July 13, 2020

Prompt: Undoing

The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)
Magritte's "The Treachery of Images" with its caption "This is not a pipe"

If only life had an undo button. 

In Linda Hillrinhouse's poem "Tatiana" (from The Things I Didn't Know to Wish For, NYQ Books, 2020), the speaker wants to go back to a time and undo one-by-one a series of related actions. 


I am twenty-five again 
and I am not
in bed with 
whoever you are.
I am not sleeping 
until noon or wearing
my nightgown inside out. 
I am not trying to sound smart
or make someone like me. Nor am I
getting stoned and painting happy
dead people with no eyes.
I am not telling some guy 
I just met on campus
that my name is Tatiana 
to sound exotic, to annihilate
the nobody in me.
When I first read her poem, I thought of other "not" poems I have read. There are the well-known poems that carry "not" in their titles, such as "Do not go gentle into that good night,"  "The Road Not Taken" and "Not Waving But Drowning

Hamlet says that the ultimate question is "to be or not to be."

There are other examples we can consider. "The Poems I Have Not Written" goes in a different direction. "This Did Not Happen" comes a bit closer to our model poem. 

I like Mark Yacich's poem that begins "You are not a statue / and I am not a pedestal. / We are not a handful / of harmless scratches on a pale pink canvas..." which makes me think of Billy Collins' "Litany" with its list of things that someone both are and are not.

That listing is also used in Dan Albergotti's "Among the Things He Does Not Deserve" which is catalogs things undeserved ranging from "Greek olives in oil, fine beer" to the final "soft gift of her parted lips." 

RenĂ© Magritte's famous piece "The Treachery of Images" with its caption "This is not a pipe" is a commentary on artistic illusion. The pipe is not a pipe: it's a painting of a pipe.  Korzybski's "The word is not the thing" and "The map is not the territory" and Diderot's "This is not a story" live in the same place. And so it is with the "treachery" of images in poems - things are often not literally what the poet says that they seem to be.

Girl Behind Branches by Linda Hillringhouse

Linda Hillringhouse's poem takes this negation further. The voice of the poem not only confronts the truth of a time in her life that is painful to remember but finally tries to speculate on the driving force behind this truth that she wishes to undo.

Your poem for this month might use "not" in its title, or be a series of negations, but it should also try to address a particular subject and expose a reason for the undoing.

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