By chance, I am again free this evening. (That cold weather just keeps people from honoring their plans.) And since I’m not feeling particularly inspired by the cold — mostly just grumpy — I thought I would get around to doing that Refinery I owe you, at last. The thought of not having something for Margo’s roundup tomorrow just pushed me over the edge. As a result of the delay, the next one might be later in the weekend as well, just so they’re not super close together. This time around, I give you…
“Mere Reflections of Dust” by Misky
By the by, I’m preserving the pen name for this one; last weekend was a testament to the thrill and effort of keeping one intact, and I like to honor that. I hope you will all do the same! Misk is a fixture on the poetry blogosphere scene, a participant in… well, I don’t even know how many websites and prompt-houses, but several of them. Her work tends to have a delicate feel to me, something to be handled with deft fingers, and is often thoughtful about particular observations. This time, she has offered up a sestina for our perusal.
It’s time. We open lace-frosted windows.
We shake memories from your duvet.
We straighten and pinch pleats into curtains.
We brush away bits of you flaked to dust,
but we leave your shoes paired and lined
as neatly moored boats in the closet.
And three bullfinches watch us, closeting
away their want to flight. Spiegelled to windows,
sat there on lichen-crusted branches, lined-
up like clothes pegs, feathers fluffed into duvets
against December’s chill. Their songs as light as dust.
Long frills of song that silt through closed curtains.
Forever I’ll think of winter smoky smells curling in curtains,
a rush of summer scents at the church doors. Priestly closets
of ritual water, lit wax tapers, and prayers. Roses that dust
cold stone aisles. You tucked up in heaven, our hearts windows
opened to every changeable storm as cold winter sun lines
crosses from lead panes. Shadowy clouds of tumbling duvets.
Forever I’ll remember summer winds and spinnaker duvet-
soft sails filled with holidays. The boat’s lip drinking curtains
of sea, tipped like a chalice filling with blind joy and lined
with the twinkle of your eye. These. Locked away. Closeted.
Protected where air won’t dilute our memories. A window
where we see you, recalling more than today’s sparkling dust.
Forever I’ll remember your hands mending dry walls. Stone dust
dancing with your smile that spilled into a laugh, soft as a duvet
and just as light. You watching weather passing by the window,
your shadow lingers on the floor, your fingers still curl the curtains
and a brown spiced scent spills through my thoughts from your closet.
Our safe harbour. A sanctuary of memories. We’re anchored and lined.
This morning we woke. Your shirts and shoes tidy. In line.
Your old gold watch and bedside clock wound. Dusted.
A hanger keeps your wedding suit of 60-years ago. Closeted.
The past holds our cherished memories — suddenly your duvet
swirls dizzying scents of you as I open your bedroom curtains that
still curl where your fingers held them open against the window.
Your cologne lines your closet with a lifetime of rich memories.
A bright scent freshened by an open window and sun-filled curtains.
I shake your duvet, dust sprinkled with sunshine. I’m filled with you.
…whew. Sestinas always take me through half a mug of cocoa. I hope you all had a beverage as well; it’s thirsty work to read them, and even thirstier to write them. So, because it’s so long, I really have to try and find general things: I could be pulling specific likes and dislikes out of a sestina all day. Also, I have to ask: is it better or worse to start with things that are liked or disliked? In the poetry workshops I did last weekend, we started with the positive before moving on to what could use improvement; I’m really ambivalent about it, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or anything.
Anyway, I’ll stick with the usual method for now:
- Visually, the thing that stands out to me most is the gradual lengthening of the lines, which is the prerogative of the poet, but doesn’t endear itself to me. Unless you are trying to do something specific with the language and/or structure, I do feel that a poem should establish its shape pretty early on: don’t tease your reader! If you start with a rhyming couplet, and then go all e.e. cummings on us, it will be jarring, which is an effect you may not want. This isn’t to say that all of your lines should be of equal length, but part of the attraction of most formal verse is that it has a regularity which comforts the reader and keeps them going. (Seeing the expansion of this poem could scare a reader away.) Free verse, or forms without fixed meter, need to pay careful attention to this because they’re unconstrained. Unless you’re attempting to give a sense of imbalance, try to actively give a sense of balance.
- So, how to make the lines shorter, in that case? What springs to mind for me is that the details could be denser. There are some truly lovely images scattered through the sestina, that I think would be even more powerful if they were compacted. Take a line like, “Our safe harbor. A sanctuary of memories. We’re anchored and lined.” (I chose this because it’s the one that can’t even fit on my admittedly narrow blog display.) In a poem that is so image-rich — essentially it’s a list poem, of sensory memories — you can do away with most prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and even verbs, relying on nouns, adjectives, gerunds, and punctuation to do your dirty work. Try: “Our harbor of memories anchored, lined.” The language becomes a lot dreamier. Or take, “[your duvet / ] swirls dizzying scents of you as I open your bedroom curtains that“, and try, “swirls your scent in the opening curtains“. Look for where to trim the fat: your instead of of you; does something that swirls also need to be described as dizzying; aren’t we already in the bedroom; and so on.
- I know this poem was written to a prompt, but (and bear with me) I don’t think this needed to be a sestina. It’s fine in the execution, but there are two things that a sestina needs to truly keep the reader’s attention: versatility in its repetitions, and a compelling narrative. I am not disputing the beauty of the images, the richness of the emotions behind them (which I’ll get to below!), or the success of the endwords; however, each stanza should hook the reader into the next one, or they start to lose interest. Any one of these stanzas could be a complete poem in and of itself, so to put them all together, we need more connective tissue. And about prompts: sometimes you have a poem where there’s just one nagging thing that isn’t working, which turns out to be the prompt direction itself. When in doubt, axe it and follow your own guidance!
With the things I’d like to see change come the things I’d like to see kept:
- That first stanza is dyn-o-mite. I get the feeling that it was the initial poem, and the attempt here was to expand a poem that already worked into a sestina, with mixed results. The first two words – It’s time – we immediately know we’re dealing with a significant moments. We and you establish the personae, the windows and the bedroom trappings establish the setting, and the actions – bits of you flaked to dust is marvelous — tell us what’s going on. And those shoes at the end are a wonderful complication to the mood. Reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir, where she talks about clearing out her dead husband’s things, but can’t bring herself to touch his shoes (because her grief-rationale is that when he comes back, he’ll need them).
- As I mentioned, I really dig the imagery overall, even if I think some of the lines could be shorter. Some of them do clever things with the endword repetition, a must in the sestina: the birds fluffing up their own little duvets was adorable, though I don’t know if adorable was the mood that should’ve come across to the reader. There is a nice assortment of recurring motifs throughout the piece: smell, nautical themes, winter, the home and domesticity. I want even more detail: are the bullfinches murmuring laments or crooning hymns, what kind of cologne and spices are we talking about, etc. But there is already a wonderful richness to the description.
- Memorial poems are tough to do overall, both to write and to critique: after wrenching the emotion out of you onto the paper, the worst thing is when someone is indifferent to it, or finds it trite. Trust me that I’m not being disingenuous when I say the theme is handled well here, with the list of images: I usually think this is the best way to do a loss poem. Think of W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”, with its commands to dismantle the sun; at no point does the author say, “oh my god i am so sad and life is terrible”. He shows it. This sestina is more wistful than melancholy, but it has that same reaction to a person who’s gone, leaving some kind of presence behind. We do not need to be told how the author feels, we see it already.
That’s the overview and all. Some extra thoughts!
- The sestina already has enough repetition; I wouldn’t do more than you need to. “Forever” and “memories” and “clouds” and all can be replaced with something else. The repetition should be subtle.
- I’m not back-pedaling when I say that at a few points, some of the punctuation is strange. I know I said use it to your advantage, but always read it back to yourself to see how it sounds. The full stop. Can. Be. Too. Choppy.
- Nice ending. Often, sestina writers get to the envoi and say, “oh damn, what do I do with these six words,” but I don’t have a sense of that (though again, the lines could be tightened a bit, like violin strings).
- The vocabulary is rich, but I don’t know how to feel about spiegelled. It’s a beautiful word, but the meaning is getting a little bit lost on me. (All I know is that it’s German for “mirror”.)
- At a couple points, the verb tense changes, and I can’t tell if it’s intentional…
- If this does stay a sestina, I have to congratulate Misky on the internal lists that don’t grow stale, and (usually) conceal the endwords nicely. (Be careful of getting too clever, though; don’t force those lists for the sake of making an endword fit in!)
Thus concludes this edition. Misky, take to heart what you will for this one, but you get the JH Seal of Approval on this one; the attempt itself is worthy of praise. And to all the other sestineers out there, I hope you take some of this advice to heart if you’re writing 39-line behemoths of your own: give them the time and attention they deserve! See you all next time around…