Next Line, Please

May I Finish What You Started?

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By David Lehman

February 14, 2017


 

In advance of Valentine’s Day, I suggested writing a poem in the spirit of the Rodgers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine.” I encouraged people to listen to a sterling version of this great standard—Sinatra’s, for example, or Chet Baker’s. But everyone was vouchsafed the right to “let the title take you where it will,” with or without reference to the song. Thematically the song’s twist on the courtship of an idealized partner is major. The song is addressed not to a woman but to a man who is far from unflawed.

Of the many admirable valentines that came in, Millicent Caliban’s “Valentine’s Day Dream of a Paleoanthropologist” won my heart.

Since we came to this hilltop, we sometimes glimpsed you
in the valley. We had not seen your kind before.
We saw how you move and hunt in groups as we do:
Creatures so like to us, who know what tools are for,
Yet also so unlike. We wonder what you are:
So ungainly, you make us laugh but also fear
to fight. I saw you by your cave, watched from afar:
Your body broad and strong, your flowing flame red hair.
Your brow juts forward; your nose is so large and wide.

I heard you sing in tones pitched higher than our own.
I crept closer, saw how your eyes did shine with pride.
I crave a mate not of my tribe but one unknown.
True, you are quite short, but why must a man be tall?
I am a girl whose true love is Neanderthal.

The poem charms us with its stately manner and the seriousness with which the author considers the relation of a paleoanthrolologist with the subject of her studies. (For a prose consideration of the theme she treats, Millicent directs us here.) As Athena to Odysseus, the modern poet contemplates her ancestor in his glory and gives body to an unexpected wish. “I crave a mate not of my tribe but one unknown.” It is possible that the poem would be even stronger without the closing rhyme, but only because lines eight to 12 are so strong. But I could be wrong; Berwyn Moore lauds the couplet.

Angela Ball’s “My Funny Valentine” makes witty reference to Lorenz Hart’s lyrics. Where Hart has “unphotographable,” Ball gives us “unphotoshopped.” But all resemblance ends there. Ball mixes erotics (“the froth / of a maddened / stream”) with familiar tropes made fresh (“my valentine gives red / a run for its money”). She tosses out an epithet (“saint of the unconceived”), abruptly changes the scene (“a brothel”), and adds symbols (“fig leaf”) and other images striking in their juxtaposition.

My Funny Valentine

Its lace the froth
of a maddened
stream, its vulva

unphotoshopped
my valentine gives red
a run for its money

My valentine, seed
of the silphium plant
saint of the unconceived

marks a brothel
in the city of Ephesus
four hundred AD

Conifer cone
fig leaf
with black cross

at its center
it scorns drugstores
loves the funneling streets

sailors’ biceps
the space between
two swans

My valentine breaks its own lock
Keeps the key

 

In the realm of parody, a very successful entry came in from Courtney Thrash whose funny Valentine, she tells us, is “after Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, inspired by Mohja Kahf’s ‘I Love A Man Who Washes My Dishes’ and our own Paul Michelsen’s ‘My Hilarious Sagittarius.’”

 

My funny valentine,
you make me lose my mind
with the way you scour the grout.
Your forearms flex as you scrub.
Soap scum flees from the tub.
Oh, there’s no need to take me out.

 

Can a bouquet steam my floor?
Can a diamond oil my door?
Will a sommelier’s earthy pour
quench my drought?

 

Your arms full of laundry,
You dusting does things to me.
Our romance is bidding us stay.
Who cares that it’s Valentine’s Day?

 

I want also to compliment Cheryl Whitehead on “The Ghosts of Lenox Avenue,” in which Ella Fitzgerald, chatting with her first bandleader, Chick Webb, says

Did it occur to you, dear sir,
I’d scat to stardom while prematurely
you’d curl in icy earth?

Michael C. Rush is not alone in saluting the sequence of “occur–prematurely–curl” in the quoted stanza. Cheryl’s poem mentions the Savoy, as in “Stompin’ at,” and reminds me of an excellent recording from the Chick Webb era: Ella singing, “You’re undecided now, so what are you going to do?”

Diana Ferraro made this francophile happy with “You’re not Frankie.” Her line “weak, any week of the year” is strong, and the reader is moved by the thanks expressed “for the lovely plea to do nothing.” “Nothing,” by the way, is the right answer to, “You know what’s wrong with you?” especially if you are Audrey Hepburn talking to Cary Grant in a movie set in Paris.

Honorable mention to Linda Marie Hilton (who wonders about “the idiotic things men do / which they think will attract the fairer sex”) and Michael C. Rush’s “When Funny Gets Blue” whose punning title refers us to a different song and whose epigraph comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet XXXV”: “Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love.” One of my favorite line in this farewell to love is “we’re no one, special, our favorite work of aren’t.” Cheryl Whitehead characterized the line as “brisk and full of meaning” and “perfect in its simplicity.”

 


For next week: Suppose Wordsworth got interrupted before finishing “My Heart Leaps Up.” Having just written “The Child is father of the Man /And I could wish,” he is a mere one-and-a-half lines shy of the finish.

How would you end the poem? A closing couplet is called for. Please play fair and do not consult the original. If your couplet is arresting enough, someone might want to write a brand new opening to suit it.

Deadline: Sunday, February 20, 2017, midnight anywhere.


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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