Next Line, Please

The Black Car

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By David Lehman

May 30, 2017


 

For our theme this week, I took the suggestion of Lee McAden Robinson and proposed that we use as our point of departure the penultimate line of C. D. Wright’s poem “Dust”: “I have seen myself in the black car.” It’s a wonderful line, an excellent opener, as a fortnight of entries has proved. I specified a 10-line limit, but this structure was cheerfully violated by many, your quizmaster included.

Of the numerous fine pieces turned in, I would award first prize to Michael C. Rush (which is splendidly confrontational in the tradition created by Rilke’s “you must change your life”) and second place to Courtney Thrash (who repeats the crucial line in her final stanza, a nice touch):

Michael C. Rush
In The Black Car

I have seen myself in the black
car. How can you not see yourself
in the black car, driving, riding, pulled over,
questioned, lectured, threatened,
assaulted, shot? In the black car
followed by the white-and-blue,
eyes widen in the rear view
and history plays on the radio.
If you don’t see yourself in the black car,
what’s wrong with you?

 

Courtney Thrash
A Spring Funeral in Arkansas
For C. D. Wright

I have seen honeysuckle shooting out from shanty walls
like red trumpets, oozing bluesy drips and whiffs
of jazz so smooth and clear that bees are fooled
and go hungry while they dance, enraptured

I have seen myself in the black car:
unafraid, unfazed, unamazed

And I have seen myself in the black car:
dancing hungry while the honeysuckle plays.

The quality and variety of the entries can be inferred not only from these two but also from a quartet of top runners-up. Consider Millicent Caliban’s urbanity as Emily Dickinson’s spokesperson; Ricky Ray’s marvelous verse-making skill (“You couldn’t hear the hurt, though if you were a spirit / flitting from heart to heart, you could warm yourself”); Angela Ball’s loving grief; and Stephanie Cohen’s “High Holy Days” (“Brimming with pendulous promise”):

Millicent Calliban
Leaving Room for Immortality

The prearranged funeral package deal
Allows you to select your final ride.
Although the black car is traditional,
It has no room for Immortality.
I see myself in a horse-drawn carriage
Proceeding slowly towards Eternity.
Escorted by a kindly gentleman,
I will be well-dressed for the occasion,
Hoping to prolong the conversation.

 

Ricky Ray
I Saw Myself in the Black Car
for C. D. Wright

Wet spots on the armrest, the driver wore white gloves,
and the tires, new, unpebbled, sang in the steam rising
from the road. In the quiet of loss, you could hear the sighs,

the four-part breaths collide in brief accidents of harmony.
You couldn’t hear the hurt, though if you were a spirit
flitting from heart to heart, you could warm yourself

in the grief. The driver wore his in his foot, tore after
the horizon as after a secret that would make the difference
between an end that shreds the mind, watches strands

of memory flutter drown, and one that slides out whole,
a brown life risen in the body’s oven. The difference
between a senseless void and hello my friend old black.

One truth says: goodbye to the red river of blood
is all there is to dying. Another truth calls each end
a homecoming, blood’s seep into the earth, where blood

is washed of salt and deed, then blood runs strong and clear
on the long road to the sea, where salt returns. There it churns,
prepares to be lifted, an uncertain forecast, almost rain,

breathfine droplets, goldflaked and glistening, sunspit
watering the day-young sky, a maker’s mist that falls over
the windshield of the black car and sings under its tires again.

 

Angela Ball
The Peril of Impervious Surfaces

C. D. Wright saw herself
“in the black car,” its windows
reflecting inward. Anna Akhmatova
heard an “old woman’s cry”
escaping a Black Maria
disguised as a delivery van.
My love’s transport to burial
was a series of flubs
beginning with “Al de La”
in electronic tatters.
When the limo reserved
to follow the hearse
didn’t show, I wanted to ask,
“Let me ride with him,”
plaster myself
to the casket
lately manufactured
at … in … free
expedited delivery,
but I only stood thinking,
This is the last hour, Love,
anyone can detect
you are here.

 

Stephanie Cohen
High Holy Days

On a loosely held together summer day
You wrangled runts with careless parents
Blaring draggled Sabbath
And tithed us with a joyride.
I have seen myself nine: luminous, now sanctified.
Spiraling on the black street, vertiginous and indiscreet
I have seen myself in the black car
Noiseless as the North Star
Transfixed by your mullet
A rosary of sweat beads
Brimming with pendulous promise.

Kudos, too, to Sally Robinson for her biting “bombast of a blonde” satire that remembers to be funny; Sanjina Patel (who makes me want to sip some bubbly while listening to Michael Bublé), Charlene S. Moskal (welcome aboard), and Paul Michelsen. The level of writing is so high that I’m continually impressed and inspired. I tried my own hand:

David Lehman
Black Car

I have seen myself in the black car
behind the steering wheel
ignoring the shrill car
and beer commercials on the radio,
the window open in the heat,
hot sweat on my neck because
the A-C’s on the blink.

I am trying not to think
about the car crash I saw
back there, miles ago, the two cars,
the fire, the ambulance, the police,
the young woman thumbing a ride.
And I knew that a man in a black car
would stop for her and take her away


For next week, I suggest a prompt derived from my reading of Margaret Atwood’s prose poem “Women’s Novels,” in which she sarcastically says, “I no longer want to read books that don’t end with the word forever.” It would be difficult to write a good poem ending with the word forever. Notwithstanding the danger, I say we meet it head on, steering clear of romantic cliché, in a poem ending with the word forever. Your poem can ignore the source of the prompt, can acknowledge it in some subordinate manner (e.g. Atwood’s line as an epigraph), or can actively discuss Atwood’s assertion. In my own effort (which I promise will be no longer than 14 lines), I expect to use the phrase “for fifteen minutes.” Thank you, everyone.

Deadline: Saturday, June 3rd, midnight any time zone.


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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