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Formal Verse - Sestinas:

Note: The first sestina is a silly one that explains what a sestina is. The others are not intended to be quite so silly:

How to Write a Sestina...if you MUST
or Six Sestina Words — Line Pattern? Crisscross!

You must know how to count at least to six
If you would try your hand at a sestina —
Pore through your lexicons to pick six words,
For these comprise the end of every line;
And then you have to understand the pattern,
Which some describe as "retrograde criss-cross."

That pattern is the heavy wooden cross
You have to bear: This line must end with "six"
Because line one’s last word (to keep the pattern)
Must end line eight; and since the word "sestina"
Concludes line two, it also ends the line
Before the line just ended; then the words

That end each stanza are the selfsame words
That end the lines that start the next — they "cross",
You see. And thus the end of every line
In every six-line stanza — there are six —
Must be one of these words — SIX — hence SESTina —
Then stanza seven, three lines, where the pattern

(Mid-line words join end-words so that the pattern
Contrives to cram in three lines all six words)
Resumes first-stanza sequence. Thus sestina
Provides both repetition and that criss-cross
Sense of spiraling change toward (after six
Coiled stanzas) a return, the final line

Like coming home...but, ah! We’ve crossed the line —
Each stanza twists the spiral uP A TURN.
Can cocCYX count as six? Or if one SICS
The dog...? This form’s for words! We’re after words!
A very serious form — don’t make me cross!
Sestina! Not "Sex Life of PrinCESS TINA"!

Keep this form pure. We’ve had inCEST ENOW
With sonnets, haiku — here let’s hold the line
("Can you please hold?") Bad end words! Don’t CAROUSE
So! Keep it simple; get it all down PAT: EARN
Your sestina badge or else cross sWORDS
With one who of your trifling whims grows SICK! S-

-olely a return to baSICS can SUSTAIN AWE.
Would that to gimmicks we WERE DisincLINE-
-d, content to gaPE AT URNS26 — how ludiCROUS!

In A Letter

Strange, I can say things to you in a letter
I could not say nor knew I had to say
when, from the bed, you turned your puzzled face
to ask, "What's wrong?" Bland as a bored clerk, distance
renews my old expired license to dream
a you to dream a me to dream a you.

Bogs, mountain ranges, time zones away from you-
become-her (I let her), here's my letter.
Clear Autumn night, nothing to encumber a dream;
I can say anything the wind can say.
My window reflects Man Writing. Inklings of distance
and dark seep through the image of my face.

With dawn the man in the window loses face.
All night I've spilled my heart out to the you
I couldn't find inside your eyes. The distance
is one lie to expose another. My letter
was answered as I wrote it. Could you say
"Why should I understudy for your dream?"

You could, but that's not in the dream we dream.
There was no alien you I couldn't face;
your voice, gestures, hairstyle--what can I say?--
lulled by such surfeit, I forgot to dream you,
forgot to make you special, followed the letter,
let the spirit sleep; cluttered, craved distance.

Leaving your head on my shoulder, you kept your distance.
I missed what I failed to make; how could you dream
it was you? You were right where I'd left you. My letter
opened a cobwebbed closet to try on face
after face, discarded all, and "Darling, it's you!"
I heard to faceless me you, faceless, say.

I had to become someone who could say
what becomes you. From me to my pen is distance,
a staggering, light-years' gulf. I reach through you,
three thousand miles away, inside our dream.
A child makes faces at a house's face.
My faith grows giddy: Perhaps I'll mail the letter.

Why should a letter give leeway to say
what, face to face, faltered at a table's distance?
Bird chirps; grey dream of dawn rehearses you.

Magic Act

There must--of all the times we said hello--
have been a first; I still taste our first kiss;
but how we got from one stage to the next
escapes me. From that strangeness of first touching
to smiles in the bathroom mirror--to this shocked void...
how did we do the trick? I can't remember.

You smiled. You wore...a green skirt--I remember!
How could we follow an act like that hello?
Smile lingered with smile; exit bodies to blissful void.
Next scene: We rejoin our joined smiles--a kiss--
and whose smile wears me now? Touching teaches touching,
we learn so fast, out-strip our bodies--what next?

You're no one, then a face in a room, then next
to me in bed asleep, then gone. Remember
the first time I unhooked your bra? Merely touching
to you, perhaps, my fumbling, shy hello
to what still seemed, then, naked. How dared I kiss
each tip? Even between fingers and lips--a void.

Illicit, wed, legal tender, null and void.
Step up, stick out your tongue, prick, heart, thanks--Next!
Sometimes a night slipped away in one long kiss.
Later you were unwilling to remember
it had ever been good. Hello! Hello!...
Operator, we're disconnected, numb, touching.

But once there was no boundary to our touching:
There lay two bodies floating in a void,
eyes twinkling with the hilarious hello
from one not there to one not there. When next
one spoke, the words were mine, but I can't remember
who spoke them. Far away, did bodies kiss?

Later hard kisses, quick kisses, a cursory kiss
before you turn back to the mirror, retouching
an eyebrow. Lying with you, I try to remember
loving you and can't. I try to fill the void
with caresses: It grows. Next finding faults; next...
How many steps from hello to hell? O

Who can tell? Hello becomes a kiss;
lips touching lips is next to nothing; touching
you, void touches void; what's to remember?


Standing alone, I watch two people greet
In passing. Words fall from their faces,
Vanish, leaving no trace. Maybe they pass
each other every day. It would be silly
tearfully to embrace each daily stranger
as if the Prodigal Son had just come home.

The chairs are quite unmoved when I get home,
but two dogs, wagging tails, bounce up to greet
me. Would they do the same for any stranger
who feeds and scratches them? They rub furred faces
against my legs and hands. Down...DOWN! you silly
mutts, DON'T tongue my lips! Ugh! let me pass!

Does someone keep a record? Do we pass
or fail each day, each life? I'm safe at home;
do I score? Weddings, funerals: Always the silly
cousins-once-removed you have to greet
with forced delight -- those vacant, smiling faces,
collecting intimacies -- what could be stranger?

In savage lands it's death to be a stranger.
OUR tribe is called "The People." Halt! The pass-
word? Do Svedania. Fine -- and you? From faces
like book-ends, matched, eyes glare. Dogs make a home
by pissing boundaries. "Sniff Sniff Sniff!" they greet
assholes, then romp. We bow, then shoot. Who's silly?

Furniture's fickle; a child you tickle silly
must laugh, but when you stop, he gasps, a stranger;
familiar bodies, broken, wide-eyed, greet
the sky; old houses gape at those who pass
through shattered glass. We make ourselves at home
behind the enemy lines, disguised as faces.

It takes us many lives to make these faces;
honed in mocking morning mirrors with silly
movie-star dreams, as year by year we home
in on each other, each disguised as a stranger.
At last, on the street, in a room, we near...we pass
by. Did we speak? Did one mask another greet?

Do we dare greet each other, holed-up in faces?
Or best be safe and pass unnoticed? Silly
as babies: Peek-a-boo! stranger -- anyone home?

Left Behind

Looking at Grandpa, I thought I might grow old
someday, but never thought it would be me;
and when in dream or memory I've died,
something's lost, but I'm the one who wakes up.
I can never remember what I've lost:
A dear, small thing -- surely not me; a pet?

Why has it shrunk so, carcass of a pet?
Has death diminished it? The very old
shrivel, empty cocoons. The body has lost
me in my dreams; it's my body's grief for me
I feel, poor thing -- I'd like to help it up:
Poor faithful dear, I wore you out, you've died.

Such tears my friends shed when I dream I've died --
out of love for me they weep for my lost pet;
or is it their bodies' grieving catches them up,
one dog whimpering for another? Or could my old
friends grieve -- how silly! I'm right here! -- for me?
Or, not sure where I've gone, do they feel lost?

You'll find your way, my friends -- what can be lost?
Can't we redream whatever dear dreams died
when we awoke? My hands have followed me
from childhood, when, naptimes, as to a pet,
I'd talk to one, then to the other ("Old
left hand, don't be jealous"); they've grown up

with me -- they know the way. Knee still sticks up,
hairier now -- only the bandaid is lost.
Body, old friends, together we grow old,
a child in the tub with all his toys. We've died,
poor plastic ducks; despite freckled hands, in a pet
("I SAID it's time for BED"), Mom too. Wake me

when it's over. I've thought, "Can this be me?"
so often: sky areel as I climbed up
the mast; when my hands -- strangers -- reached to pet,
in a car, a stranger's strangeness; in love lost,
or hoping to be. (Is that my moan?) I died
each time, became a stranger. Can I be old?

Astonished to be old, "Look, Mom! It's me!"
I crow -- "I've died!" The game is never up:
At grave's edge, lost, whimpering -- Goodbye, my pet.


I think I know a way out of the trap.
Not though a hole to get beyond the sky
and not by chewing off the limb that's caught...
But you are free--why speak of traps to you?
Forgive me; sitting through this summer day
on a chair before a desk, in suit and tie,

what made me think of traps? There's naught to tie
me to this place. Is being here a trap?
But I'm not here. I'm half in yesterday
and half tomorrow. Thoughts can reach the sky.
And someday I'll outreach this skin--reach you...
That is, if I can find where I am caught,

for, Christ! it's hard to free what isn't caught
or doesn't know it's caught. You can't untie
your fingers from the bars when it is you
who clenched them there, becoming your own trap,
from fear some gust might sweep you to the sky,
torn free of the calendar's grid, the slotted day.

Our worries are sufficient for their day:
suffice to weave the web wherein we're caught
in thoughts, in eyes, beneath a bowl of sky.
Our musts and must-nots struggle to a tie,
and there we hang in Maybe's web, our trap.
I think I know a way out of what you

and I call you and I, that is, if you
can bear to look at what we are today.
There isn't any future in the trap
we call the past. Like moths by flame we're caught,
obsessed with blinding loss. Behind my tie,
neatly knotted, I'm safe. I peek at the sky

from behind two blank blue mirrors of the sky.
It's dim, bathed in this blazing pain. But you,
a flickering distant sun, an ancient tie,
pierce though the night old pain has made of day,
a bridge from now to when I was not caught,
stuck in what came between us, the only trap.

Out of the trap I think I know a sky
Where I once caught a blinding glimpse of you,
then, dazed, dropped into day and tied my tie.

The Enemy

The enemy is with us in our dreams,
But always when we wake we are alone;
Or so we hope or fear, we who have never
Been awake. Or is it the enemy
Who tells us we have never been awake,
Who borrowing our voices, says that we

But dream we're not alone? Did I say "we"?
What we? How did YOU get inside my dreams?
(Do pronouns pop like bubbles as we wake?)
Do you have your own voice, or must I loan
You mine? That one must be the enemy,
The one who's speaking now, who says that never

Have I heard a voice not mine; never
Has another heard my voice. But we
Just say these things for sport, my enemy
And I, or so says one of us. In dreams
My friends surround me, yet I lie alone.
They speak across and through me -- it's my wake.

Then sunlight -- something -- stirs me: I'm awake,
Attended but by furniture I've never
Seen before -- or maybe I'm the clone
Of one who knew this bed. Just last night we
Lay down here; one got left behind in dreams.
So now I'M me. Was I the enemy?

This is my bed. There is no enemy.
That was a dream, I say. Now I'm awake.
This daylight can't be doubted. Shedding dreams
Like water I sit up. And was there never
An enemy? I slosh through dream ennui
Until we meet over toothpaste and cologne.

But you're no "you". One thought moves both. I'm alone.
Alone? Awake? At least, mine enemy,
These puffed-up cheeks can't be denied, and WHEE!
I squirt at the sink and hit the mirror...and wake?
Oho! I've sopped you now! You're melting! Never
Again, O wicked Witch!, to haunt my dreams!

And so, awake, in dreams, we play, as alone
As we could wish, not sure if enemy
Or I will wake -- We do go on, don't we!


It seems I'm here to try out for the part
Of me. I know my name, my age, but not
My...you know, motivation? What would I
Believe in? How would I get mad? Make love?
Would I eat lobster? Would I smoke? Drink? Scratch
My head? My balls? How would I speak these words?

I start to talk, but these are not my words.
(I can't tell if they know.) The hardest part
Is having to create myself from scratch:
If I am this, then look at all I'm not!
If I now say -- or fail to say -- "I love
You," look at all that is no longer I;

And all that is forever after I,
As each word uttered thins the choice of words
That may come next. But would I speak of love
When saying "Hi" is just as much a part
Of all that follows? I think I would not
Choose lofty platitudes to prod and scratch

The itch of what I am. What if I scratch
My own eyes out, like Oedipus? Would I
Do such a thing? And if I say "That's not
My style" -- but would I say those words?
Or these? Or this? I see me in each part
Of this shattered mirror-language that I love;

Yes, I would love this brokenness, would love
Its promised wholeness. If you scratch
A destiny, you'll find an actor's part,
Any better than none, this nothing, I,
That splinters knowing into things and words
To mirror all that you and I are not,

And so can be. Or not...that's ME: "Or not!" --
Making unmotivated ornate love --
Or knots. Am I out of the woulds, the words?
(This is the Method: See me stammer, scratch
My pits, pure Brando! "I could've been an I!"
I'm ready now. You can't tell us apart.)

I've got the part. Now I am what I'm not,
Now can pretend I am not what I love;
Itches are made by scratching, selves by words.

Note: The following attempted poems, which I call "sestinets", are attempts to make a poem out of just the six key words of a sestina, put through the same sequence of transformations used on the six words that end the lines of each stanza in a sestina. Mostly they don't work -- either they are two easy (just six "poetic" words that sound good or at least vaguely poetic in any order, like "winter trees gaunt red cloud fingers") or else, if you include any syntactical indicators like "the", "that" or "who", some of the lines seem dislocated. But a few of them seem to me to work and to say something. I think the first three below come closest to being interesting poems.

Far away child falls down cries
Cries far down away falls child
child cries falls far away down
down child away cries far falls
falls down far child cries away
away falls cries down child far
far away child falls down cries

Like love light strokes winter trees.
Trees like winter love strokes light.
Light trees. Strokes like love. Winter.
Winter light, Love. Trees like strokes.
Strokes winter like light trees love.
Love strokes trees, winter-lightlike.
Like love: Light strokes. Winter. Trees.

Man laughs loud. Nothing THAT funny.
Funny man that laughs nothing, loud.
Loud-funny-nothing man laughs that?
That: Loud laughs...funny man...nothing.
Nothing: That man - loud, funny - laughs.
Laughs...nothing. Funny, that. Loud man!
Man laughs. Loud nothing. That funny?

How far if never here? Yet...
Yet how here? Far? Never if.
If yet never, how far? Here.
Here, if far - yet how never?
Never here. How if yet far?
Far? Never! Yet here, if...how?
How far if never? Here yet.

"Grr!" "GET that stick, you mutt!"
"Mutt!" "Grr!" "You GET! Stick THAT!"
(That mutt!) "Stick!" "GRR!" "Get you!"
"YOU that get! Mutt!" "GRR" "Stick!"
"Stick! You!" "GRR" (That mutt) "Get!"
"Get stick, mutt - you that GRR..."
"GRR! Get that!...Stick you, mutt!"

Flies dance too fast to follow.
Follow flies to dance fast too.
Too, follow fast. Flies dance to...?
Tutu dance, follow flies fast.
Fast to flies, too! Follow! Dance!
Dance fast. Follow. Too-too, flies!
Flies dance too fast to fall low.

Flies dance so fast - can't follow.
Follow flies? Can't dance fast so.
So follow. Fast flies dance. Can't.
Can't so dance, follow? Flies fast!
Fast can't flies, so follow dance.
Dance! Fast! Follow! Can't. So flies -
FLIES dance so - fast can't follow.

If yours, am I yet mine?
Mine if yet yours I am -
Am mine I, if yours, yet...
yet am. Yours? mine. If I -
I yet if - am. Mine? yours.
Yours? I mine yet am if...
if yours am I yet, Mine.

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly,
Fly somewhere, birds over blue...the rainbow!
The rainbow fly, blue somewhere over birds,
Birds, the rainbow over, fly somewhere blue.
Bluebirds -- somewhere the rainbow -- fly over.
Over blue fly birds, the rainbow, somewhere,
Somewhere...over. The rainbow. Blue. Birds fly.

Last updated: January 7, 2006