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Tributes to May in January

By David Lehman | January 15, 2019
Flickr/Bernhard Friess

By sundown on Sunday, there were 235 entries in the comments, many of them poems or revisions of poems written in response to the prompt derived from May Swenson’s “Four-Word Lines.” Like many constraints, this one seems to have a paradoxically liberating effect, and I applaud the efforts of the NLP community, which rose to the occasion.

Some years ago I invited Robert Bly to visit a poetry workshop that I was teaching, and he came with an onion and asked everyone to write about it in some way that captured its essence. Robert would have admired Pamela Joyce S’s “Onion”:

What layers of skin
reveal or conceal is
a matter of protocol.
The procedure of peeling
can be precise—perhaps
surgical—or haphazard. This
feeling here, beneath the
sheer papery veil, thin,
white, and glistening—it
resists a reckless knife
but yields to meridian
slicing. The curve preserved,
an arc of tears
releases in sharp sweetness.

Millicent Caliban spoke for many of us when she commented that “every line is a treasure and the whole is a remarkable achievement.” The phrasing is wonderful and in some cases, one suspects, a by-product of the four-words-per-line limit: “The curve preserved, / an arc of tears / releases in sharp sweetness.” Said Pamela, generously, “This is a poem I could not have written without David’s prompt and the inspiration of May Swenson’s gorgeous poem.”

Keith Barrett contributed a cento consisting entirely of lines from May Swenson’s poetry. “The Key to Everything” is a splendid tribute to her.

The muggy setting sun
silently swallowed a pearl
and winked like diamonds

Where can I go
except in her sea
she is the staircase

I am not lost
I wish we were

At 77 turned ghost
The chemistry of prayer
lifted like a tendril

Fingers find by feel
I don’t I don’t

Night unanimous over all

“The Becoming Thought,” a second Barrett cento, this one including lines from Swenson, Kenneth Koch, John Koethe, A. R. Ammons, and Alvin Feinman, renews my admiration of Keith’s skill—and the value of the cento as a poetic form suitable to our poetical climate.

Josie Cannella’s “Medicinal Purpose” excited much comment:

I sanitized your glass,
first by kissing the
rim all around. Next,
by pouring in vodka
and swirling that around.

I then added ice,
crushed. I instilled some
cranberry juice, fresh lemon,
and a dash of
bitters for good measure.
I stirred it around.

Drinking it down, I
call the concoction a
Bitter Kiss Good-Bye.

The sexual theme, introduced in line two, is sustained marvelously. J. Randall Brett characterized the opening lines as “really provocative and unexpected,” and J. F. “Jeff” McCullers added his praise for “how the erotic element throughout conceals that bitterness waiting for us at the end. The only early signal of trouble is sanitizing the glass, but the reader is drawn past that quickly into the recipe. The flavors are pleasant enough, and so we can also miss how all of the ingredients are sour or bitter, with nothing in there for sweetness. It isn’t until we get right to the end that we realize what’s been going on all along, and it stings.”

Brandon Crist’s “Wistful lust flutters, withers” has a wonderful title and an ambitious agenda:

Awaiting your impending departure …
Guardsmen approach with reproach,
Castigating mortal desire henceforth.
“Illicit encounters elicit excommunication.”
Chivalry would undress clunkily.
Heavy hearts command gravitation,
Your avian forgery defies.

I saw you off …
“Bad gays” came over,
Cut curt our embr
“Get hard or get”
Was what they said.
Hurt will sink if
Your fake bird flys.

“The first stanza has 4 or more letters per word; the second stanza, 4 or fewer,” Brandon pointed out. “Consider this a study on translation … and limitation!” I agree with Stephanie Cohen’s assessment: “Very cool idea to show the difference of polysyllabic choices to monosyllabic choices.” She also loved the title. And because she “stumbled a bit” on the poem’s original last line (“Your bird of away”), Brandon revised the stanza.

There is an amazing moment in line three of Annette C. Boehm’s “Faith Quartet”:

You need to go
inside. This rain burns
paint off cars, waxed
or not. Strip. Resist
the urge to shake
like a wet dog—
Dust yourself: baking soda
will help. Close your
eyes, cover your ears:
the rain will stop
instantly if you believe.

“Strip”: this one-word sentence is packed with implication, whether we consider it in the context of faith, Eros, or an automobile in a hard, acid-like rain.

I admired the liberal use of hyphens and dashes in Louis Altman’s “Tea Time”:

Pain and joy melt,
honey-lilts, sinking soundless
down bitter tea. Leaves
dance rumble slowly softly
side-binding peaceful dying,
bottom-dead. Silent-sweet
on my lips comes
at cautious price—aftertaste.
Makes me doubt desire—
I wanted another suite—
hurt first, pleasure after.

So many other poems deserve acknowledgment, but because space is limited, I will cite just some highlights.

—These two amazing lines in Charise Hoge’s “Reel Choices”: “Buckle up, with remote. / Sweat your near fears.”

Diana Ferraro’s opening stanza: “They come in couples. / Two by two, like / the lucky animals in / Noah’s ark, like us / at our bridal party.”

Stephanie Cohen’s beautiful use of “formal”—an allusion to Emily Dickinson—in “Nighthawks”: “A formal sadness / fastens a medal on / my chest.”

—The way one line contradicts the next in Michael C. Rush’s “The Numbers”: “The numbers don’t matter. / Only the numbers matter.”

Grant Dowling bends the language, teases the reader, hints at specific meanings but yanks them away, and I am charmed to the exact extent that I am perplexed:

Credit to Keene, adieu.
One-named celeb, arite.

Umba lifelight Larkin tiempo.
Fuckolight foca BbyMutha Greico,
Junglepussy timapni outta Folger.

It pleases me greatly that we have formed a community of poets who excel at practical criticism. My job is to provide a prompt to fire your imagination, and I will do my best next Tuesday.

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