First Line of Defense: A Cento

Nancy Flynn

About suffering they were never wrong—
Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold.

Cruel time-servers, here is the crescent moon
Down valley, a smoke haze

Even tonight, and I need to take a walk and clear
Far back, when I went zig-zagging.

Go inside a stone.
Hate the people of this village.

I lay my head sideways on my desk
Just as the earth puckered its mouth.

Lately I’ve become accustomed to the way
My candle burns at both ends.

Now is the time of year when bees are wild.
Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood,

Pull over. Your car with its slow
Rose, harsh Rose

Sails flashing to the wind like weapons.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master

Upon the darkish, thin, half-broken ice.
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold,

You should lie down now and remember the forest.

(An almost-abecedarian cento created from first lines of twenty-one poems in The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. Missing letters are K, Q , V, X, and Z. Here are the poets in the order in which their lines appear in the cento—I looked these up after I’d finished the poem:  W.H. Auden; Jean Toomer; Louise Bogan; Gary Snyder; June Jordan; Adrienne Rich; Charles Simic; Thomas Lux; Larry Levis; Anne Sexton; Amiri Baraka; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Elizabeth Alexander; Charles Olson; Kevin Young; H.D.; Robert Hayden; Elizabeth Bishop; Denise Levertov; A.R. Ammons; and Susan Stewart.)


Nancy Flynn, grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, spent two decades in Ithaca, New York, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. She attended Oberlin College, Cornell University, and has an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from SUNY/Binghamton. Recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship, her recent books include Every Door Recklessly Ajar and Great Hunger. Her website is

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