Next Line, Please

Of Ciphers—In the Brain

By David Lehman | November 18, 2014


The Emily Dickinson competition awakened an enthusiastic and voluminous response—no surprise, given her deserved popularity. But what did surprise me was the high quality of the submissions. Dickinson is easy to caricature but notoriously difficult to imitate well. Kudos to the contestants who took Dickinson’s fragment—“Soft as the massacre of Suns / By Evening’s Sabres slain”—and went to town with it.

First prize goes to Jennifer Clarvoe for her ingenious extension of the simile. Her lines offer complexity, a satisfying sound pattern ending with two full rhymes, and the sense that she has appropriated Dickinson for her own poetic agenda, which is disclosed to us in its entirety only with the last word of her poem.

Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s Sabres slain —

The sense discerns — the Sense — behind

The Hand — in letters strewn

Across a barren No-man’s-land

Of Ciphers — in the brain.


Dickinson’s sunset image is converted into a mental landscape of “ciphers” scrawled by a “Hand,” possibly divine, across a vast wasteland.


Joshua Weiner comes in second with

Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s Sabres slain,

The Soul — drops down — before Dominion

To touch Noon’s Hem, again


Weiner’s lines have a suitably subtle rhyme scheme and the beautiful image of “Noon’s hem.”


There is a two-way tie for third place between M. F. Chen,

Soft as the massacres of Suns

By Evening’s Sabres slain

Sweet as Nightfall’s hum

Entombs Promethean Day


and Christa Whitsett Overbeck,

Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s Sabre slain

That dapper Dueler night

With Satisfaction, waxes-wanes

For now Dawn’s portion plays —

That sly Star — she always Feigns


Chen’s last line adds a mythic as well as moral dimension. Overbeck’s “sly” verses include the pleasures of sweet alliteration (“That dapper Dueler”) and the speeding-up effect of “waxes-wanes.” Among other impressive entries I admired Rebecca Epstein’s, which ends rather than starts with the Dickinson lines; Ken Foster‘s striking “sky of star-bright bones”; and Ross‘s shrewd use of the famous Latin phrase “Morituri te salutant.” I would praise, too, Susan’s beautiful phrase “Armistice of Dawn” in lines she composed on November 11, Veterans Day—formerly known as Armistice Day.

Next week a new competition commences. Join us on Tuesday, November 25, for full details.


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