Next Line, Please

Like People in Novels

By David Lehman | November 6, 2018
Flickr/Christiane Wilke

Last week, I asked you to write a poem that uses a line by Edith Wharton as its point of departure. The line: “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” The source: Wharton’s Age of Innocence. The result: unified by one common element but wondrous in its variety.

In “The Gauge of Dissonance,” Aaron Fagan uses the line as an epigraph. The title impresses with its cleverness, but the poem does more than impress—it rises to eloquence and stimulates thought:

We can, but there is no one there to explain us to ourselves
Or others—the tidy or perfectly untidy inner lives of strangers
Designed for us to love or not love but love then unlove
And then love again by story’s end. And no one is so perfectly
Self-aware as those imagined in all those parallel linear lines
Of prose like striped prison uniforms now set free in verse
No matter how unskillful their behavior might’ve been those
Years ago, beneath a balcony in Paris, and the decision to leave.

I love the “parallel linear lines / Of prose like striped prison uniforms now set free in verse,” though I wonder about the need for “linear.” As someone who distrusts adverbs, I was about to question “perfectly” in line two when I considered that the adjective it modified is “untidy” and that “perfectly untidy” is the kind of oxymoron Auden would have liked. The lines full of “love” are in the poem’s favor, as is its beautiful close, “Years ago, beneath a balcony in Paris.”

Millicent Caliban offered “Death Sentence”:

We can’t behave like people in novels.
We haven’t got the time, the wit, the grace.
We are bored, overworked, exhausted,
or plunged so deep in our personal swamps,
we cannot rise to the necessary
insight, irony, or self-reflection.

We slither around in the opaque mud:
reptilian, repulsive, repugnant,
lacking an author to prompt our passions,
detonate desire. We can see no plot,
no climax, no redeeming denouement.
Alas! Condemned to remain post-modern.

I voiced my enthusiasm but felt that the last line was weak. In her version 3.0, retitled “What We Lack,” Millicent built “on David’s suggestion with encouragement from Emily W., Elizabeth S. and Pamela Joyce S.” Ms. Caliban’s new last line lifts part of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice:

We can see no plot,
no climax, no redeeming denouement,
no truth universally acknowledged.

For speed of poetic evolution, Millicent earns honors (and a book). I like to imagine that the pseudonymous author is a specialist in 18th-century literature who teaches the Shakespeare course in a small, private Midwest college where traditional canons retain their force.

The award for topicality goes to Steve Bellin-Oka’s “Daylight Savings Time,” which begins with the Wharton epigraph:

This borrowed hour like a dissolved peppermint’s
aftertaste on your tongue. Muscle memory. A leg’s
aimless kick in sleep. If you break your wrist,
it hurts so long you can’t remember what it was like
to forget your body. Dusk comes upon you like
a sudden feather dropped from a departed bird.
A few days ago the birch leaves were yellow
as softened butter. Now their branches are bare,
fractured arms in white casts no one cares
to sign. Though we can’t behave like people
in novels, nail a gourd to your door anyway,
a 97th thesis: though winter is long, though
for months you must wake before the crows,
April will come. Refuse to give your hour back

The momentum of the closing peroration—partially the result of the twice reiterated “though”—is splendid.
I cannot omit Angela Ball’s inventive prose poem, “Houseguests Wanted”:

Join me at my anteater yoga retreat; my amphibious repair shop; my electromagnetic ballroom.

No bona fides, please. Or hip flasks. Bring a large bottle of hooch and whatever it couchers with.

Members of the peerage are discouraged, along with anyone who owns a pier or a pier glass.

Leave your erudition at home, along with your eructations. No parturition please. Or pudeur.

We are lacking by-your-leave’s. Bring some.

Do you prefer being “among” to being “with”? Stay home.

Ditto if you prefer “toward” to “untoward.”

If you are the woman who has advertised intelligent and provocative phone calls in the Personals section of The New York Review of Books for the last 20 years, come.

All food will be far outside anything you have ever encountered as a main course.

Be prepared for Frisbee soufflés, edible aprons, a lurid apotheosis of cream.

We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we? Certainly not like those in the novels of Thomas Hardy, always afoul of coincidence. With Dickens there’s the risk of spontaneous combustion. Be prepared to behave like people in a Jane Bowles novel. Forget you’ve ever been anything else.

I limited myself to five poems that I might quote in their entirety, and the competition for that fifth slot was fierce. Patricia Wallace’s “The Window,” with its terrific opening, carried the day:

Coming not out of nowhere, like the cold October wind
down from the mountains, the ten-year window arrives,
revising the scope of binoculars from far
to near, and we’re staring it right in the faces
of our suddenly ghostly children. We’re searching for
a story that leads to a different ending, magical
realism or a fable where polar bears regenerate
and glaciers like ice cubes refreeze, or at least
the old inhabitant trees hang on, their birdless limbs
whispering to one another. Now a blip on
the radar, we’re trying to invent new characters, better
than we are. But we can’t behave like people in novels,
can we? Jumping backward in time, heeding the warning
signs, giving the predictable conclusion the slip?

Let me also applaud Patricia Smith (whose poem begins with the Wharton epigraph, and then “I certainly hope not—” ), Louis Altman (whose phrase “a Dashiell Hammett evening” could launch a dozen poems), Donald LaBranche, Keith Barrett, and Elizabeth Solzburg for work of exceptional merit.

My own effort never got past this opening salvo:

We can go to London and Paris
Not as they are but as they were before
We first set eyes on either place.
Together we can re-enter the age of innocence.
In short, we can pretend to be you and me.
We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?

Aaron, Millicent, and Steve can claim their prize by writing to Katie Daniels at kdaniels@theamericanscholar.org.

Thanks everyone, and bravo. I have all week to think of a prompt worthy of our individual and collective talents.

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