“It Was I”


Last week, I asked us to consider the false confession as a subgenre along the lines of the fake apology. What resulted was stunning in its variety. The award for maximum action with minimal word count goes to Stephanie Cohen’s “It Was I Who”:

Read your riddles
Scorned your stillborns
Trashed your hogwash
Thieved your reprieves
Lost your dear dog
Spilled your goodwill
Lapped it up
Fibbed your fictions
Truthed your kernels
Watched the house burn
Left the children
Fled the crime scene
Steered you deadly
Let you leap
Said don’t look

Charise Hoge’s “Shooting for the Moon” wins the sonority prize for the run of rhymes that energizes it:

They handed me a gun
—dusk, as it happened,
moon misbegotten on
my glass-top table. Sullen,
I aimed—not pointing at anyone,
not blaming the run
of Furies, not looking to shun
repercussions of a percussive gun.
Shards surround, leaves abun-
dant fever the ground. It’s autumn.
I’m mad for a glow minus reflection.

Some NLP regulars thought the poem would be better off without its first line. I vote to retain it, though the version recommended by the redoubtable Keith Barrett and Emily Winakur, in which the opening two lines are flipped, is an excellent alternative.

You can count on Angela Ball to make the most of a prompt, and in “Tea Hot Pot Restaurant,” she gives us a prose poem that steers confession into the realm of boast:

When a clerk in a dress shop asked me if I needed help, I said, “I don’t think I will find anything among these plaids and florals. I am a voodoo queen pretending to be ordinary.” At the butcher shop, I asked for a steamship round and a standing rib roast. “I’m having a large party of men over. It is the Beard Society and they have asked me to judge whose beard is most luxuriant. I didn’t tell them I don’t like beards.” At the toy store, I looked at a stone that when lit fills the air with tiny she-goats. “One day,” I said to the owner, “I will invent a toy whose appeal has nothing to do with size.” At the Tea Hot Pot Restaurant I told the waiter, “My friend has been delayed. He is buying me a present, but is having trouble finding the perfect one. I think I will start. But first I must tell you that your placemat is wrong. I was not born in any of the years listed here, so I’m not a dog, horse, or any other of these animals. ‘Aha,’ you may say. ‘She is so old that her birth year isn’t listed.’ But that’s not it. I was born between years, and my animal is a no-see-um.”

Donald LaBranche has a wonderful title, “But Now,” for a parochial school recollection that takes a diabolical turn:

St. Teresa’s parish, late 1950’s. The church is impenetrable, aloof,
a single candle for light. It is the week of our First Communion.
The Sisters have marched us in, shoulder-to-shoulder, index fingers

at our lips, to rehearse the good confession before Saturday. They are legion.
“Here is the door to the confessional. Here is the kneeler. The screen.”
Here is the story we must hear: “She was in a class before you and sat

where you are sitting now.” (They are a well-practiced Greek chorus.)
“She contrived made-up sins, was unrepentant, laughed at the sacrament,
hoped to fool the priest. The Devil was not fooled. When she took the host

during Mass, the Devil had her by the throat and choked the lie out of her.
Her parents wept, and she was buried in unhallowed ground, lost forever.”
We had not known that we were naked, nor that we should have been afraid.

Among the great classic works of confession, St. Augustine’s has a particular claim on our attention, as Patricia Wallace demonstrates in “Augustine Confesses”:

Theft thrilled me. Not the despised pears
but ripeness and excess. I loved
my own undoing, my errors, my shame.
My liberty was that of a runaway, my sexual habits
at a skillet’s center, outrageous desires
hissing around me. Unreasonably attached
to the pleasure of mortal bodies, I fused
with one I never name. So deeply engrafted.
When she was torn from me, my maimed heart
limped along a trail of blood. Then came longing
for immutable light, my soul laddering higher
and higher, through all the degrees of matter,
through the heavenly spheres: the eternity
beyond time itself. Breathless, that moment
of brushing lightly as skin against it

Patricia confesses that while she “stole most of the language for this from Augustine’s Confessions,” the result is “not necessarily true to Augustine’s argument,” a remark that may spur you to return to the source.

The award for revision goes to J. Randall Brett’s “Auto-da-fé.” We witnessed its evolution from flawed first draft to finished work:

I welcome this morning
of my auto-da-fé.

I confess to it all, it was my apostasy
in your arms, not yours, my
heresy of love, not yours,
my skin, the blasphemy
of livid fire.

Your eyes,
the eyes of an Inquisitor.

I declare
I do not repent.

Beth Dufford’s “And If I” earns a special commendation for her use of the triolet form:

… confess to you a bunch of things,
then here we go again! So, let’s
admit to lots of gruesome things—
confess to you a bunch of things
I did: I lied. I stole some things
(you knew I would!) and so? So let’s
confess—to you—a bunch of things:
then here we go again! So: let’s.

I’d like also to commend Emily Winakur for “One-Lane Bridge,” especially lines seven through 14:

My creek is stung with drought, lined
with little weapons—cacti, bull nettle.
Someone took wire cutters to the fence.
Someone dragged a dirt trail
to a barbed hole and got through,
alone or carrying—what?
I’m dangerous at night,
in flash floods, alight with fireflies
and shrines to the dead.
I’m a sunset trap for you diurnal creatures
who think you know the way home,
who linger in the half-red light
to savor the smell of algae wafting up
as the water cools at last.
Turn back, turn back, before
the deer reach the salt lick,
before that rocky outcrop a day ago

Pamela Joyce S “Thirteen Confessions (A Cento)” concludes with a beautiful line by George Herbert: “We must confess that nothing is our own.”

It is not easy, she’d confess,
to confess something sacred,
to open and confess
not trust. I confess, I shut
the body always first to confess
joys, that confess
because I had to release them, I confess
a different beauty. They want you to confess,
confess in darkness,
to confess for me and take the blame.
We confess we both wear armor
and I confess a hopeless weakness.
We must confess that nothing is our own.

In a second poem, “Without You, Suffering is My Name (sin ti sufrir es mi nombre),” Pamela also took me up on the idea of making a poem out of a bilingual pun:

This morning, sitting sullen in
our kitchen drinking sin tea,
no honey, I find myself
waffling between relief and
despair. So freer but lonely.
I think I hear the train you ride
to work leaving the station,
but the sound I hear wailing
is me—numb bray.

Pamela shares the bilingual prize with Eric Fretz, author of “Words and Things”:

One lazy day we had the idea of doing two shows. You know those things, say “shows.” But first we needed a thing, the show needed a set («cette chose»). But to choose one we had to put on our shoes, and we had none, so no show, sir (« nos chaussures »). Instead, we slept like a saw (say “saw”).

As promised, here is my own effort, “Lazy Day,” which capitalizes on the homophonic les idées (“the ideas”) in French:

“Up the Lazy River.” “Lazy Bones.” These are the songs
of our idyllic day when you sew and I type or you cook
and I make drinks or you take a nap or fall asleep while
we’re watching Mrs. Miniver for the eleventh time and
I head out to the hammock on an autumn afternoon
that feels like summer with my pocket notebook
and a bunch of unfashionable books, essays by
Thomas Mann, Revaluation by F. R. Leavis,
The Hedgehog and the Fox. The ideas delight me,
whether Tolstoy’s idea of history, Schopenhauer
on the anguish of the world and the rage to live,
or where Shelley went horribly wrong (Leavis).
And just think: smart people used to discuss
these ideas as if they matter, and I still think they do,
so I pull out my notebook and write these lines
on a lazy day dedicated to les idées.

Stephanie, Charise, Eric, Beth, and J. Randall can claim their prizes by emailing kdaniels@theamericanscholar.org.

Thanks to all. Next Tuesday, a new prompt will magically materialize in this space.

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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