“Fall” by Brian O’Sullivan

Brian O’Sullivan


“If you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything.”
—Falsely attributed to Alexander Hamilton

Felicia Culpa, if you don’t believe in something, you will fall
off a ladder in a purple-curtained Bourbon Street shop where  
you were stocking bamboo shelves with magic
doodahs, and a voodoo doll for “Change” will
fall with you, and its head will break off, and you’ll breathe
in all the change vapors and sawdust and you’ll find yourself
floating in space and orbiting yourself.
Then, wild girl, if you believe only in yourself you will fall,
into your own atmosphere, and you’ll breathe
your own fire in, and you’ll dive down to depths where
rock flows free, and, believe me, you’ll wonder how there will 
ever be solidity without some kind of miracle or magic.
So, dear one, you’ll want to believe, because if there is magic,
presto change-o, you can still make solid ground for yourself,
sweet Felicia, you can grab a wand and work your will.
But if you don’t believe the warnings you will fall
pregnant and your Victorian aunt will tell you where
the wayward go, and the air you breathe
will stiffen to suffocate, and you can’t breathe
pure incense, that’s not the kind of magic
that’s going to get you to a place where
you can set up the Jenga pieces of yourself.
If you believe the moralizers you’ll fall
like a tower that went up too far too fast, and you will
end up a Babel-tongued mess, writing your will
in Comic Sans hieroglyphics on the memories you breathe.
If you believe everything you’re told, you’ll fall
into wyvern caves inside rabbit holes lined with magic
fur, get snared in the warp of rhyme and weft of stories, and you will
get lost at last in the ant farm of words, and end up nowhere.
But you might have to go nowhere before you can get anywhere;
things get strange when you’re making a change, and I know you will
make yourself try again to assemble the kit of yourself
and you’ll build yourself a pair of lungs to breathe
with and you’ll pick some plausible, livable kind of magic, 
knowing that even if you believe in something, you’ll fall.
So fall (“o felix culpa!”) where all the laughing children fall, and breathe,
from that pile of leaves, the air which will crackle with dying, living magic—
just let yourself believe, disbelieve, believe, disbelieve—and fall.

Prompt: “The prompt, given on the Rattlecast, was to enter in a Google search the words ‘if you don’t’ followed by a single letter, and to choose one of Google’s suggestions for completing the phrase as a starting point for a poem. I picked ‘if you don’t believe …’ and it seemed to me that an awful lot of different kinds of things can happen if you do or don’t believe in something, so I thought it might be fun to use a form, the sestina, that would give me a lot of room and motivation to look at different perspectives on belief and disbelief.”

from Rattle #81, Fall 2023
Tribute to Prompt Poems


Brian O’Sullivan: “Thirty years ago or so, when I was taking a great poetry workshop as an undergrad, I liked prompts because I had no idea what I was doing, and I needed a jump start. Afterwards, when I went to grad school, more academic, argumentative kinds of writing took up all of my time and most of my sense of identity as a writer, and I stopped writing poetry (though I never stopped reading it and talking with students about it). When the pandemic left me with more time on my hands, I started working on poems again. I had some specific stories and themes (mostly growing out of my other lockdown obsession, family history) that I wanted to write about, so I didn’t think I’d be all that interested in prompts. But I tried a few prompts at Rattle and elsewhere, and I was hooked. At first, I think it was because my ADD brain (which I had learned about late in that 30-year gap between my undergrad years and the pandemic) responded well to having at least the semblance of some imposed order and focus, and that actually somehow made more room for the chaos of imagination to come through. Combining a prompt with a form, like the sestina, worked even better at making the writing seem to come almost ‘automatically’ and get past my over-active internal censor. But then I found that I also loved the fact that a whole bunch of people were working on the same prompt as me. I’ve never been very good at networking; it’s one of my biggest professional hinderances. But with poetry, there’s something beyond networking. It’s more like a community, even if it’s an invisible one. And shared prompts help to build the sense of community.”

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