Sestinas Bust My Brain (to Start with)

Contemporary poetry has made me fall in love with poetic forms, even the very complicated and uncompromising form that is The Sestina. While it makes so many demands on you as a poet, there is something to be said for those who make more than music of its many rules, who make you realize that the strictest of poetics forms are less about restriction and more about innovation, craft and the repetitious, incanting magic of end words. While I will always be a free verse poet at heart, I'm grateful how poetic forms have challenged me by teaching me a more urgent kind of diligence while having a stronger sense of "direction." These are some of my favorite sestinas, which I regularly teach in workshop, which often win over the most free-verse-loving of students.

Dear Thrasher: Adapted from a letter to the editor printed in Thrasher skateboarding magazine, April 2003

Dear Thrasher, I love your skate
mag. It rocks, even though you
guys print too many shoe ads.
And what’s up with the posers
doing handrails? Don’t they know
real skaters do it in the street?

Well, you know even skating the street
sucks ‘cause cops won’t let us skate
anywhere. But kids here know
some killer secret pools and ditches. You
would shit to skate the Blood Bowl—eats posers
for lunch. Put the Blood Bowl in your ads.

I got a serious beef, though—the ads
with those skate-betty chicks standing in the street
in thongs made me think you’re all Cali posers!
It makes me want to give up and screw this skate
bullshit. I mean, God, why don’t you
sell your souls for cash, you know?

I don’t want to ride your asses—you know
you rock my world even with the lame ads.
It’s like, I need a lifeline here, you
can’t imagine Rankin, Georgia—mullets, no street
courses, one shitty skate park. I skate
with four cool punks, try to steer clear of posers.

We’ve got a big problem in Rankin with posers.
I’m 12 and not stupid. I know
guys here think us girls can’t skate—
That’s crap! It’s your fault. Running those ads
makes idiots here think it’s street
last, clothes and babes first. It’s on you.

Guys even rape girls in the park crapper. You
see a porta-potty shaking with a poser
and a screaming chick inside, guys on the street
high-fiving, whatever, it’s gross, and I know
this shit happens all over. So be cool and drop the ads.
It’s not about tits. Get on your board and skate.

They’re everywhere, you know,
poser, thick-necked Fitch-bitches like in your ads.
I don’t want ‘em. I lost my cherry to the street. I’ll die or skate.

Sestina for Misogyny, Rape Culture, and Revolution

My English teacher put his fist to my chin as if to punch
me in the face. He gave my jaw a nudge and said “you’re a doll,
kid.” His name sounded like pervert but he taught me to love 
Hemingway, ran to keep his buttons closed, but still couldn’t know 
what it’s like to spin into a waterspout spitting psalms. Getting raped
is a storm like this, like getting in a car accident on the way to school.

Getting raped, pulled over in a parking lot on the way to school 
sprays a shrapnel injury, body splintered while eating cheese. No punch 
or scar, just a pathetic blur pooled across his backseat. Rape 
made me a Dalí clock telling all the wrong times. Raggedy Ann doll, 
Peter Pan collar wilted like lily petals pried open. The nuns didn’t know, 
didn’t excuse my tardies. I closed my eyes while ladies shouted LOVE,

rich ladies in tennis skirts, lipstick blazing O mouths, O, LOVE 
O, while mine melted, a defeated sunset I had to reapply before school. 
Getting raped is a determined bird flopping half-winged in high grass, a know-
it-all too afraid to raise her hand to ask, a gnawing appetite, a sucker punch 
spooling through your bones, a basement flood that claims your favorite doll. 
Waking up to a rape is uncovering a mutation in your DNA. No rape

kit to understand how everything untwists, recoils, reshapes. Rape 
comes back to get you. Big Bad knocking the doors of everyone you love, 
my husband’s ex-girlfriend. My husband. My every sister. Rape is dol-
phin slaughter you lament before all-you-can-eat sushi. High school 
drop-out returned to drop a second time. Rape is a punch 
card Hallmark doesn’t make. There are no congratulations, no

get-well balloons, not for you whose name we aren’t supposed to know 
but goes viral all the same. I sat with my legs open while unraped 
ladies wiped sweat from pastel visors and went home to rum punch, 
and daytime TV. Getting raped is a blinding eclipse, it’s latex gloves, 
paperclips rubberbanded to a spitball slingshot in the school
bully’s hand. Rape is a red mouth turning blue. They got all dolled

up to sweat. He kept doing it until I was dead weight he needed a dolly 
to lift and gave up. That didn’t stop the spectators. Don’t you know rape
is a relationship and a sport? After rape, I came home to my Playskool 
dollhouse. Can you win rape? I was fourteen and a half, but after the rape 
I said fourteen. Rape is an apocalyptic antiwrinkle cream. After rape, love 
grows sticky. My skin spilled clear across the kitchen, tacky punch

I still can’t stop touching as if by stepping and restepping I can punch 
the spot away. Our whistles fail us. Where are you when we need you, love, 
because right now your friend or mine, me or you, is somewhere getting raped?

Ethel's Sestina

Gon' be obedient in this here chair,
gon' bide my time under this sudden sun.
I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, tells me to sleep.
I trust his every word. Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says help gon' come.

Been so long since all these suffrin' folks come
to this place. Now on the ground 'round my chair,
they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son
could that be a bus they see. Only sun
answers them, its noon slap too rude for sleep,
making us hear wheels, engine. Not yet. Wait.

Lawd, some folks prayin' for rain while they wait,
forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair
you was sittin' in. Best to love this sun,
shinin' its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,
is it coming? Such a strong man, my son,
we all wrapped in his big voice saying Wait.
Wait some more. Bones get slow beneath this sun.
We wait. Ain't no white men or buses come,
but look—see that there? Get me out this chair,
help me stand on up. No time for sleepin', 

cause look what's rumbling this way, go to sleep
you gon' miss it. Look there I tells my son.
He don't hear. I try rising out this chair,
but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
wait for the salvation that's sho to come.
I feel my body lifted by the sun.

Nobody sees me swallowed by that sun.
They think I've finally fallen into sleep.
They don't hear Come.
No one can hear me wailing for my son.
I can't wait, Herbert. Lawd, I can't. Can't wait.
Don't cry, boy, ain't yo mama in that chair.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
seen sun slide wide cross my soul before sleep.
No one said Wait. And chile, my golden chair.

Continue reading on

Sestina for My Unborn Daughter Without the Family Album

My mother and I are the same.
Neither of us know simple words
in our languages. Triangle, at all. Love,
sound enough for someone to stay.

I don’t think I can be American
if the place hasn’t given me name

yet? Besides becoming midnight for the process of naming,
how are we alike, dad? What same
way were we beaten in place by America?

By time, dhuhr is the space opening, how to word
the tired silence I have to listen to. To stay

in between our nations, we learn to Love

in someone else’s. I teach my dad loving,
like the thing that smiles    name
anew and he swears my chest is empty, makes staying
ritualistic, a chore to submit, to pray the way you’ve read about it, same
as your parents, you have to leave behind          words
you search for most. I can pray to God in America,

but not Allah. I wouldn’t know what words to say in American.

I can learn the Quran in between, but still think that loving
is a lie. And it works, I’m    here. I can word
my body and outline it but still name
myself some        other. How I keep my same
brokenness and verse the claim that body stays

longer than its name disappears. And then, it stays
to haunt you out of the between, America,

but where do you have to go? Same
issue. No place will ever want to Love
you if no one claimed you first. Name?

Hajjar, Hajer, Hajar, Hajir, I think, the words

get confusing when only so many are left to say them. The words
sometimes        found from the silence — stay
through maghrib to say they really wanted your other name

the one you’d have if you weren’t American.

Like I am? Like this place had me and loved
me first when I came? And looks at me in the very same

way? Tell me to stay, and watch America
flinch and    forget my name. How I            love
my mom & Allah & even my dad, but the words? Never the same.


sour heat of the taxicab                   my thighs stuck by sweat to the 
leather in the aperture of the sunless hours i sit scarved in
the quiet that i think will protect me i’ve spent days inside &
untouched by human noise & i forget the lesson in the old
hurts that mark my kneaded body & sometimes i do not even
register the hands that steer the vehicle the man from which
they protrude until his eyes in the mirror hook the light & i see his want
thrusting into the backseat a leer scraping like a fingernail along
my skin dumb prey shut in the cage with its wolf while his
looking catalogs my edible parts gleaming in stripes by the streetlights &
hushed in brief sanctuary by the dark & the silence i’ve
gathered will throb when he asks is this where you live & i work to keep my face
unchanged & maybe sometime in the dimming past i was still
unmarked my girlhood body unoccupied by warning its curiosity still free
to extend to a strange or recognized hand engineering an
unfamiliar ache before my shame became my native tongue became the
sovereign of my flesh i had my milkteeth smiled green as a seedling in photographs
in their silence i was pure & cloistered & i did not yet need to take inventory for my body to feel like mine the driver’s eyes displace me &
leave behind a list of ways i can be hurt of all the places i am a door
its use unaltered by my yes or no outside the streetlights change to a bridge’s
trusses & i say nothing the car points into a borough not my own while i watch
the distance swell between my watching & the slab of girl fastened to the backseat
useless little carcass so faraway in her smallness & already going missing already
bored by pain & sometimes even those whose touch i choose who mean me
only tenderness will with their smell or voice or a trick of the light or the
faintest touch of an index finger trip the latch that lets me out to the space above my
peeled & emptied rind when i return i tell this to my lover who braids himself to me
& makes me new who takes into his mouth my broken name & in an exhale of
smoke it emerges weathered but complete & still mine until i remake myself
from stillness & drape myself in the life of a different girl rupture smoothed
over like the noiseless surface of a lake & in the taxi i look out to the evening’s
copper bruising i give directions i push away his looking & feel my body
reinflate i dial my lover’s voice the car points homeward & my old panic
melts back into its archive when he fills the backseat with sound & maybe i can be
reborn as a girl who does not go missing a girl someone will look for
no longer the decorative husk men make me with their want the quiet shrinks & i come
unstuck from the leather i come unstuck from my hurts pay my fare & debark the car
untouched my home protrudes like a lighthouse from the night i settle
the body mine to register