Next Line, Please

Homage to Anna Kamienska

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By David Lehman

May 29, 2018


 

Last week, I proposed two of Anna Kamienska’s aphorisms—“Sleep is what I’ll miss most when I die,” and “I walk around disguised as an overweight old lady”—as possible springboards for poems. I know a prompt has succeeded if it has pr0voked more than a couple of poems that I want to read three or four times to savor the experience fully.

Both aphorisms worked well. “What I’ll miss most when I die” inspired Patricia Wallace’s “Homage to Kamienska,” which won plaudits from some of our most discerning readers:

When I am dead I’ll miss the fox
who took up residence in my skull and listened
for the scurry of mouse feet under the many
layers of snow on my heart, and the owl asking “who,”
perched on the stones of my spine. I’ll miss
the hummingbirds migrating between my ribs,
their small hearts beating so fast I thought that mine
had stopped. I’ll miss the fish swimming my body’s waters
searching a way to the sea, the hare unrepentently
nibbling my pelvic meadows, the fireflies lighting
candles in the chambers of my ears, the chameleon lizards
lazily sunning themselves on the stations of my shoulder
blades. How surprised they will be, these small creatures,
for whom time moves more slowly, to find the doors
closing and all trace of inhabitants gone.

In “What I’ll Miss Most,” Christine Rhein surprises us with her opening line—and sustains the surprise because she is able to make to-do lists serve not only as metonymys of the day but as a metaphor for a life:

To-do lists are what I’ll miss most when I die,
all the post-its stuck to my fridge (defrost
chicken), on the counter (wash windows),
in my purse (buy chicken). How boring my days
will be, just lying around, not knowing
what needs prioritizing, what to cook, bake,
mop, dust, scrub, launder, mend, polish,
submit, re-submit. Not to mention family,
friends—everyone I owe emails, phone calls,
visits, and how, it seems, I can’t help wanting
to bring them flowers, herbs, tomatoes—
types I’ve jotted down to plant this year, or next …

Among the many other fine poems were some that benefitted from the critical commentary of NLP. Ed Keller submitted more than one entry worthy of close critical attention. The compelling poem entitled “Heroism” began life as “Not the Heroic Strategies for Walking Toward Death I Initially Intended to Write,” and had a superfluous opening stanza, which you won’t find here:

What are they thinking
as I swashbuckle my way through town
racing from errand to errand
looking danger in the eye, saying Ha!
and carrying on?

Are they thinking
thank the living God this one exists
for we will be
kept safe from harm by this
guardian angel sent from heaven?

Or are they thinking
why doesn’t he go back to wearing
his Hawaiian shirt with streaks of Cheeto dust on it
that always brought him and our enemies
such crap luck?

Ed took to heart Emily Winakur’s advice: “I like the idea of this poem starting with stanza 2 and being all questions.” The original title struck me as needlessly self-conscious, and the one-word substitute more in tune with Ed’s true subject. Ed went along with the proposed changes: “‘I agree, with the hole of my heart,’ he murmured.”

“Tourist Trap” was a second Ed Keller poem that attracted my attention as a practical critic:

I walk around disguised as a tourist
even though I’m from here
Wardrobe pieced together
from airport to downtown souvenir shop
I carry a bag from one of these places
as though I just came from there
I suppose it increases
my chances of being
targeted by people who look
for someone to take advantage of
In fact I know it does
Little do they know,
until the bag is opened,
that this is not simply a fashion statement
or an unconscious reflection
of my own mediocrity
This is the look of a villain killer
For I am living bait.

Ed expressed doubts about his ending. I could be wrong, of course, but I advanced the idea that the poem would pack a punch if Ed dropped the last two lines and ended tersely with “This is the look of a killer.” I wonder what others think.

Diana Ferraro wisely heeded Emily Winakur’s advice and lopped off three inessential lines (“Where nothing else but dreary honks sounds. / I bask in a wave of dazzling sunbeams /As rain pours and the south wind blows”) to get to the point sooner in “Rooftop.” Here is the poem as revised:

I walk around disguised as my old young self
With a sixties hairdo and hearing Let It Be
I ring at the doctor’s office in thrill
As though a lover were waiting for me.
When I’m told he’s not yet there
I apologize and go back into the street
I believe in signals and horoscopes
He was a Leo, wasn’t he? Not one for me.
I walk around disguised as my old young self
Not the least beaten, not the least tired.

Byron’s poem opens with a reference to his great namesake: Lord Byron had a club boot, and was prone to gaining weight if he did not keep to a strict exercise regimen. The poem’s pivot after line six is well-done, and I like the echo of Whitman and the nostalgia of the final line:

I walk around disguised as a fat man
with a club foot, or a bag lady in
the lift going down, or a bag man
delivering hundred dollar bills in
an old-fashioned medical bag to
the future mayor of Los Angeles.
Only in my sleep do I walk around
undisguised, naked, twenty years old.

Michael C. Rush suggested the title of “Three Bags Full.” I counted two bags, but there are three instances of the word “bag,” and besides, as Michael points out, the echo of the nursery rhyme commends the title.

Angela Ball helpfully steers us in the direction of Nabokov’s locution “poshlust,” a term I’ve always taken to embrace junk and rubbish, particularly pretentious rubbish, the bogus and the fake. The pathos here lies in the particularity of “poshlust” as Angela renders it:

“I Walk Around Disguised”
(for Anna Kamienska)

Not as Tuesday, day
of Mars; nor Thursday, day

of thunder and crushing, nor
mercurial Wednesday,

nor Friday, love’s goddess, but

as someone’s idea
of poshlust,

as a due date stamped by
the time mistress,

as an architectural shrub,
an unshelved suspect,

as a fairground fortune dispenser,

as the fox’s fingers,
the rabbit’s saddle,

as the “bye” in “good-bye,”
a vanished baseball,

as submarine time
lightly connected to land.

The simplicity of Ravindra Rao’s poem delighted me:

Oh, when I die I’ll miss the bus ride
from Chicago to Detroit
the passing trees, all million of them,

McDonald’s billboards peppered in—
I’ll miss your fish-mouth, sleeping face
agape, your head light against the window—

it is high spring, an orchestra is fine
-tuning the instruments of life
& I will miss all this in death

If it were my poem, I would be tempted to amend line two, replacing “all million of them” with a more surprising number—“all 89,213 of them,” maybe.

Millicent Caliban’s “Post-mortem” begins with a great proliferation of “or” identities:

Sometimes I walk around disguised
as an overweight old lady,
or as an anorexic teen,
or dreadlocked Rastafarian,
or a Wall Street hedge fund trader
or redlight district denizen.

Thus can I stride the streets again,
blend with the motley midtown crowd.
“It’s not the same as in real life
when in the flesh and on the go,
but what I miss most now that I
am dead is being in the flow.

While admiring the craft of the poem’s final lines, I wondered why they came as a let down. I think maybe it’s because of the poetical touches. The closure achieved by the final rhyme (“on the go” and “in the flow”) is undermined by the familiarity of the phrases—a problem that Millicent can probably fix just by foreshadowing the words with the image of a river or stream (“flow”). But, of course, I could be wrong.

Cheryl Whitehead’s “Tone Poem” rejuvenates the “sagging skin” and “rusty breath” of old age with an antic “French horn in the attic”:

I walk around disguised as an overweight old lady
& when I get home, I try to shake her off & rack
her in the foyer closet. We tussle when she refuses.
Every night I wear her sagging skin to bed.
I feel her rusty breath filling up my chest! I’m grateful,
I guess. She doesn’t have hot flashes. She lets me play
French horn in the attic. Who else but she could bear
Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks at six A.M.

Using “Sleep is what I’ll miss most when I die” as her epigraph, Patricia Smith arrests us from the start:

not exactly what I was thinking
Wednesday
in the operating room—
bright lights, masked faces
invisible friends gathered around
husband’s brushed kiss—
as I awaited the elixir
that would put me to sleep
and allow me to wake up
wires in place, heart restored.

I would also commend “Deep Song Delta,” Charise Hoge’s character sketch of her “petite grandmother” (“the way she refused to sleep in the / master bedroom once her man left this earth / …the way she sneaked out a window in Rosedale, / pregnant at sixteen, to elope.”)

In “After Anna,” Donald LaBranche chose to respond to a specific poem by Anna Kamienska, “A Prayer That Will Be Answered”:

Let me live disguised as a bringer of grace;
of useful, brambled things.

Let me discern the Slavic inflection of the rain
thrumming notes across the roof.

Let the shared bed be clothed in sheets
perfumed by noon-day weather.

“Sleep is what I’ll miss when I die.” That is,
the surprise of waking, vital, alert, just at dawn.

Let that surprise sweeten the fruit on the table.
Let it knead the sweet bread and the dreams.

Let sweet bread be eaten with butter.
Let dreams be put to use.

Springing from Kamienska “sleep” epigraph, David Lehman’s poem “The Dark Horse” profited greatly from the acumen of NLP regulars:

Chances are, I will miss nothing.

Death like good fortune comes
when you’re least ready or you’ve given up on it.

My definition of Zen is
you get what you want when you no longer want it.

Death comes as an even greater surprise than
risking fifty thousand bucks on the dark horse
in the Belmont and winning.

And if the long shot comes through
and there’s an afterlife, I would like to hear
“But Not For Me” with Vic Damone’s voice.

The poem gained its title from Michael C. Rush. Patricia Wallace seconded Michael’s “brilliant suggestion” of replacing “Chances Are,” my original title, with “The Dark Horse,” adding that the last stanza works because of the “punch” of “long shot” and the “chime” of “afterlife” and “voice.” I wondered whether perhaps to incorporate “chances are” in my first line (which had been “I will miss nothing. I will not miss a thing.”) and was encouraged to do so by Emily Winakur, who read my poem in conjunction with Sarah Manguso’s “The Rider” (The Best American Poetry 2001). Michael C. Rush clinched the deal: “On the one hand, I’m incapable of reading the phrase without hearing Johnny Mathis singing in my head. And I really like the strong punch of line 1 without it,” Michael wrote. “Then again, it ties in with the gambling/fortune motif, and I like the echoes with the (mostly) central N sound following in fortune, definition, Zen, want, Belmont, winning, Damone. ‘Chances are … but not for me,’ I think gives the poem a tighter shape/arc. So although I was initially going to say it seemed superfluous, I think I’ve come around to thinking it is not.”

These responses beautifully exemplify what I like the most about this enterprise of ours: the level of critical discourse, the candor and intelligence informed by mutual sympathy.

I write this on an unusually warm, tranquil Memorial Day, traditionally the start of summer (in my mind, at least). My best wishes go to all. Next Tuesday you will find a new prompt that I hope will fire your engines.


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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