Next Line, Please

You Weren’t Serious When You Said

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By David Lehman

December 13, 2016


 

 

You were asked to write a verse address to the universe, or to some specific aspect of it—the moon, say, or a lake in upstate New York, or your youth—as if it were a living being capable of comprehending what you are saying. You put a lot of thought into it, and you wrote well. The level of the entries continues to impress me, as does the range in subject matter. Christine Rhein wins for addressing the departing year in these words:

 

Oh 2016

how gaunt you’ve grown, but then, it’s no surprise,
what with all that vanished weight (Bowie, for starters—

Sound and Vision) and those workouts we put you through,
loading you down with heavy headlines, stacking them

deeper day by day. Please forgive us, racing you
this way and that, watching you waste away in Flint,

in Aleppo, in the Pulse of Orlando (Purple Rain falling
silent once more), and in pulsing villages everywhere

being swallowed by the sea. Stupid, we know—
our x-ing out each spent square of you, the wonder,

and tearing you apart, a month at a time.
And now we dare to stand around your sickbed,

begging you to save your strength, because, well,
New Year’s Eve will be here soon, and we can’t help

but gather in your final hours, toasting and talking
of treating your offspring better. Please humor us—

especially in DC, Beijing, Moscow—and if
it’s not too much to ask, could you let us sing a bit,

even past midnight, and (damn it all) make us dance
together too—so painfully close and slow

(Christine: I have restored the missing “pulsing.”)

Second place: Paul Michelsen for his address to “the Joyful Science,” which can be taken to refer to the Provençal tradition of love songs and, by metonymy, to poetry itself, the life of the troubadour. But “Gai Saber” is also the title of one of Nietzsche’s works, sometimes translated as The Gay Science and sometimes as The Joyful Wisdom. It is where he announced for the first time that “God is dead.” Perhaps Paul will enlighten us about his authorial intentions.

Gai Saber

It was you, the Joyful Science,
Who kept me from performing
Balancing acts on ledges
Leaning too far off bridges

It was your vers libre
That held me close
And your stricter forms
That set me free

It was you, not dismal economics,
Who caused an awakening
You, not the strict
Realm of physics,
Who felt like home to me
You were the one who made the world
Make sense
Or at least made it sing
In the midst of its mystery

It remains you, Happy Science, and your
Heavenly Words that make it all
Worth it
As you smile kindly at me
It matters not to you that
You are flirting with dirt

Millicent Caliban’s stately oration at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue has a lovely surprising opening:

To the Lions at the 42nd Street Library

Dear Lions, you are the guardians of my temple.
As a young virgin, I willingly sacrificed myself to your stacks.
You are stern and suitably imposing, inspiring awe but no terror.
As Kings of Beasts, you hold your strength and power in reserve.
Impeturbable, you regard all that passes with patience and fortitude.
Coiled within your marble muscles and stone hearts is Love and
Understanding, for you know what treasures you protect.
You vouchsafe entrance to a palace of wisdom and delight
For all who desire to seek the Way (or their ways) with courage and curiosity.
You are there in the service of Truth and Imagination: the eternal kingdom.
We trust you will not admit impediments to the pursuits of your pilgrims.

I would also praise Elizabeth Solsburg for “To Jamaican Blue Mountain,” a love song addressing “my beloved in a cup,” her first cup of coffee of the day, and celebrating it as “the best part of waking up.” There’s a winning ad line for you.

It is for you, my love, I get out of bed each day,
dragging muscles stagnant with sleep
and shielding my morning-blurred eyes from the brief
stab of too-sharp light.
It is for you alone I rise
when I would rather nest in my blanket cocoon,
but your dark liquid voice beckons,
singing fragrant promises of true love,
pledging to be one with me,
to uplift me all through the day,
to keep me awake and alive.
Ah, my beloved in a cup—
it is true what they say—
you are the best part of waking up.

The ingenuity in linda marie hilton’s transformation of “address” into “a dress” is a piece of wordplay that Gertrude Stein would have loved:

A Dress,

princess style velvet
beaded crocheted lace collar
trims the modest v neckline

magenta in hue
wear to where ever you go.

Like Charise Hoge, I spent some intense hours at Shakespeare and Company when I was a young man, and her poem addressed to that Paris bookstore vaulted me back:

Shakespeare and Company

I knew you when
nothing was trending
in a world without a wide web.
Nigh overhead a cobweb
dallies in your cathedral of books.
Windows the Seine overlook
—still—how I rushed in the rain
homesick, an American
in Paris sans Gershwin’s score.
You opened your door.
A beacon in a city of light when
I was twenty and reticent.
We needed no music, no cafe
on rendezvous; it was how you say
“read me” “come upstairs”
“forget the time,” as though you cared


For next week I invite everyone to write a six-line stanza beginning “You weren’t serious when you said.” Keep in mind that in subsequent weeks we may add to the stanza. We might make it a sonnet. Your six lines may rhyme—or not, as you wish. But if you do rhyme, please consider a /b /b/a /c /c for the end-words.

 

Deadline: Sunday, December 18, the day after Beethoven’s birthday, midnight any time zone.


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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