Next Line, Please

How August, How Noble

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By David Lehman

August 29, 2017


 

 
Kierkegaard’s line, “Perhaps nothing ennobles a human being so much as keeping a secret,” served as our prompt this week. The clause appears in his book Either/Or. We’re told that the kept secret “gives a man’s whole life a meaning,” and the person Kierkegaard chooses to illustrate the point is not a man at all but Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, heroine who defies the tyrant Creon. Kierkegaard says she is the bride of her destiny and postulates an alternative version of the myth in which only Antigone, not even her parents, know the Oedipal truth.

Wonderful poems came in. Some used the Kierkegaard line as an epigraph or point of departure, others ventured to tell a secret while somehow keeping it. In the latter category is Aaron Fagan’s “Novels for the Moons”:

She kept herself under the rose
And chose not to name it. She
Always knew she was not a man.

She was poisoned into such
A prison of a body and a mind
That now, of the names she

Gives the world, the name
She gave her man and took
From his isn’t one of them.

There’s a truth she let’s her
Lovers know, but no one
Knows the truth like her.

Her soundtrack for the distant
Earth is her Paradiso playing
On the daylight between us.

Elizabeth Solsburg uses indirection to find out true direction in her “Secret”:

Strong enough for a man …
smooth shaft gliding on fragile skin—
the most intimate caress.
It slides across those hidden spaces,
masking dark musk
and marking its place with scent
that tells those who are allowed close
to understand
how august, how noble
to be made for a woman

Elizabeth gets extra points for sneaking in the word “august”—from Wallace Stevens’s line “Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination”—as does Angela Ball, whose title echoes that of a great essay by Emerson. In Angela’s “Compensation” we learn that “reality slaps imagination / silly” more often than not:

A newly famous
writer went overboard—
asked for a phone
by the pool
in case Hollywood
called—this
at a time when phones
didn’t go places. Showed off
a Gatsby pile of shirts, said,
“My wife gets her underwear
from J.C. Penney,” then asked,
“When you speak of this
someday, be kind.”

Success seldom makes men
august—but often
makes them trade
a September wife
for April. The old marriage
exposed, eons of strata
brought to light
by blasting.

You don’t have to be an old master
to know: reality slaps imagination
silly. Each time it does
someone secretly shares
the sting, makes of it
a vase of daffodils, a planet
on a table, a photogram
of crescent suns.

Millicent Caliban alludes to a famous detective story by Edgar Allan Poe as well as Stevens, the poet who wrote “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:

For Edgar Allan Poe and Peter Quince

Like the purloined letter, the secret is
hidden in plain sight. But you do not
see it because you do not know
what it is. Explore the keyboard
with your fingers, pick out the tune.
It will insinuate itself
into your soul. You alone are
the secret sharer who cannot
rest until the chord finds its true
resolution—responsive call,
ricocheting from the canyon
or plunging from the waterfall.
Only there you hear the echo
of your real name being spoken;
you are wolf, bear, snake or raven,
who recreates reality
in the august audacity
of your own imagination.

Stephanie Cohen sets out to exemplify “The Most August Imagination,” for which she revived a phrase from a poem she wrote in response to an earlier prompt, “You Weren’t Serious”:

Into the meter I dropped coins and watched
the red parking dial fret forward—
a sundial’s inscription: “Thus passes a lifetime”

We sat at a tiny table. You reached for my hands.
Yours never seemed so thin-skinned.

Your imagination, not yet, calcified:
You said, “Ladies love my august mind.”

You fished for a treasure I couldn’t give you.
I lost my nerve before the check came and
in the bathroom checked to see if I left myself.

Where the paper towels should have been
I found a ledger of discussions about my choices.

You left me with a sting about women you hate.
This was unclever, but the silence was killing you.

You weren’t serious when you said you’d always
be my friend. Such lies are easier said than done.

A meter expired, my trouble retires.
Sequestered texts choked the secret sharer.
Truncation plays by the rules of a losing hand.

Patricia Smith’s untitled poem fruitfully ponders her epigraph:

“Perhaps nothing ennobles a human being so much as keeping a secret.” —Soren Kierkegaard

One has a secret he keeps hidden inside.
One hints he has a secret he will not share.
The former garners no accolades.
The latter garners many
from those to whom he hints.
Who is the more august?
Is it the former
though no one knows
he carries his secret close to his heart?
Or is it the latter
who shares he has a secret
he will not reveal?

Diana Ferraro’s “Old Way” gives us the lowdown on an august wedding ceremony:

Few knew,
some suspected,
no one would believe.
Pointing out to the gown’s
imperial high-waist,
your brother said:
“The secret sharer!”
You didn’t laugh at his joke,
less tangled with him
in one more skirmish
before the august ceremony.
The groom, in one corner,
silent, trapped.
He hadn’t meant it!
Could he still run away?
Boisterous bells banged
in his chest, singing:
She did it!
She did it!
She did it!

Had I but world enough and time I would also quote lines if not entire poems from Paul Michelsen (“Pass the pocket knife— / Firm handshake, highfive, / wounded wave goodbye”), Linda Marie Hilton (“Revel in our reluctance to reveal!; ennobled, bound by our secret fealty”), Michael C. Rush (who argues with Kierkegaard), Ravindra Rao’s “Family Secrets,” Justin Knapp’s “Doppelganger,” Charise Hoge’s “Hunch Over Lunch,” and Emily Winakur’s well-titled “Timeline.”

Thanks to all, and special thanks to Michael C. Rush for sharing his ideas for future prompts.

Next week I will present a new prompt. You will have to hold your horses until then, although I know you’re raring to go. But I promise a stimulating and challenging prompt as I make my annual transition from summer to autumn and from country living to city life.

 


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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