Next Line, Please

The Violet of Roses

By David Lehman | July 3, 2018
Flickr/Mary Gillham
Flickr/Mary Gillham

The idea of the “ghostly companion” proved so popular that I’ve contrived a new prompt that builds on it. But first let’s visit some of the excellent poems that space did not permit us to post last week. Jane Keats’s inspiration appears to be based on Robert Burns (“My love is like a red, red rose”) mixed up with Gertrude Stein (“rose is a rose is a rose”):

My rose is the violet of roses
for my whosis.
My lover is the invisible inviolate
of the violent night’s noses.
You know I speak true, Miss.
My violet is the violet of vivid lovely violets.
My rose is the violet of roses.

If a poem consists of sound and sense, the triumph of these lines is that the nearly total emphasis on sound results not in an absence of meaning but in a surfeit created by rhyme and alliteration. Berwyn Moore praised the poem’s “wonderful sounds and word play,” and Emily Winakur singled out “the rhymes, the images, the violent/violet/violate play.” Despite my doubts about “whosis,” I wrote, the rhyme of ‘whosis’ and ‘true, Miss’ is the opposite of clueless.”

Donald LaBranche’s “The Shade of Ash Trees” is a powerful piece of writing:

The power company men are here to cut the trees
that the ash-borers and woodpeckers have killed.
Some went to the saw mill, some went to heat the house.

Some of the ash fed the forge fires of Haephaestus,
Some became strips of paper in Keats’ coat pocket.
A small chunk became a totem in an artist’s house.

Among the five elements, earth produces growth
mixed with wood; metal glows white hot when kissed by fire;
and water holds them all in place to build you a house.

Ash trees grew right up the barbed wire where the stream
feeds that end of the meadow. A rear guard of them
spreads out over ten acres to surround the house.

The County wants to bring dozers in for a road
so the neighbors can live there and raise their livestock.
The borers’ work will never be done in their house.

Sometimes people like me stand in these woods, trembling.
Mostly, it’s in winter. Mostly, like deer, we’re harmless;
living in the shade of ash trees like it’s a house.

The poem’s tone, “the understatement and matter-of-factness,” reminded Patricia Wallace of A. R. Ammons, a high compliment. Who was your ghostly companion, Donald?

While Donald’s source eluded me, the syntax of Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Bridge Party” brought Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” to mind:

Thursday afternoons, my mother set up
two card tables, covered with starched cloths
she’d embroidered with hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades,
cut glass dishes of mixed nuts and pastel mints,
and tea in a silver pot that burned to the touch.

She brushed blue powder across her eyes
and wrapped her hair in hot spiked rollers
that had been her best Christmas gift one year;
all evidence of childbearing girdled into hiding.

We were well-mannered and silent,
taking ladies’ coats to lay across the guest room bed;
we laughed later at her solemn rituals
and the pressing urgency of perfection
but in the end, what did we know,
what did we comprehend of loneliness?

“The way you transform Hayden’s poem is remarkable,” Emily Winakur commented. “You’ve altered gender, socioeconomic status, yet achieved a similar emotional austerity.”

Emily’s own effort, “Sincerest Form of Flattery,” takes its title from Charles Caleb Colton’s most famous line, his definition of “imitation. One of the charms of the poem is that the reader doesn’t know whether the poet is sincere or has donned a mask with an identity other than that of the author:

Do you think you’ll ever amount to something?
was the question that plagued me daily,
served with an after-school snack
of sweet pickles, by my grandfather,
fan of junk food and refrain,
after the issuance of ironic
warnings against “running to fat”
but before the advice to be as kind
as my sister, since I would never be
as beautiful, or as skilled an artist.

I’m not as kind as my sister.
I say fuck you a lot
when I walk past the self-portrait—
him in a boat on the Chesapeake—
that hangs in my dining room.

Why do I want him here?
Why take the portrait
when we cleaned out the house?
Why try to whistle “Blue Skies”
like a virtuoso, and talk to my poodle
about books, and plant tomatoes
and smell my hands after
I’ve touched the leaves?

Maybe I want to be reminded who I am.
Or maybe it’s just a case of life
imitating life.

When I go to the museum,
I stand too close to the paintings,
as he did, and tilt my head,
as though I’m listening.

The poem creates a self-portrait by pitting itself against “the self-portrait” of her grandfather “in a boat on the Chesapeake.” The tilt of the head at the end is splendid, forging an identity of self and anti-self in the repetition of a characteristic gesture. The climactic “who I am” is instantly followed by the possibility that life parallels art in its reliance on imitation. Wordsworth: “As if [man’s] whole vocation / Were endless imitation.”

Christine Rhein’s memorable poem takes the form of a riddle:

It sticks to us in grains,
in countless scratches.

It spills into our beds,
our rugs, as if wanting us
to drag it through the house.

It swirls its way
to closets, cupboards,
the hollows of our bowls.

We taste it any time
we talk. Or try to talk.

Its wild dunes grow
around us. We climb
and crawl, slip and slip,
sinking deep.

We remember
filling childhood pails
with it, shaping castles,
how easy it was
to moat, to topple.

Here’s hoping that Christine will reveal the source of this magical piece of writing—and the meaning(s) of “it.”

And here is my own stab at this assignment:

A hill on one side, on the other a hedge,
hide the horizon, banish strangers,
leave me on the edge
of sea and sky in the noonday light.

shape-shifting cloud obscures the sun
and I listen in vain for echoes and clues
that prove I’m not alone in this universe
of sovereign silence and infinite space.

Fear makes a fist in my heart.
But like the breeze that neglects
no trembling leaf, the season turns,

and winter comes after summer fades,
no reasons given or forgiven,
and my tears return to the sea

My source: Giacomo Leopardi’s “L’Infinito.” Among his best-known poems, it has been translated many times, and if the available translations are all of them unsatisfactory, they at least have the virtue of making us go to the original and try a version of our own. Mine is an approximation rather than a translation.

Back in 2002, I began writing “poems in the manner of” certain poets I admired, and after 12 or 13 years of doing these, I amassed enough of them to form the core of a book. Some were translations, some approximations; there were parodies, homages, and variations as well.

But it is one thing to rewrite another poet’s poem, or to appropriate his or her style, mannerisms, obsessions; it is quite another to write a poem in the manner not of a given poet but of something more nearly abstract, such as a genre, a time period, an ad hoc form. I thoroughly enjoyed writing poems in the manner of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and these are included in my Poems in the Manner Of, published last year.

For next week then, please write a poem “in the manner of” a friendly poker game, or of a gothic romance, or of a Chopin piano sonata (no. 2, for example), or of a garment of which you are fond, or of the year in which you were born. Fourteen lines or less. How you construe “in the manner of” is entirely up to you.

Deadline: Saturday July 7, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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