Next Line, Please

Pierre Loves Natasha

By David Lehman | May 8, 2018

Happy birthday to us. Paul Michelsen informs me that we are now entering our fifth year. The first “Next Line, Please” column appeared on May 6, 2014.

The prompt that instigated some excellent (and entertaining) poems this week was this sentence that I saw on a TV listing for a film version of War and Peace: “Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invaded Russia.” The sentence struck me—and NLP regulars—as an invitation to use the plot summary as an organizing device, or to capitalize on the possibilities of incongruous or false parallelisms, or both.

Donald LaBranche uses the prompt statement as the title of his fine poem, which develops Pierre and Natasha into characters who live in Vienna and are habitués of a café where Beethoven plays piano.

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia

Pierre scribbles his love on a napkin then passes it to Natasha across
the table in the piano bar where Beethoven takes requests for tips.
He doesn’t need the money but the improv on whistled folk tunes
rising from the back of the house keeps him sharp for the day job.
Natasha, watching the piano, tucks the napkin in a pocket of her jeans
in such a way that Pierre is sure to see her. She wants him to see her.
Russia and France are at it again so neither of them can go home.
It will be a long winter of not enough coal and cheap wine at best.
Pierre likes to say that Martin Luther probably had a beer in this room.
Natasha loves it for the music, Beethoven being the new “hip” in town.
Their table is just to the right of the Maestro so they see him leap a bit
when a theme reoccurs. Pierre’s fingers tap out the melody on her skin.

Christine Rhein’s “In Summary” works beautifully as a poetic substitute for a reading list:

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.
Life is complicated for the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels,
and the Basts. It’s one long adventure to make it
back to Ithaca. What you can imagine, battling
windmills. Near a pilgrim’s creek, nature tinkers.
Digging through dirt, a Southern belle doesn’t care
for being hungry. The taste of warm cookies
conjured up in great detail. A boy and his drum.
For a young, little prince, a snakebite is huge.
It’s dark in the heart of the Congo. Such funny mud
up and down the Mississippi. A full day, crisscrossing
Dublin. Watch out for 1984. Revolution goes badly
with animals in charge. Madness everywhere, after
falling down a rabbit hole. A zookeeper and an atheist
make up a religion. It’s not all about Boo. A guy
named Ishmael and tons of blubber. A lighthouse
forever in view. The brilliance underground,
a man who can’t be seen. Books on fire.

One could do worse than adopt a syllabus that includes, besides War and Peace, Howrds End, The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Gone With the Wind, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, 1984, Animal Farm, the Alice books, Moby-Dick and others.

The ending of Millicent Caliban’s “War Heroes” packs a wallop:

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.
Paris abducts Helen and the Trojan War begins.
Anthony is obsessed with Cleopatra and is defeated by Octavian
Claire marries Jamie and the Jacobites are crushed.
Rhett abandons Scarlett and the Confederacy surrenders.
The tangled webs of romance are spun against the backdrop of battles.
Lovers’ problems don’t amount to a hill of beans
in this crazy world, yet when the hurlyburly’s done,
in our stories, it is the lovers we remember and not who won.

My admiration of the conclusion prompts me to suggest dividing the poem into three three-line units.

For a set of false parallelisms, it would be hard to outdo Angela Ball’s “Synapses,” the word for “a junction between two nerve cells, consisting of a minute gap across which impulses pass by diffusion of a neurotransmitter.” I particularly like the breaking news about Karl Marx, whose birthday went uncelebrated but not unmarked last week:

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.
Polar ice cap diminishes and socialite seeks follicular transplant.
Novice renounces world and exerciser learns Zumba.
Karl Marx writes love poetry and lava engulfs subdivision.
Prankster covers toilet bowl with plastic wrap and Eta Aquariids
meteor shower arrives.
Shady company sells fake ants and Battle of Chaeronea is first
recorded use of “penetration of the center.”
Feigned retreat devolves to real one in Battle of Maling and
rhinoceros named to the City Council in São Paulo, Brazil.
Office stapler jams and Russian noun “Razbliuto” describes
“the feeling a man has for someone he once loved.”
Hannibal employs double envelope in Cannae and Japanese noun
“Yugen” refers to “a feeling about the universe too deep and
mysterious for words.”

Emily Winakur’s “Synopses” (meaning “plot summaries”) moves from metonymy as plot summary (“Jane suspects Rochester has something to hide”) to larger statements:

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.
Jane suspects Rochester has something to hide.
Holden and Hester, outcasts together,
appreciate the crumbling of dreams—
so human, so sad, the way they wade into
gulfs and drown themselves.
Madeleine is proud of her scar.
Laura Ingalls bats a balloon made from the bladder
of a freshly-killed pig.
There are wolves, panthers, green lights
at the end of a dock, and all of it is trying
to tell you something.
There are dreams that become books,
and books that become paper airplanes;
there are kites covered in words
that soar between the old world and the new.

Louis A. Wilberforce’s “Observations Made Under the Sagging Light of the Aging Sun” memorializes the experience of watching television:

Pierre loves Natasha
and Napoleon invades Russia, brought to
us by a handful of
lovely sponsors
and we’re starting to see ourselves in
all those commercials and sitcoms, they really
have got us pegged—I can finally
laugh about it now, it used to be
quite the opposite, I’d get
upset about it, but lately I find comfort
in how they so expertly
sum things up, everything, even
the way the laugh track kicks in when I stub my toe.

Elizabeth Solsburg, musing on War and Peace, locates the uncommon element linking the two clauses in the prompt:

Pierre loves Natasha
the way a war-weary man loves peace—
the idea of it, so luminescent and quiet.
And Napoleon loves Russia,
in the lusting way a man loves the thing
he wants to own—
the woman whose musk still clings to him
after he has invaded her,
after the plunder.

In “The Power of Words,” Patricia Smith joins those of us who lament that great books meet the resistance of “unwilling students”:

Pierre loves Natasha and Napoleon invades Russia.
How much simpler it would have been
to explain to an unwilling student—
one complaining of unfamiliar names
impossible to associate with something familiar
or bemoaning detailed descriptions of scenes
surrounding impending battles—
that Tolstoy had written an epic love story
albeit a hefty one.

Making reference to another Tolstoy masterpiece, the last line of Diana Ferraro’s “Hack” is immortal:  “Each unhappy writer is unhappy in his own way.”



Watch this space next week for a brand new prompt. In the meantime … thoughts, suggestions, ruminations are welcome! Thank you, everyone.

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