Get Hurt—or Go Back to Work

Black and white photo of an office desk

This week we wrote verse or prose poems culminating in one of two lines that I tossed out last week: “No one was supposed to get hurt” and “And then he [or she/ I] went back to work as if nothing had happened.” The first line is a staple of TV crime dramas; the second was proposed by Franz Kafka as a familiar sentence “from any number of old stories—though it might not have appeared in any of them.”

Michael C. Rush chose the first of these to conclude his poem “In the Beginning” with its biblical title:

Everyone was supposed to die.
There was a plan.
Some people were going to propagate.
Some were intended to languish.
But there was deviation from the plan.
People stole focus from the gestalt.
Shouting “Look at me!”
they looked at themselves.
Screaming “Watch this!”
they did this and that.
The plan was abandoned.
The plan was rejected.
The gnostic became toxic.
People exceeded their purview.
People superseded their program.
Or believed they did.
Crying “We have usurped our destiny!”
they thought they had.
Postulating suffering as the coin
with which fate could be bought,
they spent themselves
to acquire a rougher path
to the eternal poverty.
O, unhappy knaves!
Everyone was meant to die.
No one was supposed to get hurt.

By evoking the punishment meted out to Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit in Eden, the penultimate line works brilliantly to inject new meaning into the familiar last line.

In “You Just Went Back to Work,” Elizabeth Solsburg integrates both of the given lines in a narrative about a patient in a psych ward who had hoped in vain for a spousal rescue:

When they told you I had to stay
in the psych ward, I thought you’d rescue me,
and take me away somewhere safe;
I counted on you to stand up and say
I was not a danger to myself
or anyone—that this was just my way
of getting you to pay attention to me,
to shift your focus back to my life, away
from all the petty miscellany that eats your time,
that you shouldn’t be bothered with anyway.
You were supposed to tell them I’d go home with you,
that you would make sure I was OK,
you should have told them it was all a big mistake—
that no one was supposed to get hurt, especially me,
but instead you left me here and went away,
drove back to work like nothing had happened,
like it was any other day

Millicent Caliban offers the ekphrastic “Appearances Are Deceptive”:

The art museum was across the street.
With a bagel at her desk and coffee,
she could spend her lunch hour on paintings:
Monet, Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso.
Mellifluous lilies, shimmering hay,
vanishing teapots, joyful dancers,
ladies of voluptuous geometry.
Each day, discovery and ravishment.
Seduction beckoning from every frame.
See a certain slant of light; be made new.
Then she goes back to work as though nothing
had happened.

I agree entirely with Pamela Joyce S, who expressed her love of “ladies of voluptuous geometry” as a description of certain paintings by Picasso. “It should be the title of a book on his paintings of women,” she wrote.

If you looked up the title of Herbert McDunnough’s “ATU 1889G,” you would be directed to a well-known folk tale, but the poem itself discloses its agenda with the naming of “Nineveh,” the city that the prophet Jonah was commanded to visit in the Bible:

He walked into work and sat down
in his cubicle
He did not seem to notice
someone else’s wife and kids
in the pictures where his once were
His former co-workers kept spilling out
from their own cubicles
and chattered frantically in his wake
even as he sat in the chair
of a guy who hadn’t been the new guy
for quite some time
He sat fixed to the seat like a barnacle
His one-time mistress stood
staring into the gaping white mouth
of his old work space
as he seemed to pick up
where the other guy left off
on a spreadsheet
Finally she asked him,
Where ya been? We thought you were dead …
He kept typing numbers into rectangular cells
then briefly stopped, sort of turned and said
over his shoulder
Nineveh. Business.
And then he went back to work
as though nothing had happened.

The outstanding last line of Pamela Joyce S’s “The Cleaving” reflects the power of a punctuation mark to alter drastically the meaning of a sentence:

Given the years of feigned happiness
before deceit and calamity,
he asked, can there be equanimity—
a mutual parting of ways—
cerebral, free of regret and
fester? He turned the knife to test her
as she struggled for an answer.

No. One was supposed to get hurt.

Angela Ball turned to the prose poem for “The Golden Age of Piracy”:

I hadn’t meant to deceive my colleagues, at least not at first, when I said I was spending the weekend with my friend, not adding that the friend was a fourteen-year-old Labrapointer.

When I left the house, Grace O’Malley climbed to the second floor to gaze down from her window seat, chin resting on the sill, gaze following my gray sedan as it pulled onto the street.

Entering the restroom at work, I heard a conversation between stalls. “Don’t mention it to ____. They might want to come along.” I turned and left. Probably they were going to a bar, the kind where people “hooked up,” a thing inciting terror, not interest. What did interest me was the secret of how people talked to each other, always knowing what to say. What did was pirates and their strict rules. Perhaps their lore held, like buried treasure, the secret of human behavior. I knew not to expect answers for why the grayness of Grace O’Malley’s muzzle was expanding, and the skin inside her lower lip, once black, had turned a jagged pink. The bathroom conversation went on. “Is she ‘on the spectrum’? —I don’t know, but that would explain a lot.” As Hugh Rawson says in his pirate’s dictionary,

1. The meanings of words change considerably, according to who says them, to whom, and in what circumstances.

2. The meanings of words change over time.

3. The way a word is spoken or said also is important in determining its meaning.

4. The power of a word as well as its meaning depends greatly on the setting in which it is used.

If I were on a “spectrum,” I would not be red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, or violet. I would be a Jolly Roger, saying My Prisoners Will Survive. I am an observer. This made me good at writing report after report defending our unit’s utility to the institution, good at studying pirates, and good at taking care of my dog.

One day when I had taken Grace O’Malley to the clinic, Brandy called with the dreadful report. “Come around five,” she said. “We’ll light a candle.” Blackbeard drank rum laced with gunpowder. Where to find some? I knew that my setting and circumstances were about to change.

I flung open my door, shouted into the hall, “After today I’m leaving. Let the pirates come and fire our cannon.”

Then I went back to work as though nothing had happened.

In the comment field I remarked that “I love the piracy of words and the jolly roger of a language enthusiast baffled by ‘the secret of how people talked to each other, always knowing what to say.’” Angela replied that she spotted a future prompt in “the piracy of words,” though for the life of me I don’t remember what I meant with that phrase.

I liked the way J. F. “Jeff” McCullers ends the first stanza of his “Unto Compurgnation”:

Hands raised to heaven and shouts that
echoed across the courtyard, and
were left there unanswered, too late
the horses and too late the priests.

It was not right and it was not
intended, at least not so much.
That skin scraped on the bricks was not
in fact, the order of the day.

The cinders, the hair, the raw stench
never to be brought as charges
because naturally they said
no one was supposed to get hurt.

I used the given lines to conclude two parts of a five-part prose poem about film noir. Here’s part three of the work-in-progress:

The challenger shows his hand: three kings. In the ensuing melee, a watch with three diamonds is missing.

In the shabby hotel room, the down-on-his-luck guy with the loosened tie says, “I can change.” Ha. She knows the only sense in which a man can change is if he is a football player in his street clothes heading to the locker room where he will don his uniform and helmet before practice.

In a side street, a pawnbroker makes an offer for the pistol that is aimed right at him. “Be careful with that thing,” he says. “Do I look like a murderer?” the man with the pistol says. And the pawnbroker answers: “Do I look like a pawnbroker?”

The plan was foolproof. No one was supposed to get hurt.

That’s all I have room for. I’ll do my best to come up with an inspiring prompt for next week.

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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