Let the Names Begin


Yet once more, O ye laurels,” am I amazed at the gathering of poems that might not have come into existence were it not for a handy prompt—in this case, to take a name, our own or someone else’s, and make it both the subject of a poem and its formal spine.

Angela Ball’s “Acrostic Villanelle for Elizabeth Bishop” may have the most ambitious form of the entries, and it works beautifully as a gloss on Bishop’s poetry, a meditation on her given name and her surname, and an example of the form I consider the most difficult of all to master:

Elizabeth, your poems transcend loss—you would hate “transcend.”
Let me try again. They naturalize loss—join it to nature.
In Hebrew, your name means “oath of God”—curse or promise, endless.

Zoom of the VW you half-learned to drive, freedom, a patchy memory—
At last we’re getting somewhere—your poems dislike the staid, the mature.
But they do transcend loss, though you would hate “transcend.”

Evenings I spot your Man-Moth on the A train. Vaguely
Trembling, wings mashed by glum commuters, he endures.
Help me understand Elizabeth as “oath of God”—curse and promise, no end.

“Bishop” means “overseer”—the mucho mundo of your famous eye
Imagined life fresh-minted—yet quaint as a rotogravure.
Still, Elizabeth, your poems transcend loss—you would hate “transcend.”

Here I set down your two names, the first, “God’s promise” or “God’s curse.”
Old or almost old, I need the sea as you caught it, art and memory
Perfecting a beach where sandpipers rush on twigs of legs, lagging, insecure.

And you, EB, are no more than art—dubious monument to daylight,
Assortment and assembly—like Cézanne’s mountain—provisional and pure.
Your name means curse or promise, permanently.
Your poems transcend loss, though you would hate “transcend.”

By its last iteration, “Your poems transcend loss, though you would hate ‘transcend’” achieves an extra potent effect: we are impressed with its truth (Bishop would most definitely have hated “transcend”) and with the Bishop-like decision to conclude the poem with a subordinate clause.

Pamela Joyce S’s “Strung Out on Poems” wins the award for wit—and she will receive a copy of The Best American Poetry 2018 for her effort.

Poetry, mea culpa maxima,
Aligns clay persona with anima.
Mainlining morphemes and vaping verbs, I
Escape the mundane phrase. Vox humana
Lures a lucid line, words raining like manna
Assembling in time. Then … nothing. Nada.

I agree with  J. Randall Brett’s verdict: “Awesome.” Randall singled out “vaping verbs” for praise, and I would call further attention to the wondrous line endings, the compression, and the multiple ways “line” enters the poem—directly (“Lures a lucid line”) and as part of a compound word or homonym (“Mainlining,” “Aligns”).

A brevity prize—and a copy of The Best American Poetry 2018—goes to Beth Dufford for “Short for Elizabeth”:

Beets agree with her;
Elephants enchant.
Time is flexible;
Hope is extant.

Christa Whitsett Overbeck’s poem resonated with the many readers who vividly recall the day she recollects:

Children, we gathered in the gym of our parochial school
Hats and gloves exploding from our small pockets as we
Readied ourselves to embark for home that cold January afternoon.
Interrupting our impatience, a teacher quelled the chatter.
She spoke to say: “The space shuttle exploded today.”
To think: Aboard, a teacher with my name—her flesh blasted into words
Announced across the gym, the land, and dwelling now among us.

The arresting first line of Emily Winakur’s “A Day in the Life” is part of its charm, and the images that follow show there’s a lot of energy left in the Imagism that Pound and Amy Lowell championed:

Euthanasia is a euphemism.
My hibiscus bloomed three times.
I counted every time she chased a squirrel down the path,
Low and loving the ground. My predator,
Yellow-white, light in my arm

The award for originality goes to Grant Dowling, who continues to beguile me with his ability to juxtapose memorable facts, events, and names. It is almost as if Grant has used the tools of research scholarship to arrive at a method for generating the material of a poem:

G ypsies and ewjies: Grunfeld’s lithiogramic agachés reconstinpated again.
R uffling beans, another, unending. Ten times salted across—that perjurer.
A ctus. Triumphiant tribalisms, scattered triavial trivium. “No Theater in Twenty” pays.
N eo-Vichian mirandous necronometer: Patsy’s inarticulately groaning measurements.
T ithing shoebox challah, calmly Conley “chin-ups” Lowrance contradicted Barbara Johnson

B ut now, Baha Men ask: “Who let the dogs out?” A socritease, that sing, tickled my fanny
A pril 26, 2011 last. Bahamanian blisses blessed his kisses. aAhaha Tinktong.
R ichard (Dick familiarly to familiar’s too familiar familiars) Moran explained meaning.
T ransparent mental states swell swell concomitant avec Vinton Freedley’s backing, parlour de façon.
O’ Ten, damn, well. Eaten Agni. Bob Benson, Bill Wambsganss, medical exigencies
L ong, awoke reality, backward protruding. In other contexts and times I did fine.
O BE 2008: Mary Bennett, Mane Binaj, Meiji Tenno, Star Black, and the Bahamian.
M y duck burned in the heart of a pan. She hated Carmen Miranda.
E dward Taylor, specialized in Donald Richie, only Kenkyuujo imprints, only sconce-a-washiki.

Some of the names are recognizable to me—Bill Wambsganss made an unassisted triple play in a World Series game, Star Black is a photographer, Barbara Johnson taught at Harvard—but I doubt there is a key to the poem’s meaning. Its pleasure is in the pleasure of names cleverly conjoined.

Christine Rhein’s “By Way of Introduction” situates us in a cocktail party at which strangers can be sophisticated, cool, pretentious, or salacious.

“Rhein, like the river”—I say at parties, when meeting a stranger,
handing over a life vest for safe, smooth sail through talk, drinks—or
equally useful—my “Rhein, like wine”—cool and crisp, although,
if confessing here, a man once, as he touched his glass to mine, asked
nakedly: “A Rhein maiden?” Echt, the waves a married name makes

At some point Christine felt a subtitle was necessary but I would discourage that; the how-to-pronounce-it is implicit.

Two poems on Prometheus sustained multiple readings. Here is Ben Ettinger‘s “One on Prometheus”:

Pyres piled with
rank deception—glistening
offerings and smoky respirations:
machination it was of which
ever I do not repent. And then
torches fired the dust in my
hand and I smiled wide till day’s
end; now, cliffside, tethered up and down
until days end. An itch I cannot
scratch is worst of all: at least my guts return a while.

Diana Ferraro renews a cliché in the title of her acrostic homage to the great thief of fire, “Same Old Story”:

Past noon, overwhelmed, you
Realized we had forgotten the matches.
Oh! Had we not stopped smoking!
Mind provided childish images,
Ersatz, rubbing sticks, the midday sun
Tricks on a magnifying glass.
How could we reinvent civilization,
Eat warm, keep us from cold in that winter cabin?
Until you walked up hill, to the store,
Soon followed by an eagle, we didn’t know.

A final tip of the fedora to the many others who contributed well-wrought works. I am especially touched (how could I not be) by Keith Barrett’s “Yamim Nora’im,” the title a Hebrew phrase for the just-completed “days of awe” in Judaism. An acrostic that spells out my name, the poem is a cento of lines lifted from my poems and it comes replete with annotated sources:

Darkness green, however drab the scene,
Adam and Eve celebrated their carnality, and they woke, on
Valentine’s Place in Ithaca, hoping to get some sun
In trenches big enough for two lovers and a machine gun.
“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,”
Larkin quipped. But he knew better.
Existentialism was there, smoking on the balcony.
Heard the sound of the shofar.
“My sin is the beauty of your skin,” said Adam.
Angels vault past the all-time greatest pole vaulters.
Non sequiters in a deaf man’s ear.

Sources (all by David Lehman*):

1. “The Escape Artist”
2. “Mythologies”
3. “Story of My Life”
4. “Glose”
5. “Desolation Row”
6. Ibid.
7. “The Party of Ideas”
8. “L’Shana Tova”
9. “Three ‘Dialogues of One’”
10. *Translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” by David Lehman
11. “1977”

For ingenuity of commentary Barrett deserves extra commendation: “For a split second, autocorrect attempted to make ‘lovers’ ‘livers,’ which made me think of Prometheus with his regenerating liver being eaten by an eagle/by God, while fastened to a mountain, a more passive Sisyphus, cannibalized by a fellow immortal. Therefore ‘livers’ was also ‘those who live,’ because what else is one to do? But then I changed ‘livers’ right back to ‘lovers’—a reminder to myself, perhaps—though the idea of ‘In trenches big enough for two livers and a machine gun’ will always have a place in my heart.”

When I announced this week’s prompt, I improvised a five-line acrostic on my first name, but as Millicent Caliban pointed out I had begun line five with a “v” word. To Charise Hoge I owe the happy idea of splitting “in-Divisble” into two words. A new last line followed, and then a second stanza:

Do I believe in a supreme being?
Against all odds, in the face of all reason, I
Veer from the dogma of our day and
Insist that faith remains in-
Divisible, with liberty for all, and justice for some.

Let love lurk behind beloved back door
Exits, rarely reaching
Heights of hills contested by men teaching
Men to shoot straight amid the gore
And blood that is the legacy of seeing
Nothing when others see injustice done.

Should I revise it further? Probably, and give it a title, too.

A new prompt comes your way
A week from today.

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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