Next Line, Please

No, I Am Not ...

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By David Lehman

October 4, 2016


 

 

When I suggested writing poems about jobs, professions, and occupations, whether real or imaginary, past or present, I did not anticipate provoking work of such high quality, but here we are with an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I was torn between two in particular, Millicent Caliban’s “Exquisite Corpse” and Christine Rhein’s “Woman in the Dynamometer Lab (Detroit, 1980)”—two poems that could not differ more decisively from one another—and have decided that they tie for first place. “Exquisite Corpse,” which is the name of a Surrealist poetry-producing pastime, has an uncanny aura that transcends a reasonable paraphrase of the contents. If you say the poem concerns an actor or actress playing dead, you have done little to shed the mystery engulfing the lines: 

Millicent Caliban

Exquisite Corpse

You must be very quiet and lie very still.
Do not blink or twitch; take very shallow breaths
So that your chest will not appear to rise and fall.
Remember you are dead; you may have been cold a long time,
Or if you have drowned, you will be wet,
But do not shiver, do not sneeze.
Remember you are dead; go to a happy place and chill.
You will be paid for hours spent in make-up;
Earn more if you are only partially clothed or nude.
You are playing a corpse; take professional pride in your job.
And one day, if you are lucky or even if you’re not,
You will become the part you play.

Christine’s poem has a riveting authenticity of detail and a pattern of sounds that gets us right onto the factory floor. Especially noteworthy is the extraordinary alliteration in the last four lines:

Christine Rhein

Woman in the Dynamometer Lab (Detroit, 1980)

Torque, speed, temperature—
red dots climb the control panel screen
and I’m trying to remember Powertrain Design,
last semester’s textbook graphs. The air hot,
heavy with oil, I stand, in my wool blazer
and pants, while the crew, wearing jeans,
rolled-up sleeves, sits talking of touchdowns
and wagers, deer hunts, strip clubs.
My neck grows tight from the constant roar
and rumble—engines running full throttle
on their stands—the thick-glass caging
a safety shield, unlike the clipboard
I’m clutching close—one guy telling me
“I sure as hell wouldn’t let my wife work here.”
They watch and watch, waiting for failure—
a sheared timing belt, a blown gasket,
or that deeper damage—a broken
piston—the booming pummels,
the screeching shrapnel.

Runner-up: Charise Hoge for “Pivotal Grace,” an excellent title for the movement of a dancer. It is lovely the way the opening lines—“Back stage where flowers bloom / in dressing rooms”—do double duty as the poem’s closure.

Honorable mention: Ricky Ray (“Quits”) and MD (“Form 1040A, Line 7”), both of whom deserve kudos for lines that live up to their well-chosen titles.

Great thanks to all.

 


I have always admired how T. S. Eliot, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” draws attention to a person or thing by naming its absence. One example occurs when the speaker tells us, “No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” The statement, meant to differentiate the character from the hero of Shakespeare’s longest tragedy, obliges us precisely to compare the two. The “not” acts as a sophisticated form of simile, suggesting likeness as much as difference.

With this in mind, I hope people will write poems for next week beginning with “No, I am not …” or a variation on that phrase.

Deadline: Sunday, October 9, midnight 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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