renovation two: ceromancy

Well, let’s see how this second one goes, shall we?

I am now officially moved out of my apartment; the last 20 hours have been a whirlwind of trucks and storage units and bars and sleeping on couches and trains and suitcases and not-quite-tears. Mostly I’m exhausted; but not too exhausted. Which is good, because I’m treading a whole lot of garbage to stay afloat. (Not least of which are grad school applications and work things.)

Since I am not too exhausted, but dashing into Philadelphia for a bit, I thought I’d take some time to put together another prompt. It’s All Souls’ Day, which I think affected what the poetry websites I’m trawling had on tap, and combined with my grumpiness, created a morbid mood for my poem, at least. But I encourage you to break the mold and try to do something completely different. What would our world be without a bit of variety?

Here’s the list of elements this time:
1. “Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair…” (Elizabeth Akers Allen, “Rock Me to Sleep”)
2. “Have you died? Then speak.” (Katie Ford, “Speak to Us”)
3. “…all candle wax and cold water…” (me, “Fabric”)
4. an antique compass
5. Name a trick you use to get to sleep, even (or especially) when it’s noisy.
BONUS. Break the poem into three stanzas, each with two complete sentences, each sentence having a punctuation mark you haven’t used yet in the poem.
ALTERNATE (5). Name a trick you use to get yourself out of bed, even (or especially) when you really don’t want to.

And my invention for it (which is not based on anything except getting all of these, however thinly, into the poem as inspiration):


At the fair: the old fortune-teller’s tent
hangs purple and melancholy over the wet field
like some forbidding bird. She offers the usual
read your palm sir? read your cards?
but I see red candles thick as wrists dripping
into copper bowls.

Not many want the candles, she says, tips one
into the water with a withered hand.
The drippings knot into a brownish ribbon–
hard and roped like a piece of sick coral–
someone has passed recently, she says, you must
learn to move on.

I didn’t need to pay five dollars for this wisdom,
since I’ve come here (for the first time) alone.
I already know what I must do;
the question is how, when I’m so desperate,
from the sky to the mud to my rubbed-raw skin,
to think of other things.

Do your worst! Or… no, sorry, I meant the other one.

reading: william bory, “orpheus in his underwear”

Managed to get through the work week, and the impeding baby they’re expecting back home has not arrived yet, so I find myself with not much to do this weekend, and a sense of relief at that. Therefore, I am at the cafe on a Saturday morning as I am wont to be, typing merrily away. But now that I’ve wrapped up the chapbook draft, and now that workshop is over, and now that I am trying to be a little more disengaged from reliance on prompts, I feel like I’m at a bit of a loss. There are more constructive things I probably could and should be doing with my time, but I can’t seem to pull myself together in that regard. Yet I don’t feel my usual spell of aggravation and self-loathing around that inability; very curious! Must be the first day of summer keeping me going.

Ian Young sent me a copy of William Bory’s Orpheus in his Underwear a few weeks ago, which I finished recently. At different points, I’ve talked about gay poetry, my thoughts on the gay poet identity and how much of it I take on, etc.; frequently my attitude has been that I’d like to be regarded as a poet who happens to be gay, rather than the other way around. But on the occasions where I do want that aspect of my identity to come to the forefront, there are certain poets I find myself gravitating towards, more and more: Cavafy, Doty, Gunn, O’Hara. There are enough gay poets who are so focused on sex without context, shock value, and the narrative of liberated gay culture playing at depth, while I prefer the ones who apply the emotional and philosophical depth to their identity that they would to anything else cosmic. (I have a soft spot for mythological context as well, so Bory’s classical sensibilities, with Rome and Greece running strong currents through the book, appealed as well.) Maybe the majority of the audience for gay poetry feels a need to be titillated, and I’m the exception to the rule; but I feel more confident in my conviction that the audience for poetry as a whole does not need that, and I’d rather write something accessible and significant to everyone.

Enough soapboxing: the book. Sex-centric or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find gay poetry written from the mid-80s to the mid-90s that doesn’t deal with HIV and AIDS. A pre-occupation with the body and its transience recurs over and over in Bory’s book, but very rarely is it spelled out for the reader: instead, we must rely on subtleties like “bring me the hard round fruit / that knows nothing of the dead”, “the body has always been a stumbling block”, etc. (One of the exceptions is the straightforward “So, you’re infected, who isn’t?”) I did a little bit of research about the author since I had never heard of him before: and in fact he seems to have more or less disappeared from the public record. He was the partner of Charles Silverstein, he was a brilliant and well-traveled fixture of the New York gay scene in the 70s and 80s, and eventually succumbed to his illness. But as powerful as his poems are, and as close as he was to the center of the development of modern gay culture, how many people have heard of him? (The recent collection Persistent Voices by Philip Clark and David Groff contains his work, but you won’t find him at or anything.) It’s a sobering thought that a person can disappear so completely, with the integrity of their vision unrecognized, and that restless ghost hangs over the experience of reading these poems that swell with a vicious beauty.

In that sense, and in the content of the works, Bory may owe more to the French Decadents like Baudelaire and Rimbaud; as literate as he was, I’m sure he was deeply familiar with their work, and took at least some inspiration from them. But in form, they remind me more of Cavafy and Gunn (who is himself some kind of Rimbaud-Cavafy fusion, I’d wager), with very regular, song-like patterns emerging on every page. I’m not sure how early he began writing, but with the Confessional poetry movement reaching its full flower by the 70s and 80s, these poems stand as a delicious counterpoint to the often over-wrought poems of that era. The author confesses, but there is no contrition here: the feel is one of liberation, again a hallmark of the 70s. There is this awful narrative of how HIV/AIDS developed as the “punishment” for the post-Stonewall gay lib movement, and Orpheus fits into that narrative with tragic seamlessness. The poet says, “Here I am,” in all his glory, and brings us along for the ride through his own destruction. But he does it with an attention to sound, an expansive vocabulary that spans continents and religions, and a pointed reticence that neither beg sympathy nor apologize. I’ll admit that for the first few poems, I was worried I would be too distracted by the very apparent rhyme schemes and rhythmic forms, adapted from traditional ones, to appreciate the poems’ content; you know how I get with those. But soon I felt more that I was exploring an idiomatic genre of songwriting, with particular melodies suggesting themselves over and over in a minor key through the book. Very beautiful, sensual, and melancholy all at once.

I’ll trot out a few examples:

“You, runner in another race, with unflinching eye,
gaze upon them, shining from the sky.
They, who possess their visions in the dark,
turn over for you daily in the park.”
~ “Business and Pleasure”

“A red fish fucks a black fish,
as the world’s turned around,
and, suddenly, it occurs to me,
that I’m the one who’s drowned.”
~ “At Sea”

“How would you like to be stuck here,
stranded, in one of these baroque dumps,
fettered with flowers,
the sun thorny about your head,
hanging out at the crossroads?
Lord, Lord, I wouldn’t.”

~ “Manumission”

I don’t want to contribute to the mythology of the poet dying young and beautiful, because that trope has done more than enough damage already, and been debated at more length than it really ought to be. But I will say this: when a poet does find themselves dying young, I imagine there is a sense of responsibility to do so as openly and beautifully as possible. I think age brings a certain kind of wisdom, but when you don’t have that, the best you can hope for is the most artful truth you can manage before the end. Bory had a prodigious intellect to back up that fire, and if there was an element of regret or fear in his ending, it does not show through in these poems. It’s a tragedy that echoes the Greeks of whom he seems so fond: Orpheus sings his way to the underworld, and ends up with nothing to show for it except the music he leaves behind. That’s what makes the book timeless. We can all relate, more or less, to the idea of time running short, and the feeling that before the end we have to speak it all out as our last offering to the world; sometimes it’s the most intangible things that are the most memorable.

reading: bryan borland, “less fortunate pirates”

Probably my favorite thing about this time of year, aside from the, erm, fauna strolling around town, is the fact that the sun doesn’t disappear until 9:00 or so, and that dusk can last even longer. I’m sitting right now in the Starbucks on the corner (which doesn’t close until midnight: more marvels!) watching the sky over the west side of Chelsea fade cleanly from orange to dark blue, which is quite nice after getting all the usual evening errands and things done during the day. And the air outside is just the right temperature, and the rain has taken a break… this is what I call an evening well-spent.

But I don’t want to spend an evening without doing something productive, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about the other book I managed to get done over the weekend, Bryan Borland‘s Less Fortunate Pirates. I’ve known Bryan almost as long as I’ve had this blog, and he’s one of the few blogosphere people I’ve met on a few occasions in person, thanks to his frequent New York trips. I’d almost hazard that he has become better known in recent years for his spearheading of Sibling Rivalry Press, producing the magazine Assaracus, and putting Arkansas back on the poetry map (unless there’s some secret contingent of Arkansas poets I don’t know about). However, he is a fine poet in his own right as well, and his first book, My Life As Adam, makes for a scintillating debut. (And lastly, he is a Southern gentleman. Très important.)

Less Fortunate Pirates bears the subtitle, “Poets from the First Year without My Father”, so you know right away that this collection will gravitate heavily towards family, loss, and memory. I remember the hints on Bryan’s blog surround his father’s passing, but to see it articulated from so many angles and with such a deft hand deepens not only the experience of shared emotions, but also digs deep into all the other dimensions of this father figure. Elegiac poetry can function as a kind of resurrection: it’s easy to bury ourselves along with the departed, à la W.H. Auden (and don’t get me wrong, “Funeral Blues” breaks my heart every time I hear it, it just doesn’t give me any idea why I should care about its subject), and it’s hard to keep the deceased person talking, moving, having an impact on our lives. The conceit of Pirates is how it traces that exact year, chronologically, from the time of the father’s death in a car accident. I am no expert on the stages of grief, but if the cycle created here is a representative case of the complexity of emotions involved in losing a parent, then certainly there are more than five, woven together, repeated and reflected, moving between anger and denial, but also the extremes of love and dedication.

There is an aspect of automatic writing as well in here. I don’t mean in the James Merrill Ouija board kind of way, but in the sense that in several poems, the father figure seems to insert himself into moments where he would not be expected otherwise: family barbecues, meditations on business, relationship angst, etc. (Of course, there are poems overtly about death as well, but those are the ones we expect.) In my limited experience with losing loved ones, and seeing how others are affected as well, it does seem to me that one of the key elements is the way they make their presence known in the quotidian. Maybe in this sense, the book owes something to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do”; Bryan’s work also carefully blends direct address to the departed and narrative whose orbit continually brings him closer to his father’s flickering star.

And there are some cutting moments as well, when the bitterness shows through: “My friends are divided / into two camps: / those who’ve lost a parent / and those who will lose a parent,” says one poem. Another talks about the necessity of staying with a lover because they are the only one, moving forward, who will have known the absent father; I remember a friend of mine saying the same thing about her boyfriend. (Perhaps because knowing a partner’s father goes a long way to understanding that partner?) There are all the bad movie trappings happening in real life — inability to choose a headstone, “vultures” circling the widowed mother — and then the minutiae that one doesn’t think of until they arise, from dream journals to inherited joint pain. One poem in the collection has what might be the most subtle nod to the idea of death and incarnation: “The possibility of a stranger’s memory / breaking our skin / is no more unrealistic / than stigmata.” Even when the father’s presence is not spelled out, he lingers on the edge of the page.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of “therapy poetry”, the most introverted parts of the confessional genre where people exorcise their own demons and emotions about family, love, self, et cetera. I find it difficult to relate to unless, you know, I’m the one writing it; I prefer to do poetry that’s meant to be shared. But I don’t think Pirates falls into that camp at all: rather, there is no question in the author’s mind that the father is loved and missed. There are no conflicted feelings about him as a person which need to be resolved. Rather, the questions surrounding the circumstance of his passing, the weight of What Comes Next, and the relentless sorrow under the surface like a constant beat inform the poetry in the collection. An appreciation and joy for the time that the father and son did manage to spend together darts through all of this like a web of light, holding it all together and keeping the speaker from falling apart. I don’t claim to know whether the book was written as a form of closure, an exploration of other avenues of understanding, or just a reporting of all the assorted thoughts and feelings that rose up in that year, but I think perhaps that unity, the silver lining of grief, is the most valuable takeaway from the book.

And it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t include a few excerpts I found the most moving, would it?:
It is Memorial Day again. The neighbors
fly a flag from their front porch. Our family
visits, my in-laws, my mother. And it dawns
on me that I can no longer use the word 
in the present tense. These are our holidays
~ “Memorial Day”

I remember the time a roman candle
exploded in your hands. The blood
launched like patriotic sparks
across our paved driveway, your pain
another lesson.

~ “The Fourth of July”

I am ready, she is not, so we are not
ready. I think it is her own mortality
she cannot face, her name etched
beside his, one date known, the other,
and everything else, unknown.

~ “The Day We Do Not Choose Your Headstone”

One last note: I have not mentioned the significance of the title, because I think it’s best if you, the potential future reader, find it out on your own. I will say that it appears once near the beginning, once at the end, and its one of the sweetest father-son bonds, and ways to honor a lost father, that I can think of. And there is a lot of sweetness, humble and not over-adorned, in these pages. Someone else can judge whether it’s a suitable primer for those of us who fall into that second camp of people waiting with unmixed dread the day we’ll have a book like this to write. For me, it was a helpful prelude: not a warning, but a thorough journey through how we come out the other side all right.

The dusk has given way to night. Here’s the book’s home, if you care to purchase it. Pax!


TGIF indeed, ladies and germs.

I’ve got this incipient cycle of poems that are for a certain persona. Not sure where it’s going to go, but I’ll probably be focused on them for the next couple of weeks, and drafting not-so-often here. (Although I said I was cutting down anyway.) And I put in for vacation from the 6th to the 15th of June (plus the weekend after, so really the 17th), which I hope will be a much-needed jolt of relaxation and time for writing. Not sure if I’m going to travel anywhere yet, but the Berkshires are looking mighty tempting if I can swing it, as is Montréal. But hell, even just reclining at home would be nice. And my sister-in-law is due in mid-June, so I’ll probably want to stay around these parts to go home for any impending becoming-an-uncle…

Speaking of having time to write, that was one of the key components in my poem for Sam Peralta’s prompt at dVerse, to write a glosa. I’ve seen this form before, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried it before: it involves taking a four-line snippet of a well-known poem, doing four ten-line stanzas off it that successively end with each of the four lines, and rhyming lines six and nine in each with the last. (Plus, tipping your hat to the poet’s style helps.) Since it’s often a tribute form, I chose a dead poet I’ve been admiring more and more lately, Jane Kenyon, and used her poem “Dutch Interiors” as the basis for mine. This character of the merchant’s wife, so cryptic yet elegant, interests me. I started thinking about what Kenyon’s personal heaven might be like, and wondered if there was an echo to be found in this poem that is ultimately a slightly cheeky take on the presence of the divine.

But, you know, just read it as you will. I wrote it as such.


And the merchant’s wife, still
in her yellow dressing gown
at noon, dips her quill into India ink
with an air of cautious pleasure.
~ Jane Kenyon, “Dutch Interiors”

This is what comes, after:
always the sun just beyond reach,
a fat bumblebee in the blossom
gathering pollen to make time
(which will seep and slowly flow)
but too drunk. He never will.
Instead all things are frozen:
the room, the table, the water glass
forever beginning to spill,
and the merchant’s wife– still.

Far below her, the counting-houses
churn their presses, the fisherman’s
fishing, and the king is up a tree.
When you’ve no more life left,
how dazzling to see it spread out
for writing! She gazes down:
what else to do but memorize
the flicker of light on silver scales
and the color of the king’s crown
in her yellow dressing gown?

And she forgets the feel of silk
and the tumbling coin’s sonata.
Only the words, now. The words
join together in her like knots of wind
meeting overhead. Up here,
it is all the glory of watch and think,
waiting for the sun to start up again.
And she feels its wings click close
as her hymn reaches its brink
at noon, dips her quill into India ink.

The merchant’s wife, who is poised
without need, who smiles when
there’s nobody to smile at, knows
when things are too good to be true,
and when they’re just good enough.
This place: she’s taken its measure.
In other houses, other bargains:
but here she is content to be a hand
spilling its simple treasure
with an air of cautious pleasure.

Inheritance (II)

I wrote a poem called “Inheritance” a while back, so the “II” is just to distinguish the titles; and they are pretty different in feel. Again, I don’t want to talk deeply into this one, but there’s some roots and some story behind it, I suppose. The Poets and Writers prompt was to take a cliché and explore it: cleaning clocks was the main one for this, though skeletons in the closet informed it slightly as well. That’s about all I’ve got right now; have to go shake off this over-caffeination I’ve subjected myself too.

Inheritance (ii)

We stopped the grandmother clock, like you do,
catching the pendulum to still its tongue.
Then we rolled it out of the house without speaking.
Light curled on the living room’s nicotine flowers
pasted to the wall, and from the carpets
ash rose to follow us ghostly to the van, follow us
all the way home. How many years
can you let something stand silent in a corner
pretending it’s not there? It’s like those murders
nobody talks about, the body buried
not underneath a persimmon tree out back
or along the chain-link fence, but in the walls,
in a locked trunk. When a house has its whole face
removed, you must unlock all the closet doors, open
everything. The air lifts old newspapers,
hurled glass, and even things of wood and copper
bigger than sons, daughters, unmanageable things.
It takes a practiced hand to wheel a body
from place to place, and a careful one
to wipe it down, prop it up, find a whorled key
with which to wind it. Tar has beaded on the posts.
Rust in the bells. Then it sings the hour once again,
reminds us there used to be good days too, silver
and entirely happy. Everything grows tired,
even love. Still a strong hand can unbury it
seeking old music after the hour grows late,
and a steady one keeps it going, going.

Requiem for the Infected

This was a toughie to write. I think I’ll let the poem do its own thing, but it was for the NaPoWriMo prompt of writing a “valediction”, which got me thinking about some obvious paths to walk along for the theme. I had four inspirations bouncing around as well for this: Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come”, and Peter Campion’s “Dandelions”. I’ve just found Peter Campion, and I’m thoroughly charmed by his work, so I shall have to investigate his stuff further. In workshop, the advice we’ve been given is to find poets who we admire greatly, and trace their writing genealogy, so to speak: find who inspired them, read those poets, find who inspired them in turn, etc. A “family tree” of poetic voice.

Requiem for the Infected

O murdered youths: may they leave the light on
when you come home,
                                 all you snow-white boys,
up the back of a rainbow-scaled serpent
                        at dawn:
the key’s beneath the mat.
                                 Hide your childish toys!
The sky has been opened, and an angel comes
cruel with the sun in his mouth,
                        cold, pale, hot,
all stinking brimstone and singing,
                                        how much have you got?
                        And he shakes a wet fist,
shows a drop on one thumb.
                                        O murdered youths!
who burned with an Aztec fire,
                     who dove into lakes and pierced
                                   each other through:
how did you fall apart, waste away so young?
The salt that I shed makes a flat
                        white wire
                                        down my cheek to
my mouth, lures out a bloodstained tongue
which is incanting, forgive me!
                                        I was too afraid for you.

Still Life

See? I told you I wouldn’t be gone long.

This one is kind of morose and morbid. We Write Poems wanted a piece that took something often seen as ugly and made it beautiful; I dislike getting too macabre and melancholy (god, so many good m-adjectives) with the beautification of death, I am no Baudelaire. But this was the first thing that popped into my head. There’s a reason I think we keep coming back to tragedy in our culture, and I suppose this was an attempt to pick that apart a little bit. I promise I’ll be back to my usual cheerful observational self with the next one.

This is post 1001, which has all kinds of pleasing Scheherezade undertones. That’s it for the milestones today, though.

Still Life

He froze to death, right there, on a bench under the pine
sloping westward. Police come to Jackson Square, all black gloves
and yellow tape, searching his pockets for a name. We stare

through the iron gates, thinking, out here is all pumping blood
and carrying voices, and in there is all hush and cessation.
One of his hands claws forever at the sky. There are crystals

decorating his beard. Police sip coffee and take their notes,
and we want to peer over their shoulders. We circle. The man,
posed at every angle: accusing, forlorn, merely sleeping.

We haven’t seen him before, in that rustling coat worn colorless,
those chewed-up boots. They’ll label him Unknown, lay him out
on Hart Island in earth too solid to accept a single crocus,

despite our best intentions. He is brushed with blue.
Police refuse to tell us anything, so we detach and float,
Orphean, afraid to turn away. All art is a merciless teacher

we can’t resist. It comes suddenly: a dead man grows sculptural
and sorrowful; police murmur like flies; and we drift home,
where we will hold each other in silence by the fire.

The Refinery: misky

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…


The Winter Getaway begins Friday! I am going to bite the bullet and install Twitter on my phone, simply because I imagine there will be several occasions when I want to post updates, but want to avoid my computer or won’t have access to it. I will then promptly delete it from my phone on Monday. I lucked out with the new holiday calendar at work; we have off MLK Day, so I don’t need to use my hard-earned PTO for this. If you’re going, I’ll see you there, and if not, stay tuned, for I will do my best to keep updating. (For the Refinery, I may post it on Friday instead of Saturday, just to be sure; I suppose I could do a timed post as well.)

We Write Poems wants something about revising the past/memory through writing. I’m going to be a little bit mysterious, and say that this poem is not what you think it’s about, probably. But if it helps you to think of it as “advice on a breakup”, then who am I to argue you out of it?


Leave your photographs out in a Southern sun
until he blanches into islands of edgeless light.

Draw a needle over the records of his voice,
turning its timbre to a thread of crackle and hiss.

Wash his clothes a hundred times, so when they ask,
what colors did he wear, you can say you don’t know.

Cut up his letters into strips for the birds,
who will weave their walls in the too-far-off spring.

Give away his stories and his stacks of change
to the untold homeless at your sneakered feet.

And then soak that memorized body in tallow
with a wick blooming from his hair to be burnt down.

When you’re done, there will be an aleph of smoke,
paper in the gutter, and someone else’s name.

Exhale strongly, and turn three times for a charm,
in search of some other air to breathe.