There is still time to enter our Valentine’s Day Poetry Contest! The deadline is January 31. See the Contest page on the Trellis Magazine website for details.
I am turning over the rest of this blog entry to our latest Young Poets Showcase author, Phoebe Nir. I believe you will enjoy her poem which is a sestina, and her thoughts about writing the sestina.
A Charming Acquisition
by Phoebe Nir
12th Grade, Fieldston School in Bronx, New York
I only wished her sullen eyes would dance
But they would not. Instead, each stubborn ball
Just sat inside its socket, slowly died,
Reflecting nothing but the words she’d read
And swallowed down her undiscerning throat.
And now her eyes were studying her shoe.
I said to her, “That’s quite a handsome shoe.”
She muttered that it hurt her while she danced,
Pinching her toes like throttling a throat
And cutting off the blood flow to the ball
Making her foot half white, half crimson red,
One half too full of life, and one of death.
Shaking her fist, as if to roll a die,
She glared at me and told me I should shoo,
But then she stopped and quivered like a reed.
I firmly grabbed her waist and said, “Let’s dance,
For after all, my dear, we’re at a ball.”
She acquiesced, but flushed around her throat.
“What is that, that so dazzles on your throat?
The thread stained with a brilliant bloody dye
And hung with that fantastic glittering ball?
Its sparkles cast a light onto your shoe
And all its little orbs appear to dance.
It’s perfect, like a fairy tale I’ve read.”
And suddenly, all I could see was red
And then my hands were closing round her throat.
The others never noticed; they just danced,
Oblivious that I would make her die.
A tear, I think, slid down and hit her shoe.
My god, how I detest it when they bawl.
But it was time for me to leave the ball.
I thanked the hostess for the wine and bread,
Despite the fact that both, I had eschewed.
I wrapped my cashmere scarf around my throat-
The cold’s enough to make a fellow die-
And walked away, fighting the urge to dance.
I made sure not to show the gorgeous ball
That danced inside my fist, wind-whipped and red.
I’ll wear it round my throat until I die.
Poetry is language stripped down, unfettered; the point is to take only the most evocative words and let them ring, without muffling their music with extraneous filler words. Every word has a weight to it and every word counts because all words are burdened, or perhaps set free, by an infinite number of emotional associations. Take any old word. Wood, let’s say. The website dictionary.com defines it as “a hard, fibrous substance composing most of the stem and branches of a tree or shrub,” but that’s probably not what you think of when you read it. Maybe the word conjures up for you the smell of damp soil, the cool of shade, or perhaps the smooth, shiny surface of a polished door. Either way, the second you read it, your mind attempts to place it into some kind of familiar context.
When you put words together, that’s when it gets interesting. Every combination of words evokes a feeling within us and generates a rapid flash of images, even when the combination doesn’t make sense. Wood duck, for example, holds a specific connotation, but so does wood hair or wood ocean. The more linguistic layers you pile on top of one another, the richer and subtler your message becomes, but the best poets can bring an entire world to life by using only a few.
In Emily Dickinson’s “Who Robbed the Woods,” the forest is clearly personified in only a few lines. “Who robbed the woods/ the trusting woods?/ The unsuspecting trees.” Just these few adjectives set the tone of the poem and make these woods alive.
Or take the miraculous economy of language with which Robert Frost animates his wood, in “The Road Not Taken,” merely by mentioning that it is “yellow.” That yellow speaks of Autumn, speaks of opportunity and of melancholy, and it is completely indispensible.
The sestina is a centuries-old poetic form that uses six verses of six lines each ending in the same six words, before culminating in a three-line verse incorporating all of the words. Sestinas are master classes in the characters and personalities of words and the ways in which they interplay. In the course of 39 swift lines you will become intimately acquainted with your six teleutons (end words). You will learn their habits, their likes and dislikes, and whether they play well with others. You will learn whether they are morbid, or sexy, or silly, or stiff. You will grow to love them, but also hate them a bit. And then when you’ve finished with them, you can retire them with the comforting knowledge that you have squeezed them of every last drip of juice.
My favorite way to enter into a sestina is blindly: I like to pick words at random, with no particular agenda, and let them weave themselves into a quilt of sorts. I trust the words. They know the story that they have to tell. Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novels began with a concept and ended with diction, but sestinas work backwards, if you let them. They start with diction and end with a concept, one that can be startling in its complexity and rawness.
I wrote “A Charming Acquisition” in less than ten minutes and I was delirious from the ease with which the words crafted the story. The words led to characters, which led to a setting, which led to a mood, which led to a twisted obsession, which led to an act of evil. It developed just like that, in sequence.
Sestinas are practically social experiments. Drop a bunch of words on to a piece of paper, and see how they interact with one another. The relationships may not be obvious at first, but be patient. They exist, because they have to. It’s a mathematical equation: Dance, ball, die, red, throat, plus shoe, equals one dead woman. Aren’t sestinas fun?