“will one day pack her suitcase”—Cheryl Whitehead
“And once, I took a turn at the bedside of a dying man”—Donald LaBranche
“and all the Patron Saints of Paranoia”—George Kaplan
“an illusion, / like loving /without losing”—Courtney Thrash
“I have been to the abyss”—David Lehman

I encouraged everyone to “pick one of these phrases and use it—as the first line, the last line, an epigraph or a pivot line—of a poem dedicated to the poet whose line you lifted. Fourteen lines or less. A possible subject: the ides of March.”

Evidently a Beethoven aficionado, Cheryl Whitehead ran with Patricia Wallace’s line in her beautiful poem “The Musicologist”:

—for Patricia Wallace

He’d rather be listening to Beethoven
than staring out over the field, stunned
by darkness and awakening dread.

He’d rather be listening to Opus 111,
Arietta, or a late string quartet—Holy
Thanksgiving to steady his hands.

He’d rather be listening to Fidelio,
or the Eighth Symphony’s radical
minuet. He’d rather be in Vienna

the day Beethoven was buried.
How could such a man fall into
the wormy earth? He’d rather be

listening to Eroica, or to his daughter
playing Appassionata on the upright
he bought her in 1969. He’d rather be

listening to the ebullient little tune
interrupting the finale of the Ninth. He’d
rather a chorus ease him into dream.

The insistence achieved by the repetition of “He’d rather” gives the poem its terrific momentum, and if the poem awakens in the reader’s mind a late string quartet or the “radical / minuet” in the Eighth Symphony, let alone the great themes of the Eroica and the Ninth, so much the better.

Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Promise” beautifully weaves echoes of three of the proffered lines into a well-wrought poem with an impeccable rhyme scheme. The end words of lines two, three, nine, and 10 form a tragic progression: “living,” “believing,” “grieving,” “waving.” There is a sunken allusion to Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving, But Drowning.”

for Donald, George, and David

We took turns at the bed of our dying mother,
who lingered at the border of memory and living;
as her life faded to the shadow of believing,
we told her we’d always watch over each other.
She never knew that in moments we would break our promise;
not see that my brother, who trembled beside her
was wading in tide pools at the rim of the abyss.
He tried to pray while we ignored his drowning
to the patron saints of paranoia and grieving,
but they walked with us out on the water, waving
and beckoning him to jump right in.

Millicent Caliban’s intent was to “trace the secret story hiding in those six provocative lines.” I love the way “abyss” masquerades as “abbess” and how naturally all six of the given lines merge in “Forgive Me”:

I have been to the abbess. She told me
to pray to the patron saint of paranoia
because I fear my faith is an illusion,
like loving without losing. How can I
be sure of my vocation? We sing hymns,
but I would rather listen to Beethoven:
more passion, less devotion, reluctant
to obey, unable to desire renunciation.
Will I one day pack my suitcase and leave?
Tonight I will take my turn by the bed
of a dying man and pray for his soul,
for his release from guilt and sin and mine.
What comes after? Is it bliss or only the abyss?

Ricky Ray was among those who derived inspiration from Courtney Thrash’s line in “Too Much: An Illusion, Like Loving Without Losing”:

—for Courtney Thrash

For my part, which loves the jazz of gypsies,
who turn melody in fire
the way a blacksmith turns in its flames his vision
of the sword, praise blisters most the lips
of those who have been
not overwhelmed by the tidal coiling in and out of feeling,
but at ease upon its waters, weathering surge
and crest and crash as elements of the blood,
but desiring no excess of movement,
no richness of froth,
just the jingle
of the atom, its inner orchestra
so far-encompassing its outer eminence
that the word enough
need only register in the mind
for the whole
of one’s being to feel it sung.

Courtney herself appropriated the opening syntax of Donald LaBranche’s line:

—for Donald LaBranche and Charles Olen

once, I stood in a man’s lap and looked over his shoulder,
one tanned hand wrapped around my waist, one
guided the great machine down long lines that led west,
too young for expectation, young enough to delight in soil,
in potatoes turning over tillers, telling the story
of his life and mine.

and once, I took a turn at the bedside of a dying man
he motioned for pen and paper to talk, with his hands,
around the tube in his throat; I expected a joke or poignant
lines of love or youth or a reminder to see him in the harvest,
in sunsets, but he was already returning to the dirt:
“I’m thirsty.”

The point of departure for Charise Hoge’s “Not the Routine” is George Kaplan’s “Patron Saints of Paranoia.” Charise ups the ante with “The Deities of Teenage Miseries”:

Not the Routine

Usually she slept in,
This morning she declared that
I couldn’t go out—cockamamie idea
planted by all the Patron Saints of Paranoia.
For my own safety’s sake! A gamut of conspiracy
breathed across her face. We’d lost without a fight.
Nothing like a girlish bawl in the bathroom
to set something right. As she heard me, all
those ghastly saints toppled over like bowling pins.
Thank the Deities of Teenage Miseries, she still had sensibility.

I admire “the girlish bawl in the bathroom,” which initially I misread as the “girlish brawl,” and the collapse of “those ghostly saints … like bowling pins.” Charise wonders whether the poem should end with “the Deities of Teenage Miseries.” After thinking it over I would say yes—if the previous line ends with a comma not a period, and “thank” is lower-cased. I’d be curious to know what others, such as Michael C. Rush and Emily Winakur, think.

Christine Rhein’s “Beware” finds its inspiration in Courtney’s line. Christine’s versification is always interesting, and this poem is no exception. I responded particularly to the skillful enjambments, the way lines three, six, seven, eight, and 10 conclude with the beginning of sentences:

March snow and a pair of robins
perched on whitened boughs. Blizzard
news, day after day. Your neighbor,
the way he laughed about this year’s
early birds, how he clenched his fist
to stress the “climate hoax.” A chill
as you stand at your window. Robins
pummeled by gusting winds. The noise
of your neighbor starting up his blower,
his whirring “just a giant lie.” Thin ice,
an illusion, like loving without losing—
blink-quick—bright feathers to the storm.

How could I not admire Angela Ball’s characteristically clever I Have Been to the Abyss”:

—for David Lehman

To the Abyss I wore sweat pants
and the certainty that competence
could have saved him.
Brand-new, mechanical,
I learned citizenship: Infinite,
the Abyss is the world’s biggest
principality. Its sole transport,
a rope. We’re nonsectarian,
gender neutral. Our flag, pills
and a cocktail glass rampant
on a field of fog.
Our anthem, a juke jive:

Your love bucket
Got a hole in it.
Get down,
Get down.

Inside our shell, we hear
the ocean of ourselves.
The Abyss is not
Abyssinia, though sometimes we use
Its joke goodbye:
“I be seeing ya.”

To which the only reasonable reply is: In all the old familiar places.

This week was notable for all the newcomers to “Next Line, Please.” Koahakumele, a self-described “new acolyte” who “just discovered this great poetry site,” gives us the beautifully accomplished “Baggage”:

Once, at twenty, I took a turn at
the bedside of a dying man.
Though he slept fitfully, and
snorted and wheezed his own melody,
I knew he’d rather be listening to Beethoven.

On the other hand, I, faced with his reality and
with silent time lingering,
realized I had now been to the abyss.
I prayed to all the Patron Saints of Paranoia,
recognizing my own small suitcase would be
one day packed for my own last journey.

Believing I could avoid the blank midnight corridors and
antiseptic smells was only an illusion.
Like loving without losing.

Terry Lucas’s “first-time entry,” punning on “the ides of March,” demonstrates that errors may bear fancy fruit:

The Ideas of March
after David Lehman

“The Ideas of March” is what I thought the prompt read,
and I told myself I’d better make sure I use a lot of concrete
language, or I’d bog down in a marsh of abstractions.
So here’s the lion my mother told me would turn into a lamb
if she showed herself on day one, her almost extinct jaws and claws
clamped down on the rump of a cape buffalo, just trying to make
her paycheck last till the end of the month. And here’s the lamb
left over from the nativity, a big wooly Xanax, hard pill to swallow,
unless you’re a fat cat, standing dazed in the wings waiting for your cue.
And there are all of you in the audience, staring at your cell phones,
the gauzy light still masking your faces, long after the announcement
has been made to turn them off. And what about me? “I’ve been to the abyss,”
stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits, feeling in the dark for something solid to hold onto—
a tusk, a femur, a skull—so I can pull myself up out of this poem.

Rosemary Douglas Lombard’s “The Tortoises’ Travail,” dedicated to “David Lehman and Willow,” has “I have been to the abyss” as its epigraph:

If she’d known the words, she might have told me.
Yes, I’ve been to the abyss, she’d say.

It began when a hand pulled off the rock
that sheltered me and mine, clutched
me away with my daughters, and thrust

us into darkness with others of our kind.
Our claws had no power against the cliffs of the box,
our hungry, thirsty prison for hours, then days.

Then the hellhole of the frigid plane, its shakes and roars,
its howls and yowls of hounds and other creatures. What next?
To be eaten? A future as black as our prison! At last, dumped

to green grass, we ran. I was chased—but by a male of my species,
who lived there with happiness. His kindly human chose me, too.
This home was not my old home, but I was lifted from the abyss.

Robert Ronnow chose the same epigraph for the well-titled “Hedge Your Bets”:

Am I right to hedge my bets on being famous, ply my arts all day alone,
silence, no tv? Mark said, the difference is people are actually listening
to Mick Jagger, but I thought that’s not so big a difference.
When Dad died it only reinforced the futility of our daily efforts
notwithstanding my hopeful eulogy about our responsibilities to each other.
People listened then, and closely, searching for an echo
from the abyss. What is this abyss and how do I know
it’s there?

Bell A. Mallen submitted more than one fine effort. “Homebody” is dedicated to “Cheryl Whitehead and Henry”:

The one who has most dug
her feet into the bloody carpet,
settled early into the pouch,
fostered what they used to call—
Ah, what’s the word?—
acted as the world’s innkeeper,
made porridge for the masses,
and just about invited rigor
mortis over for a spot of tea,
will one day pack her suitcase.
You don’t look pleased.
Ain’t we pals anymore?

Steve Bellin-Oka’s first entry is “Question”:

How do you like this caved-in bedroom, ceiling plaster
strewn across the floor like unearthed pottery shards,
the crumpled, water-stained walls the color of formaldehyde,
and what about the burst copper pipe joints through which
it all seeped and spurt, pooling in the vanity drawers,
the wardrobe filled with suits worn only on Sundays,
the onyx cufflinks handed down from the one who built
the house, hunching for a generation on a brewery line
to pay it off, his back burning and coiling, the way
the wires did when they caught fire years after his wife
one day packed her suitcase and walked out the front door,
now lopsided on its bent hinges, the porch slats rotting, wisteria
vines veiling the beveled glass window he watched through?

I have exceeded my length and barely have space to mention my admiration of Stephanie Cohen’s “Dark Matter” with its powerful ending, a tribute to Courtney Thrash (“The event horizon is an illusion. / Like loving. Without losing”) and Diana Ferraro’s “The Maid,” inspired by Cheryl Whitehead, with its sturdy couplets opening with “Born to serve she dislikes the role, / upsets the rules, mistakes the whole”). Nor am I alone in appreciating the end of Eric Fretz’s poem: “He’d rather be listening to Beethoven, / Frank Sinatra, the Herald / Angels, or Ella Fitzgerald.” When Millicent complimented Eric on the rhyme of “herald” and “Fitzgerald,” Eric notified us that he “left out ‘Mallarmé’s Swan’ and ‘Sarah Vaughn.’” Now there’s a man with excellent taste in vocalists.


For next week’s prompt, I would borrow from the lexicon of chess. I’ve long been enchanted with the names of chess openings, and I wonder whether others feel the same way. Let me give you five or six such names and suggest you choose one and do with it what you can:

“Queen’s Gambit Declined”
“Sicilian Defense”
“Hedgehog System”
“Grand Prix Attack”
“Napoleon Opening”
“Vienna Game”

Your poem can be, but doesn’t have to be, about chess. Fourteen lines or less. Deadline: Saturday, March 24, midnight any time zone.


My thanks to all, and a reminder that Cornell University Press has just published Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers, with selected columns from the first three years of this site. Many bookstores like to showcase local authors. Suggestions made to store managers do not always fall on deaf ears, so please do make them.

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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