Sestinas
Playlist by Verse
An old and long-admired traditional poetic form, the sestina performs a certain feeling in its haunting quality of repetition, that uncanny feeling of déjà vu, and in the strange sincerity and magnetized compulsion of the 'again'.
1. Clue
Nicole Sealey
2. Warscape with Lovers
Marilyn Krysl
3. O Light, Red Light
Cathy Park Hong
4. I’m Obsessed With My Wife
Nicole Steinberg
5. The Forest of Barbaric Sestinas
Daniel Borzutzky
6. Sestina
Elizabeth Bishop
7. Sestina: Elizabeth
Patricia Liu
8. Two Lorries
Seamus Heaney
i.  

“Hands down, mustard
is the tastiest condiment,” coughed Professor Plum—
his full mouth feigning hunger for the greens-
only sandwiches Mrs. White
laid out for Mr. Boddy’s guests. Miss Scarlet
hadn’t time to peel off her peacoat

before the no-frills food, which she declined, and a pre-cocktail
cocktail, which she accepted. Colonel Mustard
refused all fare, citing the risk of sullying his scarlet
and gold Marine Corps suit, then ate the sugarplums
that happenchanced his pockets like lint. Mrs. White
funneled the motley crew into the green- 

house, where Mr. Green
was rumoring—his hand bridging his mouth to Mrs. Peacock’s
ear in an effort to convince the white-
haired heiress that the sandwich-making maidservant must’ve
poisoned their plum
wine. Mr. Boddy’s award-winning scarlet

runners initially amused Miss Scarlet,
the way one is amused by another with the same name. Mr. Green
thought it odd Mr. Boddy didn’t show, told Professor Plum
as much. “Here we are, pretty as peacocks,
and our host is nowhere to be found,” twirling his mustache
like the villain in a silent black and white.

Minutes into the conservatory tour, Mrs. White
introduced Mr. Boddy, who lay facedown in a scarlet-
berried elder. “This man,” Colonel Mustard
said, “is dead. I know death, even when it’s camouflaged by greenery.”
The discovery proved too much for Mrs. Peacock’s
usual aplomb—
           
she fainted into the arms of Professor Plum.
When she came to, he appeared to her the way a white
knight would look to a distressed damsel. Semiconscious, Mrs. Peacock
pointed to the deceased’s pet Scarlet
Tanager perched on a lead pipe between the body and a briefcase gushing green-
backs. Right away, Colonel Mustard 

mustered up an alibi about admiring Mr. Boddy’s plumerias.
Mr. Green followed suit with his own white-
washed version involving one Miss Scarlet and a misdemeanor plea copped…

ii.

“Dinner is served,” said Mrs. White,
inviting Mr. Boddy’s guests by their noms de plume
into the dining room for a precooked
reheated repast. Miss Scarlet
passed the pickings, which didn’t pass muster,
to a rather ravenous Mr. Green.

Nobody faked affability better than Mr. Green,
waving his napkin like a white
flag, acting out the conquered in Colonel Mustard’s
combat stories. Here was Professor Plum’s
chance to charm a certain lady, catching what he called scarlet
fever. “I’ve seen more convincing peacocking

from a tadpole,” quipped Mrs. Peacock,
retiring to the library, green
tea in hand and a tickled Miss Scarlet
in tow. Mr. Boddy’s absence was so brazen it bred white
noise not even tales of exemplum
heroism, narrated by and starring Colonel Mustard,

could quiet—his presence, by all accounts, as keen as mustard
and showy as a pride of peacocks.
Like a boy exiled to his room, Professor Plum
excused himself, giving the others the green
light to do the same. Mrs. White
was in the kitchen scouring skillets

when she heard who she thought was Miss Scarlet
scream. Mr. Boddy’s musty
old library was a crime scene, his final fall on this white-
knuckle ride towards death. “For the dead,” Mrs. Peacock
said, “the grass is greener
on the side of the living.” While plumbing

Mr. Boddy’s body for clues, Professor Plum
found no visible wound—the would-be host appeared scarless,
despite blood haloing his head on the shagreen
rug and a bloodstained candlestick Colonel Mustard  
recognized from dinner. Mrs. Peacock
avoided the sight, turning white

as the sheet with which Mrs. White covered the corpse. Plum
sick of the “poppycock” accusations, she sped into the starlit
night in a ragtop mustang belonging to Mr. Green.
Scent of Plumeria, and the smell of burning.
Not one or the other, but both. Destruction, and the blossom.
Sweetheart, I'm afraid. That boy with the rifle breaks
the catechism in two. And in two. Let me
see us whole, beside the sea. My body
busy, paying attention to yours. Already

we rock each other with our voices. Already
we're braiding the invisible cord. That burning
hut on T.V. isn’t ours, but could be. My body
could be hers, child at dead breast. That blossom
of blood and bone could be your face. Let me
say truth: no place, no one, is safe. The breaking 

of vows, we know, is a given. Sweetheart, you’ll break
my heart. I’ve broken yours, but look: already
you love me again. Destruction and the blossom: let me
say it another way: that soldier, burning
to become fabulous, torches the thatch (see blossomy
flame) of the enemy’s hospital: cut to my body,

clay taking shape in your hands. Body by body,
war piled on war: when will the heart break
all the way open? Thunder of mortar, blossom
in the gutter. The soldier firing the mortar already
dead. How we live: running from the burning
field, into each other's arms. Let me

lie along your side. Give me something to hold. Let me
ride those waves pouring from your fingers. The bodies
of the disappeared toll like bells. Our koan burns:
it cannot be solved. The whole and the broken,
dream and nightmare: your hand in my hair, already
familiar, could be the torturer's. Vase and its blossoms

camouflage for the bomb. You love where you can. Blossom:
a thing of promise. That's us. Now: let me
let this go. Our glass, half full—already
there's more—swells toward the rim. Ours the bodies
the death squads passed by. The refugees make a break
for the fence, running for their lives, crossing this burning,

broken, blossoming Century. They've already
paid our dues. Sweetheart, let me show you how,
hand on the body's book, now swear the burning vow.
Girls! Girls! Girls! Batted molas eyelashes at boned molish chap,
But lika Greco Frieze, him stood in cold puddle o red light,
Spite One Girl! Curdling she finga, ‘Come bwoy, Come, don’ G’won.’
Toto sum Girls! curdled dim fingas attim but he maki no choice.
Only browsed ‘till sighed ’nut’a day.’ Went back, spillim seeds
onto hotel carpet, lone, wit only zuzzing cable, a suite nocturne.

Ai fife, he warbled, Ai la lune triste nocturne.
‘E capered down to karaoke lounge to singsong, a sloshing chap,
At hotel, quaffing Singapore Slings wit pomegranate seeds.
Next day, ’E kem back to de Girls! ta fes de garnet light.
Fished outtim haisimap pinga, but brined bine choice
E sterilized, and de Girls! chortled ’G’won home, batty bwoy, g’won.’

Daniel Gumbiner's The Boatbuilderfollows Eli Koenigsberg, who's never faced a challenge he couldn't push through—until a concussion leaves him with headaches and a weakness for opiates.
Him moist eyes be anime anemone, he g’won
back, pining Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” a blarny mon nocturne.
Him catcha “desertitis.” “The sensation of feeling deserted after facing too many choices.”
Infectim neurotic forest like SSRI pips: him pinga all chap.
So, ‘E turn to return to him hum-a-day life, to fes domicile’s wan light
dreamim o him progenies chortling attim wasted seeds.

Ai, wine o consciousness fermented frum brain’s wadder, what seeds
sprout in de desert? What yields? We labor por him joy. Neva we g’won.
Nary, we work ovatime, shaving de tourist’s cuticle ’til dead o light.
Crooning our macaroon troats de 99th nocturne,
But, you, non! Tourists kennot be slaked, dim troats be chap
Lika duck wit chokelace dat kennot feast on fish o choice

We offal da finest sampla plate bouquet o choice,
But desertitis cankas digestion, destertitis like intestatus, whateva you’ve see’d
Yea desire reined, saddled like apaloosa wearim chap.
G’won, g’won, g’won, g’won, g’won!
In him suit attire, He whom cannot be sated, snored nocturnes
In him town’s train station tru eve’s descending light.

Fraid o failure, fraid to fessim wife in halogen light,
De act o returning a requiem, neva a choice,
But dawn’s aubade caressim prickle cheek, singing away nocturne.
Doe banished, he can come back to him life, begin afresh, aseed,
De tourist’s privilege be dat he can return, always return, doe frum desert he g’won.
‘Wake up, ole chap, wake,’ a janitor clap in him ear ’til janitor hands all chap.

In McSweeney's 52, In Their Faces A Landmark: Stories of Movement & Displacement, guest-editor Nyuol Lueth Tong curates a collection of 17 remarkable stories from immigrant & refugee writers.
Eye-crust y feral mout, he wink out o nocturne to janitor’s flashlight.
A pitiable kinda chap but he habba choice ta gwon home, me covet dat choice.
When dim ideas seed in us, how do we’um return, when we can only g’won.
Her lips are a very dark pink.
The homeless are especially nice to my wife.
She gives money to every beggar she sees, smiles at each God
bless you, child. She doesn’t have to be naked
to get a man’s attention. All of Brooklyn
loves her. I read

the funny pages to her every morning, then read
the rest of the paper myself. We hold our mugs with outstretched pinkies.
I saw an ad for the Miss Brooklyn
beauty pageant last week and thought, My wife
would be perfect for that! Still half-naked,
I ran to the phone and registered her. For God’s

sake, she said, blushing like a winsome goddess.
Her cheeks were as red
as her naked
pink
ass after her “Bad Wife”
spankings. (Sometimes nightlife is scarce in Brooklyn.)

I would never win Miss Brooklynite,
she said. Miss Brooklyn, I corrected her. Thank God
for her low self-esteem; with minor cajoling, my wife
agreed. After I read
the sports section, we bought a pink
dress. The fabric was flimsy; it made her look naked.

One contestant arrived naked
from the waist up. Not unusual for Brooklyn,
though the pageant was held in Manhattan. My spouse pinked
me in the arm with a fingernail, anxious. God
forbid we do something I wanted to do. Read
my lips, said my wife.

I want to leave, said my wife.
Please—we’ll go home, you’ll read
and I’ll lie naked
on the couch. She cried as we crossed the Brooklyn
Bridge, bawling ungodly
noises. Her tears stained her dress a pretty dark pink.

Have I told you how I met my wife? Two years before Brooklyn;
I was halfway through Naked Lunch. She’d never heard of it. God,
I said, don’t you read? No, she said. Her cheeks went pink.
The barbaric writer tried to write a barbaric sestina
about his inability to write a barbaric sestina, but in the end
he could not write a sestina about his inability to write
a sestina, he could only write a sestina about his desire
to defecate on all the sestinas he had ever read, which were almost always about love
and its opposite—poetry—which he first encountered in the forest

as a child when he witnessed a wolf eating a kitten. In the forest,
the cracking lilacs turned to mold, and the sestina
about his inability to write a barbaric sestina became a sestina about his love
for defecating on poems about trees, mountains, rivers, and the ends
of seasons; he liked urinating on Robert Frost, but when it came to Rilke, his desire
was to vomit all over the Sonnets to Orpheus, especially the one where Rilke writes

of the cycles of flowers and fruit, which always made the barbaric writer
think of an empty space, an empty forest that contains all other forests
wherein the barbaric writer disguises himself as a barbaric writer who desires
the complete obliteration of language, a difficult subject for a sestina,
though who has not dreamed of writing a silent poem with no end,
for when we write about murder, thought the barbaric writer, we are actually writing about love.

The barbaric writer hated poems in general, but he could not suppress his love
for poems about his hatred for poetry. So he began to write
about his desire to destroy poetry, but in the end
he wrote such beautiful poetry about his hatred for poetry that he could not see the forest
for the trees, for the leaves were filled with villanelles, sonnets, and sestinas
about his barbaric alter ego who desired nothing more than to not desire what he most desired,

and what he most desired, or so he thought, was to defecate on Baudelaire and Keats, a desire
to be realized by abandoning the ideals of truth and beauty, and asserting instead that love
is like vomiting on Goethe and Henry James in the same sestina.
Thus the barbaric writer began his sestina with the words, Today I write
because I cannot vomit or defecate, I can only walk in the forest
and urinate on Shakespeare, Flaubert, Cervantes, Whitman, and even Dante, for the end

of poetry will be achieved only when ordinary barbarians, like you and me, unite to end
the practice of admiring texts, and replace it with the desire
to destroy texts in ceremonies of blood, vomit, defecation, and book burnings in forests.
But there remained the problem of love,
for though he wanted to have no affectionate feelings for poetry, the barbaric writer
could see only beauty in the hatred that filled every word of his sestina

about the end of poetry. The barbaric writer loved hatred, and hated love;
nevertheless, he knew that his desire for love, and not hatred, had inspired him to write
the Forest of Barbaric Sestinas in the forest of barbaric sestinas.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
I’ve forgotten who lived in my room
before I did. Someone who must have loved
watching the sky, evidence in the window
seat’s faded quilt. Someone with hands
spent unraveling worn thread, making motion
out of a world of still. Someone my older sister

might have known as Older Sister,
who carved the corners of her room
from our mother’s hipbones, who moved
with the assurance of never losing a love.
This girl must have been made from hand-
painted flowering dogwood dresses, window-

sills of last night’s stale water with window’s
reflection of glass and silk and her sisters’
faces. I want to feel what her hands
would have felt, to lie in a darkened room,
to imagine night in the speckled ceiling, to love
like a mother whose children move

as if she were already gone. Constant stop-motion
movie: the first scene would begin by the window.
Our mother would call her cupboard love,
looking down at the three of us, sister
in sister in sister. We would leave room
in our shirt pockets for butterflies, hands

too small to notice their folding wings, hand-
me-down sneakers clapping symphony movements
on the concrete steps that lined our garden room.
She might have passed as our twin, though
at dinnertime she would always insist her
dessert found the backyard porch, love

of the sunset above family. Our parents would love
her so well. But they just stay up, wringing their hands
to the rhythm of silence, an empty song of a sister
lost to a body that knew too much to keep her. I move
my lips, but I’ve lost her name, waiting at the window
until I’ve forgotten who lived in my room.
It's raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew's old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent's sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But its's raining and he still has half the load

To deliver farther on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!

And films no less! The conceit of a coalman...
She goes back in and gets out the black lead
And emery paper, this nineteen-forties mother,
All business round her stove, half-wiping ashes
With a backhand from her cheek as the bolted lorry
Gets revved and turned and heads for Magherafelt

And the last delivery. Oh, Magherafelt!
Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,

A revenant on the bench where I would meet her
In that cold-floored waiting-room in Magherafelt,
Her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes.
Death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman
Refolding body-bags, plying his load
Empty upon empty, in a flurry

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew's or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt...
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman.
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
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