Reverie Twenty-Eight: les trois mots magiques

Damn, have I really not posted since Tuesday? Apologies for that. I have been in the midst of the huge work-project (79 documents into Southeast Asian languages, this time), and haven’t come up for air since then, it seems. But now that it’s the weekend, I have… well, okay, not that much free time. A bit of free time. Somewhere in all the hubbub I will, someday, find occasion to sleep and have absolutely Nothing To Do one day. (Last Saturday was pretty good for that; I need another of those.)

This week: “les trois mots magiques

I hope Viv appreciates this. :) In honor of Bastille Day/La Fête Nationale, we’re going to have a French-inspired prompt. The title is from historian Mona Ozouf in reference to the French Republic’s three-part motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité. (Or, if you are not Francophone, liberty, equality, fraternity.) These are often considered to be reflected in the French flag: blue for liberté, white for égalité, and red for fraternité. It took time after the Revolution for all of this to be standardized, but any French student who gets past beginner level probably has it ingrained in their heads these days. (I certainly did.) And it helps that there’s an excellent trilogy of films to cement the concept.

So, we’re going to try to reflect these themes in a poem. Or rather, three poems. I think this one is pretty straightforward, though it’s high-volume and might take as much time as a short poem with wiggly requirements. Here’s the battle plan:

– Think about what each of the three concepts means to you. Is liberty more of a political right or a personal quality; does it relate to physical being or the soul; do you consider it more religious or social? What is your experience with (in-)equality; how do you see its place in history and your daily life; what is your reaction to its balance and imbalance? With whom do you experience the most understanding and fraternity; how did you develop those closest relationships; what are the places you do and do not expect to find kinship?
– Come up with a unifying theme across your interpretation of these three concepts. It could be a single situation or character weaving through all three, it might be a single line that is repeated, or maybe just a certain motif that appears to link them together. The idea here is that they should be recognizably part of the same voice and experience.
– But at the same time, allow them to be different. Maybe you want to vary that repeated line slightly, or that motif. (Maybe in each poem you have some kind of bird as a symbol: the eagle, the swan, and the crow; or maybe the bluejay, the dove, and the cardinal.) Let the variations of your poems’ connective tissue take on characteristics of the qualities they symbolize. For example, in the poem about liberty, let your symbolism veer towards freedom, whether expressed or denied. Do you want that eagle in a cage or soaring overhead?

If I roll with this bird imagery, I might end up with snippets like this:

…the eagle rolls its gold eye and clacks its
hooked beak, dragging its broken foot with the air of
a broken king…

…sunset, gold poured on the water, a pair of swans
knowing better than to ask for more of a perfect moment
than they already have…

…and before the storm births itself out of
gold-bellied clouds, a hundred crows lift in time, drawing
graphite omens along the ricepaper sky…

Or something like that. “Gold” is repeated over and over, though it’s a very different gold each time; and the birds show up in each part, but with a variety of meanings. You don’t have to make these poems very long, but make them long enough to show the clear distinctions between the three themes. You also don’t have to write them all at once (maybe tackle one per day for three days), but it might be helpful to do them in one go, since you’ll be able to keep the connecting threads clearer in your mind. If you prefer to think of this as one poem in three parts, you can do that too.

For those who want an additional challenge, you can try to represent the concepts of the three-word motto, and the number three in general, in the forms of the poems. The way you do this is up to you, but for me, I would suggest free verse for liberté, some kind of regimented meter (with perhaps an equal number of syllables in each line?) for égalité, like blank verse, and something with a formal rhyme scheme (lines that are, wait for it, fraternal in how they end) for fraternité. You might also want to represent the number three by doing stanzas in tercets, or even taking on a form like the terza rima or terzanelle to truly dazzle your readership.

You could also, for a truly epic undertaking, try a triptych poem, where the three poems are side-by-side, and can be read one at a time straight down, or across each line. (This similar to the quantum poetry we worked on a little while ago.) This is a difficult undertaking, but can come up with some astonishing results. Samuel Menashe did one of these that you might find inspiring, but for my money (and I hope she doesn’t mind me linking to it), Nicole Nicholson writes the best triptych poems I’ve seen yet out on the Web, like this one here. They’re beautifully crafted, and I hope they’ll be a good kick-off point for you. You can even try using the three words of the motto as the first line. (A formatting note: you may have to do the poem in Word and make an image file of it before uploading, or use tables in your blog post: three columns is a pretty tough format to preserve on the Web.)

And of course, bonus points if you work in something about France and/or its history into your work, for a meta-thematic kind of thing. But I’m easy on this point: I’m probably going to the Upper East Side for a celebration later on with the Fellow, so I’ll have my fill of that. Que vous écriviez bien!

Sin, Skin, Sky

I really hate the title of this, but I couldn’t figure out anything to sum up all the various things going on here. On the one hand, it’s about watching the sunset and wishing you could just grab those big shreds of color; on the other hand, it focuses on how love and interpersonal stuff are more powerful (or at least accessible) things than any kind of celestial manipulation; on the other other hand, it’s rife with Sodom and Gomorrah tones and all that entails. The prompt from Poetic Asides was to write a poem with “magic” in it, so I guess the original intention was to have something about the real magic was ignoring the sunset in favor of the skin of the person next to you; what willpower it must take to turn your attention to true beauty.

But then I got all caught up in making it a terzanelle, and making little allusions, and as Kurt Vonnegut might say, “This poem was a failure, and it had to be, because it was written by a pillar of salt.” (But I also agree with his assessment that pillars of salt need some love, too.)

(Unrelated note: my poem “Close Calls” is up at Bolts of Silk! Yay!)

Sin, Skin, Sky

We lay on the roof’s frozen black asphalt
when the sky peels away. Like an old peach
slips its skin; like a table flecked with salt.

Two-note coven, gazing upward: and each
in fingerless gloves and thin coats, who can
win the sky. Peel away like an old peach

and you drip topaz-water, grow slick: and
the sky does just that. We can’t grasp hold of
(in fingerless gloves) its thin coats. Who can?

We simple witches merely clasp cold love,
round each other’s palms. Ring out the long night:
the sky does. Just that, we can’t grasp hold of

her bruised face, steel-wool blue, Phosphoric white
like dream fire. We curl it into pillars
round each other. Psalms ring out the long night,

saying, tonight is for small-time killers,
who lay on the roof’s frozen black asphalt
and dream fire. We curl it in. Two pillars
slip their skins, leave a table flecked with salt.


This one did a number on the left side of my brain. I feel like I sacrificed a bit of creativity for the sake of this prompt: but what a kickass opportunity it was. Donna Vorreyer at Poetry Tow Truck asked people to use homophones to write a piece, and I went a little bit nuts. It’s a hurricane poem, I suppose, since that’s still weighing on the memory, but it’s also a terzanelle where the homophones (and semi-homophones) are lines rather than words. That was… that was tough to do. I spent about three hours just now with it, as difficult as sculpting marble with your bare hands. Now I’ve got a headache and need something to eat.


Then: the hour of breathing in the sun, scene
set among the flooded shore, the drowned land.
Twisted were days ending there, unplanned, keen.

We pushed the boat out from the marl-caked sand,
poled errant streams, anchors hanging, ray, reeds
set among the flood, and sure the drowned land

could not defeat us. Water always leads
our rested soles. We knew ways to float, eyed
polder and stream, sank or sang in grey reeds.

Now: the drawn-back breakers leave nowhere to hide
in turn, all dried. As traumata sever
arrested souls, we, new waste of low tide,

flotsam waiting for the wind forever,
desire us the storm, wild without, and world
internal. Dried as straw, mad as ever.

No deepening since has been more unfurled
than the hour of breathing in this unseen
desire. As the storm whiled without end, whirled,
twisted, were days ending? They rumble and keen.

An Evening At The LGBT Center

I used to volunteer at the LGBT center in downtown Philadelphia; it would have been right at the beginning of this blog, so I may have mentioned it before. Anyway, it was a fascinating and good experience, if for nothing else because it showed me so many people from different walks of life than my own. I have specific people in mind for the examples in this little terzanelle, and many more besides… could probably write a whole chapbook about that place. But this is just for the Big Tent prompt of “what’s at the center”, no grand designs or anything for this one. Probably a good thing too, because with seven poems and two point five days to go in April, my steam has all but vanished.

An Evening at the LGBT Center

We get obscene phone calls on Monday nights.
The director says, before you go home,
make sure to lock up and turn out the lights.

The heroin addicts, in pairs, alone,
the gaptoothed meth-heads show their raw faces,
the director says. Before you go home,

indigent siblings, take up your places.
We bring cups, hands for the weary troubles
the gaptoothed meth-heads show. There! Raw faces,

jagged-mouthed, red-eyed, lips blowing bubbles.
The suicidals, seeking the comfort and care
we bring. Cup hands for their weary troubles,

says our churchman, leading his flock in prayer.
What else are homeless queers, the sorrowed,
the suicidals seeking? The comfort and care

due to anyone. Given. Not borrowed.
What else are homeless queers but sorrowed?
Still: get obscene phone calls on Monday nights,
make sure to lock up. And turn out the lights.

Little Fugue

Meh. Not thrilled with this one at all… I’m feeling off this week. Maybe it’s the long weekend that threw me. Poetic Asides’ prompt was to key off of a song title; I picked the “Little” Fugue in G Minor by Bach. I like the way the repetition and melody/harmony happens in a fugue, and how it reflects on certain forms of poetry; furthermore, it’s awesome that “fugue” can be both a piece of music and an amnesiac state. Anyway, here it is.

Little Fugue

I’m spending a moment forgetting me:
I’m trading my names and memories for
adoring theatrics in minor key.

Begin at the top of the fractured score:
procession of head notes and melodies which
I’m trading my names and memories for.

It works its way down, unspeakable itch:
flirtatious and daredevil counterpoint
procession of head notes. And melodies. Which?

I’m coming a bit out of normal joint,
reversing myself soon. I’ll be my own
flirtatious and daredevil counterpoint.

But humming that prison out of my bones,
I’ll have to unlock what must first be found,
reversing my self. Soon I’ll be my own.

What effort it takes, to make me unbound!
I’m spent in a moment, forgetting me.
You have to unlock what must first be found:
a door in the attic, this mind a key.


Another three-post kind of day. This was for the Poetic Asides prompt of “serendipity” yesterday… poems on writer’s block are pretty trite, but I was short on time yesterday, and I considered it serendipitous to just have this poem kind of pop up in my head. Very meta. It’s such a good feeling, though, to have no idea what to right, and then have every idea what to write (even if what you’re about to write isn’t exactly what you would like). Or something. Anyway, it’s my first (slightly altered) terzanelle in a while, so that’s something.


While waiting, pen in hand, for inspiration,
the dam of language burst its bounds, by chance:
and so I’ll write about this strange sensation.

The windfall fruit of cerebral happenstance
is like a stroke, though in reverse, unbinding
the dam of language. Burst its bounds, perchance.

Poetic paths are treacherous and winding:
how to escape when every hackneyed line
is like a stroke? Throw in a verse unbinding

form and meter, gamble with the rhyme
and see the words pick up the slack, discover
how to escape from every hackneyed line.

Use nouns unknown and give each verb a lover:
step back from this Impressionistic knot ,
unsee the words. Pick up the slack. Discover.

That feeling of relief suggests you’ve caught,
while waiting (pen in hand), your inspiration.
Stepped back from this: Impressionist, I’m not,
and so I wrote about this strange sensation.

Making the Switch

I need a break, I think; I’m starting to feel a little kooky, but at least the weekend is rapidly approaching. (Approach faster, blasted weekend!) The prompt for Poetic Asides today is “changes”, which I think sums up about 70% of everything I’ve written. So I just did a knockoff goofy terzanelle for today about transitioning from “tea-drinker” to “coffee-drinker”. Although over all I think I’m pretty equal opportunity when it comes to hot beverages. I’ve been known to enjoy everything from hot pomegranate cider to yerba mate, but perfect rhymes for “cider” are few and far between.

Making the Switch

I hadn’t preferred drinking coffee to tea,
content in my beveraged ignorance:
those shriveled leaves were enough for me.

But I will offer history in my defense:
a decaffeinated house meant I was raised
content in my beveraged ignorance.

Imagine the first sleepless, midnight taste
and the chemical effects. Do you know what
a decaffeinated house meant? I was crazed.

It opened these pathways that ever were shut
despite all the warnings of ground-bean elixirs
and the chemical effects, the you-know-what.

I traded in tea for syrup-milk mixers,
for lattes and au laits and French presses
despite all the warnings of ground-bean elixirs.

Believe that I used to share those distresses,
I hadn’t preferred drinking coffee to tea:
before lattes and au laits and French presses,
those shriveled leaves were enough for me.