Next Line, Please

Taking Liberties

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By David Lehman

August 15, 2017


 

As the entries came in for the fifth—and, for now, the final—stanza of our renga, I realized that a scholar of our doings would conclude that we had created a poetry multiplier. From the same opening stanza, an infinity of poems may follow.

Let me list some of the most notable poems that came in. If I take liberties—fusing lines from two separate entries, for instance—it’s because I continue to feel that we are involved in a literary collaboration, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

Christine Rhein gives us “Summer, as in Lost”:

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

the waves endlessly enact
ritual resurrections. [Millicent Caliban]

The weather geeks say [Angela Ball]
One thousand, and I shall have [Clay Sparkman]
Loved, undecided, [Diana Ferraro]

Both yourself and your sour ghost
Until our red sky fades away. [Diana Ferraro]

Tides beyond tally…
(August’s fire and fury).
Wind-pound. Heart-pound. Prayer.

Great last line, though it depends on our parsing “prayer” as one syllable. I would keep Christine’s first two lines but replace the third with this from a last line proposed by Michael C. Rush: “We sink, leaking salt.”

Courtney Thrash offered two worthy attempts at completing what Jeff Johnson started. I favor the one I fabricated by fusing her two final stanzas:

Beach Vacation

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

the waves beaching themselves in
consummate redundancy. [Jeff Johnson]

Such dependable
expungement: castles leveled,
footprints of hosts gone, [Jeff Johnson]

the moon-blued sand prepared for
a gasping, whale-spat Jonah. [Jeff Johnson]

I watch whitewashed waves
give and take away. Shattered
shells sing of summer.

Jeff completed “his” work-in-progress under the title “And What of Nineveh?”:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds.
All summer I watch

the waves beaching themselves in
consummate redundancy.

Such dependable
expungement: castles leveled,
footprints of hosts gone,

the moon-blued sand prepared for
a gasping, whale-spat Jonah,

who shivers in the
surf’s ovation, gleefully
plotting his next tale.

Berwyn Moore coupled a variant of the poem’s opening with lines borrowed from me and from Richard Wilbur:

Shore Kill

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

frantic little jackhammers—
seabirds, me, digging through sand, [Christine Rhein]

crumble and carcass:
shipwreck, Jonah’s whale, salt-sting.
Sigh. Oblivion. [Berwyn Moore]

Blue sea and sky yield to gray.
Ghosts go by, quiet as lust. [Berwyn Moore]

Work? Yes. Why? August. [Berwyn Moore]
Oblivion signs: shore kill [David Lehman]
blankets earth with gold. [Richard Wilbur]

The best titles came from Michael C. Rush, “Once More Onto the Beach,” and Ravindra Rao, “Love, Undecided.”  Encouraged by Charise Hoge, I crafted this poem, flipping the last two stanzas, and gave it Ravindra’s title:

Love, Undecided

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

the waves endlessly enact
ritual resurrections. [Millicent Caliban]

crumble and carcass:
shipwreck, Jonah’s whale, salt-sting.
Sigh. Oblivion. [Berwyn Moore]

Time and tide wait for Jonah
under the ghosts of blue stars. [David Lehman]

The weather geeks say [Angela Ball]
One thousand, and I shall have [Clay Sparkman]
Loved, undecided. [Diana Ferraro]

Here is Angela Sundstrom’s “Apotheosis”:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

frantic little jackhammers—
seabirds, me, digging through sand, [Christine Rhein]

crumble and carcass:
shipwreck, Jonah’s whale, salt-sting.
Sigh. Oblivion. [Berwyn Moore]

Jonah’s ghost beckons me to
follow the blue rushing tide. [Millicent Caliban]

From the ocean floor
I rise into August. Scales
line the darkened beach.

I like Angela’s assemblage and note—to make a point if not a poem—that an alternative ending for it could be:

Tides beyond tally [Christine Rhine]
Climb unsuspecting gang-planks [Justin Knapp]
Waiting for lightning [Elizabeth Solsburg]

Next week I will propose a new challenge for us. Suggestions are welcome. I salute all who took part in the making of our renga.


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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