The Sestina of a Lifetime

If you are not aware of the poetic structure of a sestina, it is a poem of highly structured word repetitions (6 words) following this pattern of retrogradatio cruciata: wherein all six chosen words appear in every end-position possible within 6 stanzas of 6 lines.

Table of sestina end-words (columns for stanzas, rows for lines, order+word listed as number+letter)
OneTwoThrFourFiveSix
1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B
2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D
3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F
4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E
5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C
6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A

This is followed by a final 3-line stanza, the envoi, containing the 6 words again in this order: 2-5 / 4-3 / 6-1.

You might surmise by now that a poem with such rigid and repetitive structure that lasts for a significant number of lines (39 in total) is good for expressing something about the more repetitive things in life. I’ve seen good ones about a long train ride with strange people (Sestina of a Train by Al Purdy), and obsessive lovers who can’t stop thinking about each other (The Lover’s Sestina by Bruce Meyer). Both poems capitalised on the repetitive aspect of the sestina form to create that (oppressive) feeling of reading the same words over and over. But I really wanted to try a sestina in which the words clearly repeated without such a heavy feeling of them repeating. For this I had to choose the kind of words that could have varied meanings. I did “cheat” in that I intentionally chose to make one of the six words change throughout the poem, but I decided that before even beginning to write. Besides that disclaimer, I don’t want to over-explain the poem. Here is my attempt:

The Sestina of a Lifetime

9 months she ate the things she craved to eat.
On Monday noon he heard the doctor call,
with trepidation rushed in from the hall,
to see his babe emerge from head to feet,
untangled from the womb to be set free:
To hold her was to see her as The Only.

They sent her off to school when only 5:
a sandwich, fruit, and cookie she would eat,
then play with friends outdoors when time was free.
When bullies nasty names of her did call,
her mother taught her how to turn defeat
into the courage shown in concert halls.

Then, fresh-faced from her graduation hall,
she joined a firm to ‘start her life’. Only,
Monday mornings she would drag her feet
and wonder, “Eat to work or work to eat?”
She’d close her eyes her childhood to recall,
and wonder how she squandered times once free.

When dreamy man her passions did set free,
they tied the knot and filled a banquet hall.
Guests watched as pastor at the altar called
them husband wife – each other: one and only.
They barely sat to celebrate and eat;
their life would start once they had thrown their fête!

But changing diapers proved to be a feat
from which young parents struggled to be free
when seven mouths would cry, “I want to eat!”
Then soon their children passed through college halls,
and once again they were each other’s Only,
except when grown-up children came to call.

On Friday night she got a sudden call:
his heart attack had brought him to his fate,
and once again she lived with herself only,
until her soul fled too. Finally. Free.
Some tears were shed by loved ones in the hall,
then dust to dust and soon the worms would eat.

All counted, would you call your life as “free”?
Which Way goes your feet walking down the hall?
These questions, only, away at you to eat.

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