Imaginary Trips to Real PlacesPrint
By David Lehman
May 1, 2018
When you design a new prompt, you never know for sure how it will turn out. It is gratifying that so much interesting work resulted from the invitation to be a mental traveler going on imaginary trips to real places. Our travelers visited Oslo, the Galápagos, Ebbets Field, Baffin Bay, Thailand, Hawaii, Montevideo, Ohio, Morocco, Normandy (Omaha Beach), Reno, Loch Lomond, San Francisco, and Sardinia, and that is not an exhaustive list.
From Angela Ball, we can always count on a blue-chip performance if the prompt has merit. In “Montevideo,” she does not disappoint:
Montevideo mourns in spangles tonight.
In the middle of somewhere, wives fly aprons
from housetops, sit down equally
with husbands wives sons daughters,
beautifully and remorselessly thinking
in the moist old city. Montevideo
in the middle of somewhere
renounces Brutalism in buildings
and roughness of action, endorses
la Dama de la Noche and the shyest
parrots. Lost to stables, roans and chestnuts
circle extravagance. In the middle
of somewhere, Montevideo mourns
in spangles tonight.
I particularly admire the specificity of reference in the second stanza and the repetition with variation that closes the poem.
“Sardinia” is the romantic destination in Eric Fretz’s variant of the venerable tradition Christopher Marlowe launched with “come live with me and be my love.” The rhymes are exhilarating:
O, come with me, if you dare,
To Sardinia, we won’t wear
Anything, and eat Sardines,
And swim above the submarines,
And live lives quite un-linear,
Ignore the clock-bound time
Of working days, and gyre
And gimble in the waves.
Then dine by light of candles
Every night, wearing only sandals,
And drink retsina in Sardinia,
And live lives quite un-linear.
Rio registers high on the meter of romantic names. But a sojourn in “Rio de Janeiro” as imagined by Cheryl Whitehead is a lonely one that is dependent on “deliverer” and “postman”:
The postman sleeps in the station
his hair smelling of diesel and Rio’s beaches
his pockets full of our infinite alphabet.
Tomorrow, he’ll catch a toothache & complain
postcards lose memory persistently.
He has no religion & we suffer
his bumbling, his mind flitting like the tempo
of a raucous Brazilian waltz. What can we do
but love the letters that never come?
Is this how a deliverer should live
lying on a bench, his bare feet
propped up as waves unravel on shore?
Ah, we’ll perish or persist
while we wait for word from Passo Fundo.
What can we do but love Rio’s heat
& wait for the postman to turn a new leaf?
James Tate’s “Finn” poems—“I Am a Finn” and “I Am Still a Finn”—made an impression on Richard Thorndyke, who gives us “I’m Not a Finn”:
I am standing in a phone booth, about
to put a quarter in, to call a relative back East.
I’m not a Finn. I’m Norwegian.
My name is Doug Draper (Dewdrop).
The English words jolly and happy come
from Old Norse, I kid you not,
but so do the words dirt (from the Old Norse word for
shit) and Hell.
Edvard Munch painted “The Scream.”
Tomorrow is Alfred Hitchcock’s death day.
He wasn’t Finnish or Norwegian, but
he made millions of people scream.
No one cares that I’m Norwegian.
They’ve never even heard of
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson the Unshutupable,
winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature,
whose death anniversary was a few days ago.
To this I say,
“Shit and Hell.”
Richard turned in more than one poem, and “The Lucinda River,” written with John Cheever in mind, is notable for several reasons, including this list of places from the first stanza:
Grahams, Hammers, Lears, Howlands
Crosscups, cross Ditmar to Bunkers,
Levys, Welchers, Hallorans, Sachses,
Biswangers, Adams, Gilmartins, Clydes;
Cloudy Hackensack, Cumulus Lisbon
The opening of Charise Hoge’s “Morocco” is irresistible:
You’re a muscle memory
yet to be acquired, a taste
well-known—of tagine and harissa.
How I miss you when we haven’t met.
See your lantern lit in my library.
Adams Morgan has a pseudo-souk
—I’m sold on a pair of your babouche.
Impractical footwear gets me nowhere
near a medina, but shuttles after quaint.
These bids to make your acquaintance.
See? Your lantern lit in my library.
An overnight train trip in Thailand receives this treatment from Margot Suydam:
I want to take an overnight train in Thailand
crackle into Siam’s ancient capital, its sacred
castles all carved out of wind wafting sand
red brown temples with tendrils pointedly
prodding the sky. Or float a sluggish longboat
upstream from Bangkok’s tuk-tuk hustle and heat
bustle of markets flooded with bugs and Buddhas.
On a path set with golden statues and saints
I might land amid the ramshackle huts of long
neck woman weaving watercolor wares
no one buys. Or leave poppy, tea, and water
buffalo behind, gazing south to old-town Phuket
where a lost China remains in blazing memory
My last stop on an overnight train in Thailand.
The two similes in the opening stanza of Ricky Ray’s “Hawaii” work beautifully:
The pool blue of Hawaii
haunts me like
the eye of a dog
whose other eye was brown
like the skin
of my father
all day swinging a machete
in the sun,
I want the ungodly
way the women
would watch him work
through his troubles
to feed me,
fat boy who ate too much
because a dog was his mother
and both of them ate the sun.
I’d recommend ending the first stanza with a period and I believe Ricky could improve the wording of the first five lines of the second stanza. But there’s nothing problematic about the last three lines.
Honorable mention: Patricia Smith for “Galápagos,” Donald LaBranche for “Normandy, Omaha Beach,” Michael C. Rush for “Death” (“The most exotic destination, /and I’ll never see it”), and Ravindra Rao for “Nowhere in Particular.”
For the appreciative comments that my own entry elicited, I am grateful:
Forget about places. Think of names.
Forget mountains, the lakes, the vineyards,
the battlefields and the cities. Think of
Waterloo, the station in London,
or Austerlitz, the Paris métro stop
named after a major Napoleonic victory. Forget
rivers, waterfalls with names, the dark blue sea.
Think of reading Tolstoy on the veranda
of a cabin on a Caribbean cruise with the sea
green and regular as the second hand of your watch.
When Charise Hoge raised the question of a title for the poem, I said that I liked “Waterloo” but was not absolutely convinced that it’s the best title. Charise suggested “secondhand” and I thought “Second Hand Places” might do the trick. Michael C. Rush wondered whether “The Second Hand” would work but in the end came down in favor of “Waterloo,” and I concur. I like the resonance of “Waterloo,” a battlefield in Belgium that is a major underground hub and train station in London. Napoleon was defeated there, yet in a strange way history has declared him the winner, because the name Waterloo conjures up not the Duke of Wellington, the victorious general, but the Corsican who began his military comeback from Elba (“Able was I ere I saw Elba”).
Thanks to the prompt, and the lively discussion that ensued, I took the opportunity to translate Baudelaire’s prose poem “Anywhere Out of the World” this weekend and will seek to publish it.
For next week … how about a poem beginning with a first line that captured my fancy when I saw it on a TV listing as a one-sentence summary of War and Peace: “Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.” The two clauses are perfectly balanced, each one a subject, verb, and object, and the incongruity between the two clauses is very funny. Twelve to 14 lines.
Deadline: Saturday, May 5, 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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