Next Line, Please

Unfinished Business

By Angela Ball | June 30, 2015


I’m delighted by the wealth of terrific responses to last week’s prompt, as well as by the continued spirit of mutual support and collaboration among the poets. First-place honors go to Patricia Smith for her “Cadavers 101-Indiana University,” which I’ll reprint here:

The bloated woman … her hair dyed with henna,
the color of a clay pot. Maybe you’ll forget her
in spite of her disgusting tattooed body,
her multiple piercings—nose, lips, elsewhere …
Perhaps you’ll forget him, too … beer-bellied,
his face a collage of scars.
Indeed, his expression even in death suggests brutality—
each scar a reminder of an encounter or some unfinished business.
Remember only this: Dead folks like these will pay your salaries.

Smith’s obstruction of David Wagoner’s “Their Bodies” uses the prompt tragi-comically, turning the exemplary into the disreputable while affirming the bodies’ worth.

In second place we have Berwyn Moore’s “For I Will Consider the Wind,” with its deft transformation of Christopher Smart’s famous poem into a new work that brilliantly shows “the way the wind ruffles and tatters what we think is ours.” (For another poem that revisits Smart to brilliant effect, see Wendy Cope’s “My Lover.”) Honorable mentions go to Paul Michelsen’s “Waving,” Charise Hoge’s “the how town downtowners,” Allison Campbell’s “The [Impatient & Ill Advised] Waking,” Annette Boehm’s “Thirteen Ways of Ignoring a White Rat,” and LaWanda Walters’s “Waving, Not Drowning.”

To begin this week’s prompt, I’ll open with the first stanza of Kenneth Koch’s much-anthologized poem “You Were Wearing.”

You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.
In each divided up square of the blouse was a picture of Edgar Allan Poe.
Your hair was blonde and you were cute. You asked me, “Do most boys think
That most girls are bad?”
I smelled the mould of your seaside resort hotel bedroom on your hair held
in place by a John Greenleaf Whittier clip.
“No,” I said. “It’s most girls who think that boys are bad.” Then we read
Snowbound together.
And ran around in an attic, so that a little of the blue enamel was scraped off
my George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes.

In this prescient poem from 1962, we are flung into a world in which famous artistic and political identities brand ordinary objects. The family seems perhaps a bit unhinged, or at least star struck. The objects’ borrowed brilliance is only a veneer, as the scraped-off blue enamel reminds us. But wait—the shoes belong to the speaker, who is implicated in the craze. The deadpan specificity of reference—“George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes”—suggests an ad for a prestige collectible. At the same time that it showcases its “products,” the poem runs a parallel narrative of young love, to great comic effect.

There may be no “Edgar Allan Poe blouse,” but there is surely a T-shirt, tote bag, and mug. Soccer players score and deflect goals while their shirts sell plane tickets and automobiles. Tradition to the contrary, it may be only a matter of time until American football players’ uniforms become billboards. We can bemoan this as crass—or we can, in the words of Irving Berlin, “Face the Music and Dance.”

For this week, try writing an eight- to 10-line poem featuring at least three products, real or invented. Feel free to emulate and/or depart from Kenneth Koch’s method. Most of all, enjoy the playfulness inherent in the idea. Title your poem, and post it no later than midnight (Eastern Time), July 4th—Independence Day.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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