Next Line, Please

The Trope of a Nation

By David Lehman | March 5, 2019

In our game of reverse scrabble, we proved once again that a strict constraint can liberate the poetic imagination. The prompt called for players (if a sports metaphor is acceptable) to break down the word “operation” into its component letters, create anagrams, and then conjoin them in a poem.

If you thought it impossible to write a patriotic poem in 2019, think again. Millicent Caliban, in “Operation 1776,” has written a poem that I’d like to see in newspapers on July 4th. She treats the hit show Hamilton as “the trope of a nation,” the birth of the American republic. The poem culminates in a magnificent closing couplet:

“Hamilton”—an opera with rap oration,
the art of Miranda, the trope of a nation:
to tear them away, to part from taxation.
Wanting the option to reap their reward,
the poor prone to riot, to feather and tar,
the gentry pen notes to air their pain.
In Boston, a port, the harbor is near.
Men say “nope” to the King and go for the tea.
“Do not tie us to Empire! We yearn to breathe free!”

The last clause echoes Emma Lazarus’s great sonnet “The New Colossus.” Even better is the vernacular “nope” in the penultimate line.


Stephanie Cohen’s “The Operation” succeeds beautifully because of the complex feeling she invokes with her wit and inventiveness:

To ease me into a prone riot,
the anesthesiologist, near my ear, sang Lou Reed’s,
“Perfect Day” with a ration-
al tone dripped in toper tropes.

“You’re gonna reap just what you sew”
Roped to a table, I buoyed to a torpor
to treat my torn aorta. Its pores gulping
tons of musical notes; I became noise.

I wanted to repo the rate of nope and tar the vice
of human voice at the opera. Reduced to
the body’s notion, my ape-ness tore me open-
“I’m glad I spent it with you.”

There are at least three phrases I’d like to steal: “prone riot,” “to repo the rate of nope,” and “my ape-ness tore me open.” Brava.

A magnificent simile brings Steve Ben-Oka’s lyric to its conclusion:

Sleet’s a trope, repeating. I wonder
where you are. I’m at the port, before
dawn, phone battery empty. A prone
gull flaps on the concrete tarmac—air
the color of smoke, of beaten tin. Three
states of water: rain, ice on the boat rope
ties, vapor I exhale through a nostril’s nare.
At some preordained point the harbor lights
tire of their electric hum and clank off.
All night I tore through hanged clothes
in an unending closet, looking for one good
coat I could try on like another man’s life..

Michael C. Rush used the prompt to create a musical mosaic in “Operation Intro.” The alliterative energy is remarkable:

Playing air poet,
rioting into a pain rap
on an ornate iron piano
near an open air patio—
rip one, tip it, top it,
tap no poor pen to atone

a pro, a rat, prone to opiate,
options no rite, apes no portion
ripe in art, pines into an apt ratio
in a not-rote era.

Eric Fretz took the prompt as an Oulipian challenge. (The Oulipo is a French association of writers committed to developing new forms, often by using constrictive methods.) Only the nine letters contained in “Operation” are in evidence in “Operation Trope”:

A patron, apt to retain or entrap an ornate painter
too poor to earn rent, or an opera tenor
prone to Nite-Train opiate potion,
ate tea at one: an open pain-pita to atone.

“Peon poet, pen an anti-poem
too poor to rant, too inapt to pertain—
a pointer to an oration portion;
not a piano trio, a prone ripe rip;
an apron atop a pantie torn open!”

Eric’s wasn’t the only tour de force of its kind. Here is J. Randall Brett’s “Operation: Noir Rain”:

Tapir troop on atropine—
no trope, an inept opera.
Tenor prate, rant, opine.
A trine piano, apt riot rip tear note,
trepan or open ear, inert
oration, tin tone. Patron rapt,
opiate ratio neap pain.
Operation: Noir Rain.

Patricia Wallace dissuaded J. R. from omitting the line at the end: “I’d hate to give up that final rhyme.”


Patricia herself produced “Rent,” with such inspired phrases as “a poent-up piano,” “the tropine potion,” “the opiate of music,” which works “to atone for pain”:

The tenor rips out a trembling note
like a pent-up piano, as once again the beloved
drinks the tropine potion or, rent by coughing,
retains a final breath as the opiate of music
works to atone for pain. When the opera darkens
into the art of loss, the ratio of melody
to silence shifts, as when the sound of rain
ceases to anoint the roof. The audience eats
it up, enrapt. Over and over again the option
points only to this: death ties its nets tighter
with each protean note. A boat without oars.

I had never before come across “tropine” in a poem.

In Christa Whitsett Overbeck’s “Hedonic Operation,” the second stanza stops me in my tracks:

Portion, like slices of ripe pear,
the ratio of pleasures—

Rate the opiate:
a nice pinot
or porn noir—

Opine on art or opera—

Tear the fruit
to the pulp, I ate—
not unlike words
to the poet

The line break between “a nice pinot” and “or porn” adds to the smile-provoking surprise of “porn noir,” a phrase that I might want to appropriate if I wrote about such a movie as Dead Reckoning, which wastes the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott.

Angela Ball issues a credo in “Operation Art”:

Are you still at it
they ask, assuming my work ration
spent. That’s pure tripe.
Always open, fields
of Operation Art, ripe
for the laughing reaper,
rapture upping its ratio
to pain


To Emily Winakur’s “Pronto Porno” goes the minimalist award:


Emily, have you read the poems of Elaine Equi? You’ll like them a lot—as she will like your poem.

I owe a particular debt to Anthony Clifton, who crafted a sestina that cunningly echoes my own “Operation Memory.” Anthony uses the same six end-words, one of which is a number and a variable.

Operation Triple Bypass

for David the Shepherd

I. Practice Practice Practice

Pain is always—always—an option. When
Will we mercifully earn time again for bed?
A piano lullaby (too much to ask?)—A hundred
Cherubs riot, humming the middle
Portion of Carmina Burana, dream of jobs
At Carnegie Hall, velvet rope, sold out shows, loaded

With diehard connoisseurs, open carry, loaded
With hope, ornate ideas, and pure joy; When
We are out to lunch, on a field trip, on to new jobs,
A zillion reasons to stay fixed with rope to the bed,
Whether young or not-so anymore, into the middle
Of middle age, or whatever one wants to call fifty.

II. Homecoming

I remember Otto was open at 8th St. & 5th
“Ave Maria” playing, ordered Pinot Noir, loaded
Patron bumped into me in the middle
Of the joint, happy drunk, a real trip. I remember when
You handed me your book, signed by poet, I rubbed
The cover, a tap for luck, as we talked about odd jobs.

I dug your rap about retiring from your current job
(I believe you did that rat race since 1996)
After a great lunch I ran off envisioning bed—
A siesta before a feast with friends (“parti” in Norwegian), loaded
With protein, bursting with flavor, plenty of Patrón. When
I got home, via train, I sighed, smiled, patted my middle.

III. New Ark

It ain’t easy to find oneself in the middle
Of this trap, or whatever you call New Jersey. Jobs
Come, go, they’re given, torn away. When
I scraped up enough cash to buy one
Ton (okay, ounce) of knockout weed, then loaded
A pair of bowls Goldilocks would’ve deemed just right, numbed

Myself, repainted my already-vivid daydreams that rubbed
Me into rapt attention, fiddled with, diddled my middle
Chakra, left me far from fulfilled, like a ripe gun unloaded
Into one’s favorite enemy (the one who stole your job?),
A rat of no consequence, maybe even just one of one’s
Least favorite friends, in the rain I wandered, wondered: When

I get wherever I’m going, after bed, post-dirt nap—when
I get to Heaven, Hell, one or the other, or land en pointe in the middle
Of Purgatory—will the poor soul’s job be to simply implode?

It is a tribute to the brilliance of “Operation Triple Bypass” that readers enjoyed and admired it whether or not they got all the in-jokes, the biographical facts, and the literary allusions that make Anthony’s poem so spirited a response to mine. Anthony dedicates his poem “for David the Shepherd,” which is the title of the Giorgione painting that I used as the cover of Operation Memory (Princeton, 1990). Thank you, Anthony. I got a special kick out of the notion that the creative-writing profession is a rat race.

I wish I had space enough to quote all the entries that deserve approbation. Well, there’s always next Tuesday, when a new prompt will go up in this space.

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