By Angela Ball
July 7, 2015
What a selection of product poems to choose from! A wonderful literary catalogue could be composed, offering “a Stevie Smith Inner Tube,” “Whitman Unisex Beach Towels,” and “Emily Dickinson Fly Paper.” After much deliberation, Annette Boehm’s “Costermonger” and Paul Michelsen’s “A Day At the Beach” tie for first place.
For the man of the house: the Dylan
Thomas Travel Flask, to carry good spirits
along at all times. Lined thickly with pewter
this beautiful piece will serve well
when he’s done you disservice.
We carry, too, these exquisite Woolf
cigarette holders, cocktail & dinner
length, fashioned from Bakelite
with a discrete asbestos inlay. With these
it doesn’t matter what Milady smokes.
We vouch for Dickinson’s Fly Paper —
It’s effective! It’s the arsenic, like her lace:
near invisible, but still enough to ensure
through the whole, well-kept house
the peace and quiet you so desire.
The broad humor of the “Dylan Thomas Travel Flask” shades into the menacing yet attractive house of Dickinson. The poem’s unctuous product descriptions are both suggestive and entertaining. I particularly admire the epigrammatic close of stanza one: “… will serve well / when he’s done you disservice.”
I choose Paul Michelsen’s “A Day at the Beach” because of the way its products spring to life as they are deployed—one of the beauties of the Koch poem that inspired the prompt:
A Day at the Beach
I’d already applied the Dickinson sunscreen
And spread out the Whitman unisex beach towels
“Please pass the Kafka spray—damn these mosquitoes,
So rude coming under our Crusoe umbrella.
Hand me my phone—I have texting to do.
Damn you, autocorrect! Your caps are a slap—does context mean nothing?”
(i was quoting cummings whose face on my phonecase was proof he did not
Correcting corrections, when I should’ve been kissing and patching things
up with you
I’m sorry I didn’t notice you waving, my Love,
from your hissing Stevie Smith inner tube.
One of Michelsen’s funniest effects (out of many) is achieved by clinching “patching things up” with the hilarious “Stevie Smith inner tube.”
In second place, here’s a completely different take on the prompt, LaWanda Walters’s “Name Brands,” with its confident, jazzy narrative in which products embody and illuminate both relationships between characters and spots of time.
You were always carrying THE WAY OF ZEN
in the back pocket of your Levi’s,
and we were drinking Gallo Burgundy
and you couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard
of Van Gogh, and Mother drove you
up to Penland, where you met Paulus Berenson
and that was the beginning—
what my mother did, researching Penland
like she used to find out about music schools
for my sister, which led to all those rich people
from Esalen, that older woman giving you sixty acres
if you’d live on her place on the mountain between Ukiah
and Mendocino, but you wanted to have me, too,
so we drove up to her paradise for a while,
me skinny dipping with her and you that first day
to prove something I didn’t quite understand
until I picked up that book by Alan Watts
in her living room, “No, you’re not at a place yet
to get this.” And then she gave me what looked
like a fat comic book for kids,
BE HERE NOW by Baba Ram Dass,
and everyone but me had a Coors beer.
For next week, the task is what I’ll term Poetry of Instruction. Many famous poems contain instructions, direct or implied. For instance, there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (“Lose something every day”), and Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow”). Some incorporate “found” material from sources like old cookbooks, textbooks, “how-to” books, and the like. Advice from another age is often humorous. As in the now-obvious fakery of old films’ driving scenes, a gap yawns between language and the conditions it seeks to address.
Instructions can be sinister, brandishing an implied “or else,” as in some advice I long ago received on dating: “Always keep one foot on the floor.” Here, the balance between information and mystery is skewed greatly towards mystery. Which, if not a great thing for life, can be a very good thing for poetry.
I once used a children’s health text—its title and author now lost to me—to write a poem called “Improve Your Posture.” Here’s the ending:
Avoid keeping your hands
and arms behind your back
as if impersonating
an armless statue.
Instructions are haunted by the specter of destruction, like the Age of Reason by its madhouses. Often, they assert power—the more anonymous, the more aggressive. Often, advice supports social norms later proven despicable. All of these features make for illuminating repurposing as poetry.
I propose that you write a poem eight- to 16-lines long consisting of instructions, found and/or original. Title your poem, and submit it no later than midnight Eastern Time on Saturday, July 11th.
Angela Ball is a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of five poetry collections, including, most recently, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds.
More Posts from Next Line, Please: