27.09.02 | A Prose is a Prose is a Prose is a Poem
Lost and Found
I am looking for the photo that would make all the difference in my life. It's very small and subject to fits of amnesia, turing up in poker hands, grocery carts, under the unturned stone. The photo shows me at the lost and found looking for an earlier photo, the one that would have made all the difference then. My past evades me like a politician. Wielding a fly-swatter, it destroys my collection of cereal boxes, my childhood lived close to the breakfast table. Only that photo can help me locate my fourteen lost children, who look just like me. When I call the Bureau of Missing Persons, they say, "Try the Bureau of Missing Photos." They have a fine collection. Here's one of Calvin Coolidge's seventh wedding. Here's one of a man going over a cliff on a dogsled. Here's my Uncle Arthur the night he bought a peacock. O photo! End your tour of the world in a hot air balloon. Resign you job at the mirror-testing laboratory. Come home to me, you little fool, before I find I can live without you.
It was the epoch of the masters of levitation.
Some evenings we saw solitary men and women floating above the dark tree tops. Could they have been sleeping or thinking? They made no attempt to navigate. The wind nudged them ever so slightly. We were afraid to speak, to breathe. Even the nightbirds were quiet. Later, we'd mention the little book clasped in the hands of the young woman, and the way that old man lost his hat to the cypresses.
In the morning there were not even clouds in the sky. We saw a few crows preen themselves at the edge of the road; the shirts raise their empty sleeves on the blind woman's clothesline.
Tracey was a little girl in a town in Connecticut, and she practiced the entertainments proper to her age, like any other tender little angel of God in the state of Connecticut, or in any other place on this planet.
One, day, with her little school friends, Tracey set herself to putting lit matches in an anthill. Everyone enjoyed this healthy, childish distraction, but Tracey noticed something that the others didn't see, or pretended they didn't see, but which paralyzed her and left her forever with a signal in her memory: in front of the fire, in front of danger, the ants separated into pairs, and by twos, well together, stuck so well together, awaited death.
If you have a jotbook you keep around, or even just some old receipts in your purse, you should take up the habit of writing down things you hear in passing, signs you see, random bits of language pulled up by search requests. Great first lines, themes, etc., can come out of the flotsam and jetsam of this everyday talk. Here are some "overheard" lines I've used in poems...
"If it's yellow, it's a sheet of last resort."
"The devil checks his email from a girl's apartment at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning."
"P.S. I got just the girl; she's a nearsighted six foot two blond bombshell--she cooks, she cleans, she can't hear a thing, but she runs a liquor store."
When I tought children's poetry classes, the hardest thing to get the kids to understand the idea of similes. That is, until I hit upon the idea of bringing in to class my stuffed octopus, Salvador the Wretched. Salvador is exactly that--a wretched, wretched excuse for an octopus or for anything else. He really doesn't look like anything recognizable at all, and I only call him an octopus because he has eight . . . appendages. He's gray. He could be a spider. Or a bacterium.
Because he doesn't look like anything really, he's perfect for teaching kids about simile, in that it's almost impossible to describe him without resorting to simile. I think my favorite one was "Salvador looks like a sun that went out."
After this initial example, the kids settled down to creating some other similes, which were often quite striking. "A whale tastes like sand." "A deer sounds like a house."--because neither make any noise, as it was explained to me.
The kids' similes were something in the order of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." They were able to create lines that would be great opening salvos in poems out of the sheer novelty of the process. I can try to come up with similes that are as innovative, but it's hard; adult speech is so full of analogies and of the points of reference that make up meaning that it can be hard to break free of the mundane. If you asked me what a whale tasted like, I'd probably say "fat" or "saltwater," but I wouldn't hit upon "sand," even though it is novel and makes sense. A successful poem can come about solely from using words as a mirror to throw a slightly off-kilter reflection of the world; a whole new universe can open up from a usage that's spare, counter, original, strange.
Paul Muldoon's collection Hay contains a series of short poems called "Sleeve Notes." Each poem is titled with the name of an album and artist. For example:
THE BEATLES: The Beatles
Though that was the winter when late each night
I'd put away Cicero or Caesar
and pour new milk into an old saucer
for the hedgehog which, when it showed up right
on cue, would set its nose down like that flights
back from the U.S. . . . back from the, yes sir . . .
back from the . . . back from the U.S.S.R. . . .
I'd never noticed the play on "album" and "white".
The poems take a variety of forms...free verse, rhymed quatrains, couplets. Leading me to this interesting exercise. Get out your computer! Turn on your playlist! Pick a song and write a poem about and/or inspired by it. Keep writing until the song is over. Then stop. Edit. Revise.
Here are a couple I did, as ghazals. Dang, but I love ghazals...
A wicked ghazal opens into the room.
Dancing girls in their crap-stewn dressing room.
When your critical gaze is averted by concerted effort,
Something in French is hurled across the room.
No casidas and no formal elegance here for you.
Just high hats and snares shaking the room.
The September night zeroes in on truth,
Then spirals and zenoes out; thereís infinite room.
Walls cannot contain us. The sound waves
Penetrate the walls of the room.
Your frowning wonít stop a law of nature. The universe
is just the waves and troughs in which we room.
Me Gustas Tu
False doctrines abound and nothingís true.
Even postmodernity? Well, not that, itís true.
Multilingual puns for the common man Ė
Quelle dice vous? Imposible, pero true.
Translate all experience into a world-wide lingo?
Poetryís a no-go unless we keep it tried and true.
World peace isnít just a diverse record collection.
Letís really talk about whatís false and true.
Unity is a false cognate unless
Thereís something fundamental we know is true.
Am I right or what? Ti prav, tovarich.
To your (di)vision, veras, we will be true.