Next Line, Please

Sestina: Stanza 4

Print

By David Lehman

February 17, 2015


 

 

I cannot remember a poetry contest in which (1) the entries were so consistently high, (2) the competitors were avid collaborators, (3) the exchanges among contestants were so lively and heartfelt, and (4) the excitement felt by all was so palpable. Kudos all around.

Of nine finalists, each of which has its notable virtues, I picked James the Lesser’s stanza, which begins with bold aphorisms, segues to our protagonist, makes a metaphysical distinction (“she separated spirit / from Spirit”), opts for comic relief (“the Colbert Report”), and concludes with a triple iteration of the word “book,” whether biblical or secular. The stanza continues our mainline while opening new possibilities for stanza five. Here’s what James the Lesser proposes:

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.

Second place goes to Thelmadonna for her splendid portrait of our heroine, Mary:

Even as a child Mary scoffed at fear,
her own or anyone’s. Citing some brave girl from book or song
she swam the flood-filled ditch, trespassed old houses, said her holy spirit
thrived on chance and mystery, like Nancy Drew’s. Undress
her now, you’d see the ancient scars, the port-
wine birthmark on her breast, her famous tat: This body for a book.

Third place is taken by Christine Rhein for a rather different if complementary profile of our protagonist—in this case Mary Marvel by name:

Hard work, of course—pretending to be fearless,
tuning out the thrum inside her, that off-key song.
When the doctors, nurses praise her “fighting spirit,”
she thinks of childhood, bullies, her flowered dresses.
What harm in picturing a lightning bolt atop the port,
herself as Mary Marvel, the memoir turned to comic book?

 Honorable mention: Paul Michelsen, Charise Hoge, Angela Ball, Rachel Barenblat, Patricia Smith, LaWanda Walters.

I am almost tempted to choose ALL of their stanzas and go on to multiply the number of sestinas that we produce—in the manner of the French author Raymond Queneau, who created a hundred thousand billion sonnets (that is, ten to the fourteenth power) simply by writing ten sonnets with the exact same rhyme scheme and interchangeable lines.

Here is our extraordinary sestina so far:

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

For next week, stanza five, we need the end-words to occur in this order:

 

book

fear

port

song

dress

spirit

 

Midnight, Saturday, February 21, is our deadline. Good luck, everyone—and thank you your inspiring display of ingenuity, hard work, wit, and whimsy.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

More Posts from Next Line, Please:


Comments powered by Disqus