Next Line, Please

“Nobody Heard Him”

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By David Lehman

April 28, 2015


 

Among the excellent entries for this week, I found myself most captivated by Patricia Smith’s stanza:

Patricia Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man.

The dead are with us to stay.

They gave away the gift of those useful bodies.

Ash, ash—

[Sources: Stevie Smith, “Not Waving But Drowning”;

Charles Wright, “Homage to Paul Cézanne”;

David Wagoner, “Their Bodies”;

Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus.”]

I love how these lines follow the poem’s first two stanzas—how they elaborate and complicate the themes of death, silence, and the “ceremony of ash.”

Among other strong contenders, let me single out

Angela Ball

Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy

A magnate of kidnap

The truth is bald and cold

Our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

[Sources: W. S. Merwin, “When You Go Away”;

James Tate, “A Vagabond”;

Charles Simic, “The White Room”;

Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”]

A pleasure of the cento is that relatively familiar lines (Bishop’s on “Our knowledge”) co-mingle with a compelling phrase one had not previously encountered—in this case, James Tate’s amazing “magnate of kidnap.”

and Poem Today

A concluding stanza (diminuendo)

Now let the cycle sweep us here and there.

Nor is there singing school but studying

ash on an old man’s sleeve. Think

what houseflies have died in time.

[Sources: H. D., “Sigal”;
W. B. Yeats, ”Sailing to Byzantium”;
T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”;

J. V. Cunningham, “Think”]

Eliot’s “ash on an old man’s sleeve” goes together beautifully with the Yeats line from “Sailing to Byzantium.”

So here is our cento to date (with stanzas by Paul Michelsen, Berwyn Moore, Patricia Smith):

The wheels of a darkness without pain

Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses

Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares

And in the silence, drips and cackles — taciturn, luxurious.

He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards,

the experience of repetition as death.

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end.

Who made a ceremony of ash?

Nobody heard him, the dead man.

The dead are with us to stay.

They gave away the gift of those useful bodies.

Ash, ash—

For next week, let’s bring our effort to a conclusion with a kick-ass couplet, rhymed or unrhymed. The idea of “repetition as death” seems to me to suggest a certain formal idea for the last two lines. But it is also possible to proceed by the logic of imagery (“ash”), metaphor (“ten blind nights”), or theme (“not every man knows what he shall sing at the end”).

Deadline: Midnight, Saturday, May 2.


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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