Long Ago, Shortly After …

I write this column on my birthday, June 11, my favorite day in my favorite month, grateful for all the cheerful wishes that have come my way. Last week I invited everyone to go to town with their favorite clichés, specifying two that struck me as exceptionally promising: “Long Story Short” and “I could be wrong.” Pride of place goes to Timothy Sandefur, who flipped the terms of the first of these, used the second as a recurring rhyme, and composd a variant of the villanelle form in “Short long story”:

I knew the story’d be a little long.
The old man seemed to lose his way at times.
He was in his 80s? Could be wrong;

don’t think he said. Told me he’d belonged
to the Air Force—this was at the time
when it was still the Army—that was long

ago. He was young, had never gone
anywhere past the county line
before. Now in Rome—no, I’m wrong;

Berlin? Anyway, he wrote his mom
or girlfriend just a couple lines,
always kept it cheerful, not too long,

not too detailed; told them bombs
sounded like old tractors. He would sign
off jauntily. Maybe it was wrong

not to tell them more? Sounding strong
with brevity? Then he paused, and I
made some excuse to leave. He died—a long
story—shortly after? Could be wrong.

The tension between the tight formal constraints and the narrative thrust works to the poem’s advantage, and I appreciate the respect for “brevity,” a cherished virtue, and jauntiness. Bravo.

When Christine Rhein turned in “Long Story Short,” I felt that the poem would be stronger without the last line, a concession to the prompt:

Big Bang. Ice Age. Baseball.
Electronic scoreboard: Lies playing
the Reasons. The hottest year
on record, again, again. Drenched-
green lawns. Not enough bees.
But—breaking news—I could be wrong.

Without the last line, we will have eliminated the prompt—but that’s no problem. The point is one that the painters and poets of the New York School stressed: it’s okay if in the process of composition, you end up erasing the initial inspiration. This is, after all, the message of “Why I Am Not a Painter,” one of Frank O’Hara’s signature poems.

Receptive to my suggestion, Christine proposed changing the poem’s last line to either “Buzzing, buzzing, breaking news” or “Buzzing. Buzzing. Breaking news.” And I applaud, admiring the alliterative symmetry of first line and last:

Big Bang. Ice Age. Baseball.
Electronic scoreboard: Lies playing
the Reasons. The hottest year
on record, again, again. Drenched-
green lawns. Not enough bees.
Buzzing, buzzing, breaking news.

In Berwyn Moore’s “Handing It,” the well-worn phrase of the title, with its double meaning, smooths the way for an exploration of a sensitive subject, a mastectomy:

—for Robin

I didn’t blame you. I missed it,
too, the breast, imperfect though

it was. When you said you could
“handle” it, we laughed.

At the fourth week, when I carried
the laundry to the basement,

you said it wasn’t the breast you missed,
but the symmetry, the evenness.

It was your aesthetic sensibility that failed
us and, long story short, you left.

Now I’m learning how to conjure a void
without null, a way without the means.

My thimble fell out of your pocket. Cunning
of thimble, cunning of everything.

That is the way we are one and indivisible.

Berwyn informs us that the two wonderful lines that close the poem are from Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily.” I hope I am correct in beginning the requested italics where I do.

I love the opening two lines of Charise Hoge’s “Aphorismic,” which, she tells us, she wrote the week before the prompt went up:

When a door closes, there
was never a door. Or,
I could be wrong.

In Thailand it’s bad luck
to step squarely
onto thresholds—even
with shoes removed.

Be aware of a crossroads
to enter a place—
leave the rubble of the road
and go unlaced, eyelets
with their strings attached
left on the stoop.

Upon return,
check for small frogs nestled
in footbeds.
Make no assumption
that things are as they have been.

Emily Winakur uses “long” and “short” in a prettily paradoxical manner to open her brief poem on “The Mathematical Bridge,” a bridge in Cambridge (England) dear to her (and to me), about which there is much anecdotage spread by local guides:

Long arch of short
straight timbers,
masked in myth,
a manic defense.

I am grateful to Emily for her thoughtful reaction to my own effort, which Christine Rhein christened as “Long Story Short.” Here is how the poem would read if revised according to Emily’s suggestions:

“Get a life, you risk-averse couch potato,” my father said.
“I’ve written fourteen books,” I protested.
All I had ever wanted to do was read
books and see movies and talk about them
with friends and strangers and maybe take a walk
in the park composing a poem in my mind
enjoying it doing it again writing every day.
“Less is more,” my father said.

Originally, “I’ve written fourteen books,” is the penultimate line of the poem. And that’s what it is in this version—as radically revised by Michael C. Rush:

 “Get a life, you risk-averse couch potato,” my father said.
“I’ve written fourteen books,” I protested.
“Less is more,” my father said.

For these and other suggestions I am most grateful.

Watch this space next Tuesday when a new prompt will go up.

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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