This week’s Poets & Writers‘ prompt:
Write a prose poem, a poem that doesn’t use line breaks to convey its meaning. Read [the siren's story] by Barbara Jane Reyes for an example.
I actually really love the prose poem and, for a period of time, wrote a good many of them. Because I am so woefully behind schedule with these prompts, I opted to use this opportunity to revise an earlier prose poem that I love but that has, for any number of reasons, not been able to find a published home. It’s one of those poems that gets great feedback from editors – feedback like: I really like this but it’s not quite there yet. Humph.
Here’s the original version:
PASSAGE TO AMERICA
I can never close my eyes without my father’s pale blue lips shining before me, a cracked smile, singing the Italian lullabies I hum each night to fall asleep, remembering his hand, rough skinned and nervous steadying me against the rocking sea. These things I remember most: the smell of rotting bananas and vomit, a lady moistening the lace hem of her skirt to wash her child’s rose-colored cheeks, the steady and lulling lift and fall of the water, rows of people, the ones with no luck, lying quietly with the happy flies, and his hand, fingers pressed not too tightly against my own.
Now it is the quiet that I like most, the quiet and steadfast morning before my son has begun the ritual of waking my still, sleeping wife. I lie on my mattress: the boat lifts and pulls, my mother stands, hollow-cheeked, and my father hums another tune with the happy flies who never tire of bananas.
The thing about prose poems is this: the language is everything. What distinguishes a prose poem from flash or micro fiction is, predominately, all about the language. It has to be doing something besides laying out a narrative. Nick Flynn’s “forgetting something” is a great example of the language working overtime. That and the form – the notated line breaks add an interesting element, to be sure.
With that in mind, I went back into this poem and tried to pay particular attention to the language. Here’s what I came up with:
PASSAGE TO AMERICA
These things I remember most: the smell of rotting bananas and vomit, a lady moistening the lace hem of her skirt to cool a child’s fever-colored cheeks, the steady, lulling, lift and fall of water, and the rows of silent people unmoving amidst the flies. Today, it is the quiet I like most: the quiet, steadfast morning before my son has begun the ritual of waking my still, sleeping wife. I lie on my mattress: the boat lifts and pulls, my mother stands, hollow-cheeked, while my father’s pale blue lips shine and crack before me. Still I hear him sing Italian lullabies, lullabies I hum each night to fall asleep, the only lullabies I know will carry over the din of death.
I’m not convinced this is better – but it is tighter. I cut those pesky extraneous articles and prepositions where I could, tightening the lines, and I shifted the first line to the end where, I feel, it has more emotional pull. The “din of death” feels a bit too much to me – a bit too heavy-handed. I tried the din of flies, the din of death and flies, the din of flies and death, and – in the end – went with a three word ending that feels like it needs a “dum dum DUM!” after it. So, okay. Not necessarily happy with the end, but I do like the repetition of the word lullabies and the way the language of the poem seems to mimic the rise and fall of the ocean. It’s closer, I think. But still not there.
If you haven’t played around with prose poems before, I highly recommend them. They come with their own challenges and are, in fact, probably a bit more difficult than other forms because you cannot rely on line breaks for all kinds of things like pacing and breath stations. But there’s also a freedom in the prose poem that opens up a whole host of possibilities that are more limited in other forms. And, if you’re a narrative poet (like me), then there’s nothing like the prose poem for telling a story
Feel free to post your own attempts here, and happy writing!