By David Lehman
May 16, 2017
Our assignment this week was to write a poem entitled “The Pill” (or a poem with “pill” in the title) and include the word “will” as both a noun and a verb. Stephanie Cohen, a welcome newcomer to these posts, rose to the challenge with “The Pill”:
Just as I knew the earthquake was pending
Making us hide under our Kindergarten desks
To protect our heads; just as I heard the moan signal an
Epicenter in propinquity, and even though I was the teacher,
I trembled most, because I knew the
Consequences of a crepitating earth, so too did I know,
My will to be unburdened by your arrival
Would slip through the cracks.
Under a West Los Angeles sunrise I thought:
What I’ve feared will happen, has.
At three A.M. I heard invisible noise and knew disintegration
Was a possibility. Wills and won’ts never met on a field for trucing
Until I sat with you in your Westwood office
And you said, “You’re going to be okay.” Somehow, your words would
Bind my wounds even before I swallowed a pill.
The intelligence informing the poem is evident not only in the vocabulary (“I heard the moan signal an / Epicenter in propinquity” and “I knew the / Consequences of a crepitating earth”) but also because of the climactic use of “wills and won’ts” and the finality of the “pill” at poem’s end.
Christine Rhein treats the ubiquitous tablet the way a Metaphysical poet would develop a conceit in “Bitter Pills.” I rather like it that Christine uses, as Stephanie does, the verb “tremble.”
It’s not their taste that makes them
hard to swallow, but their size,
and the way they go on growing
a little larger, day by day, forcing us
into a wilder fight of wills, our throats
intent on never giving in to silent
choking, and yet, a fearsome
tremble runs down our spines,
and our stomachs lurch, as dosages
roll round and round our palms.
Will we ever get today’s pills down?
Tomorrow’s? Never mind a whole
month’s worth, year after year?
The closing questions pack a punch, and “forcing us / into a wilder flight of wills” is a superb example of double alliteration.
My third pick this week is a pantoum by Elizabeth Solsburg in which the mood of nostalgia is clouded over by a sense of foreboding:
I will never forget the way you laughed
when we were flying kites in the park
even as you tripped and fell so hard
because you were running backward, watching the sky.
When we were flying kites in the park,
you told me you’d have wings someday.
You were running backward, watching the sky
and didn’t see the stone that rose under your feet.
You told me you’d have wings someday—
I made you promise not to fly too far from me.
You didn’t see the stone that rose under your feet,
and you didn’t hear my cry of warning.
I made you promise not to fly too far from me,
but you found wings of Ecstasy.
You didn’t hear my cries of warning,
I could not give you the will to stay with me.
You found wings of Ecstasy
and even when you tripped and fell so hard,
I could not give you the will to stay with me
but I will never forget the way you laughed.
Millicent Caliban’s “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Pill” is a brilliant piece of satire, though I believe a title worthier of the contents can be found:
Lord Harrington made it explicit in his will:
His entire estate and fortune would pass to me
Upon his death. I, his good and faithful servant,
Knew how to brew his tea, make toast and boil his egg,
Arranged with loving care upon the silver tray.
When sleep eluded him, I sang sweet lullabies,
Made shift to soothe his aching joints and sorest need.
What e’er he willed, his every whim was straight fulfilled.
So when the time was ripe, I placed the little pill
Beneath his tongue, while all serene, he snored and slept.
And when he passed, I was the only one who wept.
I like the complication, and not knowing how much irony is attached to the words.
Other entries of note came from Angela Ball, byron, Berwyn Moore, and Jerald Winakur, but I’d like to shine a spotlight on Charise Hoge’s poem because its evolution illustrates a strength of “Next Line, Please”—the way comments help an author improve a poem-in-progress. Charise tells us she “revised” her poem “based on feedback, thanks to byron”:
If I have permission
to speak of your condition
… something left in a bottle sealed
on ocean’s spill of messages revealed
only to you; the rest of us elbowed
out of the way, the rest of us bowled
over when your pills were thrown
away, still in their containers. My phone
jarring as it rang, like a foghorn
announcing a certitude forlorn.
Torn between cajoling, correcting;
conversation akin to a gagging
on the revelatory pill
… of your careening will
Congratulations to all. The poems you write continue to amaze me.
Lee McAden Robinson came up with several promising prompts for future poems. One in particular catches my fancy, and I propose that we write a poem that takes off from the penultimate line in C. D. Wright’s “Dust”: “I have seen myself in the black car.” We have a 10-line limit. Your quizmaster will be away next weekend, so the deadline is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 27, 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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