Mary’s Tip


I am usually a decisive person, but the entries this week were so solid that I found myself hemming, hawing, flipping, and flopping until finally and quite impulsively I chose Angela Ball’s candidate for stanza six, composed (she tells us) “to follow Christine Rhein’s lovely stanza.”

This solves two problems, at least tentatively, as I can now summarize our efforts in a six-stanza sestina lacking only a three-line envoi and a title.

Here goes:

Finally the veins give out and they stick in a port
for the blood draws. Veins cave before the spirit.
Spirit caves before the voice stops the sing-song
of moan and groan that tolls all night like a book
of hymns without words. After a while even fear
caves, like a dress without a body or an address.   (Diane Seuss)

For life off-trend, beyond fashion, Mary K. wore no day dress,
only “gowns.” She larked about chemo: “Any port
in a storm.” When the doctor said, “Bad news,” fear
was a vanity she dismissed: “Anodynes will keep my spirits
lit.” She read scripture, began a memoir, a prose-poem book—
“not illness stuff”—but original woods, night-born foals, evensong.   (Angela Ball)

Visitors spark with lyrics of ballads, of songs,
a lamentation for the lack of redress
to tip the scale of slippery life. She jests, “Book
me a room with a courtyard and easy transport.”
A smile dawns on her lips this cup won’t pass; her spirit
a salve on tarnished will, her winsome style to balk at fear. (Charise Hoge)

To speak of bravery is to speak of fear.
To lose oneself in singing is not to hear the song.
Awake in the night-dark, damp, she separated spirit
from Spirit, considered sightlines of corpse-dress.
Sometimes she laughed till tears came at the Colbert Report:
the good book is a good book, yes, but just a book. (James the Lesser)

She thinks of her laden shelves, the thick textbooks
she trudged through, the boy she didn’t marry, how fear
can squander a life. Above her heart, the pumping port
is silent. Again, she’s free to hum any old song.
Again: Sum-mer-time and … This season’s dress—
hospital green. But her veil—a fuchsia spirit. (Christine Rhein)

Mary’s tip: Don’t say we died “fighting a courageous battle,” spirit
unbowed. Don’t sport pins signaling “awareness,” don’t book
tickets for charity-auction-banquet noblesse oblige. Don’t dress
incredulous linebackers in pink cleats; claim envy for our fear-
lessness, admiration for our grace; de-compose us in a drippy song
of Spirit’s brave skiff aimed shoreward. A slab is no damn port. (Angela Ball)


The beauty of the sestina form is that after six times around the track, the initial order of the end-words is restored, only we must place them within three lines. Line one should ideally have port in the middle and spirit at the end; line two should have song in the middle and book at the end; and line three should have fear in the middle and dress at the end. There are no sestina police, and a lot of leeway, so let’s not get too hung up on details.

I continue to regard what we have done here as a collaboration more than a contest—an act of community. We have created a character, a crisis, and a coherent narrative: something quite remarkable, from the first word on.

The exchanges among the poets taking part remain one of the highlights of this project. Great thanks to all!

Let’s have your candidates for the poem’s conclusion by midnight, Saturday, March 6.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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