Next Line, Please

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By David Lehman

November 8, 2016


 

 

Hamlet was asked whether he considered himself a decisive person. The prince thought for a minute. Then he said, “Yes and no.” I feel that way today, reading the many splendid responses that came in to this aphorism by Stanislaus Lec: “I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’”

Here are my favorites, in approximate order of preference. From title to closing image, Angela Ball’s poem glides brilliantly from hypothetical clauses (“If for you”) to affirmations (“we fly ruddy gliders”) to future possibilities: “our silk turbans may become / volcanoes.”

Don’t Come In

I prefer the sign “No Entry” to the one that says “No Exit.”
—Stanislaus Lec

If for you, women are toy cars
whose wheels you strike
on the ground to make
them go; if for you, women
are tea towels at the feast; if you stand by
as women are swept from the path,
don’t approach. In our inviolate
land we fly ruddy gliders;
press oil from impossible fruit; derive power
from waves. At any moment
our silk turbans may become
volcanoes; our shoes,
submarines.

 

Charise Hoge’s beautiful trapeze simile won me over, and then there’s the magical effect she gets from ending stanza one with “goodbyes” and opening stanza two with “his hello.”

Entranced

“I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’” —Stanislaus Lec

Here he goes showing up
so she’s hanging on,
trapped as a trapeze
in swing, between goodbyes.

His hello is wide—
she’s soft for a lofty welcome
(unpracticed in soft landings).
He has her in suspense. If
she reads and heeds the signs,
they all shine, ‘Going Nowhere.’

 

I admire the sustained metaphor and the closing rhyme in Berwyn Moore’s effort:

House of Sclerosis

“I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’” —Stanislaus Lec

Gurgling with bourbon, you fall down the stairs
and crack a rib. You laugh yourself to bed.
You nick your chin while shaving and tear
a muscle shooting hoops. When you shred
the cheese and a fingertip, stub your toe,
or scald your tongue, you don’t hesitate
to blame the dog, the snow, the squawking crow
or even—clever chef—something you ate.
In time, you shed the scab and pesky limp—
you flee the house of pain. And me? I fall
into atrophied chairs, the light so dim
I can hardly see, the phone dead, the walls
and insulation frayed. I’ll take the blame.
I’ll stay. The anger here clamors my name.

(Dedicated to the memory of David Citino and Lucia Perillo.)

 

Pat Blake’s poem swings from order to chaos and from the light of the stars to “darkness and / nothingness”:

“I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’”

It’s a commandment
we mostly ignore; we pray
give us this day our daily
order and lead us not into
chaos forever and ever
until the stars cease
to shine, one at a time
leaving darkness and
nothingness alone—until,
at last—no exit

Being a sucker for ingenious wordplay and unusual forms, I responded davidly—I mean avidly—to Sasha A. Palmer’s “square poem [which] reads the same left to right, and top to bottom.”

I prefer the sign “No Entry,”
Prefer locked doors to dead ends:
The doors keep trouble under control,
Sign “To Trouble” spells “No Exit.”
No, Dead Under No Condition—Rules.
Entry Ends Control, Exit Rules All.

In Jane Keats’s poem, I love the rhymes and the allusions to Sartre’s “No Exit,” “Citizen Kane,” Genesis, and “Kubla Khan.”

“I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’” —Stanislaus Lec

Have a heart,
Jean-Paul Sartre.
“No Exit” is hell
Unless you’re in Eden
Or in Xanadu,
And Cain—or Kane—is your name
And “No Trespassing” is the sign
Forbidding you
From entering the pleasure dome
That a mogul may call home.

Anthony DiPietro takes Lec’s aphorism and generates four more out of it:

Aphorisms

“I prefer the sign ‘No Entry’ to the one that says ‘No Exit.’” —Stanislaus Lec

Worry not:
while you sleep,
spiders keep weaving.

What you teach your
children to believe will surely
make them skeptics.

Keep your eyes wide open
and your alcohol close.

Some wear the cloak of politeness,
but kindness goes unclothed.

 

From these seven entries, then, I created this cento:

 

For Stanislaus Lec

 

If for you, women are toy cars (Angela Ball)

or even—clever chef—something you ate, (Berwyn Moore)

give us this day our daily (Pat Blake)

cloak of politeness (Anthony DiPietro)

trapped as a trapeze (Charise Hoge)

that a mogul may call home (Jane Keats)

preferring locked doors to dead ends. (Sasha Palmer)

 


The happy news is that Cornell University Press has agreed to publish a book entitled Next Line, Please, consisting of the columns from the first two years (May 2014 to May 2016) of our challenges. Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, will contribute a foreword, and I’ll compose an introduction.

 


For next week, how about a short poem—eight lines maximum—on either a favorite dish or a favorite drink. The poem can take the form of a recipe, or a memory, or the dish or drink can serve an incidental or decorative purpose. At the urging of a poet friend, I am thinking of writing a poem entitled “Champagne at Night.”

Deadline: Sunday night, November 13, 2016, midnight in any time zone.


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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