Journal of Writing & Environment

“Boniface VIII made it illegal to boil the bones”: A Web Rove on the Power of Titles and First Lines

“Boniface VIII made it illegal to boil the bones”: A Web Rove on the Power of Titles and First Lines

By Samantha Futhey

Sometimes all a writer needs is a title or the critical first line to reel the reader, even if the poem or story itself doesn’t live up to its name. While scouring the internet for the latest and greatest in online literary magazines, I was struck by how innovative and important titles and first lines are to writers. This web rove is only a dip in the wide ocean of initial clever turns of phrase. However, I hope this web rove reminds readers and writers alike of the challenge and joy of creating a provocative entryway into the text. So, let’s celebrate one of the hardest things to do in writing: giving your work a name.

Plate 23” by Holly Day (from Paper Darts)

The cruel and obscure history of the Papacy comes to life in this poem’s intriguing first line; “Boniface VIII made it illegal to boil the bones.” The first line, with its image of the illegal boiling of bones, is its own stanza, sliding into an explanation of why Boniface VIII decreed this law. The poem explores the fragmentary nature of what we’ve learned of the past: the drawing of burnt and impaled criminal’s corpses, “from those quietly subversive sources, picked clean by birds/ disemboweled by wolves”.

Part-time Dreamer” by Maggie Bohara (from 100 Word Story)

The idea of publishing a 100-word story and the challenges of keeping to this strict limit can produce some bizarre and poignant results. In this flash fiction piece, the first line is so odd that it’s hard to stop reading. “After we fight, I dream I’m milking a cow and the udder tastes like mint chocolate.” This prose piece oscillates between the speaker’s belief in the power of dreams and the correction of that dreamworld by another person more in tune with reality. “Over pancake breakfast, I tell you that Mary Shelley, only nineteen, dreamed of Frankenstein. You say she died of a brain tumor at fifty-three.”

Proposed Evolution for Foreplay” by Lucia LoTempio (from The Boiler: A Journal of New Literature)

Lucia LoTempio’s provocative title lives up to its name. The poem, with each stanza structured as a proposed option for foreplay, is full of strange imagery that turns ordinary objects like lipstick, bird shit, saucepans and sunscreen inside out. Desire is viscerally charged with these images, as in the second stanza: ” [b] I recommend we meet in a hookah bar & read/fungus as it curries root in our right lung:—you eat/lipstick to red our pink squid insides.” First line of the poem: “[a] You make my body too wet to apply sunscreen.”

Also LoTempio’s poem, “I Want to Stop Thinking About You When I Masturbate”, is another fantastic read and provocative title.

How to Cross the Widest Highway in the World” by Maryann Ullmann (from Literary Bohemian)

In what Literary Bohemian calls “postcard prose,” this flash fiction piece plays with the old question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Ullmann uses the imperative and second person to make the crossing immediate. “Tell yourself that though this is no mere road, you are no mere chicken.” The prose piece continues in this vein, balancing direction with opportunities for reflection. There are too many wonderful images in this piece, but here’s one of my favorites: “Stop to smell the soft violet jacarandas in the third meridian and listen to the waves of traffic crash. Breathe. Wait for the light.”

Bulgarian Pantoum” by Aileen Bassis (from Literary Bohemian)

Pantoum’s are hard to resist reading, but what does a Bulgarian pantoum sound like? To Bassis, a Bulgarian pantoum is a haunting cycle of desolation and scarred beauty. Though the title pulled me in, the first line, “Plazas are grey, dogs roam, the streets” provides a sense of place and ultimately transforms through the cycling of lines and meaning. The poem builds upon images of desolate “factory shells” and haunted plazas waiting for slaughter. Though not the first line, this image balanced beauty with the grim, dirty place: “In Bulgaria, fields of roses are grown for oil.”

Dangling Now, in the Erotic City of Ghosts”  by Heather Fowler (from Contrary)

The first lines of this fiction piece matches the strangeness of the title. “In the lingering Erotic City of Ghosts no one does laundry. They do not do laundry because ghosts do not sweat.” The piece mirrors Italo Calvino’s use of surreal description of an unidentified city and speaker, even providing an epigraph from Calvino to set the disconcerting mood of the story. After a strange exploration into memory, desire and imagining ghosts, the final line has a ethereal sadness that stays with the reader: “No one know how to say a casual Hello-What rush is there in that?-though everyone here knows to say: I loved you once, goodbye.”