Next Line, Please

Time, Fear, Lust, Truth, and Grant’s Tomb

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Charley Lhasa/Flickr

By David Lehman

October 17, 2017


 

Last week I asked everyone to adopt the verse form known as the apostrophe—but with a twist. I asked for a poem addressing something inanimate—an idea, an event, a place, a thing—as if it were human but incapable of making a reply. We had no shortage of excellent poems in response.

We also had a lively discussion of the poems that were posted. I value the frankness and civility of the exchanges between and among NLP regulars (and newcomers) in the comments field, where people are trying out their ideas in a climate that is conducive to creativity.

In a note addressed to Clay Sparkman, for example, Emily Winakur paid the group a great compliment, writing “I love that you and Angela [Ball] both chose to address abstract concepts. Seeing how we all address the prompt is my favorite part of each week and I find myself waiting eagerly for each specific person—‘Has Clay posted yet? Has Ricky? Has Angela? Will Ravindra be here this week?’”

Emily also declared her intention “to write a poem entitled ‘Poem Without the Word Fuck’ since that word is putting in so many appearances in my work of late.” I hope she will make good on that promise and post the result in this space. The title would enact a paradox—or what the deconstructionist critics like to call an “aporia,” in which the text contradicts itself (though the theorists then make the unwarranted leap that as a result we can never know the meaning of that text).

As an example of the type of things you could address in such a poem, I mentioned Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan. Kat Leonard-Peck took me up on the idea, explaining that she “used to live on 122nd Street in Manhattan, on the same street as Grant’s Tomb and the Jewish Theological Seminary”:

My Dead Neighbors (Grant’s Tomb at Dusk)

To get to my basement apartment, I had to pass my dead neighbors.
Salute a muster of crack whores, death fifes gleaming, sweet tracers over Antietam,
Greek fire at the Somme, and the mules split wide. My books could stop bullets,
I shot them once, at a range near the Alamo—Gratuitous Transfers, von Clausewitz on      War.
Impaled the runner of Marathon, blood tympanic behind his marbled eyes,
“Rejoice, we conquer!”—then he died.

Sic semper Mrs. Grant, the Union is preserved, the stilettos drum,
the white walls know. Mausoleum, Mahal, the Pantheon’s blind, Styx entwining,
Niki swelling under sail. Barbary marauders swallowing the Rebel dead,
green fennel like napalm for succubi to account, men mown in the millions.

Jerusalem is burning and Jericho is down, and always, always the pale wives walk,
battlefield Morrigan snatching at smoke, Herodotus is dust, a Flanders of stalks.

Kat broadened the poem by naming events and places from periods other than the seventh decade of the 19th century.

“To a Well-Known Whim” by Diana Ferraro reminded me of William Butler Yeats’s losing battle with lust in his old age:

Again? Once again
you’re tickling my ears
with a pledge you can’t pledge,
tingling tiny bells on my spine,
toiling in my brain,
tantalizing my waist
by a warm wave,
tinkering with my soul
in topsy-turvy accord.
What do I have to do with you
at old age? Is it never
going to end?

When I commented that “Yeats knew the feeling,” Diana wisely replied that “he didn’t complain, just prayed for it!”—a case where the pronoun’s antecedent does not need to be made clear.

In “Ruby Red,” Emily Winakur wrote a poem that delighted many and gave rise to some ingenious interpretations:

Up from the valley, you collide
with autumn’s first spine-tingling front,
hand in hand with the chill of childhood
mornings—fog skulking from the porch,
my father breakfasting with birds.
He attacked you with a serrated
spoon, scraping and squeezing until
all that remained were your empty
chambers and the stark pith. He made
even the scrub jays look dainty.
Always generous, he proffered
bite after bite of pulpy hearts,
but there’s not enough sugar in
the state of Texas, in the whole
of winter in the northern hemisphere,
to counter what’s bitter-sour
in his joy.

Charise Hoge said the verse “reads like a novel, a film, a play, as well as a poem,” Clay Sparkman called it a “spine-tingler,” and Justin Knapp said he loved “the suggestion of violence and the steely-cold diction.” Stephanie Cohen admired “my father breakfasting with birds,” as do I. The poem impelled me to rush to the nearest fruit-stand and buy a grapefruit for the morrow.

As inventive as he is industrious, Paul Michelsen chose graffiti for the subject of his prose poem:

“I’m here for you if you ever need anything at all.”
—Anonymous

I’m your biggest fan. I read you wherever I go: On bathroom walls, in distant cities, wherever I sit (even in Bermuda, at the Swizzle Inn).

Love the way you brag about my mother and her special abilities, followed by her phone number. Who wouldn’t be proud their mother could be in the Guinness Book for being able to do what so few others can (Drawing a golf ball through a garden hose)?

Graffiti, you’re the king of understatement. Electrolux my foot, she’s a force of nature. And as for my Dad, you’re not kidding a bit. He really would lick yours.

Millicent Caliban charmed me with “Time Travel,” the final rhymes of which drew ooh’s and ah’s from the gang:

You are the ultimate fantasy game:
history interactive at its best.
The birth of Christ, but what gift to get him?
Cleopatra’s barge, what was her secret?
Or might we score some tickets to the Globe?
Or keep John Wilkes from going to Ford’s theater?
You always get us trapped in paradox.
We are entangled inextricably
in the web of deeds, desires and despair.
We seek to go with you to where
there is no there.

Clay Sparkman entitled his effort “And so I heard you call my name”:

I am onto you! You are a genuine first-class bastard. You have surely killed many more than ISIS, or even Stalin or Hitler. And you have tortured, often continuously practically every human ever to live. You seem to be particularly active as of late, working with your many human associates. And what is it you have on our dear Mother Earth? How do you persuade her to act, or are her actions the result of a mere chain of events with you at the head? I don’t like what you do. I work every day to purge you from my life. The battle is ongoing and continuous. But you will not kill me. I shall fight you into the musty dank spaces where you choose to await your next move. And yet, even if I could, I would not kill you. You are my brother, born of a common mother. You are my blood. I cannot kill my own, and even if I could, I would not. You are here for a reason. Your birth was no accident. Without you, Fear, I’m forced to admit, there is no way of knowing if life would even be sustainable.

Angela Ball suggested adding “fear” to the title and ending the poem with “You are here for a reason.” Michael C. Rush seconded the motion, adding he would remove the line between “You are my blood” and “You are here for a reason.” I agree on both counts.

“The Inverse,” Michael’s own effort, is distinguished by its epigrammatic flavor:

Truth,
is your silence
your inventory
of what’s true in life,
or do you wait to find
yourself before you speak?

Or is it that
you’re just a lie
defined as the inverse
of the very quality
that you decline
to rehearse?

Charise Hoge’s “Foyer” is another winner:

Rather than an exposé
on entryways
—another excuse
to look askance
at polished wood
purporting to be a drawer
of a console table
whose contents are known—
you entreat me to explore the depths
of neglect, and leave the budding
poem at the door

And if I had the space I would add poems by Christine Rhein (“the mud”), Elizabeth Solsburg (who addressed “insomnia”), Ricky Ray (the human hand), and Angela Ball (“invention”), among others.

Great work, everyone.

Next Tuesday a new prompt will be coming your way. In the meantime, please continue the conversation in this space. Please take a moment or two to reflect on the passing of Richard Wilbur, a true master of verse, who died at age 96 three days ago. And by the way … last week, to signal my agreement with something said by one of our regulars, I wrote “me 2”—little knowing that the spelled out version of this phrase would get so much circulation, though for unhappy causes.


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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