Next Line, Please

The Alphabet as Hero

By David Lehman | July 17, 2018
Flickr/tyle_r

For next week, our mission
will be
to test our ability
at compression
and brevity,
with our customary civility.

But first let’s look at a few poems that I didn’t have room for last week.

Faced with the job of writing a poem “in the manner of” something abstract, Angela Ball chose to define a style of living.

Louche glamor
bound me to Dietrich,
Garbo, and Bacall.
Subversive Hepburn
wore my power
with knowledge.
From me Dunaway
and Keaton gained
swagger, sparked
fads. Habitué
of war
and escape,
I pocket
time. Don’t look,
here I am now,
shouldering my way
into the room.

Lovely. Angela’s title is “Androgynous Style Speaks.” I think I’d simplify that to read “The Androgynous Style.”

My only criticism of Diana Ferraro’s “The Poet as an Insect” has to do with the title. This lush poem is more mysterious without it:

Nowhere, not near,
An absent whisper
A bee melting in a honey hell
Daffodils and roses dreaming of drowned daisies
And the river, the river looking like silk, like hemp, like dirt
Rolling from the upper plains
Washing the black hull of our boat,
The one you deserted three days ago
Leaving the invisible echo of your flight,
Unsteady, tormented,
While I stared.

For sheer cleverness it would be hard to outdo Steve Bellin-Oka’s “Poem in the Manner of the Muse as Real Estate Agent”:

This new sonnet’s amortization rate is unfavorable—
by the time your closing couplet pays off, you’ll
have needed a new polyethylene heating oil tank,
two water heaters, and a full copper re-pipe job.
And the loan inspector’s report notes that even though
the shiny iambic pentameter paneling in the octave
looks solid, underneath in the sestet the wall joints
are starting to fray like the hem of a well-worn skirt.
Your volta creaks as it turns—there’s another costly repair
on the horizon. May I speak frankly? You’re not young
anymore. Down the street in your discarded draft drawer
there’s a better investment. It may look like a shithole now,
but all it needs is a stanza wall knocked out to let the light
breathe. Hardwood floors enjambed and buffed and shined.

There is a venerable tradition of sonnets about the sonnet, and Steve’s is a welcome addition. My favorite line: “Your volta creaks as it turns.”
Christine Rhein’s “Poem in the Manner of a Hotel Room” has a wonderful opening:

Green light—the door unlocks. Once
inside, you’re free to fling your baggage
anywhere. Sometimes you discover
mold, bugs, all kinds of pesky sounds,
bickering voices. Sometimes, a split
of champagne and an ocean view.
Strange comfort, the chair and desk,
paper and pen, the times you catch
yourself in the mirror. When the alarm
blares (WTH?) at 2 A.M., it’s a bad idea
to begin pacing. Mornings turn bright
with coffee, and yes, every afternoon,
your bed is made. Why not stay as long
as you can, lost in an old, grand movie …

The ellipsis at the end is telling. I predict that Christine will regard this as the first draft of something not yet complete, rife with possibilities.

I like the clipped lines and inconsistent commitment to lower-case letters in Darren Lyons’s effort to construct a poem out of materials derived from the year of his birth. Here is “1975 (to Rothko)”:

five years gone,
something reached up and bit my mom,
as if you entered the blood flow,
as you painted, as you bled. Red.
my sign is red.
watergate does not bother me,
you entered me
as i left the womb.
Dad has a scared left knee
from Kent State, student-thrown concrete,
from the day before the four.
five years gone,
the boat people flow.

Michael C. Rush took on “Frédéric Chopin—Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, ‘The Funeral March’” as the springboard for strong oratory:

Damaged or damned,
we learn to prefer the hard-hearted
over the half-hearted,
to hoard the odds and ends
into which others had tried
to summon and trap,
to instantiate meaning, or love.

Truth is the smaller infinity,
all the misinterpretations
of mistranslations
of misunderstandings.
When the world spends all its time
telling us what it is, how do we
still get it so wrong?

Though I love the idea of ending a poem with a rhetorical question (e.g. “Ode to the West Wind,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Second Coming”), I have reservations about Michael’s second stanza here because the break between stanzas seems to me to signal a pivot—to an “instance” implied in the last line of stanza one.

Josie Cannella’s poem dated 7/7/18, “The Garments of Love” is a sonnet in the traditional manner with a lively sustained metaphor:

Infatuation is an empty hanger.
One hangs on it a tux, a wedding dress,
Red roses, chocolates, love notes, time to linger
with sunsets, something borrowed, blue, no less.
One dresses up that hanger with desire.
It’s prettier than people, not real life,
but romance. Like a Christmas tree all wired
with wishes, waning with first signs of grief.
True love is not a hanger, but the suit
that suits one’s lover best, despite its flaws.
One loves the stains, the snugness, for it’s cute.
Each fault recalls a time and gives one pause,
reminds us of our own weak, ugly moments
our lovers love us through without much comment.

Though the imagery is a bit too rich for my blood, deliberately “prettier” and more poetical than it needs to be, I admire the splendid opening line, the play on “suits,” and the rhyme scheme, “hanger” and “linger” in particular.


The challenge for next week: to sum up a novel, movie, book, or play in a 26-word abecedarius. Usually an abecedarius consists of 26 lines, the first beginning with “a,” the second with “b,” and so forth. I am proposing something more radical because foreshortened. But as it is often easier to illustrate than to explain a poetic strategy, I’ll just offer my poem “Antigone” as an example:

Against brutal Creon,
doll establishes
fugitive greatness.
His internal
justice, knowledge
law mean nothing,
only piety.
Questing revenge,
she triumphs,
uttering virginal
wounds extravagant,
yearning’s zenith.

I managed to summarize Anna Karenina in two 26-word stanzas in a poem entitled “Anna K,” which you’ll find in my book When a Woman Loves a Man (and I’m pretty sure I included it in the volume of New and Selected Poems that came out in 2013).

Deadline: Saturday, July 21, 2018, midnight any time zone

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