Next Line, Please

Making Groceries

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By Angela Ball

July 14, 2015


 

This phrase, as you may know, is the New Orleans idiom for “going food shopping.” I like it for the much-deserved credit it gives the shopper. This week’s winning poem, by Christine Rhein, has as its title a reversal of Randall Jarrell’s brilliant Sad Heart at the Supermarket:

Do Not Cry in the Supermarket

Do not imagine yourself a lab mouse, racing down
towering aisles, each turn another decision. Don’t listen
to the light jazz, even in Produce—fruits and vegetables
heaped to verge of avalanche. Do not consider the squash,
how to disguise it so your family might eat it. Never mind
the tests of will—a dozen ingredients needing chopping
versus soup in cans needing pouring, name brand
versus bargain, Oreos versus no Oreos. Do not get sick
of chicken. Don’t think twice about detergents—neon-loud
boxes shouting “Environmentally Kind” or about your favorite
soap—for years—the flowering promise: “Softer, younger-
looking skin.” Above all, ignore the man ahead of you in line—
how handsome he is—dressed for Saturday night, swinging
his basket of red wine, French bread, two T-bone steaks,
and a glistening carton of Vanilla Caramel Fudge ice cream.

The poem’s rhetoric is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant: its assertions turn themselves inside out serially, finally leaving us at the mercy of the “glistening carton” of three-pronged temptation.

In second place, we have Berwyn Moore’s “Story of the Bear”:

I trudge through snake grass to get home where my mother
has made soup with chunks of raw meat and fish. When
I pluck them out with my fingers, she smiles, but when
I snatch the foil-wrapped candy, she scolds me and tells
me to hold each piece in my spoon and shake it gently
until the silver paper falls off. I try to tell her my story
of the bear, but she shushes me, so I leave her at the table
talking to the soup and walk outside. The points of stars
take shape, Ursa Major climbing across the sky. And across
the road, beyond the gray breath of fear, a grizzly bear
spanks the air with huge paws, a cub nuzzling her flanks.
I crouch behind a bush to watch, and when the child
in my womb stirs—the first time—I understand what
I was admonished for: this story of the bear, this fierce
possession, how it sends us away, then pulls us back
to bad soup and hard chairs, famished and forgiving.

The picture the poem composes of the mother grizzly pawing at Ursa Major strikes me as wonderful, as well as how the human mother and child play off against the ursine sow and cub.

Third place is captured by another mother-daughter entry, Charise Hoge’s “Wash,” with its surprise note for a “willowy daughter”:

No perfumes or dyes, for sensitive skin.
May irritate eyes, keep from reach of children.
Sorting serves to distort the all at once-ness:
lifting covers for a yet to be known lover,
tugging at last season’s pants, button hole evaded,
folding up one thought to air another,
eyeing a secretly passed note pocketed
in shorts—saying it’s time for a willowy
daughter to do her own laundry.

Finally, an enthusiastic honorable mention is due to both “A Lesson in Economy from France, 1962,” and “Aspects of Loneliness,” by Paul Michelsen. How delightful to be introduced to It’s a Weird World, by the poet’s uncle, Paul Stirling Hagerman—not to mention Anthony Greenbank’s somewhat less convincingly titled The Book of Survival.


For this week: Road Trip.

In some parts of rural America, long-ago motorists would pass a slanted roof painted with an invitation to See Mammoth Cave or a barn wall with See Natural Bridge. Each painted structure seemed to inhabit a limbo between its actual location and the scenic monument. The very idea that people would follow this command, undertake a journey of some hundreds of miles on the strength of three painted words, is a kind of magical thinking hard to imagine happening in Europe: an alpine barn painted with the Swiss-German words See The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In that spirit, let’s travel together, not by the usual means, but by what John Keats called “the viewless wings of poesy.”

I propose that the famous adventurer, Lord Byron, start us off by lending the form of his epic, picaresque, and unfinished long poem, Don Juan.

Here’s the first stanza of that poem’s first canto:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.

All that you need emulate is the form—one iambic pentameter eight-line stanza rhyming abababcc. Off-rhymes and extra or missing feet can add a welcome playfulness.

Other choices to inform our poem (eventually a six-stanza “canto”) will emerge as we go. We may have no hero or several; may navigate the present and/or the past, literature and/or life; or create a postmodern mash-up of contexts. What might a contemporary Canterbury Tales look like? Or an updated version of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, in verse?

Antonio Machado will provide our motto: “Traveller, there is no road—we make our road by going.”

Entries must be submitted by midnight, Eastern Time, on July 18, 2015.


Angela Ball is a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of five poetry collections, including, most recently, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds.

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