Poetry At Six

For the second round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that begin with this sentence: "The nurse left work at five o'clock." The winning story was "Last Seen" by Cathy Formusa of Port Townsend, Wash. You can read her story and more of our favorites on our Three-Minute Fiction page.


A hand poised to write on a chalkboard. i i
iStockphoto.com
A hand poised to write on a chalkboard.
iStockphoto.com

The nurse left work at five o'clock.

Having written the sentence on the chalk board, Mr. Treadwell turns to his students. "What's the meter here? Anyone?"

Fluorescent lights in the hallway flicker and hum. Mr. Treadwell sighs. He's been reduced to this: teaching a six-week poetry course in the community college's adult ed program.

The woman who always comes in late raises her hand. "Yes, Rose?"

"Iambic tetrameter."

"And that is...?"

"Four feet, each foot an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable."

"Thank you. And what's the name for this foot that Rose has so ably described? Anyone?"

Despairing of a response, Mr. Treadwell writes "iamb" on the board with a flourish. "What's the sound of an iamb, class?"

Gerald impersonates a Simpson: "doh DOH."

"Excellent, Homer. The sound of an iamb is da DUM short LONG weak STRONG. You line up four iambs for this nurse and what happens?"

Stephanie, who never fails to knit through class, says, "She's rolling."

"Indeed. She's got rhythm. What's the rhyme here?"

Wanda speaks up: "The 'er' sound in 'nurse' and 'work.'"

Mr. Treadwell nods. "We call that 'assonance' in the trade."

Stewart, sitting in the back row, snickers.

"Recognize yourself in that, Stewart? Tell me, where do we find the consonance in this line?"

Stewart shrugs.

"It's in the consonant 'k' sound, repeating at the end of 'work' and 'clock.'" Mr. Treadwell surveys the room. "All in all, what do these seven words pack into this poetic line?"

"'The nurse left work' functions as a unit," says Rose. "Internal rhyme condenses the phrase into a cannonball and loads it into the cannon. The 'i' in 'five' stokes the gunpowder. 'At five o'clock' lights the fuse. 'The nurse left work' — pow! — 'at five o'clock' — she's gone. She's on a mission."

Mr. Treadwell's eyebrows arch. "And then what happens?"

"She lands hard on the 'clock,' that final 'k.' She's at a standstill. She doesn't know what to do."

"Maybe you can give her a few pointers." Mr. Treadwell checks his watch. "Your assignment for next week: Write a poem of eight lines; use this line as your first. See you Wednesday."

Rose gathers her purse and coat and leaves the classroom. She has skirted the subject of poetry, preferring classes in photography, French cooking, wine-tasting. Poetry? Daunting. All those rules, the impossibility of rhyming.

But now she's encountering half, sprung, slant, tall, imperfect rhymes. Rhymes masculine and feminine. Words rhyming in their own way: softly, subtly, unpredictably.

At the hospital the next morning she greets a frail man who's come to visit one of her patients. Rose directs him down the corridor to Mrs. Robertson's room, watching as he leans on his cane and limps down the hallway: left RIGHT. She catches up with him and takes his arm.

Seeing her visitor, Mrs. Robertson smiles. Rose checks the monitors metering changes in blood pressure, measuring pulse. The newly installed pacemaker modulates Mrs. Robertson's heartbeat: lub DUB.

Rose passes her patient's doctor in the hallway. They nod.

The following Wednesday, Rose leaves the hospital as usual, catching the 5:25 bus to the college. As usual, she's 10 minutes late to class.

Stephanie's at the front of the room, reading her eight-line poem.

Rose reads her poem last, blushing only slightly:

The nurse left work at five o'clock.
Two pears ripen in her kitchen.
She stops for cream and cinnamon.
Seven pearls fall from her pocket.

Rain falls until ten o'clock.
His headlights glitter flecks of gold.
Two pears ripen in the speckled bowl.
A flight of stairs, a crimson door, he knocks.

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