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June 16, 2008

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I can hear him sing "Shall we gather at the river" -- without accompaniment -- and it's a haunting experience. Incontestable that the hymns in church provide some of the music, some of the structure, of his hymns to possibility. In that marvelous late (if not last) poem, what do you make of the striking "build wars, consider / prophets"?

I agree that's a striking phrase, David. Given the cosmological time frame that the poem establishes, I suspect that "build wars" is Ammons's way of radically condensing history, making us see how tiny the gap between building and destroying is when viewed under the aspect of eternity. A more standard phrase might be something like "civilizations rise and fall"; but to say "build wars" conflates rising and falling in a way that suggests the ultimate futility of all human making. As for "consider / prophets," I hear an ironic hint that we would need to do more than just consider them to break free from the cycle implied by "build wars." (Presumably Ammons includes himself among the unheeded prophets.)

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
                   

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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THE RULE OF THUMB
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Ringfinger was nervous
Pinky terrified
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that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.

 

 


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