Next Line, Please

Well, They Are Gone . . .

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By David Lehman

May 9, 2017


 

 

The prompt this week was to compose a poem beginning with the first line of Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”: “Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.” Variants are acceptable, and first-place honors are divided between two excellent entries that take liberties with the line. Lee McAden Robinson’s “Gardening with Your Ghost” is dedicated to the late Maxine Kumin.

“Well, I am gone, but here you must remain.”
Neither of us believes in ghosts, yet here
you are, old friend, invisibility
no matter, as if my trowel
has brought you all the way
to Texas from New Hampshire.
Your hand around my hand,
we turn the soil, your voice in my ear:
“This is what I miss the most.”
I ask about the poetry. You laugh, a sound
that rises from my chest. “That’s what
I meant,” you say, the tone insistent, sure.
“Poetry, gardening, so much the same.
Don’t forget to thin those seedlings.
Keep up with the weeds, and when
you think you’re done, go back for more.
Add them to the mulch pile—remains to revive
in the roots of things, sweet rot galore.”

The other share of first-place honors goes to Courtney Thrash’s poem “The Present,” which identifies the “they” of “they are gone” not with individuals but with “Yesterdays”:

Well, they’re gone, the greedy Yesterdays,
and here I must remain.
At dusk, they climb down from Tomorrow;
I tread water, bright with hope.
I sleep and dream of what they’ll bring
and, in the morning, rise to see
them filling empty rucksacks, plucking
Moments like they grow on trees and pouring
pints of Memories into their dry canteens.
Then, turning south, they wave and leave
me empty-handed save Tomorrow’s eve—
their one, eternal gift received—Today.

Worthy of note is this sonnet by Jane Keats:

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain
in the deer park abandoned by buck and doe
as evening settles and the darkness descends
and I stand alone, bidding farewell to my friends.

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.
I begged for the sun and here comes the rain.
The moon was full and now it’s on the wane.
I want to be with you swinging down the lane.

Well, they are gone and here I must remain.
One could do worse than a lime-tree bower
For a prison. Yet I miss them and their power.

One could do worse than a lime-tree bower
When pleasure is just the absence of pain.
Well, they are gone and here I must remain.

The poem was written incrementally at the urging of teammate Diana Ferraro, who responded to the appearance of the first and second stanzas with the suggestion that they be combined. Diana felt that if Jane “connected the two first stanzas,” the poem “should become a sonnet.” Millicent Caliban said, “I love seeing how this beautiful poem has evolved in stages. It is a privilege to observe a process usually hidden from us.” I should point out that “One could do worse” echoes Robert Frost’s “Birches,” just as the repeated opening line echoes Coleridge.

Ricky Ray weighed in with his rhetorically powerful poem “The Seasons”:

Well, they’re gone, migrants to another country,
no humans allowed, or if one has snuck in,
we’ve not heard back, and here I remain,
a house on the hill who’s swallowed them all,
the porch of me warping, containing them,
four siblings in steady if inconstant rotation,
one at the table stuffing his face,
green-eyed spring with pea soup, cherries,
asparagus, flame-haired fall with squashes,
persimmon, potato, and their whispery sister,
if I cup my window, still my wood and wait,
plods towards us like a four-month tide,
ice in her step, the door knows, the knock
already cracking her knuckles as she thinks,
head-down, of last year’s brutality,
seven snows in a month, a foot and a half
to four, three avalanches in the county over,
and no choice in her heart where the earth,
her mother, tallies her motherly moods,
our ploys within them, checks her calendar,
not years but eons, consults with the light,
gathers the birds to minister her warnings,
and tells, tells her white-haired daughter
when and where to shear the barking
fall survivors and blanket the land to sleep.

I also love Paul Michelsen’s “September”:

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,
Torn hurdy-gurdy lithographs of doll-faced heaven;
The strewn evidence meant something,
He said that everything would be better than before

Torn hurdy-gurdy lithographs of doll-faced heaven;
The laughter of old friends
He said that everything would be better than before
These nights are like that,

The laughter of old friends
Palimpsests, scribbles and scratches:
These nights are like that,
Grandfather, My father in the night commanding No

Palimpsests, scribbles and scratches:
Our blind gestures continue
Grandfather, My father in the night commanding No
Continuing their existence in you,

Our blind gestures continue
May not mean much: a bird the age of a child chirping
Continuing their existence in you,
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

May not mean much: a bird the age of a child chirping
The stifling heat of September
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
In the blindness of his naïve skin.

The stifling heat of September
The strewn evidence meant something,
In the blindness of his naïve skin.
Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.

Paul explained that “this was transformed from a cento-sonnet I composed back in February 2016. I switched the first line from one by Hart Crane to the Coleridge line.” Going back to the cento-sonnet, you can see how well it holds up:

Sonnet 99

A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph
torn hurdy-gurdy lithographs of doll-faced heaven;
The strewn evidence meant something,
He said that everything would be better than before

The laughter of old friends
These nights are like that,
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our
Grandfather, My father in the night commanding No

Our blind gestures continue
Continuing their existence in you,
May not mean much: a bird the age of a child chirping
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

the stifling heat of September
in the blindness of his naïve skin.

Sources:

“At Melville’s Tomb” by Hart Crane
“Homage to the Empress of the Blues” by Robert Hayden
“Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery
“Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser

“Days of 1994” by James Merrill
“The Other Side of the River” by Charles Wright
“In View of the Fact” by A. R. Ammons
“Poet’s Work” by Lorine Niedecker/”My Father in the Night Commanding No” by Louis Simpson

“My Religion” from “The Truth About God” by Anne Carson
“My Shoes” by Charles Simic
“The Undertaking of New Jersey” by George Oppen
“Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” by Wallace Stevens

“To Elsie” by William Carlos Williams
“Peter and Mother” by David Schubert

May I quote three other entries that exemplify the variety of uses to which Coleridge’s amiable first line lends itself?

Betsy Tontiplaphol

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain
Aging on this shadeless stage and sweating,
Too, beneath my tam. In dark-winged robes they’ve
Crossed, evanescing abbeys and moonlight,
Urns through time, and, I think, some lines about
A lime.

Christine Rhein

The House-sitter

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,
feeding the dog, the fish, the orchids, watering
the potted palms around the pool, stacking up
the mail, all the fancy magazines and invitations.
They told me I should eat whatever I want,
but there’s no real food inside their great big fridge
and pantry. No eggs. No noodles. Just lots
of protein bars, and yogurt. I miss the taco truck
and the corner store by my apartment, miss
hearing, through my walls, the noisy neighbors
cook and laugh. Silly I guess, but I can’t sleep
when it’s so quiet—1 AM now—and I’m tired
of these pillows, their strong flowery smell.
On the dresser, there’s a little lamp, always on,
and a row of pictures taken on ski hills
and beaches. The frames shine, and the smiles
are perfect, my face nowhere near the glow.

David Lehman

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain
with the poetry of Coleridge to keep me company
and the idea, then new, that nature was sacred
and so engrossing in its particulars as to sustain
the mind of a man abandoned by his friends
if only for a few hours, in his lime-tree bower.


For next week, I propose that we start with a title: “The Pill.” The poem should include the word “will” as both a noun and a verb. Otherwise no constraints, but a fifteen-line limit. If you think of an imaginative prompt for possible future use, please announce it.

Deadline: Sunday May 13, midnight wherever you are.


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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