Next Line, Please

Like Dancing Down the Aisle

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By David Lehman

May 19, 2015


 

 

So many good entries this week! They make me happy and confirm my belief that the simile—supposedly a subordinate figure of speech—can play a lead role in guiding a poem into being.

In the name of democracy and participatory reading, let me present my three favorites and ask you to cast your ballot.

As a longtime fan of Raymond Chandler who finds his similes and muted hyperboles irresistible, I may be an ideal reader for Angela Ball’s “Chandleresque”:

I felt like an amputated leg.
I felt I belonged here like a pearl onion on a banana split.
I felt like a thousand shabby lives.
I felt cold and wet as a toad’s belly.
I felt like a showgirl’s last pair of stockings.
I felt like the smile in your hip pocket.

 The title makes an allusion to Hart Crane (who has a spectacular poem entitled “Chaplinesque”), and I recognize at least a few of the lines from Chandler’s detective novels. I suspect many if not all of them are lifted straight from this master of the wisecrack, creator of Philip Marlowe. My one suggestion: vary the openings of the lines, even if just a little. I appreciate the use of anaphora, but I would suggest that dropping “I felt” in line two and maybe changing “I felt” to something more surprising at the start of lines three and five.

Then there is Christine Rhein’s “In the Waiting Room,” the title of which echoes that of a celebrated late poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

Steady as a plow, an old woman crochets, her hook digging
in and out of rows, growing a gray blanket. The man beside her
watches the insistence of his own right arm, its tremor blaring
like the television, ad after ad for sunlit meadows, embraces.
When his name is called, she packs away the wool, the bundle
fuzzy, rough as hope. They stand, nudge each other forward,
shuffle, like they’re skating on rusted blades or seized-up wheels.
But no, they’re smiling. Like they’re dancing down the aisle.

The last line is particularly compelling, buoyant in a way you wouldn’t have predicted from the first lines with their notable word choices: “growing” a blanket, the “insistence” of a tremulous arm. The similes in the last two lines clinch the deal, though I would respectfully suggest substituting “as if” for “like” in both lines.

And I would like to commend Charise Hoge’s “Fortune”:

Forgiveness infallible as wings beating into arcing flight
sounding like a shudder of psalms circling
my rigid frame shaken unbolted like a trap door,
like a jaw dropped upon awe—awe like an anvil upon
which I am chiseled as the marble of myself, a marvel
casting off bitterness like sour bits of milk that churn
into butter like a taste of breaking the fast between us.

Here the acceleration of the lines gathers force; the relation of the title to the first word is noteworthy, as is the beautiful internal rhyme of “jaw” and “awe” in the pivotal fourth line.

I have something special contrived for next week’s contest, but these and other entries—by Millicent Caliban, Leonard Kress, Paul Michelsen, Berwyn Moore, and LaWanda Walters—may persuade me to return to the simile (and to other neglected figures of speech) very soon.

 


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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