What Can Save Us?

What a bounty of imaginative entries! It looks as if Marianne Moore’s method has a lot of life left in it.

The poem that captured my fancy more than most is Angela Ball’s “To Marianne Moore”:

Your poems, steam rollers
from beneath we emerge re-dimensioned. They are
used for leveling surfaces without traction,
their live steam festival flattening genuine dilations

such as a bill of
lading, an introduction to computing Ve-
nus, an action bracketed by double colons,
a pseudo-element. Smokebox far extended at the top

to incorporate
support for assembly. “Steam Roller” first meant a
fixed machine for rolling and curving steel plates for
boilers and ships. Some have seen you walking by the harbor un-

der a distinct pole
star, your hat a sextant, your consciousness a crow’s
nest sighting solid constellations, stars like spark-
ling chips of rock above scrip of river, silence’s storehouses.

The poem looks and sounds like a Marianne Moore poem and is a wonderful eulogy to this master. Ricky Ray writes that Angela’s “sentence makes me want to lie down and roll around in it.” Diana Ferraro expressed her wish that “the river that shows up in the last stanza would also be seen in the first one,” a suggestion that prompted the author to make one of those last minute changes that are so important in the evolution of a poem.

Meanwhile, Emily Winakur made good on her promise to produce a “Poem Without the Word Fuck”:

To jape, to sard, to swive, to occupy.
To strike, copulate, express
extreme dismay, as at one’s

Abbott. Obscene, vulgar, oblique,
bleeped, leaving us with mother,
mother, mother; what the ever loving;

this, that; me, you; yourself, the other.
Drug of hard consonants. Intensifier.
Transitive, except when it’s not.

A polyglot from obscurity,
nevertheless spreading its seed
through history, modernity;

continually bumping the back
of our throats, reigning over slang-
uage like a bastard king.

Emily annotates her effort as follows:

This poem has been brought to you by everybody’s favorite free encyclopedia—Wikipedia English language entry “Fuck.”

Particular sentences from the entry that made their way into the poem:

John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, included the term, along with several now-archaic, but then-vulgar synonyms, in this definition:

“Fottere: To jape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.”

The oldest occurrence of the word in adjectival form (which implies use of the verb) in English comes from the margins of a 1528 manuscript copy of Cicero’s De Officiis. A monk had scrawled in the margin notes, “fuckin Abbot.” Whether the monk meant the word literally, to accuse this abbott of “questionable monastic morals,” or whether he used it “as an intensifier, to convey his extreme dismay,” is unclear.

The Bud Abbott estate has been in touch with me and I have assured them that no insult was intended to the straight man in the duo responsible for the famous “who’s on first?” routine dearly beloved by baseball fans.

About Emily’s effort, Diana Ferraro says: “Here is a poem no one can read with indifference!” Diana singles out “reigning over slang-/uage like a bastard king” (“brilliant”) and “leaving us with mother,/mother, mother” (“priceless”).

If anyone had a head start in the Ms. Moore contest, it would have to be Berwyn Moore, who weighs in with “Brilliant-Thighed Frog”:

“Omissions are not accidents.” We see the “poetry of frog greys”
squeezed into jars: Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, brown skin
bespeckled with yellow flecks, tadpoles nibbling the adults’ skin—
once an evolutionary marvel. And the golden toad and robber toad
also stilled, ho-hum, and the spiny-kneed leaf frog, yawn, sealed
in soupy oblivion. Amphibian—Greek for “double life.”
“You would think,” he said, “that there would be one out of the many
whose intellect would rise above his instincts.” Perhaps allobates femoralis,
brilliant-thighed poison frogs, which may or may not be poisonous,
are the “rag dolls made out of many ages and skins, changelings
who have slept in wood nests, and hissed in the uncouth guise
of waddling amphibians.” So we count their new bones
and examine their gendered ears and extract their papery dead skins.
“And sure enough, once the embryos reach tadpole stage, the males load
them on their backs and take off.” And we cast a beast in bronze
to revere its awe-full beauty. “Our experiment provides evidence
of spatial cognitive flexibility in an amphibian.” Exigence.
“Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting
the gladiator. Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale,
release life’s rapture.” After all, we too are flawed, and conditional.


Sources: Marianne Moore, epigraph, Complete Poems
Kurt Vonnegut, “The Drone King,” The Atlantic 
Jeremy Hance, wildlife blogger, The Guardian
Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey
James Gorman, ScienceTake
Alexandru Marian Muntaunu, Behavioral Processes
Nabokov, Lolita (I think)

Paul Michelsen favored us with “Say Woof, Say Ah, Say Adieu”:

When Timoleon weeps
it’s not an easy color to wear
cracklings of taffeta
flat feet sucking at the stones like porridge

There are other dogs in the world
Those poor andys
took a fleeting look at my thorax
and started singing slightly off key

Certain syllables
The microscopic image
of a guillotine

Paul’s sources are:

1. “How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing” by Michel de Montaigne
2. “Trend Report: Bright Yellow,” People magazine, Nov. 6, 2017
3. Our Lady of the Flowersby Jean Genet
4. Titus Groanby Mervyn Peale
5. “Spurs” by Tod Robbins [short story that inspired the film Freaks (1932, dir: Tod Browning)]
6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick [novel that the movie Blade Runner (1982, dir: Ridley Scott) is based on]
7. “The Physician,” lyrics by Cole Porter
8. Ibid.
9. Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.

Ricky Ray submitted “Origins, As If,” which, in addition to its irresistible title, has this beautiful line from Joy Harjo: “Writing is a tenth of what poetry is.” Ricky’s poem elicited this fascinating comment from Emily Winakur: “in Judaism we believe that God had to invent the alphabet before he could say the words that conjured the world, and I’ve always found this to be my favorite piece of the entire theology.”

Millicent Caliban’s “Culinary Adventures” borrows liberally from restaurant reviews of fashionable restaurants in New York City. An excerpt:

The server poured dill oil and powdered phytoplankton
into a corked glass press filled with salt-and-vinegar water,
emulsified the concoction …. Apothecary-chic microalgae
may be a dated culinary trend, but who cares?
It’s mermaid tea, and its powers of salty transport are real.

A late-breaking poem by Eric Fretz, “The Beacon Potter,” brilliantly conjoins and plays with great lines, ending with this couplet: “What wilt thou do in the land of the sleepers?  / ‘Encore de grèves! Plus de rêves!’ I refute it thus.” The lines weave Nietzsche, Paris street graffiti, and Samuel Johnson’s response to the solipsism espoused by Bishop Berkeley.

I wish I had space to quote more poems and comments—from Clay Sparkman, Charise Hoge, and Elizabeth Solsburg, for example—but am consoled by the knowledge that the comments field is preserved. For all the faults of Disqus, and there are many, at least we know that they do not erase the observations aired there.


Among the most notable things about John Ashbery’s great poem, “The One Thing That Can Save America,” is that the thing or condition designated in the title appears nowhere in the poem. (You can find it in The Oxford Book of American Poetry—and elsewhere.) Our prompt for next week is either to write a poem entitled “The One Thing That Can Save America” or to interpret Ashbery’s poem in 10 lines or less, decoding what Ashbery believes is “the one thing that can save America.” No politics, please, and subtlety will be rewarded.

To all of you, my appreciation and thanks.

Deadline: Saturday, November 4, 2017, midnight any time zone.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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