Because the New Year brings about a lot of fresh starts and new beginnings, we would like to celebrate some “firsts.” We asked our Memorious 21 contributors and new fiction editors to offer up a toast to some opening lines that they admire. Here’s what they had to say.
Memorious 21 contributor Joseph Wood chose these opening lines of “The Parachutist” by Jon Anderson:
Then the air was perfect. And his descent
to the white earth slowed.
became an ability to rest–as
the released breath
believes in life.
Why I love it: So many reasons. First, I absolutely love how the reader is placed within the moment; it is done with the utmost efficiency. There’s no scaffolding, no introduction. Second, the ear is impeccable. The first line is purely trochaic, but done with such ease it doesn’t jump out. Anderson knew how to score a line, and particularly in this entire poem, where the line length underscores the tension between falling and stasis, life and death. But mostly, I adore the opening because the poet plays for keeps–it’s life and death at its most core and primal levels, the stuff which binds humanity together.
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From Memorious 21 Contributor Kevin Simmonds:
The first stanza from “A Meeting of Minds” in All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents (Leapfrog Press, 2013) by Charles Coe:
One day, when my first-grade class was learning to write, Sister Edna took
the pencil from my left hand, put it in my right, and told me to keep it there.
I have to say I love this opening: straightforward, provocative, glinting. I grew up Catholic, went to Saturday catechism class and know that nuns will take your stuff. But a pencil?
Like all the rest in this collection, this poem displays Coe’s brilliance in evoking his deceased parents’ foibles and loving ferocity. Where this poem ends up…you’d never believe.
A tsunami of a poem set off by this one-sentence quake.
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From Memorious 21 Contributor Maureen Alsop:
In the mail today I just received a book of poetry I’d ordered, Annie Lighthart’s Iron String. These are the first four lines from the first poem in the book, “The Second Music:”
Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other
lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present ….
The celebration of the under-sound, the under-story, the victory of years, the ghost trails of ghost comets… What a wonderful listening open into the new year.
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From Memorious 21 Contributor Maya Pindyck:
Here are three opening lines of poems I’d love to celebrate. I’ve opted not to explain why; I think each line speaks for itself:
”The stars had only one task: they taught me how to read.”
–Mahmoud Darwish, “Poetic Regulations,” Unfortunately, It was Paradise, 2003, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche.
”It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you–”
–Mary Szybist, “The Lushness of It,” Incarnadine, 2013.
”Between is a hard place to live.”
–Kamilah Aisha Moon, “No Room for Gray,” She Has a Name, 2013.
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From Memorious 21 Contributor José Rodríguez:
From the poem “Fists (for my father)” by Joe Weil, from the book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, 2008):
It was the sense that your fists were worlds
And mine were not
That caused me to worship you;
All those thick rope veins,
And the deep inlaid grime of your life,
The permanent filth of your labors.
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From Memorious 21 Contributor Jeff Alessandrelli, the opening of David Markson’s The Last Novel (Counterpoint, 2007):
Dante will always remain popular because nobody ever reads him.
Thinking with someone else’s brain.
Schopenhauer called reading.
Markson’s last novel was, appropriately enough, entitled The Last Novel; in it he continued the idiosyncratic examination of artistic and cultural anecdote initially begun by him in his book Reader’s Block. The Last Novel almost wholly consists of largely unknown facts and curiosities about writers, artists and thinkers seminal to history. Although the book’s narrator very occasionally pokes his head through—“There are six floor in Novelist’s apartment building…And then the roof”— for the most part Markson’s last novel consists of his saying goodbye to what he spent his entire life reading, studying, and living. As an obituary, it’s mesmerizing; as a novel it’s even better.
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From Fiction Editor Ian Stansel:
“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” -John Williams, Stoner
I love this opening because of how un-compelling it should be. It goes on to give away the entirety of the titular character’s life, telling us that, really, nothing significant ever happened to him. Yet we are about to spend 300-plus pages covering that uneventful life. And that’s part of the intrigue. It asks us to start to contemplate the difference between inner and outer lives. It even, in its own unassuming way, call into question the very nature of story. How can a man who “achieved” so little be the subject of a novel? What will fill the next 300 pages?
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From Fiction Editor Joanna Luloff:
“It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012. There was a hole in the wall where the water pipe was meant to come in and the floor sloped away to a drain where the suds were meant to flow from a shower along a trench to the dirt outside. In some future time, the shower might be fitted. In some future time, it might become an incidental place. But it was not so for him. For him it was a very dark and specific place.” – J.M. Ledgard
I love the precision of these opening lines from J.M. Ledgard’s novel Submergence. Against the matter-of-factness of the narrative delivery, there is already a hint of menace and mystery. All of those conditional “meant to’s” and “mights” and then the abrupt “but.” This opening moves through time (a stark present versus a possible future) and begins to prepare the reader for the movements between time and place that the novel will eventually travel. A English spy being held captive by jihadist fighters and a biomathematician exploring the ocean floor are the central characters who share a past and an uncertain present in this contemplative novel.
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