Corralling mercury from a broken thermometer is easier than defining the prose poem. David Shumate, an undisputed master of the form, lives in Boone County, Indiana, and teaches at Marian University in Indianapolis.
Each Shumate prose poem is the length of a paragraph that could fit in one’s palm. The author says he’s drawn to the form’s “inelegance,” calling it “a blob in the shape of Kansas,” “a bulbous dirigible hovering there at the top of the page.” But Shumate’s readers would likely see something else: a sequence of tiny rooms in which anything might happen.
Like Billy Collins, Shumate often draws on history, philosophy, art, and literature, but the otherworldly quality to his work—he once described translating a poem as passing a mango from bag to bag—reminds me of Lorca, Zagajewski or Ponge. David Wojahn has said, “The poems are filled with surprising imaginative reckonings, wit that never devolves into mere whimsy, and an underlying sense of pathos that recalls the work of some of the great European masters of the form—figures like Zbigniew Herbert and Jean Follain.”
The first Shumate valentine goes out to all those cynics who’ve had enough of wilted roses, red satin boxes, and candy hearts that read “Text me” or “Got love?”
The Department of Love
Hundreds of jilted lovers are lined up along its pink facade. In bandages and crutches and slings. Anxious to file a complaint. They scribble their names. List the defects of their most recent lovers. Then spit on the paper to seal the deal. The guards know most of them by name and take bets on when they’ll return. There go a few victims now, limping out the back door along the lilac hedge. They pause between two naked statues. The yellow-haired woman flips her hair as if to flirt. The tall baritone lets out a booming laugh. They chat a while. Then she reaches for his wrist and writes her number on his palm. It all seems so promising. But if we go strictly by percentages, they’ll be back in line on Tuesday.
The next Shumate valentine, destined for romantics, hovers at that dreamy hinge of reality and imagination. Light a candle, tempt your sweetheart with a bouquet of dark chocolate, and enjoy…
An American in Paris
Carol would like to go to Paris but doesn’t want to bother with the long flight. Airport lobbies. High-altitude turbulence. So let’s put her on the Rue d’Aubergine where she can eat a chocolate croissant and wear a blue beret. Bells are ringing in a nearby church and an old lady in a gray coat is out walking her poodle. Carol is standing on the corner holding a candle. Perhaps she is waiting for Jean Paul Sartre to come along and blow it out. Or Eugene Ionesco to balance it upon his nose like a tusk. In truth she is in the shower, spreading a lather of soap across her beautiful breasts. Won’t she be surprised when she turns the water off and finds herself so far away with only a towel to wrap around her.
This poem appeared in The Floating Bridge (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
David Shumate is the author of High Water Mark, winner of the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize Prize and the 2005 Best Books of Indiana, poetry category. His second collection of prose poems, The Floating Bridge, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2008. His poetry has been anthologized in The Writer’s Almanac, Good Poems for Hard Times and The Best American Poetry.