Next Line, Please

Got Game? Time for a Summer Haiku

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By David Lehman

July 11, 2017


 

NLP regular Courtney Thrash has likened this column to a weekly anthology, and the term is especially apt on weeks like this one when the quality of the submissions is so high that bouquets rather than medals seem to be in order. With her call for poems centered on gamespoems about games or poems that incorporate the structure of a game in their design—Angela Ball prompted a diverse array of wonderful entries.

Millicent Caliban’s “Summer Nights in the Country Before the Internet” blends eloquence and nostalgia to praise “not winning, but the play of wit” that results in a conspiracy of delight:

When it finally became dark,
the men withdrew to television.
After the dishes had been washed,
three generations of women
would gather in the dining room
to play board games or deal out cards.
We played for pennies but the best
was all the banter, teasing jokes.
It was the game that made us playful,
not winning, but the play of wit,
conspiring to entertain
ourselves, delighting in each other.

Clay Sparkman’s brief prose poem, “Before Monopoly,” couldn’t be more different in form, tone, content, and approach to content. There is an aura of whimsy at the service of a profound question: “how to die properly.”

The earliest board game was found in Egypt. 5,000 years old. The game: Senet, which translated to “game of passing.” The Book of the Dead refers to Senet. It seems the object was not to amass vast sums of money, but to learn how to die properly. That, you see, was long before the divorce of Mr. Sacred and Mrs. Profane. I guess you know who got the game rights.

Ricky Ray’s “Forbidden Diamonds” explores the metaphorical richness of baseball, ending on a superbly climactic note:

We didn’t play for keeps. Money never changed hands.
No one packed lunch: the diving catch with the bases
loaded and Joey coming up with a bruised rib—

that we ate all day. For spectators, we had our silent,
spitting hearts. The shadow women waiting at home
in our socks. We wanted every pitch to smoke,

Every swing to smack the whole world over the wall.
After a while the score didn’t matter. The toe in the dirt,
Raul’s wild arm, the pigeon that shit on first base:

it was always and only the play. I batted for both sides.
Couldn’t catch for shit. Stepped up to the plate
and everyone shut it. It was something

to something, we were squinting in the dusk,
and we all shouted at the guard to wait a fucking
minute as he threatened to call the cops. I imagined

Johnny was throwing me the guard’s fat head, a slider,
teeth first, slick with the grease of his polyester
sweat—they said I swung so hard I broke the air.

The prolific Paul Michelsen wrote a multiple-part poem, each section of which could stand on its own. My favorite is “The Aging Athlete”:

I’m not afraid of it
I just don’t understand why
you have to get older and look
like the people in supermarkets

I saw a guy jogging on the beach
He was in a trance, must’ve been
seventy-eight years old
He was skinny, looked good
I said there’s my new idol
He’s looking at all the seagulls
hanging in the wind
Then he’s a mile and a half down the beach
I wonder what book was in his brain

I was hit by a car in Montreal
I was carrying a book in my brain
Denial of Death

That car stopped
and brought me to the hospital
Taken many rides like that
in Geronimo’s Cadillac

Elizabeth Solsburg makes excellent use of anaphora in “Let’s Play”:

Let’s play a game of hide and seek
tonight, when everyone else
has fallen asleep.

Let’s go into the street
with flashlights and sneak
into the neighbor’s empty house—I saw where they hide the key.

Let’s roll like puppies on their carpeted floor—unstained
and smelling of something clean, slide across the kitchen tiles
where no gritted glass waits to burrow into our feet.

Let’s race our cars down
the long empty hall, making motor noises
as loud as we want—vroom-vroom!

And not tune our ears to the other room,
where rage throttles
its engine to a fast, hard roar.

Let’s play a game here
in the gentle dark, let’s
laugh and pretend no monster is near.

It may have been Elizabeth’s poem that prompted Byron to write “Yes, Let’s”:

Yes, Let’s

Let’s take a trip to Niagara but not to look at the Falls
(an American woman’s second biggest disappointment
according to a decadent chap from London)

Let’s play the game of life, a board game like “Monopoly”
or a movie like Platoon or The Deer Hunter god forbid
it wasn’t a game it was our lives and not a game of chess

Let’s throw darts and pick stocks let’s undress and play
unstrip poker let’s do it and then deny it let’s go to the hop
to the Cape of Good Hope to the moon to another century 

Christine Rhein, though “short on time, but not on NLP inspiration,” ran with “the game of life”:

The game of life can be fun. Play is simple
but it takes awhile to catch all the rules.

When you land on Night School, don’t worry
about Millionaire Estates. Play continues

clockwise. It’s confusing, but getting married
is like buying a house—stop and wait

before you spin the wheel again. Knowing
how to move ahead is important. Mountains.

Bridge. Paydays. Baby boy, baby girl,
twins—cards face up in front of you.

Flood. Tornado. Midlife crisis.
Someone has to pay the taxes.

My own effort occurred as an associative improvisation:

When the spirits are on vacation, they play
among themselves, they play quartets by Schubert
they speculate about his unfinished symphony why
didn’t he finish it and Ann argues that the two movements
we have are enough and will suffice the music outlasts
even the image we play our American favorites
Gershwin, Arlen, Rodgers, Kern, Porter, Bernstein et al.
and Joe gives everyone a stick of chewing gum
and Barbara says let’s plays stickball and we do,
splitting in two, two teams, the sophists versus the poets

Angela Ball’s “Bridge” plays with several meanings of that word:

A bridge lies in air between two or more masses. No suggestions as to play may be made to the one standing out (Dummy) to the dealer. Some drivers cannot negotiate a bridge that violates perspective. A revoked hand counts the same as at Short Whist, but the exposed hand cannot revoke. How long can a bridge be? A misdeal does not change the deal, but in such cases the cards must be re-shuffled, re-cut, and re-dealt. A bridge is to roads as queens are to people. If all tricks are taken by one side they add 40 extra points. This is called “Grand Slam.” To correct radial sway, engineers placed 20 tuned mass dampers in each tower. The winners of each rubber add 40 points to their score. This is called “consolation.” Protective netting is advisable. Equality in aces counts nothing. Shuffling can revoke. Without warning the drawbridge lifts, scattering the cars.


It’s time for a high-summer haiku. Let’s keep it simple but kosher: five syllables in line one, seven syllables in line two, five syllables in line three, and the poem should make some reference to “summer” or “July.” Give it a title. What could be more like a game?

Despite my own inclinations as an anthologist, I promise to pick a winner and two runners upwin, place, and shownext week.  Thanks, everyone, and please feel free to spread the word. . .

Deadline: July 15, 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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