Next Line, Please

Of Rivers, Lovers, Battles, and Repetitions

By David Lehman | August 21, 2018
Flickr/Yosi Oka
Flickr/Yosi Oka

This week’s prompt required us to fill in the gap between an opening line (“It is impossible to love the same person twice”) and a closing line (“A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball”), both from the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, as translated from the French by Paul Auster.

Pamela Joyce S liked the prompt enough to give it several tries, of which my favorite is the one that, in her words, “breaks rules and takes inspiration from all who wrote of rivers and battles, and loving battles.” She calls it “The Art of Loving Thought”

You, my love, are an impossible river.
If crossing once is unwise, twice is suicide.
I steel myself and venture in, treading
tenderly among your bruised blue minnows.
Tadpoles scatter seeking cover as we
spar and bear our arms. Impossible to
win or lose, I humbly twice surrender.
But, oh my dear, your deadly art is like
seeds of shrapnel speeding through my heart.
I cannot speak, retreat, or think at all,
Your thoughts are as real as a cannonball.

The original title was improved when Keith Barrett suggested “losing ‘Zen and’” on the grounds that “the Zen and the Art of” thing has been done too often.

Barrett’s well-made poem consisted exclusively of lines from the late Tom Clark sandwiched by the two from Joseph Joubert:

It’s impossible to love the same person twice
Far apart and with our hands over our faces
You’re speaking to me from three years ago
Bewildered, frightened, flattered and alarmed.

Two people pass through the same instant separately
Uttering a horrible and foreign word
A passion to reconstruct everything
The understanding we desire.

All the things memory keeps in a tragic nook
The Plain Jane face of the day
Ephemeral as tinkerbell
A thought’s as real a thing as a cannonball.

Eric Fretz performs verbal antics that strike me as perfectly continuous with the spirit of the prompt:

It is impossible to love the same person twice.
It isn’t possible to love the sane person’s wife.
It isn’t possible, Tulip, the sane person’s wise.
If it’s not plausible two lips, insane parson’s why.
(The crazy vicar wore a mask and never spoke in words
Except, when out of earshot, to the birds:
“Forgive me, starlings, for you know that I have sinned,”
And waited for a prophet, like the wind,
A thawed Isaiah acting as a commoner,
A thaw disaster aching as a common awl
As thou, Israel, aching as a cannon calls:
“A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.”)

On the other hand, more than one poet used the prompt as the point of departure for a quick meditation. In “The Truth,” Christine Rhein puts her storytelling ability on poignant display:

It is impossible to love the same person twice
unless, like now, you’re standing before a judge,
marrying your ex, gazing into eyes that tell a tale
hungry for a last-ditch twist. This time around—
the kids grown, your parents gone, their ghosts
frowning or not—it’s just the two of you, knowing
better, as the saying goes, than to focus on one
another’s faults, to tally, retally them. And besides,
you’re looking forward to clothes strewn about,
dishes in the sink, to always running late together.
“Until death do us part” sets sail anew, drifts ever
closer. A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball

Like Charise Hoge, I admired “last-ditch twist.” I wonder if the cannonball in the last line would seem more inevitable if it were a gunboat that drifts ever closer.

The intimacy and pathos of Patricia Wallace’s “The Second Time” moved me:

It’s impossible to love the same person twice.
So lovers split apart, slapping shut a screen door
on the mortal past. The first time felt like smacking
into a stranger as you turned the corner, you flat on the pavement. Years pass.
Each day the same stranger turns up for breakfast, makes small talk.
The body grows imperfect as yours. Falling for a new person starts
to seem like the right idea. Then you’re in the kitchen cutting onions
when the timbre of the voice, the scar you’ve traced with your finger,
blow a hole in your chest, a thud. You think, heart attack.
Or love. And the thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.

Clay Sparkman’s “The poet favors truth over wit” is a cri de coeur:

“It is impossible to love the same person twice.”
Phrases of such great wit must not readily gain our trust.
After all, they are cads and entertainers. So, clap loudly,
and say, “Bravo,” Joubert, “bravo.” And then seek a
kernel of truth behind that natty parade of words.
I watched my parents as they fell out of love, and
ground it out painfully through the years, and then
somehow toward the end, as they fell back in love again.
That was no parlor trick, no witty banter. There was no
deception in my father’s broken heart, as he lay his
second love to rest. Ask Joubert. Love is a thought, and
“A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.”

Many of us took the first of the given lines as a shortcut to Heraclitus, whose theory of flux is that “you can’t walk in the same river twice.” Here are three entries in the Heraclitean sweepstakes:

1. Roberto

It is impossible to love the same person twice:
You might as well just say once or thrice.
Heraclitus obviously springs to mind,
I wouldn’t wish to seem unkind,
But observing the river’s run being
Never twice the same and so seeing
That “the same person” is never the same
Seems only to make of love a game.
Time’s arrow, Cupid’s arrow, are missiles too slight,
Love comes from God, we walk in heavy light
And when we think that love’s eternal, all in all,
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.

2. Millicent Caliban, “On Flux and Relativity: Constancy and Change”

“It’s impossible to love the same person twice.”
The second time it’s not the same love nor is it
the same person and you too are not still the same.
Or so said Heraclitus wading in rivers.
But why should we take a wet philosopher’s word?
Does a man know more about love the more he thinks?
Love snares us when we venture near, takes us captive.
Can thought free us from this tug of gravitation?
Einstein bent the web of space and time by thinking.
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.

3. Michael C. Rush, “Impossible”

It is impossible to love the same person twice.
Or once. The same person is impossible.
Like the river. You can step toward someone, on them.
Use your long lunging legs to trip them. Or your
feeble fleshy fingers to fill their shallow pockets
with heavy ballast and then point them at the water.
Love plunges mind between two rank banks.
Swept downhill, seaward, there is plenty of time
to count the silhouettes of arborescent markers.
How did I acquire so many cold iron spheres?
It is impossible to say “I will see you here again.”
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.

Byron demonstrated how well we work as a community of practical critics. Following suggestions from Pamela Joyce S. and Michael C. Rush, Byron combined the second stanzas of his two entries and came up with something more powerful than either.

It is impossible to love the same person twice.
But it is possible to think.
To the happy man at end of day each thought is a drink
of spring water but not to the soldier in the field
or the condemned man against the wall to whom
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.
But our romance was different. It was a war
full of border skirmishes, ceasefire treaties
brokered by domineering hegemonic powers,
isolated anarchist outrages, antiwar protests,
and the last thoughts in a dying soldier’s mind.
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.

A tip of the fedora to Grant Dowling, who seems to know an awful lot about my biography, and whose poetic sensibility is distinctive, even though the second line does make me cringe a bit:

“It is impossible to love the same person twice.”
But you can drink his ejaculate a million times.
Euretta J. skin bobs plunging my shirt.
Cerfs up on the horizon on the veldt in the skirt on the table.
Frisco Orithyia pedic lamb chops for a dime and two twenties.
Softer piper man plactate me (Keene on calling ass sweat and assiduous sweaters).
Salesman fucking demolished. Abnihil sprock annihilation of the
itemization of Gillian Blake and her etyms.
NOTICE ME NOTICE me and MY roomie, Mycalessus:
“A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball.”

I can’t mention all the worthy poems written this week but would like to conclude with the noble efforts of two poets who are new to me:

Randall Brett

Double Down

It is impossible to love the same person twice,
but you can cut your lover in half
with the magic trick of desire, sawtooth yearning

doubled down in mirrored boxes and false floors
bringing you both to her knees, it’s
a three-ring circus with tightroped,

high wire voltage, then finale,
you’re like a man shot through the air
discovering, too late, your need is weaponized

its trajectory no longer an act but destruction,
your doppelgänger revealed as jealousy, where
a thought is as real a thing as a cannonball

Josie Cannella

It is impossible to love the same person twice,
A snowflake, melted and refrozen, is a new,
different snowflake, though composed of the same water.
We are always different, mutable, inconsistent.
I could even change my mind, my prerogative,
and say I love you again,
force you to stay as you were, in a big glass case,
splashing into that pool, and love the unchanging you,
like Holden Caulfield’s Eskimos at the museum,
or his red-haired brother Allie,
writing green-inked poems in his coffin.
A thought is as real a thing as a cannonball

Next week, a new prompt will appear on Tuesday. In the meantime, the author of the best note that appears in the comments field this week will receive a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2018.

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