Recently, the staff of The Adroit Journal was asked to submit its favorite first and last lines. The lines didn’t necessarily have to be from the same work, and the work could be any form of prose or poetry. Crafting a first and last line incites a special kind of excitement among writers. While of course a successful piece is a balance of content and style, a beginning and an end is often all in the aesthetic. This was an exercise of only starts and the finishes, a haircut of the space in between.
Consider first lines. Obviously, a first line of a poem or piece of fiction has nothing to precede it. In a first line you are liberated from the ever-laborious task of making sense. So you write purely for images or phonetics. You write blunt observations and it is never a case of anything not fitting in there, because the fitting comes after, in the middle of things, where usually you have to rub pencils together and spark up a degree of sense-making.
Conversely, a last line has a whole world working behind it. The entirety of a poem or every page of a novel precedes one concluding statement. But there exists here a sense of liberation, too; once again, the weight of content rests within the rest of the piece. Effective last lines are similar to effective first ones in that they’re neatly-worded, image-driven, phonetically minded superpowers unto their own.
After reviewing the thoughtful selections of the Adroit staff, I arranged the lines into miniature stories. Below is a melange of some spectacular literary works, told strictly through their first and last lines. Some of them make more sense than others; some might even be abuses of the incredible works from which they are comprised. But, standing alone, the language of the lines is exquisite.
There is No Coffee
If you ask where I have been
I have to say, “It so happens…. perhaps only his beautiful left eye,
shimmered on the surface of his Americano
like a dark star
First Line: “There is No Forgetfulness” by Pablo Neruda
Last Line: Coffee by Michael Dickman
Theme From Racing in English B
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. I guess you learn from me – although you’re older – and white – and somewhat more free.
First Line: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Last Line: “Theme From English B” by Langston Hughes
Mean Free Ashore
I finished the reading and looked up
Changed in the familiar ways.
Now for a quiet place
To begin the forgetting. The little delays
Between sensations, the audible absence of rain
Take the place of objects.
We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.
First Line: “Mean Free Path” by Beth Lerner
Last Line: “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Hamlet, The Republic
When I don’t even know what justice is, I shall hardly know whether it is really a virtue or not, and whether one who has it is happy or not. Who’s there?
First Line (originally a last): Plato’s “Republic”
Last Line (originally a first): Shakespeare’s Hamlet
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.
First Line: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Last Line: D. Gilson, “Index If”
And Prejudice Graves
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. When an elephant dies, the herd may carry its bones for miles.
First Line: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Last Line (originally a first) : “Elephant Grave” by Victoria White
The Kitty Principle
kitty. sixteen, 5’11, white, prostitute. Didn’t I tell you I was going to fix you? Didn’t I?
First Line: “kitty” by e.e. cummings
Last Line: The Pura Principle by Junot Diaz
At The Eye Clarion
I don’t know who God is, exactly. But I’ll tell you this. Nuns go by as quiet as lust…
First Line: “At The River Clarion” by Mary Oliver
Last Line (originally a first): The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Choleric American
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.
First Line: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Last Line: “God is An American” by Terrance Hayes
How to Be a Virginia Woolf
First, try to be something, anything, else. I am, George, I am.
First Line: “How to be a Writer” by Lorrie Moore
Last Line: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
Las Alturas de Brooklyn
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. I paced, at last alone, dying of my own death.
First Line: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Last Line: “Las Alturas de Machu Picchu Canto IV” by Pablo Neruda
On the slow train time does not interfere. Don’t tell anybody anything.
First Line: “Highway 61” by Bob Dylan
Last Line: Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger