Next Line, Please

Melodious Song

By David Lehman | March 10, 2015


The candidates for envoi are as good as I could have hoped. I sat on the fence between Patricia Smith’s smart use of interruption and ellipsis

Was she adrift … her port … somehow spirited
away? Melodious song … number 342, maroon book …
“Be not afraid” … banish fear … select a dress …

 and Christine Rhein’s affirmative “hallelujah”

But when the nurses smile—the port removed—her spirit
once more sings—Hallelujah!—her body, a battered book,
taped anew, no fear showing. For now, her wounds all dressed.

A great case could be made for either, but in the end I went for the former, and here is our sestina:

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 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)

Was she adrift … her port … somehow spirited
away? Melodious song … number 342, maroon book …
“Be not afraid” … banish fear … select a dress … (Patricia Smith)


It has been an exhilarating run, and it isn’t over yet: we need a title.

Or perhaps not: sometimes a generic title, the name of the form itself, seems to fit better than anything else. Case in point: one of the most celebrated sestinas in the language is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” Which reminds me to remind you of the extraordinary popularity that the sestina has enjoyed since the aggressive turn toward modernism 100 years ago.

I have, in fact, long nursed the idea of doing an historical anthology of the sestina in English. It would begin with Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina, “Ye Goatherd Gods.” It would include sestinas by Kipling and Swinburne but would come into its own with the 20th century: Ezra Pound’s martial sestina in medieval accents (“Sestina: Altaforte”), T. S. Eliot’s variant on the sestina form in Four Quartets, and a trio of sestinas by W. H. Auden (“Paysage Moralise”), Elizabeth Bishop (“A Miracle for Breakfast”), and John Ashbery (“The Painter”), each of which illustrates the strategy of using five end-words from one paradigm and the sixth from another. (“Prayer” performs this function in Ashbery’s sestina—his first, written while he was still a Harvard undergraduate—just as “miracle” does in Bishop’s.) James Merrill would be represented with a sestina whose ends words are one, two, three, four, five, and six, plus homonyms thereof, and there would be notable poems by Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, and Alan Ansen. The last part of the book would have contemporary specimens, including our collaborative effort, in addition to works by Denise Duhamel, Catherine Bowman, Sherman Alexie, A. E. Stallings, Jonah Winter, Deborah Garrsion, Michael Quattrone, Terence Winch, Jenny Factor, and Laura Cronk. And surely we will want to highlight a poem from sestina maestro James Cummins’s tour de force, The Whole Truth, a book consisting exclusively of sestinas that revolve around the exploits of Perry Mason, Della Street, Paul Drake, Hamilton Burger, and Lieutenant Tragg, the cast of the courtroom mysteries written by Erle Stanley Gardner and transferred to the small screen in the late 1950s with a cast headed by Raymond Burr. I can heartily recommend a fine anthology of contemporary sestinas edited by Daniel Nester, The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

I love the back-and-forth between and among contributors and will contrive to come up with a contest that may engage us to the same extent. It won’t be easy. Suggestions are most welcome. And I would like to approve of the idea Paul Michelsen advocates—the idea of combining unchosen stanzas into alternative sestinas. What a good idea.

By midnight, Saturday, March 14, please submit a title for our collaborative effort—plus any thoughts you may have on how we may capitalize on the fine stanzas written for but not incorporated in our team sestina.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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