Pastimes of PeacePrint
By David Lehman
June 13, 2017
For reasons of space, I must limit myself to quoting five of your poems that are “In Favor of Peace” or that celebrate the pleasures of peace—our prompt for this week—although many more than five good poems were offered. This week’s contest generated 212 comments, a goodly number. It is not easy to keep up with all the poems and the discussions thereof. But that doesn’t prevent this proponent of peace from singing the praises of his fellow poets.
To Courtney Thrash’s prose poem go first-place honors:
A Peaceful Pastime
for Brian Doyle
I’ve always wondered at complaints that baseball is boring. It is boring in the way that Sunday drives are boring—the ones that amble and meander down narrow roads under ancient canopies of elm and oak. Or in the way that it’s boring to watch your new baby sleep—fascination drummed in lulling beats of breath, paper-thin eyelids fluttering, chest rising higher for a moment then releasing a contented sigh that sounds like gentle rain falling and smells faintly of sweet milk.
The thrills are understated, yes, but they are no less real for it.
There are, of course, in baseball, obvious delights: a home run, a grand slam, a picked-off runner, a stolen base, a strikeout by the home team’s ace when the batter was only looking. But you cannot pass time well if you spend it waiting for the next big moment. And anyway, the best parts are nestled somewhere in between.
Take them in. Smell kettle corn. Listen to slaps of leather balls in leathered palms, to the crunch of spiked soles, to the crack of contact. Feel rhythms, slow and steady, of readiness, rest, readiness, rest. Know the soft crinkle of paper wrapper on your lips as you bite through bread and casing and ketchup (if you do it right). Un-stick sweaty skin from plastic seats; revel in the sting of sun on blushing shoulders. Gaze up at skies smiling in big, blue contentment—it has nowhere else to be. Give silent thanks for boys who are alive, who spit out shells and swallow seeds that nourish bodies grown as tall and sturdy as sunflowers.
A prose poem is the right vehicle for Courtney’s argument. The opening gambit—that baseball “is boring,” albeit in a special way—hooked me, but then I must own up to a love of baseball and good prose about baseball. And no one can deny that this is good prose. I hope Courtney will consider rewriting the first sentence of paragraph three, cutting either “of course” or “obviously,” and two sentences later, maybe something less poetical than “nestled” would do the job?
My second favorite is this unlikely candidate from Charise Hoge inspired by a recent trip to Israel:
women walking prayers
weaving to the Western Wall
wallpapering like wisteria
willing, willing, willing
—while less than half, their piece
unequal to the men’s side—
women wait, accommodate,
weigh words, and waist by waist
wedge into stone, to scale
a way where peace is with
Unlikely, because not until the poem’s last words do we get to its secret subject. The insistent alliteration is proof that an arbitrary limitation can help the poet. The wealth of w sounds aroused discussion; Linda Marie Hilton sees “the w’s as the symbol for woman!!!!!” while Stephanie Cohen feels that “the lilting sound of w’s and l’s mirrors what I read as a poem of lament.”
The discussions of submitted poems are often impressive, instructive, helpful to the writer and to the reader over his or her shoulder. This was certainly the case this week. Much attention was given to Paul Michelsen’s poem and what the best title for it would be. Angela Ball complimented the poet on the “amazing way your poem uses hands.” She thought “peace signals” might work better than the initial title Paul had tinkered with. LaWanda Walters agreed about the hands but aired her reservations about possible titles, and Courtney Thrash’s nomination of “emptyhanded” won the day. (Paul made the change.) Meanwhile, Emily Winakur was put in mind of George Herbert’s “Prayer,” while the poem’s inclusion of John Cage’s “4’33” was noted by Millicent Caliban, who said she had the same piece in mind. At least two of us singled out for acclaim the beautiful lines toward the end of the poem—where grandpa “threw the ball / and I caught it // I’m still here, / in the yard.”
feel like bruises
color of rainbows
dark clouds underneath
shaped like Jesus,
hidden like bruises,
request to perform
4’33” by John Cage
think of everything
a hand can do:
flip the bird
pick up an instrument
(little drummer boy
wave white flag
point lost ones
the right way
pick your nose
type a letter (26 to choose from):
o, and for my next number:
5 knuckle shuffle
or not: either way
keep hand to self
always two options
violence or nonviolence
v for victory
turn the palm in
becomes up yours, both ways
dirty boys’ tongues
make it more obscene
discipline the monkey,
or give up corporal punishment (forever)
the poem doesn’t end here
this isn’t last week
this isn’t years ago
the way word/actions
don’t always match
the way things are said
that aren’t meant
the way we give
the wrong signals
grandpa used to say be careful
some things you can never take back
then he threw the ball
and i caught it
i’m still here,
in the yard, remembering
the way your hand fit into mine,
real or imagined
Millicent Caliban made good on her promise to include “4’33,” John Cage’s ode to silence and ambient noise. I admire these lines as verses and as an instruction to oneself: “I have mastered the zen of subway / inner peace, absorbed in silence / till doors open at Grand Central.”
Subway Zen at Rush Hour
Just before the uptown express
begins to close its doors, I pivot,
shove my shoulder into a space
that is not there between a fat
man and an exhausted woman.
There is nothing to hold on to.
Buoyed up by the bodies, I can’t
quite put my left foot down. I lean
with the train lurching to the right.
A sharp elbow pierces my side,
I inhale sweat-infused perfume
as I close my eyes exactly
four minutes, thirty-three seconds.
I have mastered the zen of subway
inner peace, absorbed in silence
till doors open at Grand Central,
where, tempest-tossed, we all spill out.
I tried my own hand at the prompt, and this is what I came up with, on June 8, three days before my birthday:
The Pleasures of Peace
It’s not just the absence of war, Scott said, but Hemingway
got the last word, and for decades driving an ambulance in
Europe in World War I was how you made your mark as a man.
Peace in those days meant Paris and a wound and an aperitif.
No sooner do I write those words than I visualize a rocks glass
with a big rock of ice in it and something sweet but not too sweet
like Byrrh or Cynar or Campari if you have a taste for it.
That aperitif is one of the true pleasures of peace. (There are false ones.)
So I go upstairs to see what we’ve got in my homemade bar
and I decide on two jiggers of ice-cold gin, one jigger cold vermouth,
with an olive and an ice cube to keep it cold and I make two of them,
one for me, one for Stacey, and I sip my martini, not too fast,
and this moment is one of the pleasures of peace as I see it,
though probably the ultimate is a summer day, time to spare, freedom.
I thank the redoubtable Berwin Moore, Ricky Ray, Paul Michelsen, Emily Winakur, and LaWanda Walters for their comments.
Next week, I will announce the details of a new challenge. In the meantime, let us be good to our fathers as Dad’s Day approaches, and know that I am going over the copy-edited manuscript of Next Line, Please, which Cornell University Press will publish next spring. Kudos to all. Your work is a pleasure to reread.
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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