Next Line, Please

Miss Understanding Prevails

By David Lehman | September 19, 2017

This week’s entries stand as demonstrations of the poetic value of errors—as sources of inspiration, they’re right up there with wishes, nightmares, lies, and other “subjunctive mood” counterfactual states of mind. Ravindra Rao honors “Miss Understanding,” as she becomes “Miss Understood,” “pray” devolves into “bray,” and the pious masses “seem like asses,” in “A Beacon”:

Miss Understanding, she waves at the crowd,
holding in her basket a mélange of upturned
words, forcing them to do headstands in the
sand. I do not know what she is saying, bray
the masses (a single word can make them
seem like asses), and yet they are entranced.
She offers them a nude eel with a plump eye
that swells at a sight across the crowd. It is
Miss Understood, shining in the light, holding
up like a beacon a new deal with a plum pie.

You can’t overlook the sheer ingenuity of Angela Ball’s “Animal Mistakes.” Note how Angela brings back the panther of line one, how the meanings of “back” and “front” come into play, and how she uses the ritual of bridges hung with locks:

Back in the day panther cries
and woman cries were the same

I cried all the way to the drive-in bank
and told the teller my woes

I thought you had my back
but it was all a front

I thought you were the cat’s pajamas
but you were the panther’s claws

On the love bridge hung with double locks
mine is its own combination

An alligator slides beneath, its snout
embellished with bubbles

Christine Rhein’s “Talking Straight” is a wonderful narrative based on the double meaning of the word “right” and the high probability that a right turn may not be “correct”:

Left?—you asked, about that upcoming T,
and I said, right—not really a mistake, dear—
meaning right, like correct, but not adding that,
since I was busy with our list, writing down
our errands for today—that is, until you turned
right—into construction, and the detour—somehow
taking us onto the bridge!—on a holiday weekend,
no less—everyone, it seems, inching across
toward the beach, and, well, we’ve come this far,
so why not take a stroll, side by side, in the sand,
in what’s left of the summer, in what’s right
with the world—meaning really right. Right?

The eloquence of Kat Leonard Peck’s poem “To Aid the Omega and the Aleph Abet” deserves praise, and if one is slow to see the connection between it and the theme of misunderstandings, well, in poetry we don’t fine the batter who hits a home run after failing to put down the sacrifice bunt that the manager had called for:

To read is to bend, like a quill,
like a pen, a blue swan plucked
before the first dawn’s rays, an eaglet with curved beak.

To bend is to lead, like a wetland sedge,
like delta papyrus, bowed in awe,
meek when the green Nile swells and curves
at the surge of the first word, at a sphinx on a ledge.

To write is to need, a persimmon at noon,
a clay tablet half-ragged with straw, the blade raised before the lamb,
the indelible crimson mark of Abraham, parched and blocked,
righteous in thirst, with a rebel’s gasp, pausing before that electric phrase,
the Word is All—the arching hand, with ache in the blood, stone in the grasp.

Ricky Ray, who expressed his enjoyment of the prompt, wrote “New Year’s Eve” with the inception of his marriage in mind:

She took my reticence for disinterest while
I mentally disrobed her from the neck down
and, hours later, the perfectly happy sack of me
reading a book at a party, pity prompted her
to try again, and I suppose I’ve liquor to thank
for untying my tongue, enough anyways
for hours to pass with the sight of her ass
off to the bathroom and hips returning—
man could they talk—and the little shavings
of my heart that flew to her like magnets,
well, let’s just say ten years and still, when
she enters the room, they’re little daggers flying.

In one of his poems, Paul Michelsen (“Sackful of Cork”) capitalizes on the possibilities of erotic shorthand or code: “You say you want to sack my cork.” Paul’s “Convexity” begins with an unbeatable first line:

The voices in my head no longer sound like me
They broke free, traveled the world, and now they’re back

Someone who sounds like Bela Lugosi
invaded my imaginary landscape
kidnaped my inner child

Someone who sounds like a Bond villain
deflated my rubber ducky

lowjacked my tricycle with its colorful streamers
and side mirrors. Came up from behind,
whispered, I think, that the end is near

Next stop: audiologist, adjust my ears
Unless the end truly is as close as it appears.

I am grateful to Emily Winakur for suggesting “Double Negative” as the title for my own effort—and for proposing the prompt that proved so fruitful this week. Justin Knapp and Patricia Smith celebrated the humor of the bawdy body asserting itself: Knapp’s poem is about the quarterback Joe Flacco, whose name become “Flaccid” because of a typographical error; Smith buys a bag at the Frick Museum, but the “F” looks a lot like “P.”  In a summer of hell for New York City straphangers, Millicent Caliban revives that wonderful mishearing of the Lord’s Prayer, “and lead us not into Penn Station.” Many others contributed excellent work. To them, to all, my appreciation and thanks.

We have written fake apologies. About a year ago, inspired by poems by William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Koch, we capitalized on the knowledge that nothing in language guarantees the sincerity of the speaker. In the same spirit, I suggest that for next week we write short poems of false gratitude or fake praise. The humble brag falls in this category. The whole concept of irony, and its benefits, are dramatized in such poems of fakery, simply because the speaker gets to have it both ways—gets to denigrate while pretending to praise, with the effect of humor, almost always a virtue  in poetry. To damn with faint praise is one thing; to damn with hyperbolic praise something altogether different.

I have a bread-and-butter note in mind. So let’s aim for 12 lines or fewer.

Deadline: Saturday, September 23, midnight any time zone.

On Labor Day weekend we lost the great John Ashbery, the most influential poet of our time, the last surviving founding figure of the New York School of poets, and, incidentally, the first guest editor of The Best American Poetry back in 1988. He was 90. For my appreciation of this irreplaceable poet, please click here.


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