Next Line, Please

Stanza 5: “Six Options”

By David Lehman | February 24, 2015


There are sestinas in which one of the six words is a variable. I have myself written such a sestina: the title poem of my book Operation Memory has five regular end-words and one variable. The variable is a number and occurs in descending order: one hundred, fifty, eighteen, ten, 1970, one and, in the triplet closing the poem, a million. The end-words themselves are meant to convey a story.

So what I am proposing to do here is not utterly unprecedented.

I propose that we have six winners for stanza five.

That will give us, when we complete our work, six sestinas—the perfect number for a verse form that relies on six end-words.

True, we will have created a dilemma for ourselves when we complete stanza six and the three-line envoy and decide upon a title. Which stanza five shall we choose? Of the six sestinas, which shall we post on the site? Shall we vote—the same week that we choose a title? It is, as dilemmas go, a happy one to have—with shades of Cortazar and Queneau and other fabulous experimentalists who incorporate formal options in their writing.

I will preface a comment before each of the six candidates that I offer here as finalists that double as co-winners.

1. Rachel Barenblat

The play on “making book” is priceless, and I have a personal weakness for Chet Baker, jazz trumpeter and singer, even if the allusion is to his sad end in Amsterdam.

The odds of her survival? Mary makes book,
nudging visitors to place their bets. She doesn’t fear.
The darkness around us is deep; so what? That’s of no import.
She jitterbugs with her IV pole, humming the song
Chet Baker played before hurtling to his last address.
When the body gives up the ghost, what’s left: just spirit.


2. Paul Michelsen

Each line in the following contains an iteration of the word “just,” a lovely effect.

Yes, the book that helps her to be not afraid is just a book
to those who still fear death. Just a bunch of words for those who fear
where we will and will not go. Wishing she could just teleport
herself to certain places, even just for minutes here and there. Songs
take her there kinda-sorta, but it’s just not enough today. That transformative dress
double dog dares her from a closet far away, “Just put me on in spirit.”


3. Charise Hoge

I am won over by the internal rhymes (“career … fear … year”) and striking simile transitioning into the spiritual elevation accompanied by those high heels in the last line.

Is it just—what if she throws out the book,
starts a second career of needling fear,
designs plans for another year, deports
her foreign cells to a singular song
that lasts as long as an epitaph, dresses
in heels to reveal her elevated spirit?


4. Christine Rhein

For her development of Mary’s character, so seamless you wouldn’t suspect that there are six repeating words running the show:

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.


5. Angela Ball

Here we have the introduction of romance—a medical romance that blends contemporary idioms (PTSD) with recent history (“the ’Nam vet”) and ends on a high spiritual note.

A therapist arrived—“I’m John, the ’Nam vet you convinced to hit the books,
achieve my dream of being a PT. Your counseling made the difference, calmed my fear
of the world, my PTSD. Let’s see if I can help your legs feel better. The report
says you have lost mobility.” Mary smiled, cried a little, felt like singing.
“It’s wonderful you’re here,” she said. “Wish I had on something nice, a dress,
not this rumpled gown.” “What for?” he asked. “What matters is your spirit.”


6. James the Lesser

The continuation of the examination of the “good book” commends itself, and the conception of a divinity whimsically arrived at seems to suit the complexities of our heroine’s personality.

[the good book is a good book, yes, but just a book—]

although the only thing between you and madness IS a book,
sometimes. For all the ways she thumbed her nose at fear,
some nights her lonely ship couldn’t escape that port,
her “skull & crossbones” hanging limply like a sad song …
Until she’d laugh. She could still mix metaphors to redress
self-pity! Maybe there WAS a god, after all, tending her spirit.

There are three runners-up. Patricia Smith’s stanza conducts us from poems and books, to a yoga mantra, as spirit dances in its “hospital-dress.” LaWanda Walters develops Mary’s character by strictly bibliographic means. J. F. McCullers’s stanza has a rhythm that is hard to resist.

When you submit your candidate for stanza six, please indicate which of these stanzas (or which of several of them) your stanza follows.

Here is the order in which the end words must appear in stanza six:


Deadline: midnight, Saturday, February 21. Great thanks to all.

Here is the complete 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.   (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)

Stanza 5

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